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Why Your Church’s Youth Ministry Matters

Like many, I find Rachel Held Evans to be a thought-provoking writer.
I recently came across a post on her blog titled “It’s a Miracle Any of Us Survived Youth Group.”

It was a Twitter compendium of games played in youth groups, which highlighted youth ministries’ most embarrassing moments and, for some, the most hurtful.

I have no doubt that Rachel is not suggesting youth ministry is the root of the problem for churches everywhere. She recently spoke at the National Youth Workers Convention in Nashville, Tenn.

That being said, while her post offers valid critique that youth ministries need to take seriously, there are a growing number of people wondering if youth ministry is still relevant for the church.

Consider Thomas E. Bergler’s latest book, “The Juvenilization of American Christianity,” in which he examines four major American church groups and implies that their juvenilization is, in some ways, a result of youth ministry practices.

My favorite title comes in the form of a question, which is probably the question of this growing chorus of voices, on a Christian Century blog post; it begs us to ask, “Is Youth Ministry Killing the Church?”

As a youth minister who is not planning to use youth ministry as a stepping-stone into the senior pastorate, I am biased, unapologetically, with regard to this question.

For more than 10 years, I have remained committed to my vocational calling, always seeking to become a better minister with the youth and church I serve. I am not alone, as I meet regularly with like-minded colleagues who believe youth ministry is vital for the churches we serve.

The landmark “National Study of Youth and Religion” reports have been the biggest filter through which most conversations about the relevance of youth ministry in the United States are taking place.

In this phenomenal undertaking, Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton made the brilliant observation that the majority of youth in the U.S. actually follow in the footsteps of their parents’ faith practices.

The most common type of faith being practiced in these families is what I would describe as “a feel good, lovey-dovey, moralistic therapeutic deism.”

This study has launched the writing of a number of books and articles. It has even led to movements like “Sticky Faith” that seek “to develop a deep, growing faith in kids that ‘sticks’ and continues to mature long-term” and believes it is imperative for parents be more involved in their children’s faith development.

This study has also been a cornerstone for those who are calling into doubt the value of youth ministry and has been helpful in spurring conversations and critiques about youth ministry.

However, I am concerned it is being turned into an “easy button,” with faith formation being reduced into an equation: Adolescent faith + parental involvement = greater probability of faith development.

If this equation is true, then what happened to the parents’ faith? Weren’t they the children and grandchildren of that “golden mythic era” of church attendance and involvement in the 1950s?

Why did their faith dilute into a moralistic therapeutic deism that they have passed onto their children as the study revealed?

To my knowledge, these questions have not been explored because the study focused on our American teenagers.

I would love an “easy button” for faith development, but I believe faith development is a more complex problem than the current equation to which it is often reduced.

Seth M. Vopat is the associate pastor of youth and family at Louisburg First Baptist Church in Louisburg, Kan., and a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @svopat.