In a 1989 article for Youthworker Journal, Stuart Cummings-Bond declared, “Churches with strong youth programs have usually controlled adolescence by corralling it, by institutionalizing it ‒ and not within the daily rhythm of the church, but outside of it, in a smaller circle that is tangent to the larger one, like a one-eared Mickey Mouse.”
The short story is this: someone saw adolescence and said, “It is good.” It needed to be directed and channelled so church youth groups were formed. Beyond Bible studies, it was crazy games, relevant talks, and a rock ‘n’ roll sensibility. These elements were eventually codified into a model of effective youth ministry to which missions trips and youth worship were added.
This well-intentioned model has dominated the shape of youth ministry in churches, morphing into what Sharon Ketcham, Professor at Gordon College, has called service-provider youth ministry. A service is work done to help, assist, or benefit another through implicit roles of provider and receiver – the church provides the youth group and youth are consumers of youth ministry. The promise of the model was that it was the way to form faith in youth, to keep youth in the Church, to reach non-churched youth, and to revitalize the Church.
Instead, we’ve learned that the one-eared Mickey Mouse styles of youth ministry have generally made it more difficult for youth to form a sustained faith and remain connected to the Church.
Isolating a youth group from congregational life creates a barrier between, and no clear path from, the small circle (the youth group) into the larger circle (the adult community of faith). When youth are segregated from the community through more and more programming their connections to the broader church weaken. Teenagers have neither exposure to nor engagement with the rest of the church, adults, and the practices of the community.
But, some may wonder, is it really necessary for youth to be that connected to the Church? After all, conventional thinking suggests teenagers really don’t want that. And don’t most youth want to be around things most relevant to them? Well, the answer is both yes and no. Teenagers for a brief time live in the back-and-forth of two worlds where conventional wisdom is not always right and relevant is not always important. Frederick Buechner, in his book Whistling in the Dark, captured a sense of the in-between:
The ancient Druids are said to have taken a special interest in in-between things like mistletoe, which is neither quite a plant nor quite a tree, and mist, which is neither quite rain nor quite air, and dreams, which are neither quite waking nor quite sleep. They believed that in such things as those they were able to glimpse the mystery of two worlds at once.
Adolescents can have the same glimpse by looking in the full-length mirror on the back of the bathroom door. The opaque glance and the pimples. The fancy new nakedness they’re all dressed up in with no place to go. The eyes full of secrets they have a strong hunch everybody is on to. The shadowed brow. Being not quite a child and not quite a grown-up either is hard work, and they look it. Living in two worlds at once is no picnic.
Living in two worlds is never easy. We need to recognize that youth ministry is a both/and reality.
It is true that instruction in the Christian faith should be age-appropriate and that there should be time spent in the company of peers. So, some kind of regular age group gathering is a good thing. But, it is equally true that programming that acts as a barrier between youth and other age groups in a congregation implicitly teaches youth that their role in the community is to receive a service – that they are objects of ministry rather than agents for ministry. One-eared Mickey Mouse youth ministry not only denies youth the wisdom and experience of those older than they are, but the entire church misses out on the unique role youth can play in ministry and in the Church.
How then should we understand the relationship between youth ministry and the rest of the Church?
Think back to the Gospels and the Rabbi who demonstrated a new way of living and learning the faith, calling his disciples to practice it with him and then with one another. Scripture seems to consistently situate faith within the participation and practices of the community of faith.
One way to understand the relationship between youth ministry and the rest of the Church is to recall the informal way that youth learn in social contexts and to see the Church as a space where the social nature of learning is brought together with the community of faith. Like learning, faith formation for youth is informed and shaped by what they do with and for others. Understanding the relationship in this way would frame youth ministry through the paradigm of community of practice.
Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, in their research of communities of practice, found that exposure and engagement are central conditions of communities of practice. What we can learn from that is when youth experience both exposure to and engagement with adults and the larger purpose and practices of the Church, then learning and formation are more likely to occur in a way that invites youth into the life of the Church.
What else did they find?
Communities of practice endure from generation to generation when they realize that everyone teaches and everyone learns.
For the Church this means that adults and youth can and do learn from one another. The Holy Spirit moves within and among the whole of the community. The big idea is that teenagers can’t learn the language of faith if they aren’t given an opportunity to practice speaking it within the whole community of faith (not just in the youth group). Youth ministry and the Church is at its best when thoughtful conversations are commonplace across generations.
Communities of practice nurture newcomers toward maturity by helping them to find meaningful roles to play and by allowing them to develop new avenues for the fresh expression of the tradition.
For the Church this means that mentoring and apprenticeship are no longer optional – experience with a mentor is fundamental in moving youth to maturity in communities of practice. Youth ministry is at its best when teenagers are alongside adults finding new ways and testing new ideas for ministry and shared projects that both make a real difference and inch youth towards maturity, adulthood, and an adult faith.
Communities of practice speak to the whole person. They make connections between identity, experience, and knowledge, and address the whole person.
For the Church this means understanding that youth ministry is not isolated to the Sunday school classroom or a youth group meeting. Youth ministry is at its best when we understand that the whole of the church experience and shared practices speaks to youth. What happens in and through the congregation speaks as loudly to youth as what happens in a youth group meeting.
Kenda Creasy, Dean of Princeton, has said that youth ministry at its best is embedded into the everyday fabric of the congregation.
Youth ministry and the church is at its best when we do it together.