“What does your church do for middle and high school students?” A pastor friend recently asked this question.
I have no special expertise with youth, and I tend to think there is some measure of programmatic flexibility. Do you host a weekly event? Who is it for? What do you do? Special projects or trips? I will leave that for you to sort out.
But here are a few biblical principles that we should heed no matter what, and my sense is the many youth groups don’t heed them.
1) Whatever you do, maintain a clear line between church and world.
Jesus, Paul, Peter, and the rest are adamant that we draw clear lines between the church and the world, whether a person is 14 or 84 (e.g. Matthew 18:15-20; 2 Cor. 6:14-7:1; 1 Peter 2:9-12). Very un-modern! But as God was deeply concerned with who was identified with his name in the Old Testament, so Jesus is concerned about who is publicly identified with his name in the New (e.g. Ezek. 36:20-27, 36; Matt. 18:20; 28:19; cf. 1 Cor. 5:4).
The temptation of youth ministry, if I might coin a word, is to sloppify this line. You know, you got a mix of church kids and unchurched kids. Some claim to be Christians; some don’t. But who can say, really, right?
Well, that’s just the point, which is why some churches prefer not to baptize adolescents, a course of action you might consider. Whether or not you agree with this stance, make sure that your words, programs, and methods help youth to understand that "There is the church and there is the world. Period." You love your teenagers best by helping them to understand that the most important decision they will ever make is deciding which side of the line to stand on. Who are you with?
As such, don’t treat the youth ministry as a separate wing of the church where the normal rules, expectations, and identities of church membership don’t apply. Instead…
2) If you do baptize adolescents, treat them like adults.
Again, I’m not recommending that you baptize adolescents. I’m not sure you should. But if you do—and I know many of you do—you must treat them like adult Christians. They have been baptized into the family name (Matt. 28:19). Therefore they are responsible, together with the whole church, for the family name (Matt. 18:20; 1 Cor. 5:4-5). They are a part of the body, and therefore must be drawn into caring for the body (1 Cor. 12:21-26; cf. 2 Cor. 2:6).
They should have a vote in members’ meetings. They should be subject to the church’s discipline if they get caught up in the party scene at high school and begin living in unrepentant sin. They should be required to attend the main meeting of the church, and asked to pray for the church. They should be asked to reconcile any broken relationships before taking the Lord’s Supper. They need to come under elder oversight. And so forth.
After all, to insist on the full adult responsibility of membership is to insist on the basic responsibilities of being a Christian. Jesus means for all his sheep to care for the family name, to watch over one another, to build one another up in love, to be peacemakers. You don’t want to teach the youth otherwise by practicing otherwise.
Baptizing an adolescent into church membership means giving the church a kind of authority over the youth’s profession of faith that the parent does not possess. Church leaders, no doubt, should always involve the parents in ministering to him or her. But in the final analysis the parent must defer to the church when it comes to their baptized child’s inclusion or exclusion from the church. The church possesses the authority of the keys, not the parent (Matt. 16:18-19).
Should all this make you slow down before baptizing? Yes!
3) Baptized or not, integrate them into the chronologically rich life of the church.
Western business and media spends gazillions of dollars each year marketing to youth and training them to be consumers: “Hey kids, you can get what you want on your terms right away.” As such, today’s youth don’t show up at church expecting to live in an adult world, like they would have done 100 years ago. They expect to hang out with a bunch of people who are just like them--their peers.
I’d encourage you to be very cautious about playing to these instincts in your youth programming since consumerism works against the maturity of selflessness. But whatever you do, realize that making genuine disciples works best by drawing youth into the chronologically rich life of the church. Again, they need to see the whole body at work to know what Christianity really represents. They need to see the older discipling the younger, and the younger learning from the older (e.g. 1 Tim. 5:1; Titus 2:2-6; 1 Peter 5:5).
The way of Christianity is the way of unity between old and young saints in the body, and if you want our youth to take this way, show them the road.
4) Equip parents to minister to their youth.
The Bible commands parents, not youth pastors, to train up their children in the way they should go (eg. Eph. 4:11; 6:4). I’m not saying we should get rid of youth pastors. I’m saying, youth pastors, make sure your work and programming doesn’t give Christian parents an excuse to disobey the Bible, but instead facilitates the work of parents in obeying the Bible.
5) Take advantage of the evangelistic opportunity of this season.
As a church elder, I read every single membership application and therefore every testimony of people joining our church. (How joy-giving that is for my soul!) What’s striking is how many people came to faith in junior high or high school, both from Christian and non-Christian homes. This is an opportune season to share the gospel with people.
What does this look like programmatically? I don’t know. But do something!
6) Whatever you do programmatically on points 1 to 5, don’t let your manmade plans interfere with these biblical objectives. Facilitate them.
Make sure the structures or groups you have in place don't work against your young people’s involvement in the life of the congregation, or blur the line between church and world. You want them being discipled by older members, not just peers.
I’m not sure how all this works out programmatically (have I said that yet?), but my sense is that there might be some room for clean whiteboard brainstorming here. Why do you think so many parents watch their “Christian” youth go off to college and then abandon the faith? My guess is that, in many circumstances, there were two failures: a failure of discipleship, and a failure to exercise wisdom in the structural matters of baptism, membership, and discipline.
So how do you both carefully draw the line between church and world with your churched youth and help them to be evangelistic? Let’s hear some proposals!