Understanding Youth Ministry

Few months ago I was asked to articulate my personal understanding of youth and young adult ministry. In an attempt to answer I wrote a comprehensive reply with a specific congregation in mind. This is in no way a final word on the issue, but an attempt to give insight into my current thoughts concerning congregational youth ministry. Parts of this posts are directly from my thesis, Ecclesiology and Evaluation, which I wrote at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in 2010.

Finding Hope in the Status Quo

A successful and settled congregation is constantly in danger of losing sight of the proleptic hope of God’s reign breaking in, and becoming instead self assertive in its own success. The lack of a proleptic hope in turn affects the ability to claim the Gospel truthfully, because God’s grace is not only the therapeutic notion of being loved by God, but the promise of justice in the world to come.

A successful and settled congregation has to find ways to allow prophetic voices (and even listen to them). A good youth program can become a forum for prophetic voices, challenging the danger of a status quo, reminding us of the hope of God’s reign breaking in to our midst.

Few Words About the Word Customers

Church’s mission is not to fulfill people’s spiritual needs as customers needs are met by a product or a company. One could rightly claim that the separation of vendor and customer creates a separation between people and it is exactly that separation that the church is trying to eliminate.

One could ask creatively whether God might be considered the customer. As exciting as that may be, the relationship between God and God’s church is not a relationship of reciprocity. The church is about “participative relationships” and sharing what God rightly owns in the first place. The church is to be a place of participative relationships.

Participative Relationships – Lyndon B Johnson

There is a great story about former President Lyndon B. Johnson touring Cap Canaveral during the space race to the moon. During his visit, the president came across a man mopping the floor, and asked him, “What’s your position here?” The gentleman looked up from his pail and proudly replied, “I’m sending a man to the moon” (Niven, 227).

Being the church is a common task; it is about living together. Being a church starts with being in a relationship with others, sharing a common mission.

Participative Relationships – Taizé near Cluny, France

The German girl in her early twenties was clear about our task. We had to boil everything for at least 10 minutes. The taste of the food didn’t mater. We just had to it boil it long enough so nothing unwanted survived. She had worked in the kitchen for almost a year; helping out at first but was now in charge. The German girl sat down with the monks monthly, reflecting on her spiritual life, deciding if she would stay longer or go home.

In my mind the religious community in Taizé, is in some way about large boiling pots in the kitchen. They were named based on quantity. It was the 600, the 800, and the two 1200. When filled up with rice or couscous blended with vegetables, the 600 would feed 600, and so on.

When I came to Taizé someone noticed me, walked straight to me and said: “You are perfect in the kitchen”. Soon I learned I was not supposed to be a taster, but to stir, and my size and strength were the attributes needed. I became part of the lunch makers, feeding all who came during the week I stayed there.

Taizé is based on the intentionality of living together, sharing, and serving one another. Brother John of Taizé, wrote:

So, our discovery about the young is that when given responsibility, they very often rise to it. They do not simply want to be the passive recipients of programs tailored to them; they appreciate being invited to take part in an ongoing search to which they have something vital to contribute (John of Taizé, 217).

Serving others is not all there is to Taizé. There are daily Bible studies, with an introduction by a brother (monk), followed by small groups, led by a participant.

Worship is led by the brothers three times a day, with focus on personal reflection. I remember a young Swedish woman, backpacking through Europe asking if it would be possible to have a certain Taizé song used in the worship service. I recall the brother replying with a question, in an honest but confronting way: “Do I look like a dj?”

The reply is probably the most important lesson about worship I have heard. It is also an indication of the way Taizé “does” ministry.

If the worship was intentionally and willingly made more accessible to the young, it nonetheless remains the prayer of the monastic community. The young visitors know that it is not a prayer crafted especially for them but that, whether they are present or not, day in day out, the brothers will be in the church praying (John of Taizé, 152).

The Taizé experience does not sell the participants short. It is about offering what the Taizé community offers itself. Susan Rakoczy says:

At Taizé young people are taken seriously in their quest for meaning in their lives. They are challenged to commit themselves to justice, peace and reconciliation as essential responses to the God of love and possibility (Rakoczy, 61).

It is about an anti-consumerism.

These visitors did not have the impression that they were the ‘targets’ of a conscious and intentional strategy. Instead, they were asked to take part in a joint undertaking that had meaning first of all for the brothers themselves (John of Taizé, 152).

Participative Relationships – Intentional Sharing of All

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people (Acts 2:45-47b).

The church is about “participative relationships.” It is about relationships where all are called to participate and share of themselves for all. This sharing does not rise from spiritual assessment of individuals, but should be based on communal needs. Being together calls people to recognize each other’s stories and share their dreams, needs, and resources. Israel Galindo explains this saying,

But being together in community involves more than a focus on people’s needs. Community implies mutuality. … A community is more than another name for intimate self-disclosure and emotional support. A community creates opportunities for being together where the possibilities of shared values can move members to action in the public square, undertaken in a context of mutual concern and inspired by a corporate vision of the Church’s mission in the world (Galindo, 31).

Creating and sustaining community that is based on active participation of all does not happen without tension.

People yearn after and seek out groups that will make them feel at home in a complex and confusing world. At the same time they resist any group that makes demands or attempts to impose group ethical norms or makes prophetic calls to accountability (Galindo, 30).

Galindo later adds,

they want to be a part of a group that provides intimacy, that shares their faith orientation, and is like-minded and like-hearted (Galindo, 51).

If the church is understood to be a community that is open to all who show up, people’s need for like-mindedness and like-heartedness is an area of constant tension which we have to learn to life with, and be willing to confront.

Participative Relationships – Accompaniment

In recent years, the word “accompaniment” has become a “buzzword” in the global mission community of ELCA. Being in a community of participative relationships, calls us to,

  1. affirm the diversity of viewpoints and stories that exist in the midst of our community;
  2. encourage our local and global church community to constantly question and analyze our priorities and practices;
  3. communicate clearly and engage in honest and sincere dialogue; move beyond the traditional understanding of the other and ourselves.
  4. involve all individuals and groups affected by decision in decision-making processes; and
  5. acknowledge that we are to live in solidarity with another in our weakness, struggles, and mission.


The Church has never been without persons holding specific authority and responsibility. This does not mean that leaders are not part of the participative relationships. It is only that their role is different.

Michael W. Foss states that leaders in the church should not be seen as the ones doing the ministry, but those who equip and send others in ministry.

Staff time should be spent replicating themselves: growing others in the depth of their faith-lives and then turning them loose in ministry (Foss, 121).

The role of leaders in the church is the role of Jesus in Matt. 10:1-8, to “send out disciples to be witnesses of the Kingdom.”

The Essential Place of Worship

Seeing the Sunday Worship as just one program among many, is a real danger in youth ministry. Worship should not even be seen as the most important program of all the congregational programs. We must hold it up as the communal center of everything that the congregation is. If this is to happen we might have to steal the worship service back from the people that think they own it.

In the booklet Why Worship Matters, Robert A Rimbo mentions that the worship is about drawing the assembly closer together, creating togetherness, it is about sharing our common story of God, and celebration of our common hope.

To create real “participative relationships,” which institute learning and growth, there must be a forum for sharing our stories. In a church community, such sharing is part of our worship of God, whether it takes place in the coffee hour in the narthex, in the Sunday Bible study, or in the designated worship space during worship hour. This sharing must have at least some inter-generational aspect. It is through sharing, listening, and experiencing stories that we catch the glimpses of God’s reign and can truly worship God in response to God’s magnificent work.

The Church as a Glocal Community

The church is to be a place of sharing among all, a place of unity and diversity, and focused simultaneously on the local reality and our global responsibility as recipients of God’s Grace. Forming a ministry strategy can in some way be likened to a search for a recipe for good Eucharist bread, which is tasteful, without veiling the presence of Christ, and without a bad aftertaste. In this search, it is important to keep in mind that the divine church will not be described fully, and the human/historical church is as much a subject of sociology as theology.

Practical Ways of Getting There – “Programs”

What follows is a random list of programs that could be implemented in a congregation as a part of youth ministry. It is extremely important that we understand that programs are not to be the goal in and of itself but a forum for “participative relationships.”

Food Club. An inter-generational food club that gathers, shares personal testimonies/stories, cooks, and has dinner together.

Movie Nights with theologically relevant films and a presenter from the youth group. The program can be aimed at various different groups, f.x. the youth group itself, or families with kids.

A Designated Youth Space. It has both advantages and drawbacks to create a designated youth space in the church building. It gives youth a feeling of ownership in the church, but it can also isolate them from the congregation in general.

Regular Worship Responsibilities. It is important to continue to find ways to give youth regular responsibility in the Sunday Worship.

Ecumenical Conversations. It is a great service to our youth as they grow in faith to be exposed to different manifestations of Christianity. This is especially true for Senior High School students and young adults. Confronting other manifestations of Christianity through their own congregation helps them to understand their own tradition in a more comprehensive way, as they can compare and contrast the different traditions. Creating those conversations calls for a respectful and trustworthy relationships between youth directors presenting different congregations. This could also be extended to include inter-religious conversations. A well formed program of this kind could also be of interest to young people that don’t belong to a faith community.

Connection to Outdoor Ministries. Summer Camp Counselors often create a connection to the church that is unlike any other. A youth director should attempt to create strong connections to the leadership of outdoor ministries, creating a pipeline for young enthusiastic individuals to become camp counselors.

Leadership Studies. Large Congregations should continuously offer an ambitious leadership training for youth. Such a program could be open to participants from smaller congregations that perhaps have one or two high school students, but limited resources when it comes to youth.

Advocate. A youth director can and should serve as an advocate for youth when it comes to decision-making in the congregation.

Social Media can be used to create a forum for education, screen based community, increased accessibility to church functions, and various faith initiatives for youth and young people.

External ministry. A congregation should offer youth various opportunities to do good. Be it to offer regular shifts at a food pantry or at a soup kitchen, make arrangement for regular commitment to Habitat for Humanity, or take on whatever else ministry program there is.

24h Lock-ins. Regular lock-ins can create a strong bond between participants, and can be used in connection to fundraising marathons. Lock-ins and Homeless-Sleeps-Outs are best suited for regular participants to help them bond, but should not be seen as outreach programs.

A Final Note

The ways of creating a faith forming youth ministry are endless. What is needed is a longtime commitment to the cause, an ability to accept failures and mistakes, and willingness to celebrate even small accomplishments. It also calls for trust, both in God’s grace and in each other.


  • Foss, Michael W. A Servant’s Manual Prisms. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2002.
  • Galindo, Israel. The Hidden Lives of Congregations: Discerning Church Dynamics. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2004.
  • John-of-Taizé, Brother. “A Spiritual Crossroads of Europe: The Taizé Community’s Adventure with the Young.” In Passing on the Faith, 147. New York, NY: Fordham University, 2006.
  • Niven, Paul R. Balanced Scorecard Step-by-Step for Government and Nonprofit Agencies. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2003.
  • Rakoczy, Susan. “The Witness of Community Life: Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and the Taizé Community.” Journal of Theology for Southern Africa 127 (2007): 43-62.
  • Rimbo, Robert A. Why Worship Matters. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 2004.
  • Steinke, Peter L. Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What. Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006.

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