May 18, 2007
How Teenagers Transformed the Church (Part 2)
In part 2, Angie Ward continues her reflection on the emergence of youth ministry and its impact on the church. The first generation of youth ministers, she points out, grew up to lead the seeker-driven movement that has dominated evangelicalism for 30 years. And now we are seeing the second generation of youth pastors bringing their own new ideas to the church. Although the seeker church movement and emerging church movement appear quite divergent, their common roots in youth ministry mean they share a common value - innovation.
"In youth ministry, you get permission to break the rules," explained Doug Pagitt, a former youth worker and now the founding pastor of Solomon's Porch in Minneapolis. "Youth pastors get to do things that other people don't get to do. Youth ministry requires that you break the conventions to connect with teenagers. If breaking the rules is permissible in youth ministry, then why is it not permissible in a broader scope of ministry?"
Tic Long agrees. "You experiment and question a lot in your teens and twenties, and a lot of youth workers are in their twenties," he said. "They don't have all the vested interests and encumbrances that the larger church or the senior pastor has. They're not running the budget; they're not responsible for the whole machine. I think it's a breeding ground for creativity."
In 1972, a college-aged youth worker named Bill Hybels started a youth program at South Park Church outside of Chicago. Similar to the para-church model popularized by Young Life and Youth for Christ, Son City featured high-energy games, skits, and a dynamic, engaging talk by the young Hybels. The idea was to make the program so good that Christians would invite their non-Christian friends to the event. It was Jim Rayburn's ministry philosophy, "It's a sin to bore a kid with the gospel," applied to the church. And it was a huge evangelistic success.
Three years later, Hybels took his idea of a "seeker service" and started Willow Creek Community Church. The rest, of course, is history. Willow Creek now ministers to nearly 20,000 attenders each weekend at a variety of services throughout the Chicagoland area. The seeker-driven movement has revolutionized the church. Even churches that are not explicitly seeker-focused have been challenged to give greater priority to evangelism in their ministries.
But Hybels is just one of many first-generation youth workers who went on to become senior pastors. Indeed, while one of Youth Specialties' founding beliefs was that youth ministry is more than just a stepping stone to the "real" pastorate, the reality is that many youth pastors did become senior leaders in the church ? and their churches are now among the largest, fastest growing, and most influential congregations in America.
Meanwhile, youth ministry was growing up. By the late 1980s, youth ministry was its own full-fledged profession, even an academic pursuit. Christian colleges and seminaries had begun to add youth ministry classes, majors, and degrees to their curricula. Professors of youth ministry, originally an affinity group meeting as part of the North American Professors of Christian Education conference, organized as the Association of Youth Ministry Educators, complete with their own professional journal and annual conference.
Youth Specialties also continued to expand, adding one-day training events and a book series to its menu of services to youth workers. But ironically, as the field of youth ministry continued to become more professionalized, Youth Specialties found itself becoming a grown-up institution. And some of the early leaders began to face criticism from a new generation of leaders who sat under the ministry of those first-generation youth workers.
Criticism generally followed two consistent themes. First, the rise of the mega-church in America meant the need for more programs and structures to support these large organizations, thus opening them to charges of becoming too institutional and program-driven at the expense of true spiritual maturation. Second, the focus on events sometimes led to an inward-focused approach that forgot the urgency of evangelism, rather than an indigenous, outward-focused ministry philosophy.
This new wave of thought came to be known as the emerging church movement and was (and is) espoused initially and primarily by baby busters, the generation born between 1965 and 1982 and sometimes referred to as Generation X.
Pagitt believes that these criticisms emerged because a formerly innovative approach had become the status quo. "Even though Youth Specialties had a programmatic approach, it was programmatic in a very rule-breaking way," Pagitt observed. "But some people had only grown up with those programmatic experiences, so those rule-breaking experiences became the norm."
Long agrees with some of the criticism, while also acknowledging that his counter-cultural organization has now become a cultural institution.
"In good youth ministry, you go where students are, you don't have students come to you," he said. "So many churches still operate on a model where, you try to do a really good program, so people will come to it. And there is still a portion of youth ministry that is very program-driven. It's not a bad thing, it's just a thing.
"The issue becomes when you stop at the program, or you think that by moving people through programs you have introduced them to Jesus or have impacted their life," Long continued. "Program should be a means, one of the steps, not the goal."
Angie Ward is a pastor's spouse, leadership coach, and founder of Forward Leadership. She lives with her family in Durham, North Carolina.