Introduction and Thesis

When I am asked to speak or lecture on either preaching or hymnody (I’ve written little books on each), inevitably during the Q&A someone asks me something like, “What about the youth?” or “But how do we reach the youth?” Perhaps such frequently-asked questions ought themselves to be questioned, because frequently-asked questions tell us something about us and our concerns. So here’s my question: Why do so many people ask questions about “the youth”? As a matter of simple arithmetic, people live only about twenty of their seventy-five years as non-adults; and expend the other fifty-five years as adults. If people live nearly three times as much of their lives as adults, why don’t I receive three questions about adults for every one question about the young? Further, most people mean a different thing by “youth” than they do by “childhood.” By “childhood,” they refer to those who are entirely dependent on adults for their care, and by “youth” they mean that awkward stage between childhood and adulthood, about a five-year period, or roughly one fifteenth of an individual’s life.[1] Why has no one ever said to me: “But Dr. Gordon, how are we going to reach the adults?” Especially in light of the fifth commandment (“Honor your father and your mother”), why aren’t Christians concerned about honoring adults and/or elders; why are they so concerned about honoring/reaching/addressing youth? Why develop strategies of ministry aimed at such a brief period of human existence, and this particular brief period? Indeed, why not develop strategies of ministry for people who are about to die and meet their Maker? Isn’t the status of those who are about to face God’s judgment more critical than the status of those who are fifty years away from the same?

The Bible recognizes either three or two categories of humans: children, adults, and elderly; or (like the IRS) dependents and non-dependents (since the elderly are also dependent, as witnessed by Paul’s instructions regarding widows in 1 Timothy 5 and the apostolic appointing of deacons to care for them in Acts 6). But the Bible does not recognize the category of “youth;” people in that brief window of human life where they are capable of substantial, but not entire, independence. In and of itself, this does not mean that we may not recognize the category; but it should raise questions about why such a large ministerial category exists in our churches that did not exist at all in the apostolic church. The category of “dependents” (infants, widows) existed ministerially, but not the category of “youth.” Let me reiterate: In saying that the Scriptures do not recognize this category, I am not suggesting that it is illegitimate per se to do so; special revelation in Scripture is always augmented and/or complemented by natural revelation. I merely remind that “youth” is an intellectual construct; something we have made, and have made fairly recently. As Notre Dame’s Christian Smith says:

Life stages are not naturally given as immutable phases of existence. Rather, they are cultural constructions that interact with biology and material production, and are profoundly shaped by the social and institutional conditions that generate and sustain them. So “teenager” and “adolescence” as representing a distinct stage of life were very much twentieth-century inventions.[2]

If we find such “cultural constructions” to be helpful, that is fine; but it is important to distinguish our own constructs from biblically-given constructs, since the former are negotiable and the latter are not. Few enterprises are more important than the enterprise of labeling aspects of reality correctly.

The Human Duty of Naming

Most Christians agree that naming is an ethical duty, a responsibility of the human as a bearer of God’s image, since God gave names to the things that he had made:

And God called the expanse Heaven. Gen. 1:8 (emphasis added)

So out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field ... Then the man said, “This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh; she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” Gen. 2:19–10, 23

What humans call something, then, is not an insignificant matter. We either imitate God well by naming things well, or we imitate him less well by naming them poorly; but we cannot escape the duty of employing language well. When we give a label to something, we also give it a kind of intellectual or mental existence;[3] we cannot think about things that have no labels, whereas we can and do think about things that have labels. So the question is: Does “youth” exist in reality, or merely in our brains? Is “youth,” like “unicorn,” something that exists in language but not in fact? And is the existence of “youth” significant enough to warrant linguistic existence?

I think the answer may be “no.” We already have the term “adolescent” in our dictionaries; and it does the job better, because it clearly designates a moment in human existence that is both brief and awkward; if “adolescent” has any connotative value, its value is negative, whereas “youth” is either connotatively neutral or positive. But the reality of this phase of life is awkward; a stage of life in which the individual is somewhat dependent on adults, but capable—if an accident took his or her parents away suddenly—of living independently. Whether we say “youthful” or “adolescent” or “juvenile” is not a neutral matter; one of these words is probably more suitable than the others, and it is our duty to employ language as well as we can. In my judgment, we would think about the entire matter differently if we simply called it “Juvenile Ministry” or “Adolescent Ministry” rather than “Youth Ministry,” so I am gently questioning the propriety of the present label. I do not intend to close the conversation here, but to begin one: If we have such ministry at all, how should we label it, and why should we label it that way? I concur with Christian Smith that the label “youth” is a cultural construct, not warranted or necessitated by Scripture; on my website, I have a fuller version of this article, that includes several pages of the biblical evidence that brought me to this conclusion, and readers are invited to consult that fuller version there (http://tdgordon.net/theology/).

Strategic Questions

When Luther thought of the younger people, his advice was both positive and negative. Positively, they should be taught to sing adult hymns; negatively, they should be weaned away from their own music:

The music is arranged in four parts. I desire this particularly in the interest of the young people, who should and must receive an education in music as well as in the other arts if we are to wean them away from carnal and lascivious songs and interest them in what is good and wholesome. Only thus will they learn, as they should, to love and appreciate what is intrinsically good.[4]

Luther, then, did nearly the opposite of what we do: We give the young people their own music, and require the rest of the church to conform to their music. Luther weaned them from their music and trained them to appreciate adult music.[5] Insofar as Luther recognized youth as having any distinctive ministerial considerations, the considerations were negative: Don’t let young people remain young very long. Implicit in Luther’s program were two beliefs. First, Luther believed that there were and are objective standards by which we evaluate music; and second, Luther believed that young people needed to be educated in order to know and appreciate what these standards are.[6] Our culture tends to waffle on both these points, if not deny them outright. But Luther was probably right on both scores.

Luther was right that there are some objective criteria for evaluating music, so that he could refer to what was “intrinsically good” in music. Whenever a personal acquaintance parrots our culture’s mindless mantra about musical beauty “being in the eye of the beholder,” or “just a matter of taste,” I chuckle, as though they’ve told a joke. “Very clever, I say; that’s a good one.” When they protest that they are being serious, I tell them they are seriously mistaken and mildly dishonest (this part is ordinarily not well-received, but since I judge it to be true, I continue to say it). I ask them if they enjoy singing a hymn while standing next to someone whose pitch is off. Do they enjoy trying to stay on pitch while hearing someone else who is singing off-pitch (or listening to a piano that is untuned)? The answer, universally, is “no,” and I threaten to prove it by standing next to them at church the coming Sunday and deliberately singing off pitch (it is difficult to do so, but it is a difficulty I am willing to endure to ferret out dishonesty). Pitch is an objective truth; it can be measured by devices that measure cycles per second (commonly called “hertz”). The concert A, for instance, is precisely 440 hertz (though it was once 435). Again, I ask such individuals: “Do you enjoy attempting to sing a hymn that has been pitched too high for you to reach many of the notes?” Again, I get a universal reply of “no.” No one enjoys attempting to sing a melody in the wrong key signature, and again, with a cooperative accompanist I can prove this by transposing the hymns into unsingable keys and having the accompanist play the hymns in those unsingable keys. If their patience is not by now exhausted, I ask them if they enjoy hearing two altos singing on either side of them, the one singing the correctly-written alto line that, at a given moment, has an interval of a third (perhaps an E-natural to the melody’s G-natural), while the other is singing some other interval (a D or an F), and again, they reply “no,” because it is unharmonious to do so, and the human neurology finds it (ordinarily) objectionable (“dissonant”). By this point, the conversation turns to baseball or politics, before I can ask if the individual finds it pleasant if a person next to him or her sings the entire hymn in a different rhythm (or to a different metrical melody entirely), or portions of it to different rhythms, but the answer would be the same.

Luther rightly understood that music is an objective phenomenon; sound exists outside of us and it has some mathematically-measurable properties that the human neurology finds pleasant (even infants appear to be calmed by lullabies). But the same neurology finds other sounds to be unpleasant, and still others to be not unpleasant in themselves but only apt for certain purposes or occasions. A kazoo, for instance, might be a delightful instrument to play at someone’s birthday party, but not one human in a million would choose to have it played at his mother’s funeral. So while it might be right to say that some people’s musical tastes are more refined than others, or that some people’s musical sensibilities are more developed than those of others (some people notice pitch more acutely than others, and “hear” dissonance when some others do not), it is not true that there are no objective standards for assessing music.

I sometimes object that some (not all) of the contemporary worship music does not resolve. Sandra McCracken’s rendition of George Matheson’s “O Love that wilt not let me go,” for instance, does not resolve, and I regard this as a defect, especially in a hymn of trust. Many individuals tell me they enjoy the melody fine; and I do not doubt that they do. But resolution is a musical and psychological reality easily proven to exist (perform the final movement of a symphony publicly and omit the last three measures; see what kind of reaction you get). For thirty or forty years much pop music has not resolved, either (often it just fades out); and people whose sensibilities have been shaped thereby may not notice the lack of resolution as a defect, any more than some people do not notice when someone beside them sings off-pitch; but in each case the matter is objectively true and objectively defective. Luther was right to recognize that there are some objective criteria (things that are “intrinsically good”) that distinguish some music as better than other music, and he was right to train younger people to notice the difference.

Luther also correctly understood that, if left to themselves, young people would ordinarily prefer the wrong kinds of music. The same young people who, when a little younger, would prefer chocolate to vegetables, who need to be trained to recognize what is nutritious from what is not, also need musical training. Their youthful instincts are almost always wrong about almost every thing (remember Lord of the Flies?); why would we regard their untrained musical instincts as being any better than their other instincts? Regarding human sexuality, do we tell them just to do whatever they like? Regarding beverage alcohol or narcotics, do we tell them that whatever they think about the matter is fine? Why has our culture’s paedocentrism reached into the arena of music, but not into the arenas of human sexuality or substance abuse?

I also wonder why the consideration that we must adopt the music of young people is not extended to preaching. Why do we not gear our preaching to the youth? Should we restrict our grammar and vocabulary to that of the youth? Paul surely did not. Though he addressed the children in Ephesians (6:1), for instance, the vocabulary and syntax of Ephesians is remarkably mature and sophisticated. In the original, the first seven verses of chapter two constitute a single sentence that contains fifteen clauses and thirteen prepositional phrases; there is nothing unsophisticated about such a sentence; it is a masterful piece of Greek syntax, that makes even the Anglican Book of Common Prayer seem simple by comparison. Try creating such a sentence yourself and see if you can even do it; I doubt that I could.

Should we restrict our preaching topics to topics that interest the youth? Must we consult the youth to determine what interests them, and only preach on things that do (did they appreciate Paul’s commanding them to obey their parents)? If they have no interest in the resurrection, may we not still preach about it? Not long ago, I preached a sermon from the first half of John 11 that focused on the reality (and perhaps responsibility) of grieving. Most youth would have no interest in such a topic; they’re very healthy, fairly present-centered, and many of them have not yet grieved. But John’s gospel candidly records the grieving of Martha and Mary (and oh—by the way—Jesus) and the efforts of “the Jews” to console/comfort them. So it’s in the Bible, and therefore ought to be preached, whether the youth are interested or not.

But now, if we should not adjust the ministry of preaching to the capacities or interests of youth, why should we adjust the service of singing God’s praise to the capacities or interests of the youth? Why is there not a single church on our planet that adjusts its preaching ministry to the youth while not adjusting its musical ministry to them? If the stated goal is “reaching the youth,” why “reach” them (whatever that means) with music but not with preaching? Should it not be the other way around? Why do we wring our hands about “losing the youth” if we do not cater to their alleged musical interests, but not wring our hands about losing them if we do not cater to their preaching interests?

Paul said that when he became a man, he gave up his childish ways (1 Cor. 13:11). Perhaps the best “ministry” we can perform for youth is to urge them to give it up as soon as possible, to draw them into adulthood as soon as we can, so they can learn to be successful responsible adults as quickly as possible.[7] After all, assuming a normal life-span, they will be children for roughly a dozen years, “youth” for five, and adults for fifty. Why not learn to do adulthood as soon as possible? And perhaps the best way to draw young people into adulthood quickly is to regard them as adults, to treat them as adults, rather than to institutionalize “youth” via “youth ministry.” Let me illustrate.

When I was in high school, the pastor of the Bon Air Baptist Church, Robert F. Cochran, took an interest in me and in my expressed interest to consider attending college and seminary with a view to becoming a minister. Rev. Cochran routinely let me accompany him in a wide variety of pastoral duties, and one night we visited a man in the psych ward of one of the Richmond hospitals. The man seemed fine, and for the first fifteen minutes or so of our visit he was entirely lucid. But then, with no visible change or visible agitation, no difference in the tone of his voice or expression on his face, he began to speak almost total nonsense (not hostile or violent, just nonsense). Later, as we drove home, Rev. Cochran said to me, “David, how should I have handled a situation like that?” In asking me the question, he was inviting me into the world of adult churchmanship. He was inviting me to think as a minister thinks, about the things a minister thinks about. I still love Rev. Cochran’s memory sincerely, and I especially love him for regarding me—a youth at the time—as an adult. He asked a sixteen-year-old what he would have asked a fellow minister of sixty years.

What I suggest, then, is that we move children to adulthood as soon as they are capable of being so, without ghetto-izing them in an adolescent world in between. As soon as they are emotionally and intellectually capable of dealing with the matters adults deal with, we should invite them to do so. When I pastored in New Hampshire, this is what we did. We provided no separate education for our youth; they went directly to adult classes as soon as their parents judged they were capable of dealing with adult realities. And, by rubbing shoulders with adults at an earlier age than at many churches, a good number of them matured more quickly.[8]

For those who decide to retain their current Adolescent Ministries (by whatever label), I gently suggest that we do everything in our power not to normalize “youth.” If we have special ministries directed to adolescents, they should be aimed at expediting their arrival at adulthood. We could/should teach courses on family finances, courses on selecting a spouse, about community service and churchmanship, and perhaps above all, courses on marriage and family. We should gear everything towards getting them beyond adolescence ASAP, and into successful adulthood ASAP.

Cultural Sources of “Youth”—Commerce and the Sixties

As an observer of American culture, I can see at least two cultural forces that, in my judgment, are responsible for “Youth Ministry,” because they are responsible for youth culture (I call it “paedocentrism”) itself. First, commercial forces in our culture understandably wish to appeal to the unrefined tastes (and impulsivity) of adolescents (and adults who are like them). Of course it is easier to produce less-refined art than more-refined art. It is much cheaper to produce a recording of Justin Bieber than it is to produce a recording of Brahms’s Fourth Symphony. A typical symphony orchestra has nearly a hundred musicians; how many constitute Bieber’s ensemble? Further, the average number of years of experience with the musical instrument is probably about thirty for the players in a symphony orchestra; I’m not sure Bieber is even 30 years old. Therefore, commercial interests surely hope that the musical tastes of the potential buying audience will remain comparatively unrefined. Bieber probably outsells Brahms a thousand to one; but this does not mean he is a thousand times better (or any better). It merely means that people who currently could not appreciate Brahms can appreciate (and purchase) Bieber, which suits commerce fine. Commerce has an enormous financial interest, therefore, in youth culture, in propagating and encouraging the unrefined, impetuous wishes of the young.

A second source of paedocentrism in our culture is the Sixties. My generation (a generation whose iconic band The Who performed the hit “My Generation”) was very aware of its rebellion against its parents’ generation. One might even say that youth culture began in the sixties. Those who were youngsters then are CEO’s now, college presidents now, and deacons and elders of churches now.[9] The very generation that never repented of its open warfare against those elders whom the Scriptures teach us to honor is now the regnant generation; and in their regnant role they just assume that every generation wishes to be different from its parent’s generation because we wished to be different from ours. But this projection is not historically accurate; such rebellion against elders is simply not historically universal. Even more surely, the Holy Scriptures do not endorse such widespread contempt (or any contempt) for one’s elders.[10]

Concluding thoughts

As is often the case, the challenge of Romans 12:1–2 will not go away. In every moment and regarding every significant reality, we must ask whether our attitudes, practices, and values reflect our conformity to “this age” or whether they reflect our diligent efforts to be transformed by renewed minds. Is it not possible that youth culture itself, and therefore alleged “youth ministry” reflects a culture’s hostility to the biblical warnings about childish folly and a culture’s hostility to the biblical injunctions to honor our elders?

My concern, of course, is not that we not care for young people; we care for all the members of the body of Christ. My concern is both linguistic and strategic; is it wise and helpful to normalize or institutionalize the awkward years of adolescence by the expression “youth ministry?” Is it wise to flatter young people that their understandably immature, ill-conceived, and unrefined impulses are ordinarily wholesome, and to be a standard that directs the rest of us? Is it wise to ghetto-ize young people, retarding and delaying their entrance into adulthood? Which will serve their becoming adults better: separating them from adults or mingling them with adults? To raise the question may be to answer it.

It is, of course, not wrong to love the youth specially, at least in the etymological sense that “specially” shares with “species.” Of course we love all members of the body of Christ with a due regard for their kind or species, for their circumstances in life. We care for a widow differently than we do for an elderly woman whose husband is still living; we take notice of her species or kind, and serve her in a manner appropriate to her condition (without necessarily having a Minister of Widows). And we should do the same with our youth, recognizing how awkward the transitional years can be, recognizing that their vocabulary may not yet be as refined as that of an adult, that their social skills are still under-developed, and that their world of experience is smaller. But we can do all this without ghetto-izing them and without flattering them. The adult world will not revolve around them; and we will not prepare them for that adult world if the ecclesiastical world does revolve around them.


[1] Sociologists are now also addressing a group they call “emerging adults,” aged 18–29, so perhaps we will see this group targeted for special ministry. Cf. Jeffrey Arnett, Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens through the Twenties (New York: Oxford, 2004); Christian Smith with Patricia Snell, Souls in Transition: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of Emerging Adults (New York: Oxford, 2009); Christian Smith with Kari Christoffersen, Hilary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford, 2011).

[2] Smith, Souls in Transition, 6.

[3] Linguists sometimes refer to this as “reification,” or “concretism,” when we create a “thing” out of something that actually does not exist (metaphysically) simply by creating a word. When people ask why God “created evil,” they misconstrue language, for instance, because “evil” is an adjective, not a noun, and therefore has no created existence. It is an adjective of moral disapproval that we employ to evaluate certain behaviors, and until such behaviors were committed, “evil” did not exist.

[4] Preface to the Geistliches Gesangbüchlein, cited in Walter Buszin, “Luther on Music,” The Musical Quarterly 32, no. 1 (January 1946): 87.

[5] I do not insist that we follow Luther on every point. However, I do suggest that we not dismiss him briskly. After all, unless you have translated the entire Bible from its original languages into your own language and written commentaries on many books of the Bible, you probably do not know the Bible better than he did. Unless you have written a catechism that the church has employed for nearly five centuries, you probably do not know theology better than he. And unless you have written thirty-six hymns (lyrics and music) that have lasted for five hundred years, you probably do not know music better than Luther did. And if you haven’t done all three, you may not be as well-rounded as he on the matter. So don’t assume from the outset that you are his peer on this matter; you probably are not; I know I am not.

[6] I do not dismiss or disagree with the common comment that many young people (and their parents, for that matter) do not “connect” with sacred music. To the contrary, I wrote a book attempting to explain the cultural causes for this disconnect. But the solution is not simply to discard sacred music. The church has an instructional responsibility, and perhaps, like Luther, we should instruct both young and old in the Christian duty of singing praise to God. Part of that instruction would include the value of celebrating the catholic church/communion of saints by employing hymns that others have employed; and part of that instruction would include teaching about the practical non-viability of re-writing a hymnal from scratch every twenty-five years in order to sound “contemporary.” If people who don’t read poetry can learn to read poetry; if people who do not initially “connect” with Brahms can learn to enjoy Brahms, then people can also learn to appreciate sacred music. It is uncharitably cynical to suggest that people cannot step outside of their comfort zone and learn new things.

[7] Many cultural observers are noticing that the millennial generation is extremely slow to become adult. Cf. Mark Bauerlein, The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age Stupefies Young Americans and Jeopardizes our Future (New York: Tarcher, 2008); Smith, Lost in Transition; Robin Marantz Henig and Samantha Henig, Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck? (New York: Penguin, 2012); Jean M. Twenge, “The Millennials: The Greatest Generation or The Most Narcissistic?” The Atlantic Online (May 2, 2012) http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/05/millennials-the-greatest-generation-or-the-most-narcissistic/256638/; Hope Reese, “Yes, 20-Somethings Are Taking Longer to Grow Up—But Why?” (The Atlantic Online, November, 2012) http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/11/yes-20-somethings-are-taking-longer-to-grow-up-but-why/265750/. Smith et al. put it this way: “Emerging adulthood is at heart about postponing settling down into real adulthood ... Emerging adulthood as a social fact means not making commitments, not putting down roots, not setting a definite course for the long term” (Smith, Lost in Transition, 231).

[8] I am not suggesting that every church do as we did; there may be a number of very good reasons for occasionally addressing youth qua youth. I merely suggest that we not treat the cultural construct of “youth” as anything more than a cultural construct; and that we recognize what we lose in addition to what we gain. By isolating/ghetto-izing youth from adults, we lose something.

[9] And, as Camille Paglia has observed, some are “ass-kissing deans” at prestigious universities who once marched in the Free Speech movement and now enforce political correctness statutes at their universities.

[10] Zoologists remind us that some species are noted for the peculiar habit of eating their young; in our culture, it may be the other way around.

T. David Gordon is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America serving as professor of religion and Greek at Grove City College, Grove City, Pennsylvania. Ordained Servant Online, February 2015.

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Ordained Servant: February 2015

Youth Ministry, Take 2

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