The Barnabas Ministry
Book Review

Family-Based Youth Ministry
By Mark DeVries (Intervarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL 2004), 256 pages.

Youth pastor burnout. Teen isolation. Ineffectiveness of youth ministries in terms of transitioning kids from youth ministry to adult faith and ministry in the church. For all the good that is done in many youth ministries, these persistent problems cry out for a solution. As DeVries says in the introduction:

This book is for youth workers who are tired of quick fixes and eay answers. It's also written for anyone responsible for a Christian ministry to teenagers-- pastors, youth committee members, parents, volunteer leaders and search committees looking for youth pastors. It is written for parents wo want to understand the forces that most significantly affect their children's spiritual formation.

If you have a teenager or a pre-teen, you'll be interested in Mark DeVries' discussion of youth ministry.

DeVries rightly observes that the real measure of any youth ministry is not attendance, how zealous teens appear to be, how outstanding the "mountaintop experiences" or if it attracts teens from other churches. None of those things are evil, but the goal is to nurture members towards a lifelong, mature faith.

The author provides some historical perspective about how youth ministries got to be the way they are these days. He also discusses the current state of affairs in youth ministries based upon his own years of youth ministry. For example, he discusses kids who seemed really faithful in youth ministry, but departed from the faith in their early adult years. He also discusses kids who seemed out of touch with the youth ministry who grew into faithful adults. Based upon these observations, he concludes that the factors that make for a well-prepared young adult Christian have to do with a lot more than just involvement in a dynamic youth ministry. And in this observation, he is right on the money.

DeVries puts the cross-hairs on the youth ministry model that largely separates youth from family and the rest of the church. Like anything, there is good and bad in the model. But one big problem with the isolated youth ministry is that it creates an artificial world for the teens, compounding the already problematic issue of teen isolationism and bringing it into the church. Another is that is has a way of removing parents from their Scripturally-ordained role of raising children. DeVries shares how some youth workers lament about "drop off parents," but if a youth ministry effectively "locks out" the parents what else can the parents do?

This artificial world doesn't serve teens well now or later. DeVries points out that teens are likely to associate their faith with this period of their lives and their energetic, dynamic youth ministry. When they grow older, many leave behind the faith just as they leave behind the teenage years. Others reject a new age-appropriate expression of their faith and lifestyle because it is so radically different from what they experienced in the "great youth ministry." Because they were isolated from the family and the rest of the church, they have limited experiences and relationships to draw upon as they make the transition from teen to adult.

The answer is to integrate family and the church in youth ministry as well. There are numerous benefits that ought to be relatively obvious upon some thought. Such a ministry creates a more realistic "world" in which the teen learns and grows in the faith. They see faithfulness in various expressions and have an example to follow as they grow and mature. More than that, the teen, family and church all benefit from being integrated with each other-- and isn't it kind of obvious that's the way it ought to be anyway?

The eye cannot say to the hand, "I don't need you!" And the head cannot say to the feet, "I don't need you!"  (1 Corinthians 12:21)

As an adult and a parent of teens, and one who also has significant experience with insulated/isolated campus ministries, this rings true. Building a youth ministry that does not integrate the various aspects of its members lives creates a false "compartmentalized world" that makes it difficult for kids to see how faith applies in all areas of their present lives. And as DeVries says, this model does not prepare youth for life beyond the youth ministry. One of the most important jobs parents have is to prepare children for adulthood; a youth ministry without this same perspective will find itself doing a disservice to the kids in this regard, in spite of all the good otherwise being done.

The way the kids learn about the world beyond their insulated youth ministry is to be exposed to it. This doesn't mean requiring the kids to participate in the most boring event going on in the church, but it means finding ways to integrate parents into the youth ministry and youth into the church.

DeVries' observations and ideas resonate with important ideas I've seen in other contexts, too. For example, Dr. Henry Cloud in "Changes that Heal" discusses the developmental importance of teens having relationships with non-parent adults-- for example, coaches, teachers, youth ministers. They learn to deal with these adults independently of their parents, separating from their parents as a normal part of growth but still being connected to other mature influences. It is evident that parents of friends and other adults in the spiritual community can help nurture teens in in ways that peer relationships, the youth ministry and parents cannot.

Scripturally, parents cannot delegate their role to the youth ministry. DeVries encourages creative thinking for how to get parents and the youth ministry working together for the long-term benefit of the teens. He also provides some practical ideas of his own, with each chapter ending with some great ideas about how to put the ideas of that chapter into practice.

Being a parent of a teen is no easy thing, and being a youth minister is no easy thing either. It's great to have a great youth ministry be a part of your child's world, and it's great to have parents be involved in the youth ministry instead of just dropping the kids off and picking them up when the events are over. And it's great to have a church enriched by the involvement of teens its activities as well.

This is a thought-provoking resource that will help you be a better parent and a better youth minister. Elders and "adult" ministers will also benefit from reading this book because they, too, need to be involved in the lives of teens in their churches.

Copyright © 2009 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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