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An open letter to church leaders...from a youth pastor

Tim Gough urges church leaders to resist the temptation to outsource all the youth work to their youth pastors

Dear Pastor,

It’s your job to minister to young people.

Since the close of the Second World War your duty of care over the spiritual well-being of young people has been siphoned off, segregated out, and surrendered to the biblically fictional role of the “Youth Pastor.”

A youth pastor’s calling is not examined with the same level of scrutiny as yours probably was; they get a job, you get ordained. Youth ministry training is often missing the depths of theological grounding you likely had. Youth pastors are not so frequently exposed to the wide and complex tapestry of human experience as you. Finally (and frankly), youth pastors don’t tend to last all that long.

They need you.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe in youth ministry. I am in fact one of these youth pastors – so please don’t fire me! However, the Bible tells me that the best ministry breaks down walls, crosses boundaries, dismantles segregation, and reaches across the gap. The desire for this is crucial to the definition of church, and it cannot be done without unifying figures.

In the Bible the spiritual care of young people is the purview of the entire worshipping body of Israel (Deuteronomy 6:1-9, cf. 5:1). Today that’s the church, and (under God) you have spiritual oversight of this body. In the same way that you don’t have segregated pastors for every homogenous people group in the church, you shouldn’t just dump young people at the door of the youth pastor. You can’t drop the grenade and run; there are consequences.

Since the 1940s ‘church’ and ‘youth’ (as if they were meant to be separate things) have grown further and further apart, and I believe that as a direct result, both are now waning. These young people are your young people. If you cut off your arm and place it in a box 20 feet away, then – once the twitching stops – neither you nor that arm are going to function particularly well again. There’ll be blood, bad feelings... it would suck.

We need your pastoral oversight and your birds-eye view of the development of the whole church family. We need you to honour the calling you were given. And frankly, you need our energy, innovation, risk-taking nature, and unparalleled ability to connect with the pace of culture. We need each other.

I believe in youth ministry and, as with all ministry, it’s best as a collaborative and community-driven effort, intrinsically one with the rest of the church. It’s also about Jesus, and not about us. It’s self-sacrificial, servant-hearted, and counter-cultural.

We don’t need any more lone-ranger rock-star youth pastors with God complexes and edgy haircuts

Youth ministry was never meant to be run by isolated superstar heroes in their own sequestered ecosystems and echo chambers. We don’t need any more lone-ranger rock-star youth pastors with God complexes and edgy haircuts – but we also don’t need any more bumbling and blissfully ignorant pastors without any clue about what is happening with a huge swath of their congregation.

Let me ask you an honest question or two: How much do you know about the content and methods of spiritual formation happening in your church’s youth ministry? How many individual young people in your community can you intelligently talk about? How many of them know your name? 

Now, it’s ok. Don’t panic – I’m not trying to get at you, and I know you’re not prepared for this. I’ve spent the last year touring Bible Colleges across the UK talking about it. I know youth ministry wasn’t part of your ‘mainstream’ pastoral education, but we can fix this together!

You don’t need a set of skinny jeans or oversized neon sunglasses. We’re not asking you to start organising our nerf battles or – heaven forbid – our lock ins. And we definitely don’t want you to try and ‘be down wiv da kids... bruv!’ We don’t need just another one of us, we need you, and we need you to be more attentive, invested, and directly involved – as yourself.

Let’s start with some obvious easy steps: attend some youth project sessions, read some youth ministry handbooks, and ask lots and lots of questions. Be curious and alert. Don’t be a jerk, but don’t be afraid to challenge and provoke either. These are God’s people under your care, including the youth pastor. Speaking of which, start meeting more regularly with your youth pastor to do mutual training with each other and collaborative thinking together.

Together, start designing growth pathways that take your congregation members from infanthood to adulthood. Map out maturity journeys that cross generational gaps. Pioneer missional projects with joined-up thinking from across the age spectrums.

Our youth ministries are disappearing and our jobs are vanishing. We’re reaching out to you because we need you to step up and take responsibility for the healing of the whole body. ‘Youth’ and ‘church’ need to be one thing again.

Use us as specialists – believe me we’re worth every penny (in fact we’re worth more than we’re paid) – but please don’t indiscriminately hand over a significant chunk of your pastoral responsibility to us. We can share in pastoral care, but we defer to you as pastor.

That’s you, bucko, so don’t let us down. Our young people need you. God has called you for such a time and purpose as this.

Thanks,

Tim

Tim Gough is the director of Llandudno Youth For Christ, editor of multi-award winning blog, youthworkhacks.com and the author of Rebooted: Reclaiming Youth Ministry for the Long Haul - A Biblical Framework. He holds a BA in Theology from Oak Hill, and an MA in Mission from Cliff College. He lives with his wife Katie, a writer from California, and loves Formula 1 and a well-cooked steak - ideally together.

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