Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, John Vest is curating a conversation around youth ministry. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.
By Jessica Tate
I read a New York Times article over the summer that stuck with me. It was based on the findings of ChildTrends, a research group that seeks to improve the lives of children by providing high-quality research and knowledge to practitioners and policymakers. The article described a hypothetical class of 100 high schoolers and then, based on the research, breaks down the realities of life for these 100 youth:
71 have experienced physical assault.
64 have had sex.
39 were bullied in the last year.
34 are overweight.
22 live in poverty (with 10 living in deep poverty).
As we reflect on a conversation about about what’s next in youth ministry this month, these statistics haunt me.
The young people that churches so desperately want to be part of their communities, this is their reality. Of course, these statistics don’t paint the whole picture. There are stats that are more in line with how we view teenagers. Of those same 100 students,
89 have health insurance.
68 will go on to further schooling.
56 participated in school sports.
39 participated in the performing arts.
28 attend religious services at least once a week, with 26 saying religion is very important in their lives.
This hypothetical class of 100 reminds me that the lives of youth are complex. We do youth a disservice when we reduce them to kids who just want to be entertained. We do them a disservice when we look at them as the saviors of the church or the built-in volunteer labor.
In her book, Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean says the question around youth ministry for most of the 20th century was, “How can we keep young people in church?” (I still hear that question asked pretty often in churches.) Today’s question, Dean argues, is, “Does the church matter?”
Dean answers her own question with a double-edged sword.
First, she says, “the account of Jesus Christ’s life, death, and resurrection – the story that gives Christianity its life-and-death urgency and that insists on the Holy Spirit’s living presence in the world today – goes to the heart of profoundly human questions about belonging, purpose, and meaning.” That story still matters, surely, in the lives of teens who are wrestling with power-plays of bullying, negotiating the complexity of sexual intimacy, and the harsh realities of poverty. But that story, Dean argues (and here’s the other edge of that sword), has been watered down in many of our congregations, replaced by a church and theological complacency that at the end of the day doesn’t address the issues of being human and therefore renders God unimportant.
As we reflect on youth ministry this month, let’s be attentive not only to what’s next for youth, but what youth might teach us about what’s next for the church more broadly. The question we’re really tackling isn’t what’s next in youth ministry? The real question is does the church matter?
Jessica Tate is the Director of NEXT Church.