The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode 15: Youth Ministry

This week’s music is, of course, “Teenage Wasteland” by The Who, suggested by David Grubbs.

General Introduction
– Response to Jeff Wright
– What’s on the blog?

The Strain and the Disdain
– Autobiographical matters
– Michial tiptoes around insulting youth ministers
– Nathan remains sanguine

The Modern Teenager
– 1950s rock and roll rebellion
Catcher in the Rye and On the Road
– The ‘60s blow it all to hell
– True confessions of a rebel without a clue

Going Backwards in Time, Man
– The Medieval Teenager
– Duchesses and kings
– Bar mitzvahs
– The Victorian era and the modern childhood
– Won’t somebody PLEASE think of the children?

The Autobiographical Stuff
– Growing out of it
– Too many questions
– Games, games, games. And vomit.
– Why Nathan liked youth group

Homeschoolers and Youth Groups
– David Grubbs: homeschool pioneer
– Youth group as friend factory
– Militant spitters and militant splitters

Mainline vs. Evangelical Youth Groups
– Why Michial is the wrong person to ask
– Where’s the hard sell?
– PCA vs. PCUSA
– Help us, Wayne Peacock. You’re our only hope.

Rumspringa; or, The State of Mississippi Ain’t Nearly as Forgiving
– How do you prepare teenagers to preserve Christian disciplines in college?
– Sin so that grace might increase
– A theological or sociological model?

When Do You Indoctrinate Your Children?
– Michial and David bow out
– Storytelling over indoctrination
– Why Micah Gilmour is a missionary field, not an extension of his father’s personality

Exhortation
– What Christian college teachers want your youth group to know
– Quit being so combative
– Tolerate questions
– More theology than waterparks
– Merge schoolwork with theology
– No exclusion
– (Nathan gets obsequious)
– Teach science

BIBLIOGRAPHY
Browning, Robert. Robert Browning’s Poetry. Ed. James F. Loucks. New York: Norton, 1979.

Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Plato. The Republic. Trans. Desmond Lee. New York: Penguin, 1987.

Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. New York: Little, Brown, 1991.

16 thoughts on “The Christian Humanist Podcast, Episode 15: Youth Ministry

  1. One thing I wanted to mention about your discussion of the Amish and rumspringa, I think you missed a major point of doing it. I have no direct connection with the Amish, however, my mother’s family is Mennonite, from which the Amish split off, and while the Amish don’t really talk to the Mennonites for various doctrinal, familial, and historical reasons, there are still similarities of belief and situation.

    Amish children, by and large, work in the family business, store/farm, whatever (the state of Pennsylvania kind of ignores child labor laws when it comes to the Amish) and don’t really have access to anything outside the Amish community. At all. And that community is fairly inbred. A major point to having them leave for a year is for them to find someone to marry that is outside of this tiny tiny community inside which everyone is related to each other. Even for the Mennonites, who will talk to people outside the Mennonite community (usually), it is really hard for Mennonites to find people to date that they aren’t related to and it is much much worse for the Amish. As far as coming back with babies, I really don’t think there would be as much stigma as in another sect of Christianity, and I’m extrapolating here a little because I’m a generation removed from this, but women among the Mennonites and Amish are under so much pressure to have so many children so quickly that this is probably going to be fairly forgivable; it’s a reality of being very poor and not making use of any sort of technology that would lessen a need for a large labor force. Like Michial said, there are social reasons to do it. My mother still tells stories of not finding anyone in Lancaster co. Pennsylvania to date who wasn’t related to her and being absolutely thrilled when her parents moved to South Carolina, because the cute boys she met there weren’t her cousins.

  2. Oh, and the other reason why I don’t think the baby thing would be that big of a deal is that I did hear stories of some Mennonite women getting a bit wild and cutting their hair and having some discrepancies between children and marriage, and my impression was that the former was really scandalous, but people just kind of didn’t care about the latter and pretended that everything was strictly conventional, but the Mennonites (at least the sect I’m most directly connected to) have a tendency to just kind of ignore certain sins. As in, the elders come every year to inspect the homes of the congregation to make sure that their flock is still worthy of communion, but there are unspoken conventions about what they look at and what they don’t.) However, it is anyone’s guess as to just how much the Amish will do the same thing as the Mennonites. It is the exact same group of people with the exact same ancestry, culture, and geographical location, but they haven’t spoken to each other in a while.

  3. I’ve been doing youth ministry for roughly four years now, and I’m just giddy that I might actually have something to add to the conversation here. I really enjoy your takes on the topics you’ve been covering; I don’t often get the perspectives that you all offer. That is as much of an argument as any for why youth ministers and graduate english guys should get together more often and listen to one another. Isn’t that part of being the body? I especially liked Michial’s summary of “The Modern Teenager.” Nathan, your sanguine takes on seemingly everything are extremely refreshing to me.

    One thing all three of you neglected to mention – either for time, or because it didn’t fit closely enough with the humanities, or who knows what – but that is probably of significant importance here is the real purpose of youth ministry, as a function of building the body of Christ and His kingdom. I was actually looking forward to Nathan’s ecclesiology on this point. My closest youth minister friends usually agree with me that if the church was truly being effective there would be no need for a youth ministry. Unfortunately, most of our modern churches split people across programs and limit their interaction outside of programs to mostly spectating – so youth ministry (and any other program) are somewhat forced to work within those limitations or constraints or what have you. Our youth are marginalized, so we work within those margins.

    So, what ought the church to be offering that we offer as a youth ministry instead? I contend that one of the major functions is the building and equipping of believers to do good works. If youth are longing to be counter cultural and rebellious anyway – direct those energies into the counter cultural revolutions of Christ. Youth have a hugely untapped potential to change our world. They have the energy, the right amount of disregard for moderation, basically the extremeness of behavior that makes them both highly susceptible to stupidity and bad choices, as well as openness to taking leaps of faith that maybe we “more mature” don’t want to take anymore. This is backed up several times over in the Bible – God using young people precisely because the old people are too set in their ways. David and Goliath leaps to mind, but there’s the boy who is radical enough to believe that his fish and barley will feed 5000 while others pout about 8 monist wages, Samuel prophesying to Eli (most likely because Eli was too dense to hear it) and so on.

    So our youth groups ought to be a place for youth to be equipped, not just for future college pressures, nor for future looming doubts and questions (although both of those are important) but for ministry right now. The youth group I am a part of plays lots of dumb games sure, but our constant goal is to be developing leaders in ministry today. “God loves using young people” is my constant mantra. We can’t allow ourselves to make youth group a holding pattern until youth graduate into “the real fellowship of believers.” We rob our youth of discovering their spiritual gifts, of honing their spiritual senses, of acting on faith – and then we wonder why in “the real fellowship” 80% of people just show up on Sundays and sit there.

    I’m not accusing you or any of your listeners of advocating this “holding pattern” philosophy of youth ministry, just stating a problem as I see it and trying to add to the conversation.

    Anyway – just as in your emergent vs new calvinist episode you touched on not having room for the unhip or old in our churches, we can easily fall into the same trap with all those “bratty teenagers.” In the same way that Youth Ministers not talking to Humanities grads is a problem – the rest of us not talking to teenagers is a problem. They have much to teach us, and we much to teach them.

    I’d love your thoughts on any or none of this. Keep up the good work guys.

  4. Glad to hear from you, Josh. Last.FM tells me that you and Big Tim Rhodes are our top listeners–our overseas market.

    I think we did mention the ecclesiastical purpose of youth ministry, but we probably did it only by implication. Maybe we treated it as an assumption instead. That’s why I was so adamant that youth ministers should spend more time teaching theology and less time playing Chubby Bunny (if indeed people still play that horrible game).

    I agree that the purpose of youth ministry is to equip young people to do good works; I do, however, question if tapping into the countercultural, “rebellious” attitude is the best way to go about that. It seems to me that that move often devolves into “Jesus was the ultimate REBEL, man”–which may be true but is likely not true in the way the counterculture would like it to be. I don’t think the purpose of the Church is to make good citizens, and so I don’t think the purpose of youth ministry is to prepare teenagers to fit in easily with the culture–but I worry about an (over-)emphasis on “rebellion.” We didn’t touch that as much as I wanted to.

    A question for you, Josh: What does God using young people look like for you? I am certain God does use young people–I’m just not sure I ever saw that worked out in my own youth group.

  5. I spent the morning thinking about this, and I think I can refine my point now. If a church is genuinely and biblically countercultural (I’ve not encountered a church like this in America–things, I suspect, are different in China), then appealing to a sense of youthful rebellion makes sense. But if your church is part of the prevailing culture, as most evangelical churches are, encouraging rebellion is only going to make the youths turn on you eventually.

  6. Michial, I particularly appreciated your exhortation, and I think you answered your own question in your exhortation – there is so much pain and loneliness in high schools, and by having a safe, non-exclusionary place for youth to come, where they are discipled and loved by one another – well that’s life healing. (More on this below) So, of course, you are right – you didn’t ignore ecclesiastical purposes at all – should I have the time I’ll give it a closer re-listen and pay more attention for those implications and assumptions.

    Your point on rebellion is absolutely right as well. I should be more careful in what I say. First of all, no matter how much his followers hoped he would, I don’t think Jesus ever advocated rebellion either. So, yes, you’re right – merely saying “Be rebellious for Jesus!” isn’t really redeeming those teenage tendencies, and redemption is what we’re really searching for. I’m going to have to put some more thought into this.

    Your question is a complicated one. Part of my point is that we shouldn’t be categorizing things in quite this way. Our question ought to be – what does God using anyone look like? My contention is that God can use teenagers and middle-agers and the elderly in the similar ways. Now, I will put a quick disclaimer on that. Obviously, God has some very specific people He’s looking to use; He provides lists of qualifications for elders as one example. A teenager doesn’t really meet that list, but then again, most people don’t, that’s kind of the point. Does God have specific tasks for the teenaged, or the youth? I couldn’t say. My mantra that God loves using young people is really a reactionary one, I don’t think young people hear it enough in church.

    But, lest you think I’m dodging the question I’ll provide a couple examples I saw on our recent trip to Thailand. I’ll start just slightly outside the youth group range. We met a young man who moved to Thailand 4 years ago. He’s now 23, but at 19 he saw a need. In the village where he was staying there were orphaned or unwanted or uncared for children in abundance. He invited a few to move in with him, but they started inviting friends and soon he had too many to care for. So, naturally he started an orphanage. He decided to make his move permanent, raised some funding, and now he runs a small orphanage with around 40 kids in it. He did that at 19!

    A similar story from Sia, (early 20’s) who was tired of seeing the begging street kids at the market. She developed a relationship, rescued them from their abusive father, got them into school, and opened a safe house for others like them. A fairly simple first step of throwing some kids on a scooter and taking them home with her, was a catalyst for all this and more. (Find out more at compasio.org )

    We visited compasio with our youth group and that’s where I saw God using our youth to do things that I wasn’t able to. The street kids, orphans, refugees, etc. that we worked with all gravitated more quickly, and opened their lives to our youth. There is a definite advantage to having the natural camaraderie of being young.

    Obviously these examples are more on the extreme end. In a daily life end – there is definitely growth and learning that I see in my life from allowing myself to be challenged by youth. Youth can reach their peers more effectively than I can. Our group of adult leaders has had several discussions about how to bring in other youth from around the city. We never saw any fruit from OUR efforts over the last 4 years – but lo, one youth starts inviting friends a couple months ago and now 1/3 of our last meeting was full of youth that the adults couldn’t figure out how to reach.

    And just to wrap up close to where I began – really that is one pro to the compartmentalization across ages that naturally occurs in and out of church – we are naturally equipped to reach those who are hurting in the same ways that we are, who have the same needs that we have, who are at a similar stage of life. So youth reaching youth is one obvious way that God can use them. I just have a feeling that if we leave it at that (for any stage of life) that we’re missing a bigger part of God’s plan for us as a body, or a spiritual building.

    Is that helpful?

  7. I feel like I heard “God uses young people” TOO much in high school, which may reflect the difference between the denominations we grew up in. Hear it too much, especially without the conversation you mention about what it really means, and you’re apt to feel that you’re on the outside of some invisible movement of God. I didn’t convert anyone in high school, try as I might, and with the number of conversions as the measurement of the efficacy of one’s walk with God…well, you see what I’m getting at here.

    I suspect “rebellion” is too easy a term for what Christ advocated. I think instead He was genuinely countercultural in the sense that He didn’t seem that interested in the winds of the time. Nathan probably has some thoughts on this subject.

    I appreciate the stories. I suspect things are radically different in Asia because Christianity is not the dominant religious mindset there; thus, it’s possible/probable that there are teenagers there who haven’t heard the Good News so many times that it no longer feels all that Good. So in a way, we weren’t talking to you in the podcast (though I’m glad you listened and are talking back).

  8. Josh,

    I’ll repeat the thanks for listening, and I encourage you to point your youth ministry friends our way–I do think that college teachers and youth ministers could be, if we listen to one another, part of a fruitful continuum.

    Honestly, ecclesiology is for me not the motivating force behind youth ministry but the central question that makes me wonder what the heck I’m doing. As I said before, I’m a person who believes in baptizing adults, so one of my concerns is whether some of the kids I work with who are part of the Church ought to be. On the other hand, I do see a great value in the practice of catechism, so that’s generally what we do in our Wednesday night gatherings: we prepare for faithful service by means of learning the actual content of the faith. In other words, although I’ve got nothing against service projects and other such activities, I do tend to treat the time I have with the teens not as workers to be deployed but workers-to-be whom I should train.

    I can see the appeal in the “youthful rebellion” angle (though I wonder whether it’s natural or a product of the late industrial age), though I’m also inclined, with Michial, to see teenagers, who more often than not live at home, to be somewhat ill-suited to calls for rebellion–if rebellion doesn’t cost anything in the real world, it’s hard to keep it from ending up as some kind of posturing. And since teens have very little at stake compared to adults, I’ve tended to see far more posturing than real “counter-culture.”

    With regards to Samuel and Jeremiah, I’m inclined to say that those kids who actually hear divine voices are free to prophesy to us old folks, but the rest of them are stuck with the slow and seldom-entertaining enterprise of developing wisdom, a faculty that, by my reading, is a fair bit more accessible than is prophetic oracle. But I’m grumpy that way. 🙂

    Since this comment is getting lengthier than I prefer (and since I need to put my kids to bed), I’ll wrap up later.

  9. Nathan,

    It seems that we are starting from very different points in our understanding of youth in the church, and without knowing more of the reasons and scriptures behind your side of the story, I’m afraid I don’t have much to further the conversation.

    As for your prophecy vs. wisdom comment – I agree that wisdom is much more accessible and desirable. However, many youth don’t have the wisdom of adults, but that doesn’t mean that they are without quality. I’d like to see more dialogue is all, instead of assuming that we have much to give youth and they have nothing to give in return.

  10. Alright. It’s later.

    As Michial will no doubt tell you, I’m a sucker for a good tertium quid, so in the face of the choice between a “channel the spirit of youthful rebellion” approach and a “holding pattern” approach I’m inclined to take a step backwards and think about whether there might be some way of approaching things that avoids the bad assumptions that I see inherent in both of those models.

    That’s why, incidentally, I brought up the Rumspringa in the podcast, not to minimize the social functions it’s come to have but to note the theological tension with which it originated, a tension that I see still at play between my own ecclesiology and my own attempts to minister to youth. As I said in the podcast, I’m not inclined to go all-out Amish with regards to the young, but I am inclined to view youth ministry as part of a lifespan continuum as do the Amish: because our tradition, like the Amish, prefers to baptize adults, we have to imagine ministry to those who aren’t yet adults differently than would, say, Presbyterians or Catholics.

    In other words, I don’t tend to think of youthful exuberance and foolishness as the untapped resources you do, but I also don’t think that bread and circus is the best way to go about things. Instead, I’m inclined to present the Christian way as I would to folks who have not yet taken up the cross (largely because kids in most cases don’t get crucified), teaching them as well as I can so that they can make a genuine decision to live as disciples or not when the chips are down.

    I don’t think that belittles the real complexity of their lives; it just means that the life of a modern teenager, with obvious exceptions, generally isn’t the sort of context in which “rebellion” means much more than license. I also don’t think it’s an endorsement, implicit or otherwise, of the passive life of many megachurch parishioners. It is an acknowledgment that not every moment in life is the same as every other moment, that teenagers aren’t to blame for inventing the teen years but have to live in them nonetheless.

    As I noted in the podcast, I think that guys like Ben Lee, Brad Warfield, and Ryan Bader in the Johnson City, TN area are doing some really great things to get their teens familiar not only with the stock “memory verses” but with the full complexity of Christian tradition, keeping pace with what they’re learning in high school (they do Calculus there!) and giving the teens some intellectual equipment for engaging the fullness of Christian life, should they choose to. I don’t think it’s any surprise that they’re coming out of a tradition whose ecclesiology says that Christianity is for grown-ups: they’re letting their teens into that grown-up world early so that they can decide whether being adult as a Christian is going to be worthwhile. I know that my own feeble efforts don’t match their expertise, but I do often look to their model when I try to teach the teens in my context.

  11. Joshua,

    If it’s dialogue you’re after, I’m all for that. But that’s not what I see in the story of Samuel and Eli. In that story I see the first of many narratives of interrupted succession in 1 and 2 Samuel–first Samuel supplants the rightful heir of Eli, then Saul supplants the rightful heir of Samuel, then David supplants the rightful heir of Saul, then Absalom tries and fails to supplant David (since he’s already established himself as the rightful heir by murdering the heir), then Solomon (with Bathsheba’s and Nathan’s help) supplants the rightful heir of David, then Jeroboam supplants the rightful heir of Solomon. (I realize I’ve gotten well into 1 Kings here, but you get the point.) These are not stories of cooperation but of disposable dynasties, and you’re right that I got worried when you held the first one up as a paradigm for how youth should see themselves in the Church.

    With regards to that dialogue, I’m inclined to look towards Paul’s counsel to Timothy and the form that it takes: while membership in the body of Christ remains entirely gratuitous in the pastorals, Paul at the very least implies in 1 Timothy 4 that the “youth” who does not want to be “despise[d]” should exhibit certain dispositions of “speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (4:12). When I encounter anyone, young or old, who exhibits faithfulness in those things, I’m more than ready to listen. When anyone, young or old, tries to seize the throne by other means, I’m not nearly as impressed.

  12. One other thing, Joshua.

    What you and Michial are talking about regarding teens’ wanting to rebel and be counter-cultural I can see in my own story, but at least part of my own ministry has to do with kids who aren’t publishing underground newspapers and despising “the prevailing culture” but who try out time and again for (and often make) the football team and the softball team and various cheerleading squads. In other words, many of the folks with whom I work are perfectly happy to perpetuate the jock-culture of the Georgia high school, and I think that’s why I see my own ministry less as channeling some prior energy and more as presenting a case that the world defined by decorative dating and rising to the top of the pecking order is in fact not as good as the world presents it to them.

  13. Well now I have to go and rethink my hermeneutics. My point was that God seems perfectly willing to use youth, and for some reason we often don’t extend them the same courteousness. However, I could be very well mistaken on both of those counts – perhaps I’m pinpointing a problem that does not exist in the church and misusing my Bible at the same time to propose a solution.

    I do think you got a bit hung up on my use of “rebellion” though, which I recanted in my second post.

  14. I think Nathan is probably right to point out that he comes from a tradition where only adults are baptized–that seems like the key to your disagreement to me.

  15. I do apologize for the rebellion thing–I hadn’t noticed that in your response to Michial.

    With regards to 1 and 2 Samuel, I don’t mean to dismiss that Samuel or David or Absalom or Jeroboam was young or even deny that God is mixed up in that whole fray–frankly, that’s what makes those books such a blast to teach; they shake up my own assumptions about God’s involvement in the world in ways that I can only call revolutionary. I was just noting that there’s a literary pattern there, and I’d be hesitant to call it a series of peaceable dialogues.

    As I said in my own response, I think that 1 Timothy offers a handy starting point for thinking about dialogue among folks of all ages–to the extent that folks can demonstrate exemplary speech, life, and faithfulness, I’m glad to listen to those folks. If that means that I’m listening to fifteen-year-olds, great. If that means I’m listening to eighty-year-olds, great.

    That said, as Michial points out, my own tradition (or at least one stream of it that compels my imagination) does posit a fairly radical break between generations. One of our sayings is that there’s no such thing as a second-generation Christian. I think that the catechism model is one way that I can reconcile that with the ministry I perform for the young adults of our congregation, and that’s why I tend to favor that as a tool for thinking.

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