One Thing Every Healthy Youth Ministry Needs

I’ve been thinking a lot about Jesus’ prayer for His disciples in John 17, “My prayer is not that you take them out of the world, but that you protect them from the evil one…As you sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world” (vss. 15, 18 NIV). Jesus had many disciples while on the earth, but this prayer was specifically for His closest disciples; the eleven who remained faithful to Him until the end. These were arguably the most important disciples in the history of the Church. Even if we knew nothing else of Jesus’ time with His followers, we could still make two conclusions about His discipleship model from this prayer. First, that He “sent” His followers on a mission. Time with Jesus included mission and ultimately prepared and equipped the disciples for mission. Second, Jesus was not afraid to put His disciples at risk, for risk is inherent in mission. And so Jesus prayed, “God, protect them…for I am sending them.”

In the church and in the family our most important disciples are our children and youth. If we are leading like Jesus led and discipling like Jesus discipled, then we must also pray, “God protect them…for we are sending them.” And then we must send them. That’s why every healthy youth ministry includes mission and builds towards mission in its discipleship methods. For the majority of today’s students the field of mission is the public school, so our discipleship must include preparing and equipping students for this mission. Home, Cyber, and Christian-school students rarely make contact with this vast mission field. As a result, the church and the family must take extra care to find regular opportunities for these students to engage in mission, or their discipleship may become extraordinarily unbalanced and/or become too self-focused. Regardless of how it’s accomplished, every healthy Biblical model of discipleship in youth ministry includes and leads to mission.

The risk of excluding mission from discipleship in youth ministry is far greater than the inherent risk of engaging mission. When we exclude mission, we teach our students a version of Christianity that has little basis in the Cross. Mission leads to selflessness; no mission leads to self-centeredness. Mission leads to dependence on the Holy Spirit; no mission leads to dependence on self. Mission leads to the Cross; no mission leads to simple morality. This is unhealthy youth ministry. Discipleship that doesn’t include mission usually ends in what theologians and sociologists have termed Moralistic Therapeutic Deism (MTD). A comprehensive study[1] in 2005 by researchers at the University of North Carolina concluded that most religious teenagers in America actually adhere to MTD rather than authentic, Cross-centered and Spirit driven Christianity.

Moralistic Therapeutic Deism is rampant in youth ministry. The end goal of MTD is to be happy and to feel good about yourself, which is accomplished through being moral in your own life and being nice to others. God exists, but isn’t really involved unless you need something fixed, and He lets good people go to heaven when they die. In MTD, there is little demand for holiness, sacrifice, or mission as defined by Luke 19:10, “The Son of Man came to seek and save that which is lost.” If we’re not careful, we’ll end up with a generation of students who know how to be good, but don’t know how to carry the cross.

The solution is simple—stop putting students in the spotlight, and start putting the spotlight on Jesus. Give them a cross to carry, a sacrifice to strive toward, and a mission (Luke 19:10) to be a part of. That’s healthy youth ministry! And what about the inherent risk? Jesus gave us a risk manager—the promised Holy Spirit. So let us pray with confidence, “God, protect them…for we are sending them.”

[1] Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (New York: Oxford University Press, 2005).