Biblical theology is not a term you’d find often on the lips of those involved with youth ministry. For a ministry which overdoses on being fun and practical, Biblical theology sounds awfully serious and academic. However, for a ministry which is losing its way and consequently a generation, basing the way forward on a solid scriptural foundation sounds like a good place to start.

Now perhaps all is well in your context. The youth are integrated into the church and school leavers continue to be vibrant members of the church. Teens are growing into spiritual maturity with adult mentorship, and you’re acing intergenerational (Covid friendly) gatherings. Then just soak in this thought:

“Youth ministry is for adolescence, the family is for life, but the church is for eternity.”

Michael McGarry

But if not,

  • If you have a hunch that things need to change
  • and you’re not an avid reader
  • If you can’t afford the book
  • and can only give 10 minutes of headspace to this
  • If you’re wondering what some guy’s insights from ‘Americaland’ have to say to our local Southern African context,

then read on. Below is a summary and reflection of Michael McGarry’s “A biblical theology of youth ministry.”

The Old Testament and youth ministry

McGarry states that there is no specific chapter and verse reference to youth ministry in the Bible. However, the Old Testament is saturated with God’s instruction to pass on the Commands to the next generation. With great care and exegetical skill, he navigates us through:

“Without a doubt, parents are entrusted as disciples-makers of the next generation. Even while stressing the importance of family discipleship, non-parental adults and the broader faith community provides a formative influence in the lives of children and adolescents” (page 35).

Reflection

I applaud the necessary thought correction of the last few decades that the raising up of the children and youth of a community in the Christian faith is only (but should never have been) the sole responsibility of a volunteer or paid youth worker. McGarry is very ‘Luther-like’, in reminding us of the role of parents in raising up children in the Faith and the church supporting them with that responsibility. A ministry to youth that only focusses on teenagers and not the homes they’re from, is short-sighted and self-indulgent.

It does take a village to raise a child. However, I suspect the urbanised church mind may hear this and not understand. The value of Ubuntu is more than a bring and braai. It’s a cultural revolution which seeks to demolish the last few decades of compartmentalisation and specialisation.

The New Testament and youth ministry

The New Testament has much to offer beyond Jesus’ statement “let the little children come to me” (Matthew 19:14). While exploring the ministry culture of Jesus, the apostles’ contemporaries and considering verses that reference the older generation’s ministry to the younger McGarry concludes that:

  • Jesus modelled the customary rabbinic patterns of discipleship through personal commitment. He offered private teaching and expecting His followers to leave all else to follow Him. He also stood apart. The authority of His teaching rested with Him and He initiated the choosing of His disciples.
  • The apostles were most likely ‘young adults’ “representing Jesus’ drive to build up young leaders who will carry the message of the gospel after he ascended” (page 46).
  • The term household is broadened to include the spiritual family, extending the responsibility to raise the youth in faith beyond the traditional modern nuclear family.
  • Paul’s instructions to Titus (Titus 2:1-7) clearly indicate “the older and more mature need to initiate in training the younger and less mature” (page 50).

“One of the key emphasis that modern youth ministry and church leaders should take from the New Testament is the priority given to passing on the faith to the next generation and then raising them into leadership in the church…. rather than viewing children and youth as ‘members in waiting’, the biblical witness affirms their value” (page 56).

Reflection

I support any move towards discipleship understood as modelling and living rather than simply a passing of scriptural knowledge. Any investment in the youth is to be encouraged. However, there is much work to be done if the local church seeks to implement what McGarry advocates.

For the Mega church there is an unhurried step that needs to be taken first. Discipleship is time consuming, relational and cannot be programmed. For the small traditional church, there will have to be a renewed belief in the priesthood of all believers and a shaking of the Men and Woman League trees to see which adults are prepared to walk with the young.

I also think the idea of accepting a young person as a full member is so contrary to our societal structures. Congregations will need time and grace to begin adopting this beautiful biblical perspective of young people. Within a Southern African context, we must explore the implications of rattling the cultural beliefs of the place of a young person in the community. It is not only the 97-year-old church organist who believes that children must be seen and not heard.

Church history and youth ministry

McGarry reminds us that the desire to disciple and pass on the Faith to the next generation is something the church has contended with since its inception. Youth workers would do well to remember the past, especially the role catechism has in spiritual formation.

“In the midst of today’s spiritual crises in America where both adults and youth are growing less committed to biblical Christianity, the Church ought to remember its disciple-making mission. The nature of catechesis provides structure for both doctrinal and ethical instruction in the context of an ongoing relationship” (page 78).

Reflection

McGarry quickly bridges the storied past with the now, reminding a ministry that often focusses on the latest, that there is nothing new under the sun.

For a book which in title feels like it’ll be a theory adventure, McGarry starts to offer the beginnings of a how to those who are serious about maturing young people in their faith.

I must admit after nodding my head to using catechesis, I wondered who’s responsible for this in the local church? I quickly got to the place where I realised this responsibility couldn’t (and shouldn’t) rest solely with either the youth worker or the senior minister. This means an ongoing conversation about formational content between the two. That would be a win.

This approach requires a birds-eye view of what a person may experience in content through out their spiritual life in the church. Anyone you know making the time for this?

Ecclesiology and youth ministry

It’s a fair observation that often the youth ministry of a church is a mini-church within the church. Most attempts to make youth part of the larger church are event orientated rather than relationship focussed. McGarry addresses this as simply unbiblical. While acknowledging the need to consider the uniqueness of the adolescence stage, he strongly advocates for young people to be grown into the church and not just the youth group.

“Youth ministry is a disciple-making ministry where the gospel is proclaimed and applied to the real-life situations teenagers find themselves facing while they discover their identity as a member of Christ’s Church; not simply a church-based club for teenagers to build healthy friendships and stay out of trouble” (page 94).

Reflection

It’s unlikely that anyone other than youth workers will read a book that has youth ministry in the title. Sadly though I think that while youth work over the past few decades has contributed to creating a separate ministry within the church, those responsible for the leadership of the church have allowed this to occur and are best suited to make the needed change of including young people in the church. McGarry’s insights are helpful, they just need to fall into the hands of church leadership.

The family and youth ministry

It follows that if the responsibility to evangelise and disciple young people rests primarily with the family, it’s essential to have a biblical vision for the family. McGarry makes the following points in this regard:

  • When Christian parents faithfully teach and model a biblical worldview of work as worship, children will flourish in their understanding of how to honour God in everything they do.
  • The biblical sense of family (which is more a clan than the traditional notion of two parents and two kids) means family discipleship is a community project.
  • The family should be viewed as a mini-church with parents making a deliberate effort to disciple their teenage children.
  • The family is a visible expression of the spiritual family of God.

“A biblical theology of family paints a beautiful picture of the family as a living embodiment of Christ and the Church…it is unfortunate and unbiblical to set the disciple-making mission of the family aside in exchange for building a large youth ministry” (page 113).

Reflection

I believe that those employed as youth workers or those who volunteer their time with the young people of a church community are generally sincere followers of Jesus with a love for young people. I don’t believe they intentionally set out to malign parents, segregate the youth from the larger church community or get lost in the vanity of large numbers attending a programme. Although McGarry’s observations and theological foundation regarding the ministry of the family are spot on (in my opinion) it does assume a certain kind of youth worker or volunteer who has the experience, maturity, training and time to extend their ministry beyond teens to the parents of a community.

Most local church’s in Southern Africa simply don’t have the financial resources and many denominations aren’t convinced of the professionalism of youth ministry. If this work is to be entrusted to volunteers (which it mostly has) then clear pathways of training and equipping will need to be established.

The Gospel and youth ministry

McGarry rounds up his theological work on an intensely practical note by imploring us to centre youth ministry on the Gospel.

“When youth workers build every facet of their ministry around the gospel, there will be less obsession on attendance and more emphasis on helping students grow in the grace of God through Christ” (page 138).

Having unpacked the key tenants of a Gospel-centre youth ministry, McGarry admonishes us to hold firmly to three admissions:

  • Youth ministry is temporary.
  • Parents matter more than youth pastors do.
  • The students are never “my kids” (they are “our kids”).

And to move forward with the following building blocks as our foundation:

  • Youth ministry is anchored to the local church.
  • Be the parents greatest advocate.
  • Create moments for parents and youth to be together.

The purpose of youth ministry is to produce adult disciples whose faith took root and was nourished throughout their teen years” (page 141).

Closing reflection

McGarry’s work is comprehensive, challenging and leaves you feeling like you should have resisted that second helping of scripture. It’s more than food for thought, and brings a strong call for youth ministry to start growing up.

“When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me” (1 Corinthians 13:11).