I am pretty sure that I’m not going to be the first person to wade into this discussion. There are a few aspects of why I shy away from the term ‘Youth Ministry’ where I can, but at the same time realise that its the common descriptor for working with young people in christian church contexts, so I do have to use it.
But I think there are a number of problems with it. It might be semantics (an argument about words) – but words do have power and influence, and the ‘ministry’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ need a few questions asked of. Whilst we’re at it, the ‘youth’ aspect is awkward too, and a seminal piece by Mark Smith on ‘the problem of youth for youthwork explores this. You can find it in the link, on the Infed website. Youth is contested and often negative. Even the ‘youth’ aspect of ‘youth ministry’ has issues.
But the ‘Ministry’ aspect of youth ministry might do too.
In his book ‘The Pastor as the Public Theologian’ Kevin Vanhoozer pronounces a crisis of role identity for the Pastor/Minister. Now on one hand ‘crisis’ is strong a word and often crisis’ are used to set the scene for a major point or new perspective that deals with the issue. So I take it lightly. But in effect what he suggests is that the Parish Ministers role has diminished in society, because other people related professions have over taken the role – so the psychologists or counsellor are called upon sooner than the clergy, so might a social worker or school teacher for therapy or education, where once a church might have been the centre of these things. He goes on, but I wonder whether that same crisis that the clergy might feel, is a luxury not even afforded within youth ministry, yet youth ministry aligns itself with ‘church ministry’ oh so quickly.
The reason I think its a crisis that would be a luxury for a youth pastor/minister – is that whilst there might be a historic association with what a Pastor/Minister might be/do (sometimes a curse) and they can often find the roles that are expected – such as funerals, ceremonies, visits etc – the opposite is often the case with a youth minister who job description apart no one has any knowledge of what the role should be, (but strangely many expectations) and so much of the time the new youth minister (if minister is the right word) spends their time carving out what space there might be for what it is they are supposed to do. At least, if I look back to a time when I was based in a small town as a youth worker/minister or based in a church in the same role – much of the time was spend trying to establish either myself or the role, within the established patterns and trying to find either importance or need. Because there wasnt a defined gap for the role.
Goffman in ‘The Presentation of the self in everyday life’ says that it is very difficult for a person not just fit into the role before them, when everything is already established, so it may be easier to be the person who defines a role from scratch – ‘oh yes a youth minister is like ______ its how they did it’ – and the dye it set. But if there isnt a gap – what then? The gap might be an easier place to define a role – but what if there isnt a gap – because being tied up to being a ‘minister’ doesnt help in a post christendom world where young people arent looking for a minister or have counted out the regard for one.
Being a youth ‘worker’ doesn’t quite share this – saying that you work ‘with’ young people – as opposed to trying to do ministry with/for them – is a subtle but significant shift. Just.
So- Ministry is starting to have a problem.
The Language of ministry is barely recognised in society. Except government departments. And this conatation is probably best avoided. Or the Ministry of Sound. So, its pretty dead in the water except for an association with dominance, power and dis organisation – or a compilation album of dance music. The language of ministry as a concept is limited. But its not youth ministry’s only problem with Ministry.
do young people recognise ‘ministry’?
I’d say this was hardly likely, in a book entitled ‘Your first two years in Youth Ministry’ Doug Fields in the very first chapter uses the terms youth worker to describe the person, and youth ministry to describe the role/context . Even in Evangelical USA, minister was replaced by worker.. Maybe this is helpful, given that Arkle Bell, commented on a previous post the following:
The other big moan is the recent trend to talk about Youth Ministry – do the young people recognise that jargon, so are they already excluded. As I said to a Canadian visitor at church today – youth work is my ministry. A denomination wanted to ordain me as a youth minister, I turned them down saying God had already ordained me as a youth worker and wider society had recognised that.
Its difficult enough trying to find an establish role ‘with’ young people, but I wonder whether trying to do that as a ‘youth minister’ is more difficult than ‘youth worker’, neither is easily defined, but one at least has less association with an organisation such as a church, the other locates the venue of the profession as being where young people are. A shop worker works in a shop, a youthworker, well, where young people are. And Kerry Young has already said that youth work is defined as it is practiced (1999)
However, the main concern, i think, with youth ministry, and being a youth minister is, is the notions of power that are associated with it. Or more accurately, how through default within many churches, minister is associated with authority – the ministry of the young people is the ministry of the youth minister – young people are their ministry. Young people as a result can be viewed as little more than pawns in the activities and programmes, a number.. A group of people done to, with the youth minister acting in a way similar to the senior pastor. With an image that looks like this;
Kids bored. Not listening, and someone talking at them.
However, It has taken quite a while, not just in this piece, but quite a number of years (150?) for someone to come along and say the brutally obvious.
Youth Ministry is about enabling young people to be ministers.
This is what Andrew Root and Kenda Creasy Dean suggest in their recent two books (references below). Up until then, keeping young people entertained, or hearing ‘nice’ therapeutic/moral messages might well have been the order of the day. (Smith, C)
But helping young people develop their ministry? Not only ‘what might that look like? – but what might that mean?
For a start if working with young people to develop their ministry makes the task more like youthwork as a process of supporting, encouraging, challenging and guiding – rather than leading from the front, so much. It has empowerment and participation as automatic bed fellows again more a youth work concept (just) . In the next part this week, I will explore further what it might look like for youth Ministry to be about developing the ministry of young people. Given that this causes a need to understand what ministry is in the life of the church, and the churchs place in the world. Aspects that both Andy Root and Kenda Creasy Dean do touch on.
What if youth ministry was about faith shaping young people as ministers?
But i think there is more to the play than whats been said so far.
Is ‘Ministry’ a problem for ‘Youth Ministry?’ – Well it might be if the ministry we have for young people, limits their involvement in the ministry as attenders and being entertained, than enabling them to become ministers themselves, including ministers of the word, sacrament, ministers of mission, justice and love in the world. Ministers who participate in the church and the world.
If its just a ministry the youth minister has – not a ministry that they are being encouraged into also having – then its no wonder that many young people find other places to be entertained instead. Ministry might be a problem for youth ministry in a number of ways, its even more of a problem if the youth minister is the blockage that prevents the ministry of young people thriving in a church. Or where the youth minister is employed to keep young people contained in the church, rather than enable their ministry potential be encouraged. As this picture infers, its the youth minister who is called, the ministry that they enable young people to participate in seems secondary.
What role do young people have in the church? – maybe they should be considered as Ministers – will be the theme of my next piece.
Goffman Irving – The Presentation of the Self in everyday life, 1960
Vanhoozer, Kevin, The Pastor as Public Theologian, 2016
Creasy Dean, A Root, The Theological Turn in Youth ministry, 2011
Root Andrew, Faith Formation in a Secular Age, 2016
Smith, C, Soul Searching, 2003
Young, Kerry, The art of Youthwork, 1999, 2005