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.”