Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church (Book Review)

Lately I’ve been thinking and studying about youth ministry in the church. Assuming that ministry to youth as youth is necessary into our 21st century American cultural context, what is the best way to structure a church’s youth ministry to equip young people for a lifetime of Christian discipleship? That’s the question all churches must wrestle with, but the answer has to be tailored to the particular mission, vision, and goals of the congregation.

One book that was quite helpful to me in pondering the high-level questions about youth ministry is Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church. This is a book in the successful Zondervan Counterpoint series, edited by Mark Senter, and with four contributing authors (including the editor) addressing the need, structure, purpose, mission, and vision of youth ministry. The four models, which fill out the basic spectrum of possible youth ministry perspectives, are:

  1. Inclusive congregational
  2. Preparatory
  3. Missional
  4. Strategic

Spectrum of Youth Ministry models

The Inclusive congregation model, advocated by Malen Nel, defines youth ministry as “a comprehensive congregational ministry in which God comes, through all forms of ministry and with especial regard to parents (or their substitutes), with a differentiated focus to youths (as an integral part of the congregation), and also with and through the youths in the congregation to the world” (p. 12).

The Preparatory approach to youth ministry, advocated by Wesley Black, defines youth ministry as “a specialized ministry to adolescents that prepares them to participate in the life of existing churches as leaders, disciples, or evangelists…Developmental dynamics suggest that youth ministry be viewed as a laboratory in which disciples can grow in a culture guided by spiritual coaches” (p. 40).

The Missional approach, advocated by Chap Clark, defines youth ministry as “the community of faith corporately committed to caring for and reaching out into the adolescent world (of both churched and unchurched young people) in order to meaningfully assimilate them into their fellowship” (p. 80).

Finally, the Strategic approach, advocated by Mark Senter, defines youth ministry as “a community of leaders and youthful Christians that enables a parachurch or church-based youth ministry to establish a new church to maintain a theological continuity while expressing faith in a community relevant to both Christ and culture…It calls upon the youth ministry to be and become a holistic intergenerational church that is relevant to the world in which it lives” (p. 117).

Every contributor to the book admits that the Strategic approach is the most unique and radical idea. Senter proposes the Strategic approach as necessary because the other three methods represent more of the status quo (in his view), which he thinks unworkable because he believes current youth ministry models fatally flawed.

The strength of Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church is the format. Like other books in the Counterpoint series, each author responds to the arguments of the others, and each author gives a rejoinder as the final word in his own argument. This kind of debate in print-form is beneficial for the reader, as he is able to sift through the objections, and weigh any strengths and weaknesses of the arguments.

It seems to me that there is much overlap in the methods. Each theoretician aims to hit all the targets that the others are aiming it. The difference is in their emphases. Perhaps a balanced ministry would be shaped fundamentally by one of the four models, but also include a little more room for directed, purposeful discipleship emphasized by the other perspectives. A congregation’s youth ministry cannot choose a model that emphasizes inclusivity in the congregation, mission, preparation, and future church planting. But that doesn’t mean that youth ministry cannot be inclusive, missional, preparatory, and strategic all at the same time. Particular youth ministries must take one shape over another, but they must all seek to develop well-rounded, biblically-balanced adult Christian disciples. And all the models have something valuable to say in this regard.

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