Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Youth Ministry as Orphan Care

There's a moment in the existential comedy I Heart Huckabees where the protagonist, Albert, finds himself in a confrontation with his parents and his existential advisor, Catarine. Catarine points out a startling connection between Albert and the Sudanese refugee who serves as the doorman to his parents' apartment building:

"He was orphaned by civil war. You were orphaned by indifference."

James 1:27 says that pure religion is taking care of orphans and widows in their distress. What comes to mind when we think of orphan? I think of the two organizations my wife has worked for since we've been married. The first was an international adoption agency, where she helped families adopt from numerous countries around the world. Her current role is at Food for the Hungry, where she works in the child sponsorship department (she is currently in Guatemala meeting with FH staff and learning more about their communities; read her blog here). Orphans are the poor and impoverished children of our world, the marginalized and forgotten.

What if we expanded our definition of orphan? If orphans are the marginalized and abandoned, could we not include the American teenager under that umbrella?

They are orphaned by annoyance. Many adults simply don't want to spend time with young people--especially junior highers--because they don't understand them and find them obnoxious or difficult to be around. I'm often commended by adults in the church--even parents of teens--for my role as a junior high pastor; they're pleasantly surprised that anyone is willing to spend time with young teens.

They are orphaned by divorce. In a culture where the definition of family has dramatically shifted, many young people find themselves having to raise themselves as single parents struggle to make ends meet or are caught up in emotional litigations. This isn't an indictment on single or divorced parents; this is an observation that many of the children of divorce are hurting and feel abandoned.

They are orphaned by cultural expectations. Despite the ever-increasing glorification of youth culture in our society, adults have also systemically abandoned young people while paradoxically expecting them to grow up faster than ever. I wonder if this has anything to do with extended adolescence; there is an entire generation attempting to raise themselves, and it's taking them a while to grow themselves up.

If we expand our definition of orphans, we can begin to see youth ministry as orphan care. This is not just babysitting teenagers, nor can it become a form of edu-tainment or an attempt to keep young people away from the adults of the church. It is taking care of orphans in their distress, embracing the abandoned and coming alongside the marginalized. This is pure religion we're talking about.

How does viewing youth ministry as orphan care shaped one's philosophy and approach to ministry? Is this Biblically accurate, or am I stretching the definition here?


  1. This is true. I am gong to use some thoughts here for our fundraising banquet.

  2. Great post, I can definitely see how teenagers might fit into a broader definition of orphans. And to that point, youth ministry could definitely be viewed as orphan outreach.

    Now how about going one step further; encouraging those teen 'orphans' to care for other vulnerable children who have no parents, other orphans. Check out
    TenTogether.org for a cool campaign encouraging teams to create community through service while also helping orphaned kids.