Through college and seminary, I spent numerous years volunteering as a youth minister and in 2007 took a job in Bonn, Germany as the associate pastor for youth for an international congregation. This unique position afforded me the opportunity to work with some amazing youth—and to try out many of my idealistic beliefs about youth ministry.

Fun versus faithful

Upon accepting my call, I was convicted that this youth ministry would not be marked by food fights, capture the flag, and trips to theme parks, but rather biblical literacy, serving others, and worship. When the pastor I worked with invited me into his office and shared that his daughter felt that youth group was no longer “fun” I thought, “Good – that’s how I know I am doing my job well!” My righteous indignation was turned to humility when my husband, with whom I worked, agreed saying, “You know Katie, it is possible to encourage faith in youth in an enjoyable way.” Had I looked back upon my own experience as a youth, I would have reflected that we had a lot of fun (trips to Montreat, games at youth group, and putting on musicals together). Part of the fun we had was taking matters of faith seriously by delving into the challenging questions we had about evil, sin, grace, homosexuality and polygamy.

Historical perspective on “Youth Ministry

A look at historical trends shows that my aversion to a fun youth ministry was likely some kind of internal resistance to ministries that served as safe placeholders for youth rather than holy spaces where God is present.

The industrial revolution changed the way one became an adult. Instead of working alongside one’s parents in an agricultural setting, families were spending significant daytime hours apart. During the early and middle 20th century, child labor laws were passed to protect youth from this factory work. As a result, youth suddenly had unsupervised free time on their hands. Developmental theorists such as Erik Erikson used terms like adolescence to demarcate the years between 13 and 18 to be a time of transition, turmoil and identity formation. Around the turn of the 20th century organizations like the YMCA and Christian Endeavor attempted to provide a safe space for young Christian youth to spend time and grow into healthy adults.

Youth ministry followed a similar trajectory offering fun and safe alternatives to work or the dreaded adolescent hedonism. Within congregations the Sunday School Movement grew and began organizing fun events for youth outside of Sunday morning. Youth groups formed within congregations with varying levels of social events, bible study and faith formation. In the latter portion of the 20th century having a youth group became the mark of a thriving church. Indeed, this is what happened during my youth and our congregation did grow. Unfortunately, some (if not many) of these youth movements provided a safe space where youth could have fun (without getting pregnant or doing drugs) with other Christian youth with little regard to the formation of lasting faith.

Current voices in youth ministry

Recent studies, such as the National Study for Youth and Religion (NSYR) conducted by Chris Smith, have shown being involved in a youth group does not have the primary influence on forming the faith of youth, although it is an important factor. This finding has challenged many congregations who have attempted to encourage faith in their youth primarily by hiring younger, cooler, guitar-playing youth ministers and cleaning out a room in the church basement to fill with second hand couches and pizza.

Recent voices, such as Kenda Dean, have challenged this model of youth ministry in protestant congregations which has cultivated, what Chris Smith, in Soul Searching, calls “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism.” (The basic belief of MTD is that you should be a good person, feel good about yourself, and God is kind of like a therapist who will basically leave you alone unless you need help).1 Dean likens youth groups that are only tangentially attached to congregations to a one-eared Mickey Mouse. Based on the findings of Smith, Dean’s recent book, Almost Christian, challenges congregations to integrate youth ministries into the ministry of the congregation.

One of Smith’s most poignant findings is that the faith of youth most directly resembles the faith of their parents. Dean sees this as a challenge to congregations not to merely focus on building up their youth programs, but to consider the kind of faith the adults in the congregation are modeling for youth.

Looking forward

In Almost Christian, Dean proposes three “arts” in which people who work with youth can participate to give youth an opportunity to grow in faith.

  1. The Art of Translation: Parents and adults modeling the faith they hope to see in their youth.
  2. The Art of Testimony: Giving youth opportunities to articulate their faith and talk about who God is calling them to be.
  3. The Art of Detachment: Giving youth opportunities to serve others and see how God is at work in the world.

I am not sure where youth ministry will be in 50 years. However, if Smith and Dean are correct—and if anyone is listening to their challenge—we will see greater levels of integration in a variety of arenas. I can imagine parents integrating their faith into their daily life and getting “caught” praying at home by their youth. Parents and youth might discuss questions like “How is carpooling to school with friends a way that I live out my belief that God wants me to be a steward of the earth?” I can also imagine congregations where all generations are regular contributors to the message that is given during worship.

Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (Oxford University Press, USA, 2010); Christian Smith and Melina Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford, 2009).

Katherine M. Douglass is an ordained minister in PC(USA) and served as associate pastor for youth at the American Protestant Church: An International Congregation in Bonn, Germany. Katie is a doctoral candidate at Princeton Theological Seminary and researches the role that the arts play in the faith lives of young adults. She loves to sew, run, camp and go on adventures with her husband John and new baby George.