Youth Ministry or Youth Work?
I’m currently working on the bones of a book on Christian youth work. Here is some of my thoughts on the different ways Christians do youth work. I’d welcome any comments on these, as well as some sexy category names…
The broad category is “Christian work with young people”. Primarily, it has meant:
1) Youth ministry, which has meant the evangelisation, discipling and equipping for mission of young people. It has taken place within the local church, with the primary aspiration of drawing more young people into relationship with God and participation in the local church. To which I say, ‘Amen’! I became a youth worker through my participation in a church youth group. Because of the nurture I received, I was empowered to become a leader in the youth groups of this ministry, eventually taking the role of youth pastor.
2) Parachurch organisations such as YWAM, YCW, YFC, Scripture Union, chaplaincy bodies and Concern Australia do Christian work with young people, but they locate this work outside the context of the local church. In schools, prisons, homes, large youth events, the holiday season, drop-in centres and neighbourhoods, they often have similar aims to local church youth ministries. Though a sympathetic friend of the local church, their location ‘at arm’s length’ has created opportunities to utilise youth work philosophies & practices borrowed from social work agencies: employment programs; post-release initiatives; community development; counselling services etc.
3) Another form of Christian work with young people is these social work agencies mentioned above. Many social work agencies in Australia have strongly Christian roots and still have connections to the denominations that birthed them. Christian youth work in these agencies is done by Christians who are not ‘professional Christians’ as in youth ministry or parachurches, but work with Christian inspiration and vision and see their work as a full expression of their Christian identity, with equal value as an ‘explicitly’ Christian worker.
4) Yet another form of Christian work with young people is expressed when local congregations release youth leaders to work primarily with young people outside, or marginal to, the congregation, with little or no expectation that this work will result in increased numbers of young people attending. Admittedly, this is rare, but it is an important innovation. It recognises the role of the local church in serving the local community, outside of any benefit to itself in terms of numbers. In this form, Christians working with young people are playing a similar role to parachurch workers, but with a significant difference – they have a strong and ongoing connection to the local church.
5) One last form of Christian work with young people is that performed by people who are not Christians, but the character of their work can be affirmed as ‘in sympathy’ with the values of the Reign of God. How far such work can be affirmed is a thorny issue, but we need to at least acknowledge that such youth work is valuable, and to consider partnering where we can.