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A Portrait of Youth Ministry

Nathan D. Lambert

What I desire to achieve in this article is to walk a tight-rope between principle and application. Of course, you will have to be the judge of whether or not it is a success. I hope to show you what youth ministry looks like, at least one model of it, not merely the proper theology that should undergird and shape it.

Thus, perhaps to your disappointment, it is beyond the scope of this article to defend the concept of youth ministry as such, a ministry that some may argue is an oxymoron and has no place in a Reformed and Presbyterian church. Neither is it my intention to offer a thorough critique of the American evangelical model of youth ministry that has existed over the last sixty years or so, though that is somewhat present to the discerning reader, at least by implication. However, it is my prayer that our Lord will encourage your hearts as you continue to read that a vibrant “means-of-grace”[1] youth ministry is not only possible, but can actually be a program that our Lord is pleased to bless with abiding fruitfulness in the hearts and lives of our covenant youth as one aspect of covenant nurture.[2]

Reformed and Presbyterian Youth Ministry: Toward a Definition

It is only fair that I begin with a general definition, or work toward one. A “Reformed and Presbyterian youth ministry” is an individual church’s intentional program or ministry that primarily serves the covenant youth as an aid to their parents, and secondarily serves other students who may attend. The group I have in mind is made up of teenagers, a label that is here to stay whether we like it or not. However, that is not to say that we gladly or uncritically embrace all of the freight that term carries, especially the many cultural assumptions, presuppositions, and idolatries that are often involved.[3]

At Pilgrim,[4] we have designated seventh grade, or twelve years old, as our starting point. This is a general rule. There are covenant youth and other students who are ready and happy to join us earlier and some not until later. The opposite can be said for the older teenagers. I don't kick anyone out of the youth ministry programs once they graduate from high school. In fact, having college students participate in youth ministry is a big help and encourages maturity in the younger teenagers. Thus, a typical youth group meeting is made up of junior and senior high students together, sometimes with one or two college-aged “kids.” These meetings are separate from Sunday school, and never meet on the Lord’s Day so that they neither compete with corporate worship, nor with families who desire to spend time together on this critical day of rest.

Reformed and Presbyterian youth ministry is just that, Reformed and Presbyterian! It is an intentional ministry to the next generation of the church where Reformed dogma is the drama, if I might add to Dorothy Sayers’s line.[5] It teaches historic Presbyterianism as the biblical understanding of church polity, from its government to its worship and discipline. As Orthodox Presbyterians, this means that youth ministry should take place within the framework of our secondary and tertiary standards, like every other ministry of the local church.

At Pilgrim, we have a six-year curriculum plan so that each “class” of teenagers is receiving the same content and emphasis. I very carefully use a variety of DVD series put out by Desiring God and taught by John Piper.[6] These series usually take about two-thirds of each school year which leaves about one-third each year to devote to a theology of service and missions, especially preparation for our annual trip to the Boardwalk Chapel in Wildwood, New Jersey.

To summarize, Reformed and Presbyterian youth ministry is an intentional program of ministry to teenage covenant youth and students within the framework of Reformed theology, Presbyterian polity, and confessional orthodoxy. With this definition in mind, I want to consider two critical questions that have dramatically shaped my understanding and practice of youth ministry. Then we will return in more detail to the practice of youth ministry at Pilgrim.

The Goal of Youth Ministry

The most important question to ask about youth ministry is, why does it exist?[7] Another way to put the question is, what should be the goal of youth ministry, the aim of everything done in a youth ministry? To put the question more personally, what should teenagers (and for that matter adults!) be living for?

This is one of the many places where belonging to a confessional church is not only healthy, but extremely helpful. We all know what the chief end of man is according to the Scripture and as summarized in our secondary standards.[8] This is also the chief end of youth ministry in general, and the chief end of youth directors, leaders, volunteers, and individual teenagers. Youth ministry exists “to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.”[9]

Where does the power come from to both glorify God and enjoy God? We glorify and enjoy God because “from him and through him and to him are all things (Rom. 11:36).” Yes, this verse is exegetically significant in its narrow context in Romans, but it is also a text that is hermeneutically as wide as the Bible. God is the source, means, and end of all things, including our glorification and enjoyment of him. He graciously provides all that we stand in need of to glorify and enjoy him. We humbly receive it as we look to and hope in him. He gets the glory as the gracious and generous giver. We get the joy as the recipient of his gifts.

We glorify and enjoy God because we “can do all things through him who strengthens” us (Phil 4:13), because he is the very one who supplies every need “according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus (Phil. 4:19).” Here, the Apostle Paul is talking about having learned the secret of being content in every situation and knowing how to face both the peaks and valleys of the Christian pilgrimage, which for him were very high and extremely low. God strengthens! God supplies! He does it for Paul. He will do it for the Philippians. He still does it today for all his people.

Therefore, the goal of youth ministry is nothing less than encouraging and equipping teenagers to glorify and fully enjoy the triune and living God as the source, means, and end of everything they stand in need of to live the Christian life of trusting and obeying. This includes glorifying and enjoying God “now” in increasing measure in every facet of their lives (sanctification in union with Christ). It also includes the “not yet” of forever in the sinless state to come (glorification in union with Christ)!

Youth ministry should encourage and equip teenagers not merely to glorify God in all things, but also to enjoy God in all things as he meets all their true needs.[10] Youth ministry should encourage and equip teenagers not merely to glorify and enjoy God in the life to come, but also to glorify and enjoy God now. This is the issue of the teenagers’ heart. They may know that they ought to glorify God in thought, word, and deed, but they often have no idea what to do with how unhappy and how unsatisfied they are as they try to do it. And what is more tragic, they often do not know what to do with their failure to glorify God.

The Heart of Youth Ministry

If glorifying and enjoying God is the chief end of youth ministry, and of all those who participate in it, what is to be done with the failure to glorify and enjoy God? For that matter, why could—and why would—the gracious power to glorify and enjoy God even come to us?

It may surprise some that these are exactly the kind of questions that I put to the teenagers in the youth group at Pilgrim. We meet almost every Saturday night throughout the school year for two-and-a-half hours. We give ourselves to study and prayer during most of that time. No matter what series we are working through or topic we are discussing, I continually bring them back to these kinds of questions: Why is God totally for you? Why has he accepted you? Why does he bless you and give you great and precious promises by which to live? What do you do with your joylessness and dissatisfaction? What do you do when you fall short, when you fail, when you dishonor God? What is your only hope for real and lasting change, especially when the fleeting pleasures of sin seem so pleasurable?

I’ll be frank, I like watching them wrestle with these questions, but I love hearing them tell me about Jesus, about how they are accepted and received and blessed in him because they have been chosen in him and he loves them with a love that will never let them go. How they have been pardoned in him, counted righteous in him, adopted in him, and will grow to be more like him. How the Holy Spirit makes his home within them and continually brings the things of Christ to them. How all the promises of God “find their Yes in him” (2 Cor. 1:20).

Union with Christ pervades youth ministry at Pilgrim. Christ is the heart, the life, and the center of our ministry. He is the pattern to follow, not just the payment by which his people are redeemed.

Youth ministry at Pilgrim is primarily focused on discipleship, not outreach, though it is certainly not opposed to it. We see youth ministry as part of covenant nurture, and we see maturity in Christ at the top of the priority list. Paul suggests this approach when he gives to the Colossians the reason he proclaims Christ and warns and teaches everyone with all wisdom, namely to “present everyone mature in Christ” (Col. 1:28). Not only that, but Paul is careful to say that he works hard for this, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Col. 1:29).

That last verse ought to grip all who desire to minister to teenagers. There is not only a “what,” but a “how.” Maturity in Christ is the heart of youth ministry, and he gives the power in which to work toward it by proclaiming, warning, and teaching! Why? Because this glorifies him as the giver of the very power to work to present teenagers mature in Christ, and rejoices the heart in him as he does it! Christ provides the end (maturity in Christ) and the means (all his energy) for his glory and our joy and the teenagers’ gracious growth!

Youth ministry, then, is primarily focused on maturity in Christ, because being conformed to the image of Christ is not only what true believers are predestined for (Rom. 8:29), but it is also what enables a disciple of Jesus Christ to increasingly glorify and enjoy God, now and forever. Teenagers who are in Christ can bring all their failures to the throne of grace, confessing their sin, asking and receiving forgiveness, reveling afresh in Christ’s finished work of atonement. Teenagers who are in Christ can also have the right and privilege as children of the living God to cry out to him, pleading for all the gracious power they need to glorify and enjoy him more and more, knowing that he “is able to make all grace abound to [them], so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, [they] may abound in every good work” (2 Cor. 9:8). Why? Because they are “his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that [they] should walk in them” (Eph. 2:10).

Thus, the heart of youth ministry is Christ Jesus. Youth ministry seeks to root and ground teenagers in him who is their life, light, and love, and through “whose fullness” alone they receive “grace upon grace” (John 1:16). As was said above, this serves one end, namely that they may glorify and enjoy all that the Father is for them in the Son by the power of the Holy Spirit, now and increasingly forever.

The Schedule of Youth Ministry at Pilgrim

Now that we have considered what is the heart and soul of youth ministry in a Reformed and Presbyterian church, a fuller portrait of youth ministry at Pilgrim may now be painted. As mentioned above, we have regular youth group on Saturday nights throughout the school year. This meeting is from 6:00–8:30 p.m., meets at the church, and is for both junior and senior high students together and may sometimes be attended by college “kids.”[11] I lead these meetings and do all the teaching, other than the DVD segments when we have them.

We also have discipleship groups for both the young men and young women. These currently meet at 10:00 a.m. one Saturday a month and provide the opportunity for accountability and a platform to discuss and interact with matters related specifically to biblical manhood and womanhood. I lead the group for young men, and we have a very capable and gifted woman (a member of the youth committee) who leads the group for young women under my oversight.

The youth committee is a separate committee at Pilgrim church tasked with the immediate oversight of both the youth director and the youth ministry programs. Not only is the committee directly accountable to the session, but an elder sits on the committee, and is both a representative of the session and a liaison between the session and the committee. As the youth director, I am a member of this committee and enjoy the camaraderie and the accountability, especially as I give reports of our Lord's faithfulness to the means of grace that he has established and blesses to the spiritual benefit of the covenant youth. I love seeing their smiles as the pray for and watch the youth mature in Christ.

Throughout the school year, there are also monthly service and fellowship activities. On the second Sunday of the month, the youth group and I eat lunch together at the church and then serve together in an afternoon worship service at a local retirement community. There are also many ways the youth are incorporated into the ministry of the church from teaching and helping in Sunday school, to helping set up for fellowship events, to helping people move. In fact, this is one way we raise money for our annual summer mission trip. I call it “Rent Some Youth” and we do every odd job imaginable, which also helps us get to know many people in the congregation, young and old.

We also have a variety of fun activities that include everything from bowling and Christmas parties, to worldview movie and pizza nights, to outdoor activities like hiking and swimming. In fact, the summer is entirely activity-based and is punctuated by three very important events: Deerwander Bible Conference, our annual church family camping trip, and our mission trip. It is hard to say which event each teenager enjoys most. By all accounts and by our annual reports to the congregation, our week long service at the Boardwalk Chapel seems to be the highlight of the year, in addition to being a time of significant spiritual growth. The teenagers say that this is due to the successful blending of intense personal and group devotions coupled with evangelistic endeavors both on the chapel stage and on the boardwalk. I think this overall balance is important. We study rigorously together. We serve together. We have fun and laugh together. We go on missions together, all in the “strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified in Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:11).

Concluding Thoughts

I have sought to paint a portrait of Reformed and Presbyterian youth ministry as I understand it, both its principles in some measure and their application to youth ministry as practiced at Pilgrim Church. As you have gazed upon this portrait, I hope your heart is encouraged that a vibrant, means-of-grace youth ministry is possible, and that it can be conducted in such a way that God's grace abounds to teenagers for their increasing maturity in Christ to the glory and enjoyment of the triune and living God who is the source, means, and end of all things. Indeed may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ sustain us as we commend the mighty acts of God to the next generation of Christ's church, and meditate together with them on the “glorious splendor of [his] majesty, and on [his] wondrous works” (Ps. 145:5).

Endnotes

[1] This term should not sound all that peculiar to any of us, and I am using it here somewhat synonymously with Reformed and Presbyterian. For an understanding of one author’s view of how the means of grace relate to youth ministry in one church in the PCA, see Brian H. Cosby, Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture (Phillipsburg: P&R, 2012).

[2] I am indebted to Susan Hunt for seeing it this way, at least in part. We have worked out the details differently at Pilgrim where we have both a Christian education committee and a youth committee. For further information see Susan Hunt, Heirs of the Covenant: Leaving a Legacy of Faith for the Next Generation (Wheaton: Crossway, 1998).

[3] Let me mention three excellent resources that are available for this study. On the more popular level, a book I have worked through with many teenagers is Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations (Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2008), by Alex and Brett Harris. On a scholarly level, see Christian Smith with Melinda Lundquist Denton, Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) and Thomas E. Bergler, The Juvenilization of American Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

[4] Pilgrim Presbyterian Church (OPC), Bangor, Maine.

[5] What Dorothy Sayers said was, “The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama.” Creed or Chaos? (New York: Harcourt, Brace 1949), 3. Emphasis hers.

[6] Obviously, Piper is not a minister in the OPC. However, he is a gifted teacher and teenagers connect with him very well. It also gives me many natural opportunities to delve into theological matters that either complement his teaching, or provide counterpoint, even a contrast to it. For those of you who are curious, I use John Piper, Desiring God (Colorado Spring: Multnomah, 2010), DVD; Battling Unbelief (Colorado Spring: Multnomah, 2006), DVD; When I don’t Desire God (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), DVD; God is the Gospel (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008), DVD; Let the Nations be Glad! (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), DVD; What's the Difference? (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), DVD; Don’t Waste Your Life (Wheaton: Crossway, 2009), DVD. This last one is the trickiest in my opinion.

[7] Again, not indulging the question of should it exist, nor a critique of its roots.

[8] WLC 1; WSC 1.

[9] WLC 1. This includes having fun together! Personally, I don’t think one can be too serious about God. I do think one can be too serious too much of the time. This is why I have serious and rigorous times of Bible study with the youth group, and also have fun with them doing a variety of monthly activities.

For those who may be wondering at this point, I have no interest in changing “and” to “by” in the catechism’s first question and answer, as John Piper has suggested. I do greatly appreciate his point, however, that joy in God does in fact glorify God, and that God’s glory and God’s being glorified should bring joy to us.

[10] Parents and other adults are always welcome at our youth group meetings. However, I do not think it is necessary or essential for them to be there. Some would say that this puts Pilgrim’s youth ministry at odds with the family-based youth ministry model as found in books such as Mark DeVries’s Family-Based Youth Ministry (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2004) and Jim Burns’s and Mike DeVries’s Partnering with Parents in Youth Ministry (Gospel Light, 2003). I am not convinced that it does, for the spirit of these books is definitely present in our ministry at Pilgrim. The youth have many other activities in which to connect with older generations of the church, and are incorporated in to the worship, life, and ministry of the church as a whole.

Nathan D. Lambert, a licentiate of the Presbytery of New York and New England, is the director of youth ministry at Pilgrim Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Bangor, Maine. Ordained Servant Online, November 2013.

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