Youth ministry has become a laboratory to experiment with different approaches and options. Today’s models range from variations of social outreach to blatant entertainment. Though well-meaning, the adoption of these models by some youth leaders has plunged the church into a crisis, leaving many youth disillusioned and desperately looking for spiritual leadership and direction. This article is my personal testimony. It explains why I have chosen to dedicate my life to a different kind of youth ministry.
Social Outreach Model. This model of youth ministry stems from the remnants of liberation theologies and sociological theories. The basic tenet here is that God is dead. Because the divine no longer exists, the church is left on its own to defend humanity from its social evils, ameliorate the sufferings of mankind, and employ every individual, especially the youth, to propagate, defend, and amplify these ideas to a revolution.
Examples from this model for youth ministry include the German Nazi Youth societies, communist youth camps, the American peace and civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s, green associations interested in environmental reform, and myriads of other causes for social outreach. The social outreach model of youth ministry manifests itself in the local church through a variety of forms, but the underlying purpose is to keep youth busy doing something—never mind what they are busy doing.
The Entertainment Model. This latter model of youth ministry stems from the remnants of postmodern theologies and ecumenical developments. Unlike the previous model that sees God as dead, the basic tent in the entertainment model is that God is everywhere. Sometimes mirroring unashamed pantheistic sentiments, the church is forced to engage all other ecclesial bodies and to conclude that divinity can be found anywhere in any form at any time for any individual. As a result, every medium under the sun is acceptable, baptized with some spiritual seasoning, and produced as religion’s answer to capitalism.
Examples from this model of youth ministry include the Contemporary Christian Music movement and its peripheral “ministries,” doctrinal justification or exegesis of methods from Hollywood, modern American evangelicalism, ecumenical dialogues of world churches, the New Age movement, the occult, and any other form of entertainment that has been baptized or prayed over. The entertainment model of youth ministry manifests itself in a local church through a variety of forms, but the underlying purpose is to keep youth in the church by any means necessary.
As a result of the adoption of these models of youth ministry—social outreach and entertainment models—the church is in crisis. Rather than understanding its unique historical and missiological heritage and anticipating the church’s progress into the future, the church has come to a stand-still. Visions and models for ministry have been borrowed by institutions of different heritages and ambitions. Theologies have been blurred or befuddled. Heritages have been forgotten. Progress has lost momentum. Ultimately, the value of and burden for souls has been lost.
To compensate for the loss of its identity and mission, the church uses sparkles and fireworks to create the illusion of the dynamicity of the ideal body of Christ. In the meantime, one of the church’s most valuable investments is waning within the church. It is not the number or quantity of young
people that this article is concerned about, but rather the quality of individual young people that is waning and the future of the church leadership
Similar to the story of Timothy, my mother and grandmother were committed Seventh-day Adventists, while my father was not until baptized when I was eight. I was a nominal Adventist throughout my elementary years in public education. My spiritual bent challenged me to attend a Catholic high school and my convictions regarding the Sabbath influenced me to attend Brandeis University, a Jewish sponsored institution near Boston, Massachussetts, possible through a Presidential Scholarship.
In 1998, during the summer before college, I helped organize a Korean youth camp meeting that would spark a love (borderline addiction) for Scripture. It was this love that caused me to stay up until early hours to understand the prophecies, to become a member of a new group called SPARC (Students Preparing Adventists for the Return of Christ), to sacrificially fly out to other churches for Bible revival weekends, to help establish a campus ministries group for Bible study within the universities of Boston, to take one year off to be a missionary and Bible worker to South Korea, to start an online listserve for Bible studies, to attempt to live a Biblical life, one of a pure lifestyle, socially engaged, and Christ-like, and to be one of the founders of the General Youth Conference (GYC)—a grassroots conference of like-minded Bible-loving young people. I wanted to serve the Church in whatever capacity and I tried to find every avenue I could find.
With dual majors in sociology and biology, it was my initial intention to enter the field of medicine. Inspired by medical missionary stories and the writings of Ellen White, I applied myself towards this goal. During my year off, I had been accepted into a prestigious one-year molecular neurosurgical and stem-cell research program for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis at Harvard Medical School. With a recommendation letter from the retired dean of admissions for Harvard Medical School and another from a well-known author on medical privacy issues, I was confident that the Lord was leading me this way.
The Role Models
It wasn’t until the Lord sent role models in my life that another vocation was considered. One local church pastor almost prophetically teased that he would some day hear me from the pulpit of an important meeting. Although it was received with ridicule, a deep impression was created upon me that would never be forgotten. Besides this role model, an older youth pastor who had a similar background and aspirations as myself shared this quote from Ellen G. White:
“There must be no belittling of the gospel ministry. No enterprise should be so conducted as to cause the ministry of the word to be looked upon as an inferior matter. It is not so. Those who belittle the ministry are belittling Christ. The highest of all work is ministry in its various lines, and it should be kept before the youth that there is no work more blessed of God than that of the gospel minister.
“Let not our young men be deterred from entering the ministry. There is danger that through glowing representations some will be drawn away from the path where God bids them walk. Some have been encouraged to take a course of study in medical lines who ought to be preparing themselves to enter the ministry. The Lord calls for more ministers to labor in His vineyard. The words were spoken: “Strengthen the outposts; have faithful sentinels in every part of the world.” God calls for you, young men. He calls for whole armies of young men who are largehearted and large-minded, and who have a deep love for Christ and the truth.” (6T, 411, emphasis mine).
The youth pastor’s premature death at the age of 26 during a foreign mission trip caused me to reevaluate my goals and deeply consider the above quote. He himself had abandoned the hopes of being a physician in order to be a minister when a medical student at Northwestern School of Medicine. The Spirit of Prophecy directed pointed to a class of young men studying in medical lines that should be elsewhere. Prior to his
death, the gospel ministry was an option that was either subconsciously disregarded or categorically denied altogether. But my newly-found love for Scripture, combined with the tragic death, eventually persuaded me to study a Masters in Religion program at the Andrews University Theological Seminary until I would rationalize the above quote and realize my true calling.
Upon my arrival at the Seminary, the Lord immediately opened up a youth pastor position in the local Korean Adventist church. Pastoring so soon was not expected, nor anticipated. Reluctantly, I eventually accepted a position that would change my life. The congregation of 80 young people attending an Adventist university had ample access to means to meet their spiritual needs. But they were not growing as Christian Adventists.
It was then that I realized a desperate need for a new model for youth ministry, a model that was radically biblical, life-transforming, and mission driven. It was that kind of model that changed my life, my sense of purpose in life, and which had served me well in my short experience as youth pastor.
The Third Model
For the next three years, a Biblical leadership model of youth ministry was executed. Rather than God being nowhere or God being everywhere, this third model believes that God is, most clearly revealed through Jesus Christ, the living Word, and through the Bible, the inspired Word, and executed through spiritual youth leadership within the church. This third model accomplished what the first two models strived for, keeping youth busy and keeping youth in the church, but combined them in the expression of their spiritual gifts through evangelism. This is the model that has guided me during my leadership as a youth pastor.
I discovered that the young people who were drawn to my ministry were thirsty for a fresh, straightforward explanation of the Scriptures. Thus, they stayed until the early hours during Friday night Bible studies asking questions and discussing their answers. Doctrines were taught how to be defended and articulated for the sake of evangelism. Academics were stressed in order for evangelism. Family relationships and friendships were
encouraged for evangelism. This link caused these students to be more dependent upon their study of the Scriptures and express their faith through evangelism for the church.
This model proved to work. Not only was it correct in theory, it was accurate in practice. It was not the quantity that was being measured, but the quality. These young people today are engaging society vibrantly for the proactive proliferation of the Gospel Message. Not only are they infecting other young people with their love for Christ and His message, but they are living out a consistent devotional and spiritual life that they have
not experienced before.
The Want and Need
In the end, what the young people want and need is to give their entire lives to a higher, nobler, and Divine cause. Young people have left the familiar environments of their parents. They have yet to develop responsibilities and concerns regarding families of their own. While single and young, youth are devoid of purpose, an ideology of life, a conduit to express themselves, the motivation to engage and impact the world, and the platform to take on a responsibility to utilize all the energies of their being.
The church must capitalize upon this cohort at this crucial window of young people’s lives. As an expression of leadership, it must have the confidence to realize the worldview that it purports is the only and true perspective we can hold. It cannot be self-conscious amidst the competing perspectives. Young people are very sensitive to see a lack of authenticity and illegitimacy.
When the church brings young people the purpose for life (a Christ-like life), an ideology of life (a humble approaching of Scripture), a conduit to express themselves (proactive evangelism), the motivation to engage and impact the world (Christ’s love), and the platform to take on a responsibility to utilize all the energies of their being (a ministry of integrity and sacrifice), “how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Saviour might be carried to the whole world”? (Education, 271).
If this service is not provided, another institution will glean the spiritual gifts and fruition of this special cohort of believers. Too many times in history have movements and organizations of error capitalized upon this group to change the world. Communism, civil rights movements, evolutionary ideas, the sexual revolution, and the music scene are evidences of this.
The third model—the Christ-centered, Bible-based, Mission-driven model—can be accomplished by first, providing Christian role models. Godly parents, pastors, elders, teachers, and chaplains are invariably the individuals who young people connect most well with. Joshua had Moses, Elisha had Elijah, Mark had Peter, Timothy had Paul, and the disciples had Jesus. Service activities, music programs, and social fellowships all have their limitations. In comparison, role models all the experience and wisdom of the ages to be passed down and promoting maturity, leadership, and temperance.
Secondly, the model must motivate programs, curricula, and movements that have a Biblical basis. Aggressive, yet fresh, relevant, and engaging approaches to Scripture must replace the institutionalized attitudes of compromised methodologies. The injunction of 2 Timothy 4:2 must be injected into every brick of every youth ministry component: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine.”
To consider youth ministry as a laboratory for experimental ministries is also to consider the souls of young people experimental. Because of the eternal nature of our actions, mistakes are completely unacceptable in the realm of ministry and evangelism. Therefore, sound protocol according to the prescriptions laid out in the Bible must be adhered to. This has proven to ensure growth not only in quality, but eventually numbers. Any research into experimental youth ministry is either inherently stating the incompetence of today’s youth to understand the truths of Scripture or the incompetence of Scripture to save young people. The third model presupposes competence in both Scripture and young people.
While the sincerity of adherents of the former two youth ministry models is not being questioned, their Scriptural basis is problematic
and must be open to discussion. In addition, to accept the various modes of ministry out there without Scriptural foundation would be a betrayal to our spiritual fathers before us, to the literal mothers of those in our care, and to our heavenly Father who allowed the revelation and inspiration of the text to us.
Today this young individual who used to save humanity from godless society, find God through praise bands, and find Christ in epic films, is a Biblical Adventist Christian. Upon graduating from the Seminary, I found teaching Scripture to be a calling and spiritual gift. I currently work for organizations that embody this third model wholeheartedly, serving as Program Director for the Center for Adventist Ministry to Public University Students (CAMPUS)—a division of the Michigan Conference Public Campus Ministries department, and as Vice President of Resources for the General Youth Conference. I am also volunteering as a youth pastor for the Detroit Korean Seventh-day Adventist Church.
This testimony is by no means the end, but made possible through the love of Scripture, the influence of role models, and the leadership of Jesus Christ Himself.
(Originally published in Adventist Affirm, 2006)