Just by reading the title, I can imagine many people already being put off by it. Many young Christians (and even older ones) would be surprised to find how many people are really considering this question. Youth ministry has become a part of the modern Evangelical churches. Some parents would even leave a church because of the fact there is no youth group that engages their kids. This question comes off as absurd to anyone who grew up in a standard American church. It’s the equivalent of asking if Sunday school, kid’s ministry, and worship ministry were lost causes as well to many Christians. At the same time, many of those who have inspired me to go into ministry have asked this question so often that I couldn’t ignore it.
As a person who started in youth ministry, and is still involved with it to this day, I have contemplated on this question for quite some time. I can understand why people would be so repulsive when being asked if youth ministry was something worth fighting for, especially since our experiences do come in to play with our answers. However, for the sake of answering this question, I am putting aside my experience as a youth leader, and as one who discipled many young Christians, so that my answer would be completely rooted in the Scriptures and Church history.
So, here is my answer: no, it is not a lost cause.
I am not saying this so I can keep my position in my church, I am not saying this because of cultural influence or experience, and I am not saying this because I think youth ministry is necessary. If the question was about whether or not youth ministry was necessary, I would say it wasn’t. The God-given duty of a parent, especially of the father, is to teach one’s children the Word of God. The local church is not responsible for the parents’ negligence, nor is it a primary responsibility for the local church to teach the youth everything they need to know about life; that is the duty of the parents. I can also confidently say that if youth ministry was a lost cause, I would’ve followed my conscience and told my pastor that I shouldn’t be involved with leading the youth.
The last thing I want to say in defense of my answer, before stating my case, is that I know that my fellow Reformed brothers will probably be discouraged or enraged. A few years ago, Paul Washer preached a sermon entitled 10 Indictments Against the Modern Church. I thought his observations were absolutely correct (except for his fondness towards Wesley, but that’s a whole other topic) and that he made a correct observation: modern youth groups are silly. Ever since then, many cage-stage Calvinists have been so anti-youth groups that it’s almost hilarious (honestly, cage-stage Calvinists are hilariously foolish in general).
I got the privilege to meet Todd Friel and his wife (very humble, funny, sweet, and gracious people by the way). Todd Friel wrote one of my favorite books called Judge
Not. When I had told them that I was in youth ministry, Todd’s eyes were wide open and his wife came out of the Wretched Radio booth to give me a hug and encourage me. They told me that they reacted like that because they were “glad that someone so young, that has a passion for the Word of God, is leading other young people.” That is encouraging to me…but also sad. Why must it be so surprising that a youth minister holds to sola scriptura and truly loves the Lord? Because it is definitely rare…I have to admit that.
In the book Judge
Not, Todd Friel documents stories of youth group leaders who made the congregants lick peanut butter off of their armpits, tried to fake signs and wonders, and came up with wacky ideas to try to make their youth have fun rather than learn what is in the Bible. Jesus Culture’s popularity has been growing because of the fact that it preys on the youth with their manipulative, false teaching. Passion Conference has grown dramatically because it tries to get the youth to be “high on Jesus” rather than to be studying their Bibles and be rooted in holy prayer. Every heretical movement, sinful enticement, and devilish scheme is meant to attack the hearts of a young individual.
This leads me to the two reasons why I don’t think youth group is a lost cause:
1) There is a growing danger for our youth.
Jesus gave three simple commands to Peter in John 21:15-17: 1) feed my lambs, 2) tend my sheep, and 3) feed my sheep. The duty of any pastor, elder, or any believer is to make sure that God’s children are walking in the truth. We are to warn each other of oncoming danger of wolves, cliffs, or thieves that might come to harm us. We are to uplift each other in the teachings of our Great Shepherd, Christ the Lord. If we, as the body of Christ, should encourage one another, then I would say that is already a good reason to keep youth ministry.
Ever since I was involved with youth ministry, I made sure that I taught every young person I could to follow Christ, flee from sin, and to despise any false teaching. I still pray that God would keeps the youth safe every night because I know how many people are being drifted away into these new heretical movements springing up against the Church, and the lack of discernment that follows. However, I also know that because of many Reformed youth ministries there are young people who love Christ, the Word, and theology. There is a growing movement of youth seeking a deeper understanding of God, which leads them to a greater worship.
Are youth groups necessary in order to have this effect on the youth? No. Does God use it to further His Kingdom among the youth? You bet.
Young people need the encouragement of God’s Word, and we must remember that there are several cases among the youth groups such as those who have un-belieiving parents or those who need fellowship with other believers. I know that I need it, and I am certain that every young individual who follows Christ needs that kind of help.
2) Reformers recognized the need of the youth.
Possibly my favorite booklet of all time has to be Thought for Young Men by J.C. Ryle, a great Puritan preacher who pastored a church in England. In it he details the dangers of sin, the need for religion, and exhortations for the youth of his time. J.C. Ryle wasn’t the only one to recognize the need to exhort, teach, and have fellowship with the youth. John Calvin often made mention that the youth should be educated in theological studies and know their Scripture. He was even passionate about having fellowship with young men, so that they would recognize the value in a religious affection for God.
Now, does this mean women are left out? No. Paul makes mention of discipling young women as well in Titus 2:4-5 (ESV) saying, “And so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the Word of God may not be reviled.” Katherine Von Bora, the wife of Martin Luther, was known as a woman of great leadership. One of her greatest concerns was teaching the younger girls of her day to become godly mothers and strong women of the faith. If Martin Luther, a…pretty well known Reformer, had a problem with that…let’s just say he would’ve said something.
Ryle, Calvin, Edwards, Luther, etc. recognized the need to disciple the younger people for the sake of the Word, the faith, and God’s glory. My heart aches when I see Reformed preachers turn their back on this principle and dismiss youth ministry all together. Should we make changes as to who is to be qualified for youth ministry? Absolutely! If it were up to me, a great majority of youth ministers would be fired for their poor job performance. Despite all that, I don’t think that the Reformers would’ve appreciated our resistance to a greater opportunity to preach the gospel to the younger generation.
I love Dr. Voodie Baucham and Paul Washer, but I don’t think they are correct for saying that youth group is a bad idea in itself, since even Reformers dedicated services specifically for young men and women in their time. Many Reformed pastors and elders have recognized the need to encourage our youth to desire godliness such as Dr. John MacArthur, Dr. R.C. Sproul, and even Todd Friel (the one who wrote a book detailing the heretical horrors that occur in youth ministry). In fact, when discussing ways in which I can improve my youth ministry, ministers such as Dr. Conrad Mbwew, Todd Friel, Phil Johnson, and Dr. Steve Lawson (my hero of the faith) all encouraged me to continue in youth ministry and to never quench my desire to reach the lost youth. If you ask me, I think that the Reformers would’ve done the same.
All that being said, I don’t think youth ministry is a lost cause. I also don’t think that it is something that we should simply dismiss as a modern invention, but rather something that could be traced back to the Reformers that wanted to disciple younger Christians and has turned into something shameful. We are to take back youth ministry away from the unqualified leadership and place it in the hands of godly ministers who are ready to get their hands dirty. I think back on the words Dr. Conrad Mbewe, “Had it not been for Lois, Eunice, and Paul, and their youth ministry, Timothy would’ve never became a pastor.”
Now, I must admit that youth ministries, bible studies, and services are not substitutes, but supplements to the godly leadership of the elders and the parents. I do believe that Lois and Eunice did fine jobs of raising Timothy to be a godly man, but Paul was a great help to him. I can’t read 1 and 2 Timothy without seeing the beauty of encouraging a young person to follow God and to have youth ministry continue to be in place. I close with this passage from 2 Timothy 2:22 (ESV), which details the goal of youth ministry saying, “So flee youthful passions and pursue righteousness, faith, love, and peace, along with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart.”
Soli Deo Gloria.