Strategic Assimilation: Rethinking the Goal of Youth Ministry

Scott Tinman
October 4th, 2009

Gwen had graduated two days before, but without even thinking she showed up at church and went through her normal routine: standing outside the high school Sunday school room, talking and laughing with a few of her friends from the youth group. When the leader called the meeting to order, she walked into the large room with the rest of the students and took her regular seat on the carpeted steps along the far wall.

At first she didn’t notice anything out of the ordinary, but soon she realized that several whispered conversations were pointed in her direction. She couldn’t quite understand what was going on—maybe she had said something dumb walking in—but she could tell that most of the others were kind of staring at her. Before she could piece together what was happening, the youth leader sat down next to her and said, “Gwen, you’re a graduate now. You get to go into an adult class. You don’t have to hang out here with these little high school kids.”

Gwen was dumbstruck. How could she not have known this? But it never quite occurred to her that she would no longer be welcomed in the only real Christian community she’d ever known. Her parents didn’t go to church and she had no deep relationships outside of this group, but her church wasn’t set up for keeping graduates in their youth ministry program. She had to move on, and although the leaders were being nice about it, the way the program was structured she was no longer welcome. She was “finished” with youth ministry, but where should she go now?

Her friends, her parents, and even her church didn’t have an answer for her.

The Underbelly of Youth Ministry

Gwen is a classic casualty of a typical, but unfortunately short-sighted, definition of the task of youth ministry. This scenario, as obviously twisted as it is, takes place in many, if not most, churches that have an organized, structured youth ministry program. Traditionally, senior high youth ministry has been more concerned with getting kids to make an individual decision to follow Christ than where they go from there. As noble as this goal is, in many cases it has led to a generation of youth ministry “orphans”—involved youth group kids who, when they leave the nurture and family of their youth program, have no safe place to live out their faith.

Gwen is the daughter of good friends of mine. I care about her, and when this occurred, I knew we as a church had blown it. But I confess that until that day I hadn’t given much thought to what we do to our graduates. Yes, I knew and had taught for years that we in youth ministry should be preparing kids for the “real world” and to take their faith into their next phase of life (e.g., college, work). But I saw this like nearly every youth ministry veteran has—preparing our kids to move on was simply one more programmatic and curricular necessity. I’m now convinced I was not only wrong, as I had unwittingly cast ill-prepared students into the wilderness of individual and simplistic faith, but also I had participated in systemically abandoning them to (hopefully) find for themselves the “next” community that felt like a fit. I realize now that even in our best programs we leave students hanging, and the Gwens of our ministries are the losers.

Ask almost any experienced youth worker to describe the goal of his ministry. Inevitably the answer will sound something like: “To make disciples of students.” This definition has been around since the beginning of youth ministry, and it remains the central focus of most programs. Willow Creek’s Student Impact mission statement, for example, is “to turn irreligious high school students into fully devoted followers of Christ.” Likewise, Ridge Burns and Pam Campbell claim that “our task is to challenge students to bring their behavior, lifestyle, and commitment in line with the attitude of Christ.” These perspectives reflect what nearly everyone involved in youth ministry enthusiastically affirms—we’re called to encourage students in their personal faith in Jesus Christ. This is a cherished goal that we should hold to tightly. But if this is the final goal of our ministry effort, we may be doing more harm than good.

Time for a New Definition

Most youth ministry veterans and leaders are aware that, over the last few decades, the definition of adolescence has been extended into the middle 20s (at least) and high school graduates are barely halfway through this transitional phase of life. Unfortunately, we haven’t rethought our end goal of ministry in light of this change. The majority of our programs and guiding philosophies evolved from an adolescent demographic from the 1970s and early 1980s, when high school graduates were nearly adults and were generally prepared to naturally gravitate toward multi-generational faith communities in place of the homogeneous sociological cocoon of their youth ministry programs. But the changes in adolescent development and the culture-wide disregard for generational connectedness have created a faith system that offers no place for graduates when they leave high school.

Certainly, a few will hang on in their faith until they find that safe, warm blanket of generational sameness they experienced growing up, but the majority too often simply fade away. They’ll show up occasionally to “big church” and sit in the back with a friend or two, but leave feeling disconnected and often disillusioned by their lack of a place in the community. These “not quite adults, and not quite adolescents” fall into the same chasm that high school students during the 1950s and 1960s did until youth ministry came along to rescue them from having to experience their faith alongside those who were older, different, or more set in their ways.

Today, as middle adolescents leave the energy and relational focus of the youth ministry program, they often wander out the door of the church. Where do graduated disciples go when they’re done with the youth group? And how do we help them?

We need a new goal, a new focus, and a new task. Youth ministry must no longer be satisfied with our students “making commitments” and even looking and acting like “true” disciples of Christ. Those charged with the role of youth ministry in a given church (or even parachurch setting) must ensure that when students leave the safe, protective, homogeneous ministry they’ve known for six or more years, they’re embraced by the larger community as fellow partners on the journey with Christ.

As Jim Burns of Youthbuilders and Mark DeVries of Family-Based Youth Ministry have said, “The degree to which students will stay in the church, get involved, and make significant life decisions for Christ is directly dependent on their sense of belonging to the community.” From here on out, the goal of any youth ministry must be that students see and experience themselves as participants in God’s family of faith.

A new definition, then, of the youth ministry task is “to assimilate authentic disciples into full participation in the life of the community of faith and the church.” This implies an individual faith as a necessary starting point, but by the time a student graduates, the measure of a program’s effectiveness must become how deeply and honestly the students have been connected to the larger body.

The Full Gospel of Youth Ministry—Assimilation into the Body of Christ

This definition may not sound all that revolutionary, and certainly not new, for since Mark DeVries’ book Family Based Youth Ministry first made us aware that we needed to partner with parents to have the best chance at transformational change in the life of a student, youth ministry has recognized that we hurt ourselves (and our kids) when we pretend that we don’t need the church to do our ministry. But there haven’t been enough voices clamoring for our attention, forcing us to look at the basic reason we do youth ministry, or even the end goal of our task in a way that takes this family movement seriously.

It may not sound new, but in practice few have actually allowed this kind of commitment to drive how they go about their business as youth workers. We have a hard road ahead of us if we are to adequately prepare both our students and our churches for healthy and authentic assimilation; but we need to begin.

Six Steps to Making This Vision a Reality

To make the change from a fragmented, homogeneously defined program for youth to a strategic gateway into full participation in the adult community, I offer the following six steps of implementation:

Start with the Youth Ministry team. As with most changes in vision or philosophy, the most important change is in how we look at our calling and ministry. Steps Two through Six will only make a difference in a youth ministry strategic shift when Step One takes hold in the youth ministry leadership. When the youth ministry team functionally recognizes that the end goal is full assimilation into the community, and is honestly willing to adjust any and every strategy, curricula, programming, and even training will the students have any chance at being actual organic participants in the life of a congregation upon graduation. If the commitment to this goal is merely lip service to an ideal, or becomes secondary to tradition or current structure, there will be little hope of truly connecting young people to the greater community.

Get the Senior Pastor and senior leadership, lay and clergy, on board. One of the reasons behind current youth ministry thinking and practice is that church leadership has enjoyed the status quo of traditionally defined youth ministry—when it works. Up until this point, few have seen the lack of assimilation and programmatic abandonment as a reflection on the weakness of youth ministry staff or methodology. It’ll be up to those who have come to recognize that we’ve been hurting our students to convince the leadership of the church that youth ministry is ultimately the responsibility of the entire congregation—starting with them. We have all failed our kids by training them to think that faith is more about homogeneous safety and independent faith commitments than communal living and intimate cross-generational relationships with the family of faith. The leadership of the church, starting with the senior minister, must see that assimilation is the call of God to your community, and they must do all they can to make it as healthy and productive a process as possible.

Sell the idea to the congregation. In most church communities, when an infant or child is baptized or dedicated, the adults and families publicly promise to care for and nurture that child throughout her life. This shift to seeing the end goal of youth ministry as assimilation is a call to your entire congregation to follow through on the promise they made. Make sure that the entire body is aware that the church is expected to receive with open arms the full partnership and participation of the graduating seniors into the life of the church. The key is to hammer away so often at this message that it’ll become part of the continuing story of the church.

Communicate at all levels of the youth ministry that the goal is assimilation. Before you make sweeping changes (if you even need to), make sure that everyone affected by the new commitment is given ample time to understand, digest, and dialogue with the idea. Most people, especially parents, are frightened by the prospect of change, for most have high hopes that the youth ministry program will make their kids into “good” disciples (whatever that means). Take your time to listen to and ease the fears of people—students, parents, youth staff—and include them in the brainstorming piece of making the shift. Try not to simply impose this vision on people without giving them opportunity for wrestling with the reasons behind the changes themselves.

Change what you are doing to ensure that every ministry task points toward the goal. People own what they help create. As you have convinced the leadership that the goal of youth ministry should be assimilation and you’ve allowed the youth ministry constituency to be in process with you regarding the implications of such a shift in thinking, you must adjust the various programs, curricula, events, and methods you use to do the task of youth ministry.

Create an evaluation structure. With any change in programmatic focus or shift in thinking, initial enthusiasm and even structural adjustments are often not enough to create the needed momentum to make the shift permanent. It’s the responsibility of those charged with the primary leadership in youth ministry to build a system of evaluation into your planning. This evaluation process must be concerned with the primary question: Does everything we say, do, and are point directly toward full assimilation of our students upon graduation?

Scott Tinman

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.