Individualism and Youth Ministry – an Excerpt from Youth Ministry in the 21st Century

The following is an excerpt from Chap Clark’s chapter on The Adoption View of Youth Ministry in Youth Ministry in the 21st Century.

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The common denominator from the very beginning—despite corrective movements, such as including a greater recognition of the parents’ role in their kids’ spiritual growth, the development of a comprehensive ministry strategy, and the need to recognize how deeply growing up in a fragmented culture has affected all young people—has been youth ministry’s focus on the individual.

The seedbed of contemporary youth ministry, and where Young Life’s Jim Rayburn developed much of his missional theology, was the “tent meeting” evangelism of the early twentieth century. This movement defined evangelism as the church’s job to share the “good news” with “outsiders” (Col. 4:5). To invite them to personally embrace the Christian faith became the garden youth ministry was planted and cultivated in.

Cover ArtMuch of the rhetoric summarizing the emphasis on an individual response to the gospel as the goal of contemporary discipleship has become the bumper sticker theology of youth ministry, regardless of tradition, from “Accept Jesus Christ as your personal Lord” (or sometimes “Savior”) to “Become a Christian.” By encouraging a personal decision to conversion, followed by the amorphous “rededication,” the next step for those who had at some point previously “accepted” Christ (usually at camp), youth ministry has been focused on the task of helping “committed” kids to “grow” in their faith.

What this means is difficult to precisely pin down, but essentially it is to encourage young Christ-followers to live their lives in a way that is a reflection of how a “Christian” in a given context looks, talks, thinks, and behaves. In youth ministry seminars, articles, and books, “discipleship” is described in the “doing” of faith: consistent Bible reading, regular prayer, active church life, response to social issues in light of their faith, involvement in some sort of “ministry” where they serve others, and the like.

Obviously, none of these is wrong or even negative, but are they enough? Or, more important, do they represent the fullness of the call of God in the Scriptures? Perhaps this is what Dallas Willard was describing when he decried the “gospel of sin management.”

For all of the good that youth ministry has done, for all of the lives that have been changed, we have moved into a “post-Christian” culture where the young have fewer relational resources than ever to navigate the complexities of entering interdependent adulthood, and the historic focus on faith as an individual responsibility has left countless young people with an inadequate understanding of the Christian faith.

The danger of youth ministry exclusively dedicated to evangelizing and then personally “discipling” individuals during adolescence is that faith at its core can easily become so personal that both the daily walk and the lifelong journey as a Christian is all about and up to me. One may argue that this is not exclusively an issue in youth ministry but one found in the wider North American church, and contemporary youth ministry is no more or less culpable than the church at large.

©2015 by Chap Clark. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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