Monday, March 29, 2010

Youth Ministry at the Margins

When I began pursuing youth ministry as a vocation back in my early college years, I simply assumed that it would be in the context of high school ministry. Whether intentionally or not, the tacit message I'd been given by nearly all of my ministry mentors was, "high school ministry is the most important. Junior high and college ministry are only important as far as they affect high school ministry." When it comes to budgets, staffing, and vision, the high school ministry tends to get the most attention.

So when I found myself as a middle school intern in my first paid ministry role, I was alarmed to find that early adolescent ministry forms the foundation for high school ministry. The years of puberty, the transition from concrete to abstract thinking, and much of the building blocks of identity formation occur in the junior high years. Now as a junior high pastor, I see that there is incredible value in mentoring and discipling these young lives in the ways of Jesus. They are first and foremost people, not sub-high schoolers or an unfixable problem. We can't afford to wait until spiritual conversations become easier or more personally fulfilling to begin discipleship. For many, high school is already too late.

I've also grown in my love for college ministry this past year. I currently have around 12 core volunteers in their college years. It's been a blessing to be a part of their lives, ministering to them as they minister to junior highers. I'm finding what current research already confirms--that the college years are some of the most critical for spiritual and identity formation. College students are making some of their first independent "adult" decisions about their values and vocation; they need the love of mentors to guide them through the final journey of adolescent identity formation. If we stop at high school, then we'll continue to see the enormous demographical hole in churches that are missing the 18-30 year olds.

Yes, high school ministry is valuable and important. I love high school ministry and jump at any chance I can to spend time with high schoolers. Yet we in the youth ministry world cannot afford to ignore the ministry to the margins, the early and late adolescent years. As adolescence continues to expand, the years on the margins can be forgotten. They may not be as glamorous--though what youth ministry is?--but the impact we have during these formative years is crucial to the future of the Western church.


  1. Thanks for championing the work of college ministry - it's something many more youth pastors need to examine! I'm glad YS picked this up today.

    For many churches, the best possible College Student Plan will involve the Youth Ministry "running point" in the church's work with college students - both those who graduated from the youth ministry and those newly in town to attend college.

    If I can ever be of help as you think this stuff through, let me know! Every church is different, every setting is different - so while there will never be a good "one size fits all," step-by-step approach to building a good college ministry in a church, there's a lot that can be learned for figuring out the best possible College Student Plan. Thanks for caring about those college students!

  2. Benson, thanks for the encouragement, and for ministering to college students! At my church, we're still figuring out what college ministry looks like. It's been a frustrating yet beautiful process of seeing college students grow in their faith, viewing themselves as part of the church family.