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Seismic shift? Leaders call for new youth ministry model

FORT WORTH, Texas (BP)–Concerned that the late-20th century model of youth ministry is flawed, a group of prominent youth leaders has issued a call for a new model that could lead to a seismic shift in church youth ministry philosophy, training and leadership.

“For around 60 years, student ministry has focused almost exclusively on teenagers,” said Richard Ross, professor of youth and student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In a letter sent to youth ministry gatekeepers around the nation last year, Ross pointed out that an increasing number of youth leaders are coming to believe that model falls short.

“We now have enough history to know that the majority of students who stay on mission for a lifetime are those from emotionally and spiritually vibrant homes,” Ross wrote.

Noted author and speaker Josh McDowell added, “The most powerful impact upon a child’s ethical, moral and spiritual development is the relationship with the parents. It is 300 times greater than the church.”

The question of how to turn student ministries more toward impacting parents and families brought together a group of 22 well-known youth leaders at the National Network of Youth Ministries Forum in Glorieta, N.M., in January.

Some were present by telephone, some in person. The meeting succeeded in joining leaders such as Ross, Josh McDowell, Barry St. Clair, Sue McAllister, Rick Lawrence, Jim Burns and Randy Phillips.

Although these leaders represented a variety of evangelical denominations and para-church ministries, they were unified around the issue of the need for a more intergenerational approach to youth ministry.

The result of this conference was a document titled, “The Call to Youth Ministers and the Church.”

The first part of the document contains resolutions drawn directly from Scripture.

The second part contains affirmations reflecting a distinct intentionality to draw youth and parents together as much as possible in youth ministry programs.

For example, the document asks youth ministers to “acknowledg[e] parents as the primary spiritual leaders of their children” and to “consistently … involve parents with leaders and resources that equip parents for biblical parenting and primary discipling of their children.”

The document also asks youth ministers to “include events and experiences that bring parents and teenagers together when it best achieves ministry purposes.” Churches are called to “encourage existing youth ministers to make a transition toward parent ministry.”

“The team writing The Call spent an unusually long time in prayer,” Ross said. “We knew this effort would matter little without God’s direction in writing and His empowering any future impact. At least twice as we wrote, the group fell into reverential silence as we sensed God’s direct hand in giving us the words to place on paper.”

Rick Lawrence, executive editor of GROUP magazine, was present and helped draft the document.

“More than any other factor [by far], parents are responsible for helping their teenagers grow deeply in Christ,” Lawrence said. “It’s just as important for us to invest in parents’ spiritual growth as it is to invest in our youth group members’ spiritual growth.”

Lawrence explained that “if we can get parents to see themselves as the primary catalysts for faith growth in their kids’ lives, our ministries will explode. I think this is the crucial turning-point issue for today’s youth ministers.”

“I am honored to be part of the group of people that are helping put this into expression,” said Sue McAllister, a long-time youth minister from Tupelo, Miss., and Southeastern Regional Coordinator of the National Network of Youth Ministries.

“As you work with parents there is a maturing that comes for the youth pastor as well as for the students. There is a trust factor that is built. I am looking forward to the fruitfulness of intergenerational youth ministry as we encourage youth pastors to do this.”

More than 180 people already have signed The Call document, Ross said, noting that an international impact was felt when a youth leader from Nigeria added his signature.

The document’s text, along with a list of denominational, organizational, and local church leaders who have signed it, can be found at http://youthworkers.net/parents.

Anyone involved or interested in youth ministry is invited to indicate their commitment to this new approach by adding their name, Ross said.

Ross began championing such a shift in youth ministry about two decades ago. His 1984 book “Ministry with Youth and Their Parents” was one of the first to lay out what this approach to ministry might look like.

Anecdotal evidence and some small-scale studies have indicated that not only is religion an important influence in the lives of American youth, but that the church has not been doing a good job of cultivating their spiritual lives.

Obviously, there are situations where children from troubled homes stay strong in their faith for a lifetime, Ross said. “These are wonderful, but, sadly, rare.”

Studies have shown a correlation between the spiritual health of a young person and the quality of that young person’s family life.

In August 2001, the National Study of Youth and Religion was initiated to study the religious lives of American teenagers. Conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the direction of Christian Smith, this four-year project is funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.

“Any broad design for student ministry for the future must include a powerful focus on parents and families,” Ross said.
(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: A NEW VISION.

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  • Brent Thompson