The following article is a response to a piece we ran last week, “Why Youth Ministry is a Misnomer” and is intended to encourage reflection and conversation.
Ministry is far too often like a bad sermon. You know the ones. They string together cheesy or cliche stories with a couple Bible verses and plenty of alliteration or they go to the opposite extreme becoming so dry that it is hard to stay awake. The odd thing is that these are two styles share the same problem. They both ignore the need to be—dare I say the term—culturally relevant.
That’s where youth ministry comes in. If there is one thing youth pastors do well, it is translating the Scripture into youth culture. Whether it is using the latest movie clip to explain the nature of the Trinity or using Instagram to help students share what God has done at camp, youth pastors are constantly trying to find ways to become fluent in teenish and act as an interpreter for the Holy Spirit.
There are some who see this as pandering, compromising, or all out unfaithful. They would have us make God alien, aloof and completely other. To that group, I say, read Jesus. Jesus did not fill volumes on the theological ramifications of the models of justification. Rather, he spoke of sheep and goats. He talked about yeast and harvesting. In other words, he translated the power and plans of God into the local context.
I think Jesus would walk into youth ministries all over the country and say YES! These guys get it! They are translating the gospel into pie-in-the-face contests and communicating the call of the Holy Spirit through the latest blockbuster.
But that’s not what is happening in the rest of the church. Walk the short distance from the youth room to the sanctuary in most churches and you leave behind the priority of contextualization.
That’s not too surprising considering what we do to people (often youth ministers) who want to be pastors. We generally take that youth pastor who is sensing a life-changing call from an all-loving God on her life and then ask her to put the passion on pause for four years and take on fifty-thousand dollars of debt to become a mini-academic. We teach them to avoid any sort of silliness like talking about 2x4s in people’s eyes. We steer them away from anything too undignified like spitting in dirt and rubbing it into someone’s eyes. And, of course, we make sure they can pronounce all their Greek and Hebrew.
After all that, we scratch our heads and wonder why a former youth visits their newly minted pastor hoping for a taste of the contextualization they remember from back in the day only to leave disappointed and stay home next Sunday.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting throwing pies in the sanctuary (though that would be my favorite sermon ever). I am saying that through all the training and coaching and evaluating, we must focus on maintaining the power of youth ministry everywhere. We must contextualize. We must learn from the youth pastor down the hall if we ever have a hope for pulling out of our tailspin.