Scenario 1:

Participation in youth group at church is increasing exponentially. Teens are telling their friends about it. Activities include Bible study, service projects, music groups, games, outings, prayer and worship time. Student leaders are being trained, church boards are supportive, and adult leaders have the respect of parents and youth.

Into this idyllic setting, the suggestion inevitably comes (primarily from parents of fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders) that something should be done for their children as well. “We should have a youth group, too!”

Scenario 2:

Participation in youth group is at an all time low. High school students are avoiding it as if it were a communicable disease. Three or four students are the only regulars. Nothing seems to be happening post-confirmation. Student leaders are absent, church boards are oblivious, and the adult leaders feel like resigning.

Into this chaotic setting, the suggestion inevitably comes (primarily from frustrated church leaders) that the youth group needs to be rebuilt from the ground up; by getting the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth graders involved in youth so they will “stick around” when they get to high school.

Do either of these scenarios sound familiar? Your ministry setting may be somewhere in between. Here’s the question: Should youth ministry, as a ministry function of the church, be inclusive of young people not yet in high school and older young people even into their early twenties? OR Should youth ministry, as a ministry function of the church, be exclusive for those who are in their high school years? This is no small issue regarding a basic understanding of youth ministry. Who is youth ministry for?

There is pressure on youth ministry to grow downward into grade school, as well as to grow upward into grad school. Unique opportunities for ministry exist in the upper elementary years; certainly these children need the loving care and attention of the church’s ministry. Likewise unique opportunities for ministry exist for young adults who need the loving care and attention of the church.

The previous paragraph, however, includes the clues for the hesitancy to call expansion in either direction: “youth ministry.” “Youth ministry,” as I have grown to love it, isn’t for children or for adults. Youth ministry is for young people making their way along the often treacherous path from childhood to adulthood. Youth ministry serves persons who are flip-flopping their way through developmentally challenging years, one day exhibiting adult maturities, while the next displaying child-like innocence and foolishness. Youth ministry is out of focus when it attempts to frame too much into the youth ministry picture.

A recent book by Carol Lytch helps us arrive at this conclusion. In her work, Lytch examined three youth groups in Louisville, KY that were successful in retaining high percentages of congregation teens in meaningful youth ministry through their senior year of high school. She summarized her findings this way, “Churches catch them on three hooks: a sense of belonging, a sense of meaning, and opportunities to develop competence.”  Each hook is important, and each presents ministry opportunities that fit high school teens in unique ways.

Don’t misunderstand. The younger and the older are valid ministries worthy of serious attention by congregations. Each has legitimacy. But let’s reserve the term “Youth Ministry” for the high school teens; lest our good intentions push children, restrain young adults, and give high school students one more reason to feel isolated and ignored.
Published January 2006