Reforming Youth Ministry
by Chris Talbot
A recent LifeWay study recorded that 70% of
young adults stop attending church after
graduating from high school.  TIME magazine
reported that 61% of churched teenagers leave church and
never return.  Whatever one’s theological leanings, these
statistics are sobering for any Christian. They beg the question, “Why the mass exodus from church?”
Books and speakers of decades past heralded entertainment-
driven methods as the key to successful student ministry.
Unfortunately, these models have run their course and failed to
produce the promised results. It is time for youth ministry to
claim the sufficiency of Christ’s words when He said, “I will build
My Church.” By God’s grace and His Word, we can begin the reformation that many youth ministries need.
Biblical Perspective of Youth Ministry
When developing a theology of any subject, our first resource is Scripture. Is it biblical to have youth ministry in the local church in the first place? If so, where do we find it? While there are no clear imperatives one way or another, Scripture does support youth-focused ministry. Two clear texts are Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 1 Corinthians 12:12-26. The Deuteronomy passage (known as the Hebrew shema) reminds readers of the importance of teaching young people basic truths of Scripture. In the Corinthian correspondence, Paul explains that people of all ages can be part of Christ’s body.
While proof texts are helpful, perhaps the best way to view youth ministry is a gospel-driven ministry focused on students. In his book No Guts, No Glory, Alan Stewart states, “Our underlying assumption is that youth ministry is like any other gospel ministry—it is all about the proclamation and teaching of the gospel.”  Princeton Seminary professor Kenda Creasy Dean makes a similar statement: “What makes youth ministry distinctive is not its form, but its flock.” Essentially, Dean argues that all ministry is biblical, and the only thing that makes youth ministry unique is the focus on a specific age group. She continues, “[Y]outh ministry acts more like a microcosm of the church than as an arm of education. When we minister to youth, we are doing exactly that: fulfilling the biblical mandate to minister to all of God’s people.” 
What Needs Reform?
There is a vast difference between what young people want and what young people need. That tension lies at the heart of youth ministry. In this consumer-driven culture, desires of youth are often fed by entertainment. This isn’t a recent development; the blood has been in the water for some time.
During the 1940s, the Youth for Christ movement pioneered entertainment-driven youth ministry. They Christianized entertainment of their day with vaudeville-styled gimmicks: a performing “gospel horse,” a faux Frank Sinatra, and a fun-focused message. In his book, The Juvenilization of American Christianity, Thomas Bergler describes their efforts: “For the leaders of the Youth for Christ movement, Christianity was increasingly becoming a product to be sold to customers via entertaining promises of personal fulfillment—with an added benefit of saving the world.” 
It’s easy for us to identify these approaches as “gimmicks,” with the advantage of several decades of hindsight. However, it is difficult to identify such gimmicks when we’re immersed in them. Today, many youth ministries are immersed in an updated version of the same thing. The numbers make it clear that we are in crisis mode. The “silver bullet” of youth ministry does not find its target in entertainment-based approaches.
Today, many lament the state of youth ministry. Entertainment-driven models attract by promising short-term, numeric results, claiming to “reach kids for Christ.” Yet, these same ministries often vacate the second half of the Great Commission: “teaching them all the things [Christ] has commanded us.” How do we know we are reaching students if we are unable to see them mature in Christ?
Even more serious is the impact youth ministry has on the Church as a whole. “What has become clear,” a 1994 report to the Lilly Endowment stated, “is that youth ministry is ultimately about something much more than youth ministry…These [Christian youth] movements are redrawing the ecclesial map of the United States.”  A host of today’s “alternative” church movements admit their intentional refashioning of worship styles and church polity is strongly rooted in youth ministry. Too often, adults seek churches that remind them of their youth group. If the currents of youth ministry affect the church’s theology and practice in coming decades, youth ministry has never been more important. Youth ministry is no longer just about youth.
To that end, we must ask, “How can we reform youth ministry?” To borrow a phrase from Brian H. Cosby, we can begin reform by “giving up the gimmicks.” Founder of Young Life Jim Rayburn infamously wrote, “It’s a sin to bore a kid.”  While Rayburn was most likely advocating for entertainment, Cosby notes, “[Youth] are bored because they are living from one pleasure high to the next. They’re not encouraged to live out, for example, the content and method of ministry service.” He continues, “America’s youth not only need a ministry that seeks to communicate God’s grace through the teaching of the Word, administration of the [ordinances], a life of prayer, gospel-motivated ministry, and grace-centered community—they actually want such a ministry.”
The opposite of giving students what they want is giving them what they need—and a holistic means-of-grace ministry does exactly that. These means-of-grace include the Word, ordinances, prayer, service (ministry), and discipleship in the church. These are the very means by which God reveals His steadfast, committed love and grace to those who put their faith in Him. That is not to say that they work ex opera operato, or magically produce results.  Rather, God will work through these means, because He has ordained them for the building of the Church. These are not common grace means, but special grace means—that is, grace made effectual in believers’ lives via God’s redemptive grace. As we allow these means-of-grace to become our “strategy” for ministry, we begin to see their sufficiency.
Connecting Means and Methodology
One large question remains: “How does means-of-grace translate into methods?” The most pivotal tool is allowing the means to transform students into the image of Christ. God’s means don’t need our help. Rather than allowing videos, games, or events to become the focal point of youth ministry, let God’s means-of-grace shape our practices. This makes the temporal elements of ministry secondary. Biblical content and methods of ministry cannot be divorced.
If Scripture is made central, then preaching, teaching, and memorizing Scripture will become a priority. As we saturate youth ministry in prayer (individual and corporate), we paint a beautiful picture of our dialogue with God. As we observe biblical ordinances, we note the beautiful symbolism of Christ’s servanthood, death, and resurrection. Our focus on service cultivates cultural awareness and biblical application. As we serve with our students, they see life lived in light of the gospel. When we follow biblical models of discipleship, we see the community of our youth group take biblical form. These means-of-grace are influential in the mental formation of young people.
Essentially, we must keep first things first. If we allow these elements to become our means, we will display the sufficiency of Christ in our ministry. If the popular maxim, “what you win them with, you win them to” holds true, it is imperative that Christ occupy the center of our ministry and methods.
Brian Cosby writes, “Substituting the gospel-focused ministry for an entertainment-driven attraction is neither safe nor right, and God has called us to so much more than that.”  Cosby is right. Entertainment culture in youth ministry will result in consequences that are neither safe nor right. We will build ministries of preference rather than transformational discipleship. Unknowingly, our ecclesiology will have a ripple effect that will affect the Church in years to come.
Furthermore, God has called us to more than entertainment. He has entrusted us with the message of reconciliation from our all-sufficient Savior. This is a magnificent honor and responsibility. As we turn back to historical, biblical models to grow youth in Christ, we will not only see students enjoy them, we will also see them transformed.
About the Writer: Welch College graduate Christopher Talbot is minister of students at Unity Free Will Baptist Church, Greenville, North Carolina. To read more of his work on literature, ecclesiology, and hermeneutics, visit www.helywssocietyforum.com.
1 Scott McConnell, “LifeWay Research Finds Reasons 18- to 22-Year-Olds Drop Out of Church,” Lifeway.com, August 2007 (accessed February 1, 2013).
2 Sonja Steptoe, “How to Get Teens Excited About God,”Time Magazine, November 2006 (accessed February 1, 2013).
3 Alan Stewart (ed.), No Guts, No Glory: Building a Youth Ministry That Lasts (Kingsford: Matthias Media, 2000), 8.
4 Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011), 20.
5 Brian H. Cosby, Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry From an Entertainment Culture (Phillipsburg: P & R Publishing 2012), 63.
6 Ronald White, “History of Youth Ministry Project” (unpublished midproject report submitted to the Lilly Endowment, Indianapolis, Ind., August 20, 1994).
7 Quoted in Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean, The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press 2011), 51.
8 This is a term used in Roman Catholic theology to refer to the supernatural work of the sacraments, regardless of the participant’s activity and/or disposition. Simply put, Roman Catholics believe that the sacraments confer special grace when performed with no condition on the participant.
9 Cosby, 27.