Youth Ministry Reformation Style

“Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.”

These words of veteran youth ministry leader Mike Yaconelli written shortly before his death have plagued church leaders for nearly a decade now. It’s not that he wanted to discard the entire enterprise. He was war weary.¬† Like Yaconelli, many leaders are frustrated with the decline in youth ministry numbers and the precipitous drop out rate of high school graduates.

Such pessimism is set against the backdrop of a sustained increase in the number of professional youth ministry resources, conferences, books, magazines, websites, itinerant speakers, para-church organizations, et cetera. Youth ministry leader Mark Cannister made the statement in 2005, “Youth ministry is coming of age because of the passion that women and men have for passing on the faith from one generation to the next.”

If it is coming of age, it seems that its young adulthood is a precarious one.

I would like to offer a brief word of encouragement for those, like myself, who have invested a great deal of time in ministry to students. The idea of discipling young people is neither new nor novel. Nor is the perceived decline and drop out rate a justifiable reason to abandon ministry to adolescents. It should lead us to evaluate everything we do, but not to lose heart. We should also recognize that the need to reinvent what are doing isn’t new either. It’s as old as the Reformation.

Both Luther and Calvin faced this same dilemna and herein we should find encouragment on many levels. Author Charles Arand provides this summary of Martin Luther’s desire to reach young people:

Although Luther pleaded with parish pastors to catechize the young, they were for the most part entirely ill-equipped to carry out the task . . . . Second, the Small Catechism served as something of a manual for pastoral care. It was to assist in his own catechizing of the people . . . . A Year later Luther called for the creation of a new clergy, a supply of ‘ordinary pastors who will teach the Gospel and the catechism to the young and ignorant.’

Similarly, Marshall Dendy makes the following observation of John Calvin’s ministry concerning his shared zeal with Luther for the spiritual instruction of children both in the home and in the church:

Calvin believed that a much more simple instrument than the Institutes was needed for the instruction and indoctrination of children and young people. He therefore drafted a catechism as an instrument for their instruction . . . . In order to provide for such instruction, schools were opened. Individuals were instructed in the contents of the catechism and how the catechism was to be taught. Pastors were the first teachers of the catechism, and it was customary for children to be publicly examined before the congregation of its contents.

Dendy also credits John Knox for developing an intricate system for the education and discipleship of youth:

The first Book of Discipline, prepared by Knox and five of his colleagues, outlined a plan for the education of the youth of Scotland. The plan called for a series of schools in every ‘Toun.’ The schools were to be established by the church. Every boy and girl was to have at least four years of education. At the end of those four years the children who passed their examinatinos were to continue their studies for six additional years¬† . . . . Knox’s plan was a bold one. He advocated education that was permeated with religious instruction, a plan that would put God at the center of education.

The ministry efforts of Luther, Calvin and Knox reveal a significant priority given to reaching and teaching young people: in the home, the school, and in the church. But they wrestled with how this could best be done to the glory of God. And so do we.

If you find yourself asking some of the same questions and struggling with some of the same frustrations, please consider joining us at Southern Seminary for our upcoming conference on November 4-5, 2011: Re:Invent


It is somewhat interesting to note that Mike Yaconelli’s article is no longer available at the Youth Specialties website. However, a number of blogs have reposted it, like this one here.

The quote from Mark Cannister is taken from his article entitled “Growing Up Without Selling Out: The Professionalization of Youth Ministry” can be accessed here at the Youth Specialities website.

Historical information regarding Martin Luther’s desire to disciple young people is taken from Charles Arand’s work That I May Be His Own: An Overview Oof Luther’s Catechisms published in 2000 by Concordia Academic Press.

Historical information regarding John Calvin and John Knox is taken from Marshall Dendy’s work Changing Patterns in Christian Education published in 1964 by John Knox Press.