I talked with a well-trained, dependable, and highly fruitful youth pastor yesterday. Such creatures do exist. He was even the product of my own denomination (United Methodist), though now, is serving on the staff of a non-denominational church. His story speaks volumes about what needs fixed in the church and provides insight about what needs to be done to reach the next generation with the gospel.
One of the great sins of the church today is to maintain a class system in which children and youth ministry is relegated to the basement. The youth pastor I interviewed had graduated from a well respected four year college and received advanced training specifically to do youth ministry. His vocational calling seems very clear. Yet, he is frequently asked about when he plans to go to seminary and become a ‘real pastor.’ When I was in my teens, the life-changing youth pastor of my home church was in her sixties. I have another colleague who has proven gifts for children’s ministry and curriculum development, yet because he is middle aged and seminary trained, his denomination has forced him to return to parish ministry. Check Youtube, today’s popular youth evangelists are rarely young.
Currently, church economics seems be driving most ministry professionals who specialize in teaching children and youth into serving large, non-denominational, box-churches. The Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, etc., have a habit of paying their ordained pastor first, and then scrambling to see if there is anything left over for other teaching professionals. I use the word ‘teaching’ intentionally, because no such class prejudice exists in the secular world of education. Those who graduate with teaching degrees do not have to worry about whether their specialization in elementary ed, or desire to work with the disabled, will relegate them to a dead-end career. What I observe in most main-line churches, is a downward spiral of expectations. We pay our youth workers to be young and inexperienced. Then lower our standards to keep the pace with the decline in what we offer to the next generation. Further, we have bought into a dangerous myth, that youth relate best with those who are immature. Actually, people of all ages desire authenticity, stability, and integrity in their program leaders, pastors, and teachers. A great senior pastor can’t fix the damage done to a person who misses hearing the gospel in developmentally appropriate ways as a child or youth.
It is clear to me that we have a systemic problem. The values that people express do not correlate with the church’s current institutional structure. The missional outcomes that we propose, do not match the budgets and priorities that we live by. Further, we have a biblical mandate to share our faith with the next generation (Deuteronomy 6:7, Matthew 18:1-5, 10). Our repentance may have to begin by confessing the idolatry that we have surrounding the word ‘ordination.’ All trained workers in a field deserve respect. Those who share the gospel with youth and children need to be both compensated and held to higher standards.
For congregations with less than 200 in average worship this will mean forming cooperative relationships with other congregations so that additional full-time staff persons can be supported. In today’s world, people move and young adults are unlikely to attend the denomination, let alone the church, of their childhood. It doesn’t hurt a local church to share the teaching of their children with other trusted congregations of the region. Rather than muddling along with ineffective children and youth leadership, churches should work together and fund a full-time missionary to the next generation. A professional person, who has had both psychological and theological training, can oversee many volunteers and develop programs in various locations. Here is a place where we urgently need to break down our old parish and denominational fences.