Youth Ministry + Jesus – Fun = Biblical?

Josh Cousineau published a post on the Gospel Coalition website this morning entitled “The Only Foundation for Youth Ministry” that’s getting some traction.  That’s a good thing.  I thought it was a pretty strong article.  BUT, reading the comments on these type of posts can be frustrating.  I even linked it up on my Facebook and had a good back-and-forth with one of my biggest youth ministry mentors over whether or not it was actually a good article or not.

So if you haven’t read it, use the link above and read it first, then continue reading…

Be Consistent in Critiques
I usually can’t stand these types of articles because I believe they take cheap shots against Youth Ministry that they don’t take against other areas of church-ministry.  What pitfall within the field of YM is not found elsewhere in the church: an over-reliance on “relevance”, replacing biblical teaching/preaching with good moralistic advice, or an unhealthy desire to draw a large crowd through fun/events/flashiness?  Isn’t that something that every church wrestles through?  If your pastor/church doesn’t wrestle with those things, then maybe they aren’t passionate about seeing God’s Word transform real people’s lives?  (yes, I really mean that… but that’s a subject for another post)

Maybe it’s just because I am a youth pastor, but it seems that whenever Youth Ministry is brought up on sites like The Gospel Coalition or Desiring God or other similar sites (both of which I read very regularly and highly respect, which is probably why it’s so frustrating to me) it seems there’s very little recognition that maybe… just maybe… Youth Ministry isn’t all about fun.  Youth Ministry is just as diverse as church-ministry, yet it often gets a very unfair stereotype.  If there’s a pizza party, Maybe there’s a reason for it that is good and healthy and redemptive?  It seems to me that Youth Ministry gets graded with a different scorecard than other ministries in the church, and I’m tired of it.  Honestly, I wrestle over whether or not I should even read the posts about Youth Ministry on those sites anymore because I find them so cartoonish and unfair.

Who Intentionally Builds on Fun?!
So here’s the thing – Again, I liked the article mentioned above, and I agree that this critique of fun-centered youth ministry greatly distorts biblical ministry.  At the same time, my youth leaders and I hosted an event for the teens in my church last week that we called “The Night of Awesomeness, part deux.”  It was fun (awesome, even… though obviously in the non-theological sense).  Teenagers came whom we haven’t seen in quite a while, and a number of students brought friends for the first time.  One of the friends sought me out at the end to shake my hand to thank me for letting him come.  Is that a terrible, unbiblical thing?  Do you really think he expect to come to youth group next week and have it be the same as something we’re obviously tongue-in-cheek calling “The Night of Awesomeness?”  I could imagine someone reading this article and thinking about the “Night of Awesomeness” and thinking, “Wow, I wish Pastor Mike would read this article, his ministry is all about the fun and needs more Jesus!”

Yes, there are youth ministries who seem to build what they do on a foundation of fun – but I absolutely guarantee you they don’t see it that way.  I bet they would have well thought out biblical and theological reasons for doing things that way.  I have never met another youth worker who isn’t passionate about seeing teenagers develop into spiritually mature young men and women.

We’re Always Contextualizing
Tim Keller insightfully writes, “to over-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of their culture, but to under-contextualize to a new generation means you can make an idol out of the culture you come from. So there’s no avoiding it.”

We’re always contextualizing (presenting our message in a way that is both understandable and meaningful to our audience).  If we aren’t contextualizing, then we’re reading straight from the Greek/Hebrew/Aramaic original languages of the Bible… if you’re using the King James Version, you’re still contextualizing.  We are always contextualizing.

We Don’t Live in Foundations, We Live in Homes Build on Solid Foundations
The gold in Cousineau’s article is this – We need constant reminders that our foundation is Jesus Christ.  The problem with foundations is that they crack when they’re weak and unmaintained.  If your ministry isn’t firmly built on the Gospel and if your commitment to the Gospel begins to be underemphasized as you contextualize, then that foundation is in danger of being replaced by something else.  THAT’S why I posted it on Facebook for my other Youth Ministry friends to read – as a reminder to maintain our foundations.

Jesus Christ is your foundation, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t build walls and a roof, paint the walls, buy some furniture (perhaps even some couches and a pool table!).  We don’t live in foundations, we live in homes build on solid foundations.  The foundation shapes what the home looks like and imposes limits and boundaries on what kind of house can be safely built on it.  But foundations also allow great freedom for the home-owners to paint and decorate and entertain.

Fellow Youth Ministers – be encouraged!  We are doing an important work, let us not grow weary or discouraged.  Keep your hand on the plow, investing in students for the sake of the Gospel.  Be faithful to the foundation of Jesus Christ, being careful to neither over-contextualize nor under-contextualize.

Concerned Church Members – pray for youth youth pastor and the team of youth workers in your church.  Bless them, encourage them, invest in them.  Buy your youth pastor breakfast and ask questions in order to understand (not in order to rebut and convince them that they’re unbiblical and shallow).  Finally, remember that you’re called to youth ministry too, even if you’re not a parent – learn the names of a few students in your church and begin praying faithfully for them.

18 thoughts on “Youth Ministry + Jesus – Fun = Biblical?

  1. Josh Cousineau March 14, 2013 / 2:17 pm

    Mike,

    Thanks for reading the post and interacting with it. You hit it on the head. The point of the article was that we need to make sure our hope is on the foundation of Jesus. There is nothing wrong with game nights, movie nights, pizza parties, etc… We have done them all, and as you said towards the end, a foundation is not the house (great way to put it).

    One thing I would point out is you said, “I have never met another youth worker who isn’t passionate about seeing teenagers develop into spiritually mature young men and women.” I have met youth pastors who have not had their main goal as building up students. I have even interacted with some who I would say that was not on their top ten things to do.

    Thanks again for reading and serving the teens in your church for the glory of Jesus!
    ~Josh

    • Pastor Mike March 14, 2013 / 3:00 pm

      Thanks Josh. Based off what else I’ve read of your and some friends we have in common I was pretty sure I was reading you correctly.

      Now that I think about it a bit more, I have also met some youth pastors who seem to have very little regard for discipleship, but none of them have been Evangelicals so their youth ministry pretty accurately reflects their church-culture (which is also part of my point above).

      Thanks for the article, I thought it was great reminder to check the foundation and make sure it hasn’t cracked or changed.

      • Josh Cousineau March 14, 2013 / 5:11 pm

        Yeah bro, noticed you’re in MA. You know Bryan Page? We are hosting a one day youth conferenc in the Haverhill area in Sept would love to have you be part of it. Shoot me an email, and we will get you involved, of that is something that you would like to.

        Thanks again for what you do!

      • Pastor Mike March 14, 2013 / 5:22 pm

        Brian and I met up for coffee last year. Peter and I had lunch together a while ago too. I went to GCTS with Josh O. and went to Thailand with him and Heidi back in the day too. I’ll be in touch to talk about September, I’d love the opportunity to invest in other youth workers and learn from them too.

  2. Benjamin Kerns March 18, 2013 / 1:21 am

    This is an awesome response to the
    At blog post. Way to stand up for your convictions and give a little push back. We as youth workers want kids to know Jesus. Before they can be vulnerable with personal reflection and open up spiritually they need to feel safe, seen, and known. This happens in community and as youth workers we build community. And fun is a vital ingredient.

    Great blog!

    • Pastor Mike March 18, 2013 / 9:57 am

      Thanks for the encouragement Ben. I just want to clarify that I’m intending to push back against some of the commenters, not the article itself. Keep up the great writing on your blog too, there’s a lot of solid stuff there!

  3. Cameron Cole March 22, 2013 / 2:54 pm

    Great article and super dialogue between Josh and Mike. I’m more “anti-entertainment” ministry and we definitely do plenty of fun things. We play paintball and go to movies and go to the trampoline park. It’s part of our ministry being a fellowship and family. It all has to do with what you are “leading” with. We lead with the Gospel, relationships, service, and teaching. Fun stuff is secondary but is an important part of our life as a church family.

    This is a good “don’t throw the baby out with the bath-water” article.

    • Josh cousineau March 22, 2013 / 6:36 pm

      Cameron, what is a trampoline park, and when I visited why didn’t we hit that beast up?

      • Pastor Mike March 22, 2013 / 6:53 pm

        Consider me in too! Trampoline park… Genius!!

  4. Will Dole (@cwdole) July 20, 2013 / 12:19 pm

    Loved this blog.
    I’ve been in youth ministry with a para-church org for about three years (I’m in a rural context where “youth pastors” are virtually non-existent and “youth ministry” is one or two church volunteers), and this is a constant wrestling, not just in going about doing ministry, but in training volunteers. How much time do you spend teaching a youth worker how to study the Bible, and how much time do you spend teaching them how to interact with kids and throw a good Super Bowl party? You need both. Regardless of how well we have our theology nailed down, if we aren’t communicating to students and engaging them it’s all mute.
    Like you sad, these issues are common to ministry all the way around. Good post.

    • Pastor Mike July 21, 2013 / 8:15 am

      Thanks Will, I’m glad this was helpful to you!

      Regarding the scenario you wrote about, I think the training training for any kind of ministry should always equip leaders to be able to understand and apply Scripture. We aren’t in the business if throwing the best parties, we’re called o be ambassadors for Christ – that means we need to know him, know who we’ve been sent to, and know how to faithfully communicate our King’s message to the people given to us.

      May God richly bless you as you discern what that oops like in your ministry context.

  5. Phillip Lee July 22, 2013 / 3:36 pm

    Mike,

    Interesting article and follow up to Cousineau’s post on TGC and great dialogue here in the comment section. I truly do not want to be the devil’s advocate but I wanted to share my two cents:

    My frustration with so-called “Reformed” youth ministers these days is that, for some reason, when it comes to adults, they subscribe to the belief that the grace of God is administered by the sacraments, sound preaching of the Word of God, and prayer; however, when it comes to children or teenagers, this suddenly changes, as if the Bible is split when it comes to the means of grace. The youth minister, the programming, and the experience of an individual are not what church or ministry is about — the church belongs to Christ, not the minister. Therefore, ought not the church be committed to the Word of God and to the glory of Jesus? In other words, instead of suggesting what is the best philosophy of ministry, shouldn’t youth ministry (and all ministry) be rooted in what is the best ecclesiology, as found in Scripture?

    Benjamin Kerns: Where in Scripture does it say it say that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is so weak and small and dependent on human effort that children need to feel safe and comfortable before receiving it? Is not this the very logic of the Pharisees, “By our own work and merit (aka programming and methodology), we can promote salvation”? Is this not another way of saying, “Regardless of what Scripture says, I know better because of my X-amount of years in youth ministry”?

    Instead, I am convinced that nothing on this planet or in all of human existence can truly bring comfort and security and peace to any individual, regardless of age, SES, ethnicity, etc. other than the person of Jesus Christ, faithfully presented in His sufficient and supreme Word. Anything short of this, in my opinion, ought to be considered mere faithlessness in Him who is eternally faithful and far more capable than all of us combined.

    SDG

    • Pastor Mike July 23, 2013 / 10:17 am

      Hi Philip, thanks for your thoughtful response. I agree with a lot of what you said, so you’re not really playing ‘devil’s advocate.’

      I am generally Reformed in my theology, but since I’m also a Baptist, I do not affirm the sacraments as a means of grace. As ordinances, they point us back to the Gospel as a sign and symbol, but not as a means of grace. I think you’d really appreciate Brian Cosby’s book “Giving up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture.” I like a lot of what he said, but thought it was too heavily dependent on the means of grace for my theological perspective.

      Regarding your question to Ben: I’m pretty confident his comment wasn’t about our authority to bring about God’s work by making kids like us before they can hear and respond to the Gospel. Here’s the thing – most teenagers today have very very few positive and affirming relationships with adults (their parents included, tragically). Because of that, when they hear us tell them something and we don’t have rapport or trust with them, how do you think they’re going to hear it: as a word of life, or as yet one more adult telling a kid what a mess up he is and what he needs to do to get “better”? Of course God’s sovereignty can cut through any barrier, but shouldn’t we follow Jesus’ example of caring for the lost and loving them as we speak truth? It’s not an either-or… we need to love them and make them feel safe and cared for as we are sharing the Gospel of life with them. Based off previous back-and-forth’s Ben and I have shared, I’m pretty sure Ben would agree with this.

      That said, I totally agree that sometimes youth ministers seem to put off sharing the Gospel and other biblical messages until we’ve known a kid for so long that it then becomes awkward to bring up biblical truths. We must not be ashamed of the Gospel, but we also need to love our neighbor as ourself while recognizing that earning a teen’s trust is not quick and easy anymore.

      Ultimately, Phil, I think your comment about ministry philosophy is spot on – how we do ministry needs to flow out of what we believe about the Church. That’s a great word, and a faithful reminder.

      Thanks for commenting, don’t be a stranger.

      • Phillip July 29, 2013 / 6:04 pm

        Mike,

        Thank you for the well thought out and insightful reply — I appreciate the encouragement and clarification! I hope I didn’t come off as offensive or narrow-minded and, if I did, I apologize.

        I do agree that the teenage years are full of angst and insecurities so it is certainly important to be incarnational in order to provide a warm, safe, and encouraging atmosphere. I think I was responding more so to the plethora of articles that focus so much on programming over faithful teaching of the Word and your blog happened to be in the line of fire.

        Thank you for the book recommendation (I will definitely check it out) and again thank you for the insightful and encouraging reply. As a fellow youth pastor I know how difficult youth ministry can be so please do press on and be encouraged to know that I am grateful to find ministers who are thinking hard about a form of ministry that is often smothered in confused or poor theology and seen as secondary to adult ministry.

        Press on in the good work of the Lord!

        SDG

      • Pastor Mike July 30, 2013 / 6:17 am

        Thanks for the follow-up and encouragement… Lets keep pressing on together for the sake of the gospel among teenagers and their families.

  6. Jon November 24, 2016 / 4:58 am

    I know this is three years later but I appreciate this response to the article you linked to. Looking forward to following more of your youth min posts. 🙂

    • Pastor Mike November 24, 2016 / 8:16 am

      Thanks Jon, I’m glad you appreciated the article.

      I now blog at http://www.livingtheologically.com. When I write about youth ministry, I submit those articles to the Rooted Ministry’s blog (www.rootedministry.com).

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