Monday, August 13, 2007

Faith Works 8-18-07
Jeff Gill

Youth Groups Serve Many Purposes

School begins this week, and faith communities of all sorts also launch their youth ministries.

“Youth groups” aren’t in the book of Acts for Christians, or called for in any other sacred writings that I know of, but having a youth fellowship of some sort these days is right up there with having a door. Ya gotta have one.

I’m not going to question this particular conventional wisdom (not this week, anyhow), but for members of the Youth Council or Christian Ed committee or Young People’s Programming group, there is a question worth asking as you prepare to launch off into a new fall season.

Is your youth ministry mainly about formation and discipleship, or is it about evangelism?

The cries will echo immediately off the newsprint or computer screen: a false choice! You cannot choose; you must be both.

Yeah, yeah. Tell it to the choir.

My counsel to church leaders and youth pastors is that an effective youth group will always have elements of both evangelism and discipleship, but knowing which end of that spectrum is most important helps keep clarity in planning and prioritization.
Wait, there’s a hand up in the back. Yes? Oh, there’s a reader who asks “what’s up with those two long words, anyhow? I hear you church-y people using them, but what exactly do you mean?”

Good question. Some church-y words get so polished with use that they can slip right out of our hands. What do we mean?
What I mean by evangelism is the effort to reach out to the unchurched; the process of bringing people to an awareness of what it means to believe, and where that belief leads.

Formation or discipleship is the work of taking someone who has made a basic decision to accept or affirm a belief system, and showing them how to apply their faith to the questions and challenges of everyday life.

For most Christians, evangelism is getting people to the point where they say “yes” to Jesus as Lord of their life, while discipleship is learning what their tradition teaches about how to follow Jesus, and steadily following Jesus more closely.
Is that clear?

What makes this an even sharper question for youth leaders is that, in the process of dealing with bringing large groups of young people together for fellowship, the older members of a Christian community often find that carpets get stained, light fixtures get cracked, and stuff gets left in the fridge. ‘Nuff said.

But those older leaders will say that they can deal with the wear and tear and outright damage to property because “when you get the children, the families follow.” They see youth ministry as an evangelism tool.

The problem with that is you rarely see the families following, in practice. Yes, it does happen, but not as often as you think. The bottom line is that a youth program will rarely “pay its way” in terms of bringing new members to a church. Even when large numbers start showing up at activities and Bible studies, there’s no guarantee that youth group numbers translate into membership numbers.

When everyone understands that a middle or high school program is about forming them as stronger, more committed Christians, you are better situated to celebrate those times when youth work actually does bring someone to a confession of faith, but you aren’t waiting for so many more of those, just to justify the commitment to a youth program in your church.

As you can tell, I think that for most churches, a basic orientation to formation and discipleship should motivate church leaders to support their youth programming. Your own members’ children and grandchildren will grow in maturity as part of your tradition, and they will bring friends who will often need some extra support and mentoring, helping them understand new approaches to faithful living they may not have grown up with. There is evangelism going on, but it isn’t the whole reason you’re onboard.

If you believe your church is called to take on a youth ministry that is specifically aimed at evangelism, that is a unique calling which will be rewarding to all concerned, but will shape every element of your group. You won’t just be able to pick up the latest cool ideas going around at workshops, because formation is a very different human process than evangelism.

And if you’re wondering, I think that mission trips or work projects are really most effectively about formation. Can people make a first step towards faith by ending up along on a work trip? Sure, but they can also end up with skewed ideas about grace and “earning” God’s love. What a mission experience is best at is building powerful discipleship in the workers when they return home with a radically new vision of the Kingdom of God at work in their world.

Is your youth group really all about discipleship, or evangelism? Clarity on this question can make many more decisions more straightforward further down the road.

Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he’s been a youth minister and Fifth Quarter chaperone and young adult advisor over many years. Your views on how youth groups can be more effective are welcome at

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