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The Senior Pastor and Transformational Student Ministry

Pastor, you can decide to support youth ministry for one of two reasons. First, you can decide to support youth ministry because you ought to—in the same way you ought to support every ministry of the church. On the other hand, you can decide to support youth ministry because you see it as a strategic and powerful way to fulfill the vision you have for your church and for the coming of Christ’s kingdom on earth.

Do you long to see your church take the good news to the nations? Would it be valuable to see a host of teenagers and their families moving in that direction? Do you long to see your church show compassion in the name of Christ? Would it be valuable to see teenagers and their families consistently mobilized to express such compassion? Do you long to see your church worship the King? Would it be valuable to see the front of your church crowded with teenagers who are seasoned worshippers?

Supporting a ministry because you ought to is not very motivational. But it makes perfect sense to lean into ministries that reflect your heartbeat for your church.

The youth group serves as a thermostat that can help you detect the spiritual climate of your congregation.

Youth ministry not only has a role in the fulfillment of your vision, but youth ministry can also help you define that vision. The youth group serves as a thermostat that can help you detect the spiritual climate of your congregation.

The National Study of Youth and Religion sent shock waves through the youth ministry world. This careful study discovered that the faith of most church teenagers could be described as moralistic therapeutic deism. The core tenants of this belief system are: God exists and He is nice. He is not relevant to my daily life, with one exception. Any time I have a need, He quickly shows up and takes care of that need. Then He goes back to being distant and irrelevant.

The study made a second discovery that is just as important. For the most part teenagers do not reject the faith of parents and important adults in their lives. Instead, they almost perfectly mirror that faith. If church teenagers are full of moralistic therapeutic deism and teenagers tend to mirror the faith of mom and dad, you see where this is headed.

For the most part teenagers do not reject the faith of parents and important adults in their lives. Instead, they almost perfectly mirror that faith.

Kenda Dean, one of the researchers, says it this way: “(The NSYR) is significant because it reframes the issues of youth ministry as issues facing the twenty-first century church as a whole. Since the religious and spiritual choices of American teenagers echo, with astonishing clarity, the religious and spiritual choices of the adults who love them, lackadaisical faith is not the young people’s issue, but ours.”

Kenda goes on to say, “The (study) reveals a theological fault line running underneath American churches: an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world. … Moral Therapeutic Deism is supplanting Christianity as the dominant religion in the United States.”

Just pay attention to what is most important to church parents. Do you see them more excited about their children growing in the spiritual disciplines or winning trophies? Are they more excited about church youth camp or an athletic camp? Are they working harder toward a full college scholarship or toward seeing their high school graduate serve overseas?

Let me ask an important question. If youth ministries first revealed the presence of moralistic therapeutic deism in most churches, could youth ministries also represent a way to address and move beyond that way of thinking? That possibility merits consideration.

The antidote to moralistic therapeutic deism is a biblical understanding of the second member of the Trinity. In our day Triune God most clearly has revealed Himself through the Son (Heb. 1:1). If we begin to grasp the Son, we begin to grasp God (John 14:9).

The antidote to moralistic therapeutic deism is a biblical understanding of the second member of the Trinity.

Christ is not distant. He is present and living in my heart just as He is seated on the throne of heaven (Rev. 3:20). He is not irrelevant. He is at this moment reigning over every element of the cosmos (Phil. 2:9–10). That includes all that is happening in and around me. He is not the divine butler who only lives to make me happy. He is the majestic King who exists for His glory and for the coming of His kingdom on the earth (Matt. 6:10).

Consider what might happen if your teenagers begin to grasp all this. Rather than seeing Jesus as a little buddy tucked down in their pocket, what if they begin to embrace His transcendence and His kingdom purposes? What if a true awakening to the Son begins in the youth group? Could teenagers and their parents and leaders then spark a similar awakening in the full church? Is such a possibility worthy of your prayer-filled support?

Clearly we need spiritually transformed adults discipling the teenagers. But adults busy with their families and jobs have only a finite amount of time. This may mean that an adult can have a life-on-life discipling relationship with about three teenagers. Right now your church probably has adults trying to disciple eight or ten. An adult can try to teach a curriculum to that many, but actually sharing life with that many is likely impossible.

One of your most valuable roles is calling out more adults to serve. You can proclaim from the pulpit that every Christ follower is to have a ministry. You consistently can proclaim that doing something to invest in the next generation is a normal part of the Christian life. You can use your conversations with adults to communicate the same message. And you can challenge adult small groups not to develop members who just sit and soak but who move out to serve.

One of your most valuable roles is calling out more adults to serve.

In addition, your preaching and teaching about the primacy of parents as spiritual leaders can change their sense of call. At the same time that you are calling parents to leadership, you lead the church to affirm a youth ministry philosophy that champions parents and families.

Finally, your preaching and teaching about leaving spiritual legacies can motivate senior adults to serve as prayer mentors to every teenager in your church. Mentors, disciplers, and parents can spiritually deepen teenagers; and teenagers may spark an awakening to Christ in your entire congregation. All this is more than worthy of your strong support.

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Richard Ross

Richard Ross

Professor of Student Ministry.

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