Youth Ministry: Producing Programs or Nurturing Faith?

Yesterday I wrote about some of the anxieties I was feeling in advance of the ELCA Youth Ministry Network Extravaganza.  I was bracing myself for the possibility that I would find at this conference a mess of bad theology and dangerous personality-driven ministry practices.  My fears were based on what I head experienced ten years ago, when I was working full-time in youth ministry.

Boy was I wrong.

Today I attended the first part of a two-day intensive course examining the Exemplary Youth Ministry (EYM) Study, a Lily-funded study that examined the ministry practices of churches that had nurtured a mature Christian faith in young people.  That is, rather than examine a youth ministry in terms of numbers – numbers of kids or numbers of events – this study looked at the practices of congregations which successfully help youth grow in faith and affirmatively claim their Christian identity.  Some of the nine qualities of this "mature Christian faith" in young people include:

  • seeks spiritual growth
  • practices faith
  • makes Christian faith a way of life
  • reaches out to others

Studying 131 congregations identified as nurturing mature faith in young people (from 7 denominations, of various sizes and demographics), the EYM articulated 44 "Faith Assets" that describe the ministries of these congregations.  The "Faith Assets" are organized into four parts: Congregational Faith and Qualities, Youth Ministry Qualities, Family/Household Faith, and Leadership.

Some of the 44 "Faith Assets" of congregations with exemplary youth ministries include:

  • Focus on Discipleship – the congregation is committed to knowing and following Jesus Christ.
  • Encourages Support Groups – the congregation engages members in study, conversation, and prayer about faith in daily life
  • Participate in the Congregation – youth are engaged in a wide spectrum of congregational relationships and practices
  • Develops Quality Relationships – youth ministry develops authentic relationships among youth and adults, establishing an environment of presence and life engagement
  • Promotes Family Faith Practices – parents engage youth and the whole family in conversations, prayer, bible reading, and service that nurture faith and life.
  • Mentors Faith Life – the youth minister assists adult leaders and youth in their faith life both one-on-one and in groups.

Well, you get the idea.  No mention of how many youth are involved, or how many monthly programs are offered.  Instead, the ministries of these congregations have an outcomes-based model that sets certain faith goals and then seeks to develop practices and programs that help achieve those goals.  There are no programs for the programs' sake.

For example: rather than have a Sunday School program because "churches always have had Sunday School" (which, actually, they didn't), churches should articulate what they want the faith and Christian life of their young people to look like, and then build programs to meet those goals.

In the above example, you can swap out "Sunday School" and replace it with "Confirmation Ministry," "Vacation Bible School," "Youth Group," or any other main-stay ministry program in your congregation.  After going through this process of setting faith goals and then articulating programs and practices to achieve those goals, your congregation might still have a Sunday School or a Youth Group … but it will do so much more intentionally, having more than a "we've always had a Sunday School" reason for doing the ministry.

The basic concept behind this study's findings shouldn't be a great surprise.  When I was a youth director many years ago, my pastor worked with parents and youth to articulate what we wanted confirmed youth to "look like" – that is, we articulated what youth will have experienced, learned, done, etc. by the time they were confirmed.  In many respects, this is just common sense!  However, what the EYM did was to take my pastor's common sense approach to ministry and flesh it out, study it, and articulate what a mature Christian faith looks like in a young person, and what the congregations that nurture such young people look like.

I'm very impressed with this study, and I'm looking forward to spending tomorrow looking at it in greater depth.  I'm not entirely uncritical, but I'm suspending my critical questions for now.  I simply want to learn more about this study on its own terms before I launch into a series of challenges.  (For sure, describing Christians by what they "do" or what "qualities" they have can easily send us on a slippery slope of formulaic and works-based Christianity, and might easily undermine the promises given to us in baptism.  I'm not sure that these problems are evident in this study, but the potential remains.)

I took five pages of written notes, and also scribbled on some handouts – and that was just in four hours.  Tomorrow we go from 8am – 5pm … a long day of note-taking, for sure, but I can't wait.  I'm terribly excited to learn more, and to begin wondering what all this means for my congregation.

Published by Chris Duckworth

Spouse. Parent. Lutheran Pastor. Veteran. Jedi. Political Junkie. Baseball Fan.

2 thoughts on “Youth Ministry: Producing Programs or Nurturing Faith?

  1. I’m not able to be at Extravaganza, so it’s good to read from people there what they are experiencing. I’m familiar with the EYM study and look forward to seeing what you take from it and how you interact with the material. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Thank you for posting this, Chris, and I look forward to your next few posts on the Extravaganza.
    I will be going to a new call after Easter, of course, they want me to concentrate some time on the Youth program which has dwindled. I think I’m going to get parents and leaders to take a look at these Faith Assets before we even attempt to decide what direction to go.

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