Over Christmas I was able to finish reading reThink by Steve Wright (with Chris Graves). Wright has served as a student pastor for more than twenty years. In the introduction, Wright explains:
“This book was born out of deciding to rethink student ministry. We started by asking some tough questions, searching the Bible for its framework for ministry, looking at the latest research and being honest about the problems of student ministry.”
Though the book is written primarily for other student pastors, I found the book helpful as a young father, a college professor and an involved church member. It probably helps that I’ve given some thought to the extended adolescence problem and have reflected a bit on the youth ministry issue (thanks in part to books like Family Driven Faith by Voddie Baucham).
It is beyond dispute that much of student ministry today, over the long haul, bears little fruit. Wright cites numerous sources in painting a bleak picture: 58-84% of children from evangelical families are leaving the church as they enter adulthood (in their college years). The Southern Baptist Convention has seen a 6.5% reduction in baptisms from 1976-1990 to 1991-2005. Over the same period to time, the SBC saw a 35-40% reduction in baptisms among teens aged 12-17. With regard to biblical literacy, the data are equally perplexing: In a study of teenagers of which 70% were active in church youth groups, and 82% identified themselves as Christians, Barna found that 63% believe Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Jews and all other people pray to the same god. While 87% believe Jesus was a real person who came to earth and 78% believe He was born of a virgin, 46% believe He committed sins and 51% believe He did not rise from the dead. 58% believe that all religious faiths teach equally valid truth.
Why the lack of biblical clarity? Wright notes,
“Student ministry in many cases has become the local YMCA or teen amusement park; students check in and out, but mostly out. After all, once they have experienced years of fun-and-games, all-you-can-eat, no-responsibility, free-from-parents amusement, then we have helped train their appetites for pleasure to find more alluring fulfillment in the adult world.”
Yet students hunger for strong teaching. The Barna Group found the most common reason students gave for attending church was “to better understand what I believe.”
In response to these results, Wright laments the fact that some parents see spiritual formation as the exclusive job of the youth pastor, who in turn too quickly accept the responsibility. Instead, Wright argues (from Deuteronomy 6 and elsewhere) that parents have a primary responsibility for the discipleship of their children, both prior to and during the pivotal teen years. He calls upon youth pastors to come alongside parents in this venture, equipping both the students and their parents.
Here, Steve Wright voices a respectful disagreement with those who call for teaching children through the engagement of fathers and through the preaching of the Word, without a role for age-graded ministries. Wright notes that in biblical times rabbis would teach in the synagogues in Talmud and Mishnah schooling, which was age-graded. In short, Wright’s message is:
“Both the church and its student ministries have biblically assigned purposes: namely, exaltation, edification, and evangelism. It is interesting in passages concerning the early church…we see these three purposes functioning in perfect unison. These purposes of the church are different than the purposes of the family, which is why God ordained two institutions rather than one. We cannot listen to the extremists who are attempting to push us to one or the other institution. It’s time for the two institutions to step closer together and become partners to rescue this generation.”
Wright notes that churches (and their student ministries) are needed to reach out and model Christianity to teens without Christian parents, to reinforce a biblical worldview to teens, to serve as an impartial advisor to parents and teens, to connect young people with other Christian teens for support, encouragement and accountability, and to provide opportunities for corporate service to the body of Christ.
All in all, I think Wright does a good job at valuing the roles of both nuclear families (parents being the primary disciple-makers of their children) and church-based student ministries which come alongside parents. He avoids the pitfalls of an entertainment-oriented youth ministry approach (which tends to value “fun” over biblical training and serious worldview formation) and the call for abolishing youth ministry altogether. Many churches that once approached youth ministry with the former model are coming to the realization that while God genuinely converts some teenagers in this context, many (if not the majority) are not being equipped for the challenges presented in the college and post-college years, with disastrous consequences. Yet youth ministry can (and should) be a part of a healthy local church’s equipping of both Christian parents and their teens, and for the advancement of the gospel among unbelieving teens. It really can be a both/and. I highly commend this book to youth pastors and parents alike. I believe it will help many churches establish fruitful high school ministries with a view toward multi-generational faithfulness.