This is a question that frequently comes up on youth pastor facebook groups. Perhaps that’s a surprise to non-youth pastors, but it’s a question most youth pastors have asked, at some point or another. Sometimes it’s prompted by critics who accuse us of usurping parents’ primary role in passing on the faith to the next generation; other times it’s an honest inquiry into the validity of their own vocation.
My book, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, was initially named “Is Youth Ministry Biblical?” since that’s the driving question behind it. That also means it’s a bigger question than a blog post. In this article, I’ll attempt to capture the biggest arguments from the chapters on Youth Ministry in the Old and New Testaments. For more, you’ll want to just buy the book and savor every delicious word of it.
Deuteronomy 6 is the most-shared text to highlight parents’ primary role as disciple-makers of the next generation. This is an undeniable biblical truth that youth workers should wholeheartedly affirm without feeling threatened in the slightest. Moses’ words about family discipleship are given within his address to all Israel. Nuclear families (mom, dad, and their kids) are foreign to the biblical context. Instead, families lived in an intergenerational family compound. And those family compounds were located within their clan’s territory. Raising children is the primary duty of parents, but it was never meant to be a parent’s duty in isolation from the intergenerational network of their clan. Parents who interpret Deuteronomy 6 to point to the parents’ sole authority are completely missing the context of this passage. Students need a bigger family than their nuclear family.
Judges 24:14-15 & Joshua 2:7-10
Deuteronomy 6 and Judges 24 both take place during covenant renewal ceremonies. While Moses’ generation was faithful in passing the faith to the next generation, Joshua’s wasn’t. The commitment Joshua’s generation made in Judges 24 was not kept, “and there arose another generation after them who did not know the Lord or the work that he had done for Israel” (Judges 2:10). Israel’s failure to evangelize and disciple the next generation is portrayed as a clear warning against future generations about what happens when they neglect their duty to pass the faith from generation to generation.
The Jewish liturgy of worship, in many ways, was built with a conviction to pass their faith from generation to generation. Even when children were not overtly mentioned, they were frequently in mind. This is especially clear through Psalm 78:1-8, which introduces a thorough account of the LORD’s saving work in Israel’s history. In some ways, this psalm could be considered as a “children’s sermon,” condensing all of the Historical Books into one song that children could learn and recite. This Psalm was constructed by Asaph, one of David’s chief musicians who oversaw Israel’s worship during David’s reign. Teaching children was not relegated as something for parents to do at home, but was a high calling that was worthy of celebration and emphasis in the gathered assembly.
The biblical witness overwhelmingly favors the inclusion of children and adolescents in the gathered worship of the people of God. This, however, doesn’t mean that nurseries and various types of children’s ministries are unbiblical. For example, during Ezra’s reading of the Torah all the people “who are able to understand” are gathered together to hear the Word of God. That implies that children who couldn’t understand were excluded from this highly important gathering. Considerations for how wide of an age-range this involves is too much to include in this brief post, but it sets the precedent that some form of “children’s ministry” was practiced in Jewish worship.
Jesus and the Disciples
It is an overstatement to say Jesus was a youth pastor… but only slightly. The ages of the apostles at the time when he first called them to follow him likely ranged between 13-30 years old, with most of them being late-teenagers to in their early twenties. When Jesus paid the Temple Tax in Matthew 17:24-27, he only paid it for himself and peter – which implies that they were the only two present from the group of apostles over the age of 20 accountable to pay it. Of course, we cannot know for sure how old each apostle was, but John is widely regarded as the youngest of the apostles (and as Jesus’ cousin, it was more reasonable for him to be entrusted into Jesus’ care at such a young age). If John wrote the book of Revelation during Emperor Domitian’s persecution of Christians between 95-96 A.D., sixty-five years after Jesus called the apostles to follow him, then he would have been around eighty years old when he died in exile on Patmos – and that’s with him as a thirteen year old when he began following Jesus! My book explores the rabbinic practices of calling disciples, how old those disciples usually be, and other evidences we have for the apostles’ age.
The Great Commission calls all Jesus’ disciples to “go make disciples of all peoples.” This is the primary mission of the Church. Certainly, teenagers should be numbered among “all peoples.” In our increasingly post-Christian culture, teenagers are largely growing up with zero Christian background. Passing youth ministry off entirely to parents leaves the majority of teenagers unengaged by Christian ministry without a non-family member taking initiative to evangelize and disciple. Youth ministry is a Great Commission ministry of the church where Christian men and women proclaim the gospel to teenagers and disciple them in order that they would honor Christ for the remainder of their lives. How is this anything short of a biblical picture of the mission of the Church?
Ephesians 6:1 & Colossians 3:20
These are instructions Paul wrote for children. Remember, his letters were read during the public gathering of those churches. This means he expected families to be gathered for worship, so fathers, mothers, and children would all be hearing the letter at the same time – which is why he addresses each of them in his letters. This continues the Jewish commitment to including and valuing children’s participating in corporate worship once they are old enough to understand.
Other Foundations for Youth Ministry
There are various other theological and historical foundations for youth ministry explored in the book that I cannot capture in this one blog post. It is enough, for now, to say that a good theology of the church, the family, and the gospel all affirm the primary spiritual influence of parents while also affirming that all kids in the church belong to the members of the church. The Church is called the “family of God.” Many pastors emphasize “we are family” to the congregation. If this is true, then they should put their money where their mouth is and support ministries to children and teenagers without making it a “junior ministry” for people to cut their teeth before graduating into real ministry. After all, can you think of anything more difficult than teaching the Trinity to a room full of middle school boys – and yet, this is the very thing we are called to do! Youth and children’s ministries need godly, mature, knowledgeable men and women to invest themselves for the sake of the next generation rather than always assuming their gifts are better utilized with adults.
Many of our pastoral/theological heroes (Augustine, Luther, Calvin, Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards, Bonhoeffer) spent time with the “church kids” to discuss their sermons. They did not view their ministry as something exclusive to the adults, but demonstrated the importance of the church’s ministry to the next generation. There are areas of modern youth ministry that greatly concern me, but this doesn’t make “youth ministry” inherently unbiblical any more than preaching is unbiblical because there are forms of modern preaching that stray from biblical norms.
God’s people have always been passionate about raising up the next generation of Christians. This has been the case since Adam and Eve left the garden. It remains true today.
Biblical Essentials for Youth Ministry
These bullet are points from the conclusion of the book. For more elaboration and application, please read the book since I’m only offering these bullets for sake of brevity.
- Parents First
- Worship Together
- The Church Must Commit to Discipleship
- Gospel Always
This is all to say: Yes, youth ministry has biblical foundations. Not every youth ministry is built off those foundations, just as many churches today overlook biblical foundations for their church. I wrote A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church to encourage youth workers to build on a biblical foundation rather than merely copying whatever they experienced as teenagers (or what they see others doing to draw students today). There is so much guidance for us in the Scriptures and in the broader Christian Tradition – may those truths guide youth workers in the coming era of modern youth ministry.