Sharon Galgay Ketcham: Why Current Youth Ministry Practices Fail Our Children

The familiar reports are loud and clear. We hear it on Facebook, in our Twitter feed, and through the mainstream news. The reports confirm, at least in part, what we have known for some time: Youth ministry practices are not consistently supporting faith beyond high school graduation.

For those of us who have worked with young people for decades, this news is difficult to swallow because we see God working powerfully in the lives of teenagers. Why is there such a deep divide between our increased effort, devotion, and resources, and numbers of young people leaving the church behind?

As Andy Root and Kenda Creasy Dean argue in The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, we have spent so long “justifying our ministries for their sociological, educational, or therapeutic usefulness.” In response, a movement is underway that more intentionally reflects theologically on youth ministry practices. The movement brings with it some key theological questions: What is the relationship between a young person and the community of faith? How have we understood this relationship in youth ministry practices, and how should we? And finally, how might our beliefs be shaping, maybe even causing, the worrisome reports about our youth?

People use a variety of phrases to describe their desire to invite the next generation into the Christian faith. Most commonly, church leaders and parents use the language of “passing on the faith.” I hear it everywhere. During worship gatherings, pastors pray for young people to be secure in the faith passed to them. Church leaders hire consultants to find ways to increase their effectiveness at passing the faith, and parents give time and money to ensure a son or daughter owns the faith they passed.

Certainly, the impulse to pass on our faith to young people is noble and right, not to mention called for in the Scriptures. My concern is for how this particular phrase, “passing on the faith,” functions in our context. Words can shape our experiences just as our experiences give meaning to our words. How does the language of “passing on the faith” shape how we understand and carry out youth ministries?

In the New Testament, the passing phrase is used in 1 Corinthians 15:3: “What I received I passed on to you.” Paul uses these words to connect himself to the apostles and demonstrate the authority of the message he is preaching, “Christ died for our sins.”

In Paul’s time, showing how authority was passed from one person to another validated the person (and subsequently the message). Imagine batons passed between runners in a relay race. Similarly, the words received and passed in this passage describe the literal transfer of authority from one to another. The genealogies of Genesis and Matthew have a similar function. In this sense, Christians today are still called to pass the authoritative message to others, including younger generations.

Does the passing phrase still carry the same meaning? In our cultural context, when we talk about our desire to “pass on the faith” to young people, we often perpetuate what I call a “supportive ecclesiology.”

In our most recent history, the dominant youth ministry philosophies and practices answer the pressing question “What is a Christian’s relationship to the church?” with language that reflects supportive ecclesiology. That means the church’s primary role (in a youth context) is to support a young person’s growing faith and to build programs and offer opportunities to support individual faith. One writer takes individualization to the extreme in saying, “We absolutely must individualize, customize, and personalize our youth ministries.” Instead of people being transformed into the image of Christ, this proclamation asks Christ to transform for each person’s needs.

In our contemporary setting, then, passing and receiving seem more closely tied to the service industry than to the transfer of an authoritative message. In the context of a coffee shop, for example, the salesperson’s role is to be a service provider by passing you the product, and the customer’s role is to receive the product passed.

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Source: Christianity Today