The Need for a Contextualized Youth Ministry

Every week, there seems to be dozens of posts in my blog roll along the lines of: “What’s Wrong with Youth Ministry?” “Why Youth Ministry Needs to Change” and “A Paradigm Shift in Youth Ministry.”

While I agree that there needs to be some changes in the way we do youth ministry, I don’t think those changes look the same for everyone.  I don’t think Youth Ministry will drastically change if everyone starts making their own lessons, or preaches expositionally, or changes to a small-group format.  I don’t think every church can make those changes; not every youth pastor is paid so that he or she can spend hours making their sermons, not every youth group has the attention span to learn the Bible verse-by-verse, and not every youth group is big enough or has enough volunteers to have small groups.

So what I’m saying is: Youth Ministry needs to fit the culture of the church.  This seems like a no-brainer, but if it is, why are we constantly trying to mimic other the ministries of other churches?  When I was a small church youth pastor, I wanted so badly to have big programming like the larger churches in my area, and was constantly snooping to see what they were doing.  But why?  My church could not do those things.  It is no wonder that so many young people today are leaving churches—they are not getting anything that has been specifically made for them; they are getting the same generic garbage that every other church is feeding off of.

But our churches, especially more conservative churches, have problems when we say we need our ministries to fit “our culture.”  You’ll hear from them (use your best country hick voice here), “The Bible don’t change for no one, so our church don’t change for no one.”  But contextualization does not mean changing what the Bible says; contextualizing means that recognizing the meaning of the text in its context will help us re-contextualize the meaning of the text for our audience.  We have to understand the basic hermeneutic principles of historical and cultural background of the text as well as who it originally impacted.  We are not those same people, therefore we should not force the Biblical text into any cultural mold.  So our churches don’t need to exactly reflect the churches in the Bible (and they typically don’t.)  And therefore our ministries don’t need to be the replicas of the Bible, or each other’s.  One ministry is not necessarily more “Biblical” than another.  And if I tried the same youth ministry model in Canada or Africa or even the next state over, it would not work.

Furthermore, I’m going to play bad-cop and say that youth ministry is not “Biblical” because adolescence did not even exist then.  So we have already submitted to culture by having youth ministry in general.  That does not mean immediately disband all youth ministries (although that might work for your church culture).  I’m saying that youth ministry started as a ministry to fit a cultural need, so why are we not continuing to fit it to our culture?

Why are we still doing the same programming after 25 years?  I know a lot of youth pastors who are angry because students choose activities over the church (we would have never done that “in our day”), but why can’t we move activities around and accommodate students?  Why are we still going to big-name conferences that do nothing spiritual for our students, just because it’s “the place to go?” Do puppet teams fit anyone’s culture?  Why are we depressed because we are not as big, have enough money, or have as great of a beard as “First Baptist”?  We are not the same.  We don’t have the same needs.  I can’t grow facial hair.

Contextualizing is not a bad thing.  If you think your youth ministry needs some big changes, think about the culture of the community—How big is it?  How many churches are there?  What is the income level?  How is the economy doing?   And think about your church as well—Where are they spiritually?  How diverse is it in terms of race, income, gender, etc? What is the “personality” of the church?  It’s there.

Having a contextualized youth ministry means having a continuously growing awareness of your students’ church, community, learning styles, personalities, schools, and culture.  It probably won’t be easy to determine what it will look like to contextualize your youth ministry initially, but with your growing awareness, it will be the most fantastic thing you do for your ministry.

Dan Sadlier said, “Contextualization is like a sweet science that dates back to the Savior. Each page of the scripture drips with leadership who understood their context, and knew how to contextualize for the sake of God’s fame. Study your context, embrace it, and than engage it like the saints who have gone before.”

22 Comments

  1. Other than answering the questions that you listed above, is there a way to figure out your students? I have an array of personality types, different students with different socioeconomic situations, ages, schools, etc.
    • You definitely have to factor in all of those things...are you asking more of a "how to" figure out what your church needs in terms of students? Briefly and simply: it takes observation of those factors, assessment of the needs they reflect, getting your leaders on board with the follow-through, and consistent re-evaluation of those things.
  2. Other than answering the questions that you listed above, is there a way to figure out your students? I have an array of personality types, different students with different socioeconomic situations, ages, schools, etc.
    • You definitely have to factor in all of those things...are you asking more of a "how to" figure out what your church needs in terms of students? Briefly and simply: it takes observation of those factors, assessment of the needs they reflect, getting your leaders on board with the follow-through, and consistent re-evaluation of those things.
  3. David, kids will always be different, even teaching in the public school like I do, kids are so different, they don't think alike, youth ministry is wild! lol
  4. David, kids will always be different, even teaching in the public school like I do, kids are so different, they don't think alike, youth ministry is wild! lol
  5. I'm sorry, but there were several things in your article that I cannot agree with. First, as one of those pastors who gets upset about students choosing activities over church, I think it is a matter of priorities. In most cases, youth group is on the same day every week. No matter what day you try to move to, you will not be accommodating someone. What the student chooses is a reflection of what is important to him, where his heart is. Second, as a pastor in West Virginia, there are a number of "hicks" as you called them. I found it somewhat insensitive to stereotype those with such a drawl the way you did. I understand your purpose here, but this more like an appeal to e seeker-friendly than a call to change for the purpose of challenging the students.
    • Jonathan, thanks for your response. I am thankful for people who speak up and challenge me to reevaluate my stances on topics that I am passionate about. However, I cannot disagree more with you. First, I understand it is frustrating when students don't show up for youth activities because they have other activities. And from personal encounters with you through our Facebook group, I know that you and others have experienced students telling you that their extracurriculars were "more important than church. That is very frustrating and shows immaturity on their part in speech and faith. Yet, I think we need to look at how many of our students are doing those activities--is it a majority of the group? Maybe it would be best to move youth group, an event, or other programs in order to accommodate the majority of your students who cannot be there. And if they can't be there, then you need to find another way to reach them. Perhaps you could try to spend more time discipling those students who cannot be there on Wednesday night? There are some students who need those extracurriculars for college, and I do believe strongly it’s dangerous to assume that just because a person “chooses” football over church, that their faith is weak. I had a student who I disciple one-on-one (she was my favorite, shhh) but couldn’t go to church all summer because of softball. I was frustrated because I lost a leader, a friend, a star student. But I remind myself of all the things students learn in these extracurriculars—sportsmanship, community, practical crafts, AND an opportunity to share the Gospel. What’s the point of teaching three times a week if our students can’t go out and share it? Second, as someone who has lived in Missouri her entire life and went to college in small town Missouri, I know the “hick” stereotype all too well and was attempting to be funny. “Hick” isn’t a term that is looked at as offensive here. Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth and I apologize to you and whoever else was offended. Third, my purpose of the article was to make sure that your ministry can properly minister to your culture, and to encourage youth pastors to study the elements of what makes up their youth group’s “personality” in order to best minister to them. If I were to write a seeker-friendly article, I would encourage ministers to submit to the culture at large. I last worked in a rural church. I currently work for an at-risk teen ministry. I CANNOT use the same models of ministry. I must consider all things of their culture in order to figure out how to teach them, disciple them, and what kinds of programs will fit their needs. Nothing “seeker-friendly” about trying to meet needs.
  6. I'm sorry, but there were several things in your article that I cannot agree with. First, as one of those pastors who gets upset about students choosing activities over church, I think it is a matter of priorities. In most cases, youth group is on the same day every week. No matter what day you try to move to, you will not be accommodating someone. What the student chooses is a reflection of what is important to him, where his heart is. Second, as a pastor in West Virginia, there are a number of "hicks" as you called them. I found it somewhat insensitive to stereotype those with such a drawl the way you did. I understand your purpose here, but this more like an appeal to e seeker-friendly than a call to change for the purpose of challenging the students.
    • Jonathan, thanks for your response. I am thankful for people who speak up and challenge me to reevaluate my stances on topics that I am passionate about. However, I cannot disagree more with you. First, I understand it is frustrating when students don't show up for youth activities because they have other activities. And from personal encounters with you through our Facebook group, I know that you and others have experienced students telling you that their extracurriculars were "more important than church. That is very frustrating and shows immaturity on their part in speech and faith. Yet, I think we need to look at how many of our students are doing those activities--is it a majority of the group? Maybe it would be best to move youth group, an event, or other programs in order to accommodate the majority of your students who cannot be there. And if they can't be there, then you need to find another way to reach them. Perhaps you could try to spend more time discipling those students who cannot be there on Wednesday night? There are some students who need those extracurriculars for college, and I do believe strongly it’s dangerous to assume that just because a person “chooses” football over church, that their faith is weak. I had a student who I disciple one-on-one (she was my favorite, shhh) but couldn’t go to church all summer because of softball. I was frustrated because I lost a leader, a friend, a star student. But I remind myself of all the things students learn in these extracurriculars—sportsmanship, community, practical crafts, AND an opportunity to share the Gospel. What’s the point of teaching three times a week if our students can’t go out and share it? Second, as someone who has lived in Missouri her entire life and went to college in small town Missouri, I know the “hick” stereotype all too well and was attempting to be funny. “Hick” isn’t a term that is looked at as offensive here. Sometimes I put my foot in my mouth and I apologize to you and whoever else was offended. Third, my purpose of the article was to make sure that your ministry can properly minister to your culture, and to encourage youth pastors to study the elements of what makes up their youth group’s “personality” in order to best minister to them. If I were to write a seeker-friendly article, I would encourage ministers to submit to the culture at large. I last worked in a rural church. I currently work for an at-risk teen ministry. I CANNOT use the same models of ministry. I must consider all things of their culture in order to figure out how to teach them, disciple them, and what kinds of programs will fit their needs. Nothing “seeker-friendly” about trying to meet needs.
  7. Hey everyone, we need to show a little bit more respect here. It's easy to sit behind a computer screen and launch disagreements with statements and be more harsh. My challenge is this: Would you be so harsh face-to-face? It's ok to disagree and we encourage dialog, but let's keep the main thing the main thing. Got it? Good. Thanks for commenting, feedback, and dialog. We are a community of pastors all in this together.
  8. Hey everyone, we need to show a little bit more respect here. It's easy to sit behind a computer screen and launch disagreements with statements and be more harsh. My challenge is this: Would you be so harsh face-to-face? It's ok to disagree and we encourage dialog, but let's keep the main thing the main thing. Got it? Good. Thanks for commenting, feedback, and dialog. We are a community of pastors all in this together.
  9. Also, as a born and bread East Tennessee "Hick" I see nothing wrong with calling me what I am. Just b/c I'm Hick doesn't mean I'm stupid. I just have a nice southern draw. Now...red neck....that is...oh never mind. :)
  10. Also, as a born and bread East Tennessee "Hick" I see nothing wrong with calling me what I am. Just b/c I'm Hick doesn't mean I'm stupid. I just have a nice southern draw. Now...red neck....that is...oh never mind. :)

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