When you hear the words "youth ministry," what comes to mind? Mindless games that usually involve shaving cream? Endless jokes from a flipflop-loving, raggedy jean-wearing youth pastor with a receding hairline? Crazy kids with no manners bouncing off the walls yelling at the top of their lungs (and therefore deposited in their own building to give their weary parents a break)?
If so, you're not alone.
The attitude of most people in the church toward youth ministry can be summed up in one word: babysitting. That's what a pastor once told me I'd be doing in youth ministry, and for good reason. For about the last fifty years, the picture I've painted above has been the dominant paradigm in youth ministry. In general, the goal has been to create a fun place where teens want to be (by being entertained enough) and in the process learn something positive. The motivation for this was usually sincere: our youth need a place where they will stay out of trouble (such was the reasoning behind the YMCA).
But that paradigm of youth ministry simply falls short. It really is just a more sophisticated form of babysitting. The youth minister basically becomes a substitute parent. Kids are ever more isolated from their families. And the results have been tragic. Estimates vary widely, but all the experts agree that more and more of our youth are drifting from the faith, either in high school or when they leave for college (so much so that Josh McDowell wrote a book called The Last Christian Generation).
However, since the early '90s there's been a slow but growing trend in youth ministry: adding the word family. This represents a paradigm shift. Youth (& Family) Ministry is a movement which recognizes that God has already given structures for nurture and discipleship (see Deut 6:1-9). Parents are the primary disciplers of their kids, both when they're young as well as when they're teens. The role of youth ministry isn't to replace parents, but to come alongside them, to affirm the authority and responsibility of parents, and to supplement what (should) already be going on in the home.
Here's the first challenge. Parents often don't know what to do or where to start! Teens, with all their emotional and physical changes, complicated relationships, and disturbing eating habits, can make you silently wonder what happened to your little boy or girl! How are you supposed to disciple them? In these situations, youth & family ministry is a resource for parents, providing them with ideas for family discipleship, insight into teens' lives, and accountability for parents.
But there's another challenge here too. The nuclear family is quickly becoming a thing of the past. More and more parents work long hours, are divorced, were never married, or in prison. More and more teens are raised by relatives, and some never grew up with a mom or (more commonly) a dad in the home.
It's in these situations that the Church as a body of believers is so important. We are, in the truest sense of the word, a family. We are brothers and sisters in Christ. In these situations, the youth & family ministry acts like an arm to draw hurting and broken families into the embrace of the Church, helping with both practical needs (rides to and from school, tutoring, financial needs, etc.) and spiritual needs (friendship, mentoring, and counseling). It's a whole-person, whole-family philosophy of ministry.
And it starts by adding the word family.