City Light's Vision for Youth Ministry

What does City Light teach about youth ministry?

Youth and children’s ministry is a huge subject in the American church today. One of the first questions that visitors often ask in any church is, “What kind of programs does this church offer for youth?”

This article is written with the hope of answering three things. We endeavor to ask ourselves the following questions: 1) What is it that we are after when it comes to ministering to our young people? 2) What are
some of the problems that are associated with the American church youth ministry model? 3) What is the City Light church view on youth ministry?

1. We are after worship in our children’s hearts. We have no interest in simply modifying behavior, only making decent or good children, or just developing children with outstanding morals. Our aim and our prayer is that our children experience the transforming power of God in such a way that their desire and joy is found in knowing God. Anything less than this ultimate aim is something that we want to stay far away from. The problem with children is the same problem as adults; the heart. When God changes the heart of a person, regardless of age, then everything else in that person’s life will change. However, if a person is not changed inwardly, it does not matter how good a program or activity is, that person will be like a caged tiger, ready to leap free from the barriers as soon as the door is opened.

Matthew 15: 19 “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander.”

Proverbs 4: 23 “Keep your heart with all vigilance, for from it flow the springs of life.”

In order to focus on the heart, we endeavor to stress the Spirit’s inward work. Jesus taught: “You must be born again…born of the Spirit (John 3: 7&8).” He went on to say in John 7: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water. Now he said this about the Spirit.” Jesus was emphatic that only as the Good News of the Kingdom is applied to the heart by the Holy Spirit will the soul be transformed into one that adores Jesus.

We care very deeply about our children. We long to see them continue to develop in Christ over time. We do not view them as part of the church of the future; they are a vital part now. They are not nuisances or distractions. They are loved and welcomed by our Lord and they must be by us as well.

2. In addressing how to minister to our youth, we must first address a modern day assumption. The assumption is that a good youth group, with a youth pastor, meeting separately from the others in the church on a weekly basis is a vital part of any church. We have become very accustomed to not only thinking of this type of youth ministry as important, but that it is necessary in order to reach young people in a day like ours. However, the notion of this type of youth ministry is a relatively new phenomenon (compared to church history); about one hundred and sixty years old. The industrial revolution in America in the 1800’s had a profound impact on the family and the church. Steve Farrar in his excellent book Point Man writes the following: “The Industrial Revolution, which allowed people to enjoy more conveniences in life, was also responsible for rearranging the very structure of family life.”[i] As a result of the impact of the Industrial Revolution, not only was business and family life altered, but the way that ministry was done was also altered in order to reach the masses of young people who were now separated from family and church. One resource says the following:

“The beginnings of youth ministry took place in the mid-19th century, in the wake of the industrial revolution. Churches took note of all the young men who moved into central urban areas to work in factories. Laypersons, who noticed these young adults working six days a week and gallivanting about town on Sundays, aspired to educate them. And so, early youth ministry began when churches brought older children and teenagers into classrooms to teach them how to read the Bible. Early ministry was designed for unchurched children with no formal education; while the primary goal of early youth ministry was education, a desirable secondary effect was that students would realize through biblical passages that they are sinners in need of forgiveness.”[ii]
(Emphasis mine)

In order to minister to the increasingly fractured family, churches began to design specific ministries to target youth who were without Christ. Over time these outreach centered ministries became an institutionalized part of the church with a shift from reaching children without Christ to ministering to youth already in the church. Of course, many youth ministries within the church also minister to kids who come into church from a non Christian background. However, the point remains, the focus of ministry shifted from outreach to an internal youth program. For many years now, certain kinds of youth programs have become an expected part of any church.

As the idea of youth ministry developed, so did the ways in which it was implemented. In our day, youth ministry is often focused on getting the youth to join the youth group by having the latest and best technology and entertainment. Brian Cosby in an article on the Gospel Coalition website writes:

“I sat in a Waffle House one early morning, talking with a dad who had caught his son looking at pornography. His family had just transferred from a nearby church that spent through the roof creating the most spectacular show in church---complete with fog machines, strobe lights, and professional musicians writing Christian lyrics to Lady Gaga songs. In between the dueling DJs, this family was starved for the Bread of Life. But despite their burnout over endless entertainment, they didn't know an alternative.

"I just think you need more games," the dad told me across a very syrupy waffle. "If you had more games and funny skits, then my son would have been at church, not looking at porn." I was shocked! Here was a man who had left a church over too much entertainment and now wanted it back. I realized that MTD wasn't just a problem in the culture of American teenagers, but in the culture of the American church. The larger influence of a success-over-faithfulness model of American Christianity is having devastating effects on youth ministry.”[iii]

Cosby, in another article writes:

“It's amazing what youth will eat. I love sushi, but it's quite different than eating a live goldfish. I sat near the back of the crowd and watched with a curious sea-sickness---gazing at the teenage wonder while keeping one eye on the nearest trash can! A loud unified chant shook the entire room: "Mar-cus, Mar-cus." And down it went, to the praise of cheering youth. He was the envy of every guy and the disgust of every girl. The champion collected his prizes and walked off the stage with a hero-notch on his belt.

"So what can we do next week," I thought to myself. "There's no way I can top eating a live goldfish." I was helping out with the youth program at the time, and we had been gradually escalating the "shock factor" to attract more youth. And, for all intents and purposes, it seemed to work. Every week, we saw new youth, who occasionally seemed to embody a little of the "shock factor" themselves.

Over time, though, we began to run out of ideas and started getting desperate. The youth seemed bored, and we had to think of something fast. We didn't have much money in our youth budget, so we decided to
be good stewards and spend the rest of it on bringing a "Christian" rock band to the church (though nobody had ever heard of the group). The band arrived, set up, and did a sound check from a stage in the church gym---and topped the show with choreographed dancing. I was pumped! "The youth are going to love this," I thought out loud.

To my great horror and disbelief, only eight youth came. They stood lined up in a row with folded arms, listening to the thumping noise echoing around the vacant gym. I couldn't take it anymore. I was burned out of youth ministry, and I had just begun. There had to be something deeper, richer, and more satisfying than this. There had to be something that nourished the youth more than a wiggling goldfish and a high-priced band.”[iv]

The motive of much youth ministry today in our culture is noble and right, but the solution on how to minister to them has actually worked against this good desire. Instead of children actually becoming lovers of church, by the time they hit eighteen they have been isolated away from much of the essential church life in rooms simply with a group of their peers being endlessly entertained, pumped with the latest gimmicks, and screamed at by youth pastors trying to get their sermons across above the noise of the crowd. Is it any wonder that our youth are walking away from church?

An article in Time magazine says the following:

“Believing that a message wrapped in pop-culture packaging was the way to attract teens to their flocks, pastors watered down the religious content and boosted the entertainment. But in recent years churches
have begun offering their young people a style of religious instruction grounded in Bible study and teachings about the doctrines of their denomination. Their conversion has been sparked by the recognition that sugar-coated Christianity, popular in the 1980’s and early 1990’s, has caused numbers of kids to turn away not just from attending youth-fellowship activities but from practicing their faith at all.” [v]

Very interesting and very true. Sadly, what was aimed at ministering to our youth has actually turned many of them away. When we turn to the Scriptures, it is interesting that there is not a stress on youth programs in the church. Yet, children played an important role in the ministry of Jesus. When Jesus fed the five thousand Matthew tells us: “And those who ate were about five thousand men, besides women and children (Matthew 14:21).” This tells us that not only were the adults part of hearing Jesus teach and seeing him doing miracles, but that the children were right there; very involved. In fact, John six records that it was the lunch of a young boy that Jesus used to feed the massive crowd. In Matthew 19, the disciples tried to rid themselves of the children, but Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me and do not hinder them.” It is interesting that as Paul was preaching late into the night in Acts 20, that it was a young man who is described as a youth or boy in verse 12 who had fallen asleep listening to Paul preach. This youth was there with the adults listening to the Word of God being delivered.

If Scripture does not specify a certain way to do youth ministry then we should not become dogmatic about it being carried out in a way that is more a product of the times in which we live. Much of modern youth ministry has actually assisted in helping to make the church more segregated when the kids are young and vacated when they get older.

We can also glean from Scriptures that young people were a vital part of the church community as a whole.
Their presence was seen as important and normal.

3) How does City Light Church approach youth ministry?

First, we endeavor to foster a deep respect for those who might differ on this issue. This matter is not one to divide over, become condescending about, or point fingers. We can learn much from others who have differing points of view on this issue.

However, the question before us is, “How do we approach youth ministry at City Light Church?” It is very important to note that we believe very much in youth ministry.  The question is, "What kind of youth ministry?" We endeavor to have a very integrated community approach to church.

We teach that our main church gatherings are for not only for the adults, but also the youth. We have two main gatherings; the Sunday morning service and Wednesday home groups. We see both of these as not only a place for adults to grow, fellowship, and learn but also for youth to develop. While on Sunday mornings we have a program for the little ones still in single digits, all children after this age are included in the whole service, including the preaching, on Sunday morning. On Wednesday nights, during home groups, the little one’s play outside or in some other room of the house until they reach an age where their parents want them to be involved in the group, usually around twelve. While we might involve children in different aspects of the service, we believe that simply fostering a love for church and including them with the adults is in and of itself training and is developing them into people who will have no desire to leave the church once they reach eighteen.

We understand that a twelve year old might glean differently from a church service than a forty year old; however we believe that they are still gleaning in very important ways. Here is an example. If a twelve year old dozes off during church he is still in the place of an atmosphere of peace and power and will recognize the importance of hearing God’s Word preached that will continue with him even as an adult. Our aim is also to preach in such a way that is not so lofty that children can receive nothing from it, even though they might not understand everything. God always works through His Word and Word speaks even to children in powerful ways.

Luther said: “When I preach I don’t look to the doctors and magistrates of whom there are about forty in this church. I have an eye to the many young people, children and servants of whom there are more than two
thousand. I preach to these, addressing myself to their needs. If other people don’t want to listen to this approach, then they can always walk out! An upright, godly and true preacher should direct his preaching to the poor, simple sort of people.”[vi] Children can become excited about the Bible! We have dumbed down so much that we forget that if we as adults are excited about church, then we can foster the same excitement in our little ones. Children were in attendance when Luther preached.

In the book Total Church, Chester and Timmis write the following: “Take a group of hormonal teenagers, put them all together in one space, and then wind them up with energetic games. It is not very realistic to expect them to then listen to a Bible talk! It is easy to suppose that attractive activities are the key to successful youth work. It is easy to suppose that the corresponding measure of success is weekly attendance. But God does his work through his word. The key to successful youth work is the Bible. This is how God does his work in young people. And the measure of success is not attendance but gospel fruit in their lives.”[vii]

Someone might say, “But you will never get teens into church if you do not have a dynamic youth program.”
Someone else might say, “My teenager would never listen to a sermon.” Here’s the truth; if a teenager is not willing to go to church or listen to a sermon then the issue is with the teenager’s heart with God, not the church program. A teenager who loves the Lord will flourish in both home groups and the Sunday morning services. Yet, a teenager with an indifferent and cold heart will not become a lover of God simply because there is pizza, a goldfish swallowing contest, and laser lights in a special youth room.

In summary, we believe that Sunday morning service and Wednesday night home groups are vital youth ministry. They are vital community ministry and that includes people of all ages. We encourage adults in the church to take care to reach out to the young people and develop relationships with them. Timmis and Chester write:

“The intriguing aspect of this community centered approach is that it would not be regarded as youth work, and yet it has proved successful in working with young people. Neither is it ‘youth church’ since the ages range from teens to middle age. It is often assumed that peer groups are key to youth ministry. Friends of ours recently left their church because there were no other teenagers in the church for their children. When they left, the other family with teenage children also left. Losing both families was a huge blow to this small church. But our experience suggests that more significant than peer relationships are relationships with Christians who are older than the teenagers but not as old as their parents-adults who may not be ‘youth workers’ but are committed to young people just as they are committed to other people in the church and who model gospel living and make people feel part of the Christian community.”[viii]

We believe integrated community is the key to the life and health of a church. A church filled with young and old, various colors of skin, and different background all loving Jesus and each other is our heart beat!

While we want the youth to be a part of Sunday morning and mid week home groups and have no plans to develop a type of youth program that would detract from our integrated emphasis, we do believe it is important to have times set aside specifically for youth training, worship, and fun. We believe conferences, concerts, special speakers, camps, mission trips, and fun trips (including gold fish swallowing contest s & loud music), etc. should be actively pursued. Whether it is an event like Creation festival, that includes going away for a few days, or just an evening at the church focused on a youth issue, we believe very much in having times that are focused on youth and for youth.

We are praying that God would raise up people in our church who have a specific heart for the youth of the church to help lead in the endeavors and activities listed previously. We are dreaming big when it comes to this vital part of our community, our youth. Eventually it might be necessary to have a head of youth ministries that would enable structure and organization. Yet, at the same time we would remain completely committed to the community approach.

We also believe that we need to begin to look at what the church in the mid eighteen hundreds was pursing, the youth in our communities without the gospel. We need to reach them and tell them the Good News! Our church’s aim is also to come alongside of the single parents and children from broken homes that are not to be forgotten!

[i]
Point Man, Steve Farrar, Page 42

[ii]
Wikipedia, Youth Ministry (Evangelical)

[iii] MTD: Not Just a Problem with
Youth Ministry, Brian
H. Cosby, Gospel Coalition Website

[iv] Give Up the Gimmicks, Youth
Pastors, Brian H. Cosby, Gospel
Coalition Website

[v]
Sonja Steptoe, ‘In touch with Jesus,’ Time
magazine (October 31, 2006)

[vi]
Adapted from Martin Luther, Table Talk
(London: H.G. Bohn, 1857)

[vii]
Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, chapter entitled children and young
people

[viii]
Total Church, Tim Chester and Steve Timmis, chapter entitled children and young
people

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