Youth Ministry Could Use a Few More Commissioner Gordons.

We hear a lot today about the disturbing trend that students are not coming back to the church. Central to this study is the focus on the “home grown” kids who spent a good portion of their middle school and high school lives in a church setting and how they are falling through the cracks. 

That focus and basis for alarm is a fundamental flaw which if pursued would only exacerbate the problem. Youth Ministry, and I hesitate to use the term, is an old title that has lost its translation. The term ministry years ago carried with it an assumption of mission. “Youth Ministry” was the idea that young people needed leaders who were both called and sent out to reach them in their brokenness with the truth of Christ, who he is, how he lived, and what his gift to us was at the cross. To sign up for “Youth Ministry” was a means and a position to invade a community with love and grace for the sake of missions.

Many youth leaders will take exception to this statement but the truth is that today’s church leaders are more interested in “Youth Ministry” than in “Youth Missions.” Missions would be the most deserving and appropriate concentration of a youth leader. It’s quite frankly what most youth leaders would really want to see at the core of their efforts and conversations. When a youth leader thinks of this privilege they think of themselves as a spiritual vigilante righting the wrongs and taking no prisoners as they obey Christ and pursue one of the most difficult people groups in the entire world.

Adolescents are in peril and their pain is incredibly more complex and severe than ever before. Abandonment and uncertainty attack them from all sides and it is rare to find adults in their life who are willing to invest in them for who they are and where they are at without asking for anything in return. If that cause was a place on a map “Youth Ministry” is nowhere near it. The slow and steady drag away from mission and redemption has weakened not just Youth Ministry but the church. The idea that six years is somehow the entire summation of a believers full potential and capacity is the most ridiculous thing imaginable. There are adults in the church who have had 60 years at it and still struggle, disobey, and unplug.

If the church is hanging all of it’s hopes on the endeavors of one lone team or person in their ability to retain and maintain, then give the youth leader a fight that they really want to be in. 

Today’s youth leader has been backed into a corner that looks more like a crossing guard for students than a woman or a man on a mission for the one message that Christ laid his life on the line for. The sad and frustrating cape that most youth leaders get asked to wear today is the cape of “Youth Maintainer.” Youth Maintainer is closer to the accepted definition of Youth Ministry than it should be with Youth Missions. 

I would rather arm myself with resources to reach the lost than maintain a club and keep things quite and peaceful. Youth Missions is not a safe place. If you are a believer in Youth Missions you’re butt is going to be in community learning the word, holding your brothers and sisters accountable while advancing out of the trenches toward the violent and stressful fight.

“No mom, dad, preacher, elder… it’s not a safe-haven here. I can make no promises. Your believing daughters and sons will be challenged to be like Christ and love people well, earning the right to be heard, suffering setbacks and even the death of themselves in the life they once lived in order to be the church. If they are living a double life I will call them out and bring it to your attention in every aspect of Matthew 18.”

“I will not medicated your kid with a response to the Gospel by leading them to believe that Jesus is an event. I will not dumb down the Great Commission and Great Commandment by elevating the idea that the center of the universe is a mild mannered “good” kid who just wants to learn six to seven fundamental layers of belief within six years so that somehow by osmosis they will be forever attached to an imagined desire that their mom and dad don’t even have.” 

Youth Missions is what students in the bride are called to. It’s a honest response to Christ’s gift and really what a youth pastor should be accountable to. This is where things have gone south. Seriously. The sad truth is that it’s rare for a youth leader to be called on the carpet for this or for that matter to be affirmed and pushed toward. The perpetual tension leaders deal with week in and week out is the off collar comments of people who want their kids and the program they attend to be and behave like a “Youth Ministry.”

Please find a job description out there that reads like this:

Average First Church is looking for a leader who will organize volunteers and students to reach their community and move them toward being on mission through Biblical community and intentional living.

That is not the focus anymore. The average description corners a person called to youth missions into paradigms and expectations that focus completely inward. I digress.

I need to go back to my original intent and title of this post. Youth Ministry needs more Commissioner Gordons at the helm because someone has to absorb the press, relentless scrutiny, and pressure of the North American church culture. It is a disservice to cave and take mission minded vigilantes of this world and turn them into sad cape wearing cross guards who have lost their fight and will to do something more noble than keep peace with the already convinced. Gordon is Batman’s ace in the hole. He looked out for cape crusader, feeding him tips, signaling him toward the fight, and buying him the things he needed most in time, verbal support, and accountability when he was discouraged.

“Gordons” of this world, if you really want to reverse the trend or are worried about the future, get Batman out of that ridiculous crossing guard position you have him in and move him away from North American church culture “Youth Ministry.” It’s not what it was when the youth leader led you. Rewrite the job description, educate the peacekeepers and club-lovers. Let God do His work in the youth leader. It’s not worth firing another one over a paradigm that isn’t Biblical anyway just to keep people happy with a “safe” and predictable place. “Gordon” your kids are at the party sipping the juice and dying in a pile. They’ve learned like the adults how to wear the mask and they need a better response to their hurt and desperation than the “controlled” Bible club.

We’re better than this.

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Chad Swanzy
Chad Swanzy has served in youth ministry for 15 years and currently works as the student ministry director at Gateway Community Church in Austin, Texas. Learn more from Chad and ask him your questions at ChadSwanzy.com.