Dordt College News

Youth ministry

January 25, 2013

1. Enrollments are down in many youth ministry programs.
2. Youth pastors have a notoriously hight burn out rate.

These statements are not nearly as discouraging as they might seem at first glance, believes Theology Professor Jason Lief.

Some students who in the past might have been drawn to Dordt’s youth ministry program are now going into education, social work, or other professions because they are realizing that to serve people they need to meet them where they live in the world.

Perceptions about youth ministry are changing. Some leading experts in the field are defining it less as congregational ministry to teens and more as an opportunity for young people of faith to engage others.

Lief, who heads Dordt’s youth ministry program, agrees with this change in focus. He thinks that providing opportunities for service is better than primarily providing entertainment and fellowship opportunities geared to keeping teens connected to the church during adolescence. At the same time, he agrees with people like Dr. Brian Fikkert (’86), who, in his book When Helping Hurts, points out that service and mission efforts can be as harmful as they are helpful. Fikkert teaches economics at Covenant College in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Putting young Christians in situations that help them understand people and their culture often helps young Christians become more engaged in their faith communities and their culture.

Youth ministry remains an important part of the church’s ministry, Lief believes, but getting young adults involved in ministering to those around them may be the best way for young people to grow as committed Christians and church members.

Lief notes that, whether one is an adult or an adolescent, Christian faith needs to be lived in discipleship. Youth ministers, he believes, should be advocates for and mentors to young people, inviting them into the work of the church and working alongside them to be the hands and feet of the church in the culture in which they live. It should not try to “fill in the gap” before adulthood.

Underlying this approach is a sense that seeing adolescence as a no man’s land between childhood and adulthood has become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Despite youth ministry programs that try to keep youth connected to the church, young adults in increasing numbers are becoming ambivalent about or leaving churches.

Part of the reason for this ambivalence may lie in the fact that young people often are not treated as maturing adults or encouraged to think about and grapple with the issues and concerns of the world around them, says Lief. Another factor may be that young people are often more connected to popular youth culture than they are to the church and its work.

“Being absorbed in a culture shapes you, whether you are aware of it or not,” he says.

“Youth leaders and pastors need to know the cultural reality in which young people live if they are to get past superficial piety, grapple with the realities of brokenness and sin, and see where God is working in the world,” says Lief. He believes that a youth ministry program focusing on cultural studies and working with real people can help youth leaders and pastors talk with young adults about how they make their choices and set their values.

According to Lief, this model for youth ministry is a good fit for Dordt’s Reformed understanding of the world. It doesn’t allow Christians to focus on a spiritual existence and avoid the fact that God works through humanity. It acknowledges a sovereign God who created, redeemed, and restores his world, and it takes the creation, the cross, and the resurrection very seriously.

“Sometimes religiosity can become something that shelters us from the realities of the world,” says Lief. “The cross shatters religiosity and the resurrection pieces a broken world back together. Young people need space to encounter the crucified and risen Christ and come to faith. They need to encounter God, neighbor, and the world—not escape it.”

For Lief, the most important aspect of a youth ministry program is one that he believes every course at Dordt College should address: What does it mean to live in a fallen and broken creation? And how does the new creation relate to this?

Finding the answers can be messy. Giving young people the room and opportunity to come to faith can be difficult to watch. Lief believes that Dordt’s youth ministry program must help its students find opportunities to encounter God, their neighbors, and their world in a way that allows their commitment to become authentically theirs, allowing them to relate to others through the lens of God’s love for them.


Lief relates

Lief doesn’t consider himself a young adult anymore, but an experience during his Ph.D. coursework two summers ago had a profound effect on his life and on his thoughts about youth ministry. Lief worked in a low income neighborhood in Minneapolis, mentoring and tutoring young people at Christo Rey Jesuit High School to help give them a chance to attend college. Working with Hispanic, African, and African American students, Lief established an especially good mentoring relationship with a Somali Muslim ninth grader.

“It forced me to relate to a Muslim as an open and warm person and find a way to connect with him and his questions,” says Lief. It also helped him understand the complexity of cultural issues that drive people and their lives. “I hope that the experience helps me have a posture of generosity as I relate to people through the lens of God’s love for us,” Lief says.

He hopes his students have similar opportunities.

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