Youth ministry is a challenging calling. Since youth culture globally is very diverse, so are the varieties and philosophies of youth ministry. Whether nurturing relationships and spiritual lives of students in faith communities, or reaching alienated or high-risk youth outside, there is always the challenge of digging deeper into lives and stretching horizons. Youth leaders are usually the initiators, but discussions are a two-way street with leaders and young people learning from each other.
Most experts and studies show an isolation of youth from adult society. Not only are they often “a tribe apart, they also have to interpret a barrage of confusing and contradictory messages from family, schools, and media. Never before have young people needed relationships with someone who cares and knows how to listen. I have come to define youth ministry as:
Caring mentors providing young people with a safe place where they can hear another tell her story and find the courage to tell her own story, be affirmed for it and in that context respond to the story of God’s love.
A second part of this description of youth ministry is needed. Youth ministry is also about:
Empowering young people to resist the manipulation and bondage of an exploitive world so that they can serve community and church in a way that allows for a wild celebration of their significance in Christ.
Youth ministry is an overwhelming and humbling calling. Youth ministry is the act of serving the needs of young people. No matter what the means or particular job description, relationships with young people for the purpose of serving and in the spirit of serving are a form of youth ministry. Obviously, there is a need to restrict the term to understand and describe programs designed to serve youth which have a spiritual dimension. Those who are not coaches, teachers, counselors, etc., but who serve youth full-time out of a church or paraparochial program with such a purpose and spirit are designated youth ministers.
Youth ministry is a professional calling. Is youth ministry a profession? Professions have a specialized body of knowledge that takes graduate study. They have boards or associations that set standards for the profession. And the general public is educated to trust and respect the status of trained professionals. Professions are about something we care a great deal-our health, our money, our minds.
True ministering to the needs of all youth demands the youth minister to be ready to serve as social worker, evangelist, and pastor. He or she does so as a servant leader, learning that young people-not the youth minister-are the experts of their culture and their own lives. But she or he does so with a growing body of information and skills to deal with one of society”s most precious commodities-the souls of its youth. That would seem to be the essence of what it means to be professional in a good sense-to have special wisdom and skill to handle one of the community”s most valuable assets.
Youth ministry is a significant calling. Renowned missionary, speaker, and professor, Dr. Christy Wilson has pointed out how the great mission movements of the 19th and 20th century began in youthful prayer meetings. Pete Ward shows how youth work not only produced many of England”s great church leaders, but also shaped British (and therefore worldwide) Evangelicalism and the worship of the church (Growing Up Evangelical, 1996). Some youth groups are a retreat from the world, but relevant youth ministry must reflect the current culture and demonstrate the power of the Gospel within that culture.
Youth ministry is a often a lonely calling. It has suffered from the society”s general attitude toward adolescents and the youth culture. To the degree that we view adolescence as a holding pattern or necessary evil, youth ministry will merely be a stepping stone to “real ministry.”
Dynamic youth ministry will always be a threat to anemic religious institutions and Christian subcultures. Even when well-meaning adults and churches give theoretical assent to the mission of reaching young people in the world, they may fear, with the religious leaders of Christ”s time, what it means to find and serve the lost sheep.
Most theological seminaries recognize youth ministry as a critical need of the church, but few put serious resources into a program to produce such leaders. Many churches and pastors beg seminaries for youth ministers-usually with short-term expectancy-but rarely do they recommend or send candidates for specialized training in youth ministry. Although many youth ministers may want to move into other careers after five or ten years, youth ministry has, and should have, life-time practitioners revered for their experience and knowledge. Kids are not turned off by gray hair on the heads of those they respect.
Youth ministry is an open calling. There are plenty of jobs available in youth ministry today. A critical problem exists, however. These jobs are in the areas where there is funding to support a part-time or full-time youth worker. In many global, rural, and urban centers, where the need seems greatest, there is meagre or no money to pay for a youth leader. Here, valiant volunteers are working other jobs and longing for the training to meet the complex needs of kids and community.
Opportunities that exist include combination job descriptions-youth and family minister, youth and director of religious education or church youth minister and paraparochial outreach worker. It is a field open to women and men alike, in most cases, and to ethnic minorities where the need is great.
There are limited resources where youth work is most needed. In many rural, urban, and global corners of the world, those who are concerned about young people must serve voluntarily, supporting themselves by other means. It is very important that such volunteers network with other youth workers, seek special training sessions from volunteer resource persons, and provide themselves with the best professional and spiritual support available. Our Center for Youth Studies is dedicated to supporting such heroes.
Youth ministry calls for relational, communication, and organizational skills. It combines aspects of many other professions-social and recreational workers, teachers, counselors, evangelists, pastors, and more. The demands of those working with young people are broader because adolescents want a holistic relationship with an adult. Mistakes made with young people are obviously more dangerous and have longer-term results than those made with adults.
Not only is the task of the youth minister critical; his or her power and influence in the community can become high if consistent work with those in need is done over many years. Those who have good relations with both adults and youth in a community are few, but they are needed and especially appreciated. To save a son or daughter from serious hurt or to avert a community tragedy is to be honored and respected in the long run. The YouthWorkers” Encyclopedia is meant to be a practical tool for practitioners of youth ministry. We hope that it will raise the professionalism of youth ministry as well