Today is Promotion Sunday. On Sunday nights you and your wife lead the youth group, Project Timothy. You're about to receive four new junior highers, and you'll have them for the next six years. You can read the excitement in the eyes of these four: "Hey, this is great-when do we get started?" They're ready to go.
But are you? Is your church? Providing covenant kids with the opportunity to be covenant servants is the kind of ministry that is challenging for all of us. Beginning by thinking about youth ministry will help.
"Youth ministry" is a misleading phrase. It usually refers to something that is done to the young people of the church by adults. It's misleading because most Christian adults tend to think of the relationship between themselves and the young people of the church as a one-sided relationship. The youth in youth ministry are the recipients of the ministry of the church; they are ministered to, but they do not minister.
Of course there is a place for ministry to youth in the church. Here, though, we are dealing with ministry youth themselves have in the church and for the church-where the youth have been put back into the ministry. We're talking about youth being the agents of ministry rather than its recipients.
Unfortunately, young people in many churches have never been put into Christian ministry in the first place. Their spiritual gifts lie hidden or dormant. Whereas the youth are probably ministering to one another in meaningful ways, they are often doing so primarily in the isolation of their own group. The fact that the youth are able to make lasting and valuable contributions to the life of the larger congregation remains undiscovered. More seriously, any congregation will be spiritually impoverished to some degree as long as it fails to help its youth find a place in active Christian ministry.
Three unbiblical assumptions hinder Christian adults, parents and youth leaders from promoting true youth ministry in the local church:
The first of these is the misconception that young people do not possess spiritual gifts. This idea is so obviously false that no Christian would consciously assent to it. Yet many Christian adults tend to forget that young people in the church have been richly endowed with a full measure of gifts from the Holy Spirit.
The giving of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost was a sign that the church of Christ would be the permanent possessor of the Spirit of Christ. The Holy Spirit was poured out indiscriminately, filling every believer. The apostle Peter saw in the events of Pentecost a clear fulfillment of the prophecy of Joel: "I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy" (Acts 2:17). The particular ministry of the Spirit in special persons in the Old Testament becomes universal in the New as every believer becomes a priest and prophet of Christ. The Spirit is the possession of the young as well as of the old. The universality of spiritual gilts in the church is also evident in 1 Corinthians 12. There, Paul teaches the Corinthians that their unity as a church is grounded in their unity in the Spirit. Every believer is a part of the body because every believer has the same Spirit. And "to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good" (l Cor. 12:7). The gifts of the Spirit are extended to every member of the body, young and old, even as the Spirit himself is extended to every member.
These passages remind Christian adults of a truth they already learned from the covenant: every believer is a first-class member of the church of Christ. To fail to recognize spiritual gifts throughout the whole church is to fail to understand that God makes his covenant with the whole church. The gifts of the Spirit are not for adults only, but for Christian young people as well.
A second false assumption about the ministry of youth in the church is that their gifts are inferior. Many adults are tempted to believe that young people have rather limited gifts for Christian service and that putting them into ministry will require a sacrifice in excellence.
This belief is often communicated to the youth by the kinds of tasks they are invited to perform in the church. These are most often jobs that others in the church are unwilling to do because they are menial or unpleasant. The youth are subtly informed that their talents and gifts don't amount to much in the church.
There is a half-truth involved in this misconception, a half-truth that makes the error all the more dangerous. It is true that there are some roles of service in the church for which young people are not yet equipped. (Few churches will be prepared to turn their preaching or financial planning over to a junior high student.) It is also true that any Christian should be eager to serve their Lord even when the job is unpleasant.
But the danger is that some adults may scorn the Holy Spirit by disdaining what they consider to be lesser gifts. This is precisely the danger that Paul warns against: The eye cannot say to the hand, I don't need you! (I Cor. 12: 21). Every spiritual gift is essential for the health of the body. To doubt the value of the gifts of young believers is actually to doubt the ability of the Holy Spirit to use those believers to do his work.
Actually, the spiritual gifts of young people often make a disproportionately large contribution to the life of the church. Students who are excited about serving the Lord usually infect adults with their enthusiasm as well. This is a truth well taught in verse 22: "Those parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable." Rather than predetermining how little young people will get to do for the Lord, the church must discover how much they are able to do.
A final, unspoken assumption about the spiritual gifts of youth in the church is particularly tempting to those who work with them on a regular basis. This idea is that mobilizing young people for ministry will demand more time and energy than it's worth.
However laudable the goal of putting youth into ministry may appear to us, our practice does not keep pace with our theology. Many youth leaders and parents devote little attention to providing opportunities for Christian service for their students because equipping others to do ministry takes hard work.
Youth who are just beginning to try out their gifts and learning how to serve will require the guidance of mature Christians. They will need the help of adults who are patient enough to handle some beginner's mistakes. Parents, youth leaders, and other adults will have to devote time to training and discipling their youth, helping them to develop spiritual leadership. But few tasks are more important for the church both now and in the future.
Are the youth of your church well on their way to becoming tomorrow's elders, missionaries, Bible study leaders, parents, and Christians in the workplace? Well-trained, ministry-minded Christians of any age are powerful tools in the hands of the Holy Spirit.
By now it should be clear that involving youth in ministry is an important aspect not only of youth ministry, but of the whole life of the local church. How can the youth of your church be put into ministry? Here are some general guidelines:
Many young people are eager to step in and serve. Those four junior highers who will join your group soon may be ready for some significant work. Following some of these suggestions at your church will get you well on your way to putting them back into the ministry.
This article first appeared in the 1992 May issue of New Horizons. At the time, Phil Ryken was the director of youth ministries at Trinity OPC, Hatboro, PA.