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Biblical youth ministry

September 2007 | by Brian Gilley

Biblical youth ministry
Brian Gilley

Something is missing in modern evangelical youth ministry. In fact many things are missing but I want to point out just two ingredients that are missing in most evangelical church youth ministries. These ingredients are nothing new or revolutionary. The sad fact is that they have been sitting there since the inception of the church.

Teaching the Word

The first missing ingredient is the teaching of the Word. I truly believe that we are not giving the Bible a fair shot in our churches and in our youth ministries. Somewhere along the line we started believing that we could serve young people better if we structured our programmes around fun and excitement.

Teachers gave up exegetical teaching in exchange for ‘hot talks’ with teens, which characteristically turn the Bible into a devotional book written ‘just for me’ – never mind the concept of authorial intent.

The youth ministry world ‘bought into’ the theory that the Bible alone cannot get the job done. We decided that young people couldn’t handle deep teaching so we contrived new plans. But are these plans and programmes bringing kids to the ‘fountain of living water’ or are we just contenting ourselves with good morality and compliance?

It is time to consider how to take back the ground we have so easily surrendered. Our teenagers do not need another cool extracurricular activity. They need to learn how to read, study and apply the Scriptures. Of course there is still room for games, parties and events. I am not demeaning such things – only seeking to put them in their proper place.

Authority

We need to faithfully preach the concept of biblical authority. To instill the idea that the Bible is the blueprint for how we walk, talk, eat and breathe – to expound and explain how I can do all to the glory of God (1 Corinthians 10:31).

God’s Word is the authority for our lives, not self. This is the message our teenagers must hear. I know that I risk sounding pretentious but I must ask the question – When did we begin to doubt the power of the Word? What happened to Hebrews 4:12? We must not be badgered into believing that the Word of God is not exciting enough, not relevant enough, and not powerful enough for children.

If we want to change their lives we must trust in the power of the Word to convict, encourage, comfort and correct people of all ages.

Our answer

We searched in vain for a commercial programme that would do the job but found that the majority are watered down, filled with error, and teach bad Bible study methods.

We therefore turned to our own people, who applied their talents and knowledge to writing an age-appropriate curriculum for our children. The job is not yet complete but it has proven to be worthwhile and rewarding.

This is what we have begun to do. Our 4-5 year olds are being taught selected Bible stories. Those aged 6-7 go through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation in two years. Ages 8-9 go through the Bible once again. Ages 10-11 are being taught hermeneutics and Bible study methods. From 10-11 years they learn systematic theology.

After all this, they come to me during their high school years full of knowledge and stories. I see it as my job to give their faith legs – to challenge them to take all that knowledge and live it out.

At the end of the day we just want our kids to love God – and that with all their heart, soul, mind and strength. But for kids to love him they must have a relationship with him. How can they know him except through his Word? Our first step, therefore, is to get them engaged in the Scriptures.

Integrating youth

The second missing ingredient is integration with the body of Christ.
A decade ago my friend Abe was asking how I was going to be different from every other youth pastor he had known. I explained my idealistic schemes but he saw through them all. In a heavy southern accent he said, ‘Yer just gonna feed em pizza’.

Out of this comical conversation came serious thought. I really wanted to do something more than what was normal in the world of youth ministry. But how could I truly honour God with my ministry?

I have come to the conclusion that problems arise when we start to think of a youth group differently from the rest of the church body. We push them off to their own area and get them out of the way of the adults – and teenagers are more than happy to escape! We train ourselves, and them, to hold teenagers to a different spiritual standard.

Have you ever heard someone say that the youth are the ‘future of the church’? Or, ‘Wow that kid will do so much for the Lord when he gets older’? What is wrong with statements like these?

To start with, we never see an age criterion for ministry in Scripture. Churches are weakened if their young people are pushed to the sidelines until we think they are old enough to really be part of the body of Christ.

Why do so many children brought up by parents who love the Lord and love their church, quit the church once they leave home? Why do kids decide that church is not a priority for them when they have seen how vital it is for their parents?

Reasons

First, maybe they don’t see why church matters. Life is good, life is easy and things are going well. So why would they need God’s help?

Second, they grow up in a fun, active, entertaining youth group that fosters a consumer mentality. So when they start to attend the regular services of the church they miss the frills. It’s not fun or entertaining, so why go?

Third, maybe they are ignored by the adults and feel lost in the crowd.

Fourth, we have a generation of children who are failing to connect on a personal level with anyone outside of their peer group. It is so sad to see kids hiding behind their computer screens and MySpace accounts. They are gathering their understanding of life and priorities not from the wise but from their peers.

Fifth, they never become active, serving, needed members of the church where they grow up.

The good news is that unhealthy trends in pop culture can be negated by a healthy church life. Body life in a local church should do wonders for adolescents struggling to find where they fit in. We need to make a concerted effort to integrate them into the life and ministries of the church.

Need for exercise

At our own church we are learning to involve our teenagers as God has gifted them. Some examples are: ushering; music; leading youth group worship; teaching small group Bible studies, beginners and primaries; prayer groups; decorating; writing; youth group publications; and so on.

Teenagers should not be considered an annoyance to the rest of the church. They should be motivated to serve.

I sometimes watch a show called the ‘Dog Whisperer’. The guy is amazing with dogs. He is often asked, ‘Why is my dog tearing up my yard, couch, shoes etc?’ Nearly every time he replies, ‘The dog is bored. It needs exercise. Walk your dog 45 minutes a day and you won’t have the problem’.

The dog just needs an outlet for his energy! But many balk at this idea because it requires a lot more work than they want to devote to a dog.

We tell our teenagers how to behave but are we exercising them spiritually? How much effort are we putting toward their development in Christ? We need to consider how to harness the excess energy that teenagers possess and use it for the benefit of the body.

I have recently become a father and (in my eyes) there has never been a more beautiful baby. As I hold him I often wonder where life will take him and what paths he will choose. I must confess that there is fear in my heart – I see no hope on the horizon for the future moral state of my beloved country.

Then I consider the church and there I find hope for my son. The church is the instrument of God in a dark and confusing world. It is the light that can illuminate our path through the faithful teaching and living of the Word.