I’ve been thinking a lot about youth ministry these last few days. Mostly, that’s because I’ve been asked to lead a course on “Youth Ministry Issues and Settings” next semester. The objective of the course is to explore the many varieties of contexts in which youth ministry takes place, and the issues that each context/setting raises. It’s meant to be a good mix of practical and theological thinking, which is right up my alley, so I said “Yes” when asked if I would consider teaching this course.
One of the issues that’s been on my mind lately has been the issue of the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” model of youth ministry. This model is characterized by the visual:
which is usually how most churches do “youth ministry.” This is the model that was taught and encouraged for decades in youth ministry, and is still in effect in many places today, including many successful “mega churches” (no names will be mentioned here!) It is, in fact, the model that I many times unwittingly encouraged in the churches I served before becoming a college chaplain. (I know, I’m just as shocked as you are!) The model is built on a very well-meaning principle—that young people are a special group, with needs that are different from the rest of the congregation, and that they should be treated to a special kind of ministry that addresses their specific needs. I don’t disagree with any of that (except for the overuse of the word “special” in that sentence—someone really should edit this stuff!), but I have seen the effect that such thinking can have on a congregation, and most importantly, on the young people themselves.
When we create “special” ministries for youth, we often lavish them with many things—their very own room in the church building, or even a building of their own, a “youth pastor,” and special curriculum that they can use during their set-aside “youth meetings,” or even “youth worship.” All that sounds great, except for the underlying message that it communicates—that youth are different, that they are not like the “regular” congregation, and that “real church” is not what happens in the youth room or youth building, but what happens among the adults. As one author put it, it’s the equivalent of sitting our youth at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving. What happens, then, when our youth graduate from high school and go off to college? They leave the church—a fact that has become so well-accepted that there have not been any major studies into why young people are leaving the church since the early 90’s. We’ve just come to accept that this is a “normal” stage of development, and we hope that they will come back to church when they have kids, so that their kids can be shunted off to the “youth ministry,” and the cycle can start all over again.
The only problem with that thinking is that they’re not coming back. Many young people see graduation from high school as a graduation from church. After all, when they graduated (or, in some cases, when they were confirmed in the seventh or eighth grade), their church gave them a Bible, a bookmark, and a pamphlet about “letting go and letting God,” whatever that means. The rites of passage, for lack of a better word, that we engage in when students leave our faith communities to go off to college look every bit like a graduation ceremony, and they give the youth, and the congregation, the impression that it’s acceptable now to leave the church, to explore the world, that this “special” time of life called “youth” is over, and you’re now on your own.
Harsh, I know. That’s why I’m so concerned about trying to do something about it.
What I want to convey to the students I work with, who have a heart and a soul inspired by God for youth ministry, is that youth ministry isn’t a special calling—it’s simply ministry. Our job as youth ministers (and as chaplains) is to help young people realize that they are part of the church—not the future of the church, as we are so fond of saying—but the church’s present as well. We should tear down our separate buildings (or use them as homeless shelters and outreach centers), make our youth pastors part of the ministry to the total congregation, and get our senior pastors out of their offices and into the lives of the young people they’ve been called to serve. The one-eared Mickey Mouse represents an incomplete picture of the church. It’s a model that, if applied to any other group of people, would be abhorred for the discrimination that it really is. It’s certainly not what Jesus would have had us do, for he invited all people (even kids, who couldn’t even understand what he was saying, but could feel his love for them) into the picture.
I guess I could use the prayers of the faithful during the next semester, as I undergo this exciting adventure with a couple of great youth ministry students. Pray that we will find new ways of doing ministry that are already in place out in the world, and that we will catch on to the vision that faithful pastors and youth leaders are living into every single day. Pray that what we do will have an impact on the future (and present) ministries of our students, and that God will smile when he sees what we’re trying to do in his name.