In Defense of Youth Group

A post made the rounds last week advocating “blowing up” the youth group model of youth ministry. I enthusiastically shared it with some colleagues. Now, several days after I first read and shared it, I don’t agree with it. Here’s why.

  1. The youth in my congregation actually yearn for youth group

The argument is with “youth groups that are silos apart from the intergenerational nature of the larger work of a local church.” But the youth in my congregation yearn for a peer network where they experience hospitality, grace, and transformation, in contrast to what they experience at school and on the soccer field. The church youth group is where they find that.

Critically, there are adults in those teenage gatherings. The youth group is an intergenerational community, only it proceeds on the terms of the teens, not the adults. Adults are invited to participate as accompanists: to share the time and space with the gathered youth, to listen to them, to learn about them, and to grow in their love for them as children of God.

2. You can change youth group without blowing it up

Rather than the weekly youth group, Abbott wants to see youth leaders “gathering youth around the passions or experiences of young people with others in the congregation of various ages who have either similar passions or expertise.” Yes, yes, and yes.

But that alternative can be a supplement to a regular, welcoming space in the church for youth. In fact, I don’t see why those alternative gathering of young people and adults with aligning passions and expertise would not take the shape very similar to that of a . . . wait for it . . . youth group.

3. Working with teenagers is not for everyone

Further, the alternative Abbott is advocating “demands that every person be invested in the lives of young people in the church and not silo them off to a professional in the basement of the church with a couple of cool couches.”

But I don’t know of any church ministry in which every person is invested. Not the choir, not the property committee, and not the youth group. Part of our work as youth ministers needs to be helping adults in the congregation discern gifts for working with youth and then inviting them into that work. It’s not for everybody.

4. Deconstruction is not, by itself, minstry

We’re better at deconstruction than construction. That’s my worry.

Mainline Protestant denominations decided decades ago that it was better ecclesiology to include youth in the life of the whole church, rather than sequestering them into their own “youth ministry” silo. Theologically, that was a sound decision. What it produced, however, was a mass deconstruction of denominational resources for youth ministry that left nothing to take its place that actually accomplished the goals of a youth-inclusive ecclesiology.

If the youth group model is to paint an unused church room in neon and throw in pizza once a week, then, yes, blow that thing up. But that’s not what I’m seeing from my youth ministry colleagues. Most of their youth groups are thoughtful, welcoming spaces where adults are present to pay attention to the lives of teens.