Youth Workers or Youth Ministers?

There is an interesting full summary of the talk Jon Jolly did on the current purpose and lack of in Christian youth work and ministry. I think loads of stuff he says is great, particularly his summary points and his call for Christian ministry to be clear and authentic.

  • There is great confusion and division over the distinction between youth work and youth ministry.
  • If the purpose of Christian youth work & ministry is to explore the Christian faith and encourage young people to commit to it, then it has been largely failing. We need to re-evaluate why we do what we do and ask honest questions about our motives.
  • There are great opportunities in the current climate for Christian youth work and ministry, but it must have a clear and authentic identity.

…I believe that more than anything else, the key for Christian youth work and ministry is to rediscover its authenticity and to stop being ashamed or apologetic about its mission. Obviously this needs to be done with sensitivity and respect, paying attention to the values of youth work practice, but faith should be honest about its intentions, and secure enough to discuss them openly.

On that stuff I agree strongly, we do need an authentic identity, we do need to ask honest questions about why Christian youth ministry is failing to attract young people to the Christian faith, we desperately need to stop being apologetic about our mission. Jon says that part of this is accepting our work as a specialist discipline inside the field of youth work. I disagree here. I think we need to reject the idea of being seen as a subsection of youth work. We’re not youth work, we’re a ministry.

I think youth work in the secular sense, as set out by people like the National Youth Agency and in books like The Art of Youth Work is at odds with Christian mission on some very basic levels. For example, on just one issue I’ve been thinking through this week, secular youth work states that young people contain the potential to be empowered and it’s the youth worker’s job to do this. The Bible tells us the only God has the power to set us free. You can’t have both. And this isn’t the only tension between youth work practice and youth ministry practice. You can see some of this come through in the notes from the talk:

Does this mean that Christian workers are seeking to convert young people? Is this ethical and is it at odds with the wider values of respect, dialogue and democracy in youth work practice?

Which is correct, evangelism and conversion or dialogue and democracy? On one level these two things aren’t mutually exclusive, but at some point you have to pick one or the other. But also who cares if the wider values in youth work practice disagree with you seeking to convert young people? If the values of youth work practice in the secular youth work world say that we shouldn’t try and persuade people that Jesus is Lord then shouldn’t we just ignore the values of youth work practice? Of course there is a more complex answer than this and in the context of a conference about youth work (and a blog about youth work) you can delve into that question more deeply. But surely our answer always be something along the line of we must obey the ethics of God not the ethics of men?.

I don’t get the attraction of making youth ministry a subset of secular ministry. We have better news for the young people, better news that teaches of true hope, life, and the knowledge of God! That christian youth ministry and secular youth ministry consequentially end up in tension shouldn’t surprise us, after all Christian ministry should be something that can only be done though the Gospel and the Spirit’s power and should seem at least somewhat nonsensical to someone who doesn’t believe in Jesus.