December 7, 2011
Did Youth Ministry Create the Emerging Church? (Pt. 2)
Why youth ministry is the cause of, and solution to, all of the church's problems.
What I find most interesting about Tony Jones’ thesis is the way it can explain far more than just the Emerging Church Movement. I think contemporary youth ministry may also help us understand the rise of the megachurch movement in the late 1970s and 80s (and perhaps other movements as well). The number of megachurches exploded in that time from just 10 in 1970 to over 500 by 1990, and most were led to mega status by baby-boomers with youth ministry backgrounds.
The whole notion of a youth culture really emerged after World War II. Television, Rock ‘n Roll, and the economic boom after the war resulted in a generation of young people with disposable income and the opportunity to express themselves in ways foreign to their Depression-generation parents. To reach this new breed of adolescents, first parachurch ministries and later churches started “youth ministries” that mimicked the styles and forms of the secular youth culture but with “safer” Christian content. Contemporary Christian music emerged, Jesus merchandise, and concerts. By the mid 60s, the church youth group became the preferred safe alternative to the popular youth scene marked by drugs and casual sex.
But what the young people engaged in these ministries learned indirectly was that the church should takes its cues from the secular culture; adopt the popular culture’s forms and simply fill those forms with Christian content. It was the youth groups of the 50s and 60s that formed the ecclesiology for the megachurches of the 70s, 80s, and 90s. Bill Hybels may be the clearest example. His vision for Willow Creek emerged directly out of his experience leading a youth ministry in the suburbs of Chicago in the 70s.
But as these youth group-formed baby-boomers got older, they no longer took their ideas for church from American Bandstand or Woodstock. They looked to their peers transforming the business world and creating mega-corporations like General Electric, Starbucks, and Amazon. The relevancy value driven into them as teens in the youth group now manifested itself by copying the values and strategies of corporate America.
Pete Ward, in the introduction to his book Mass Culture, explains how the values of youth ministry, namely relevance and contextualization, came to dominate the Western church. “What started as a youth thing very soon colonized the majority of mainstream churches. There is a very simple reason for this–young people grow up. Within fifteen years or so the young people who were first part of the Jesus Movement were themselves the leaders of churches and Christian organizations.”
The question we ought to be asking ourselves is: What values dominate the youth ministries of our churches today? What ecclesiology is being formed in young people who engage our youth ministries? Because the values they absorb are likely to be the ones will dominate the entire church in 15 or 20 years.
We’ve already seen the cycle at least twice. First youth ministry in the 50s and 60s formed the value of relevancy into boomers who then launched the megachurch movement. Later youth ministry in the 80s and 90s formed the value of relational authority into GenXers who gave rise to the emerging church movement. What’s happening now?
I’m not entirely sure, but based on work by David Kinnaman at Barna and Kara Powell at Fuller, I’m concerned that youth ministry is forming the values of isolation and activism into Millennials. They’re relationally isolated from other generations in the church, and their faith is isolated from any connection to their vocations. At the same time they are linking faith to social action toward the poor and marginalized, but this is often emotionally driven without the theological foundations that can fuel engagement when emotion runs dry. Without a robust theology of justice, in time compassion fatigue may set in and activism slip into apathy.
Could these values explain why we’re seeing an exodus of young adults from the church? While it’s always been a problem, adults often returned to the church after getting married or having children. But that’s not the case anymore. Could the values of isolation (separating young people from the rest of the church community), and activism (a sense that real faith happens outside the church and may make church irrelevant) be behind the de-churching of Millennials? Time will tell.