I was busy seminarian in 2002 when a well-established church in an affluent suburb of St. Louis called me to lead its large youth ministry program. I was eager to please my new church and my new boss, as well as have a success story during my seminary years to add to my resume. I followed the prevailing wisdom of the time that to attract youth you needed to mirror the distractions of culture—games, entertainment, activities, events—and then slip in a little Bible study and worship when they weren’t looking. Although my seminary studies were challenging me to push against this prevailing model, I continued to follow it because it seemed to work. “Give them what they want, and they’ll keep coming back for more” was the unofficial mantra of our ministry.

This attitude was most obvious in our selection of the summer mission trip destination. The approach was simple: Ask the youth where they wanted to travel and what kind of work they wanted to do. In those planning meetings, it was not unusual to hear a young person say, “Let’s go to Los Angeles. I’ve never been there,” or, “I want to feed poor people. Let’s find a place where we can do that.” The process was decidedly me-centered rather than God-centered, but how could we blame our young people when we were selling the trip by promising to take them to an exciting destination and provide a host of fun activities at the end of each day as a pay-off for their work?

I guess I shouldn’t be too hard on myself. After all, every youth ministry in my hometown, and most churches across the country, used this model when I was growing up. Churches built ministries around the idea that if an activity helped get students through the door and in a chair long enough to hear the good news, it was worth it. Beginning in the late ’60s, this was the dominant model of youth ministry for decades in the United States, and for good reason. It worked…until it didn’t. What we know now is that although the programmatic model was successful at gathering in several generations of youth who were committed to their local youth ministries, it utterly failed to grow and send out faithful adult disciples committed to the mission of the church. In helping teens develop their me-centeredness, we neglected to develop their God-centeredness.

Problems with Programatic
So what went wrong? In my own ministry, it became clear that the programmatic model borrowed far too heavily from the tricks of consumerism. We invited youth to see our ministries as a mall where they could come and shop for whatever they wanted. Our first goal was to get them through the doors of the church, and we figured that whatever it took to get them there was a justifiable means to a worthy end. So, our ministries turned inward with the focus being the weekly meeting or worship service. We measured our success by how many youth attended those events. We used clever marketing to bring them in, and we understood evangelism to be the work of transitioning a teen from visitor to becoming an official member of the youth group or the church. In this model, our programming (Bible study, service projects, fellowship activities, worship experiences) all focused on drawing and attracting more participants into that weekly meeting. We saw missions as another programmatic element in the midst of this flurry of activity, sandwiched between pizza parties and movie nights. We used terms such as mission trip or service project to suggest mission was a series of discreet, occasional activities to add to the already busy youth group calendar.

I followed this model of ministry for years, though I sensed it neither was an authentic nor effective method for helping teens become life-long disciples. The shift for my ministry finally came when a mentor shared with me these key words: “The church does not do mission. The church is mission.” Gradually, I came to see that instead of treating mission as an item to be checked off our to-do list, it needed to be the focus of our entire ministry. No longer could mission be relegated to a weekend or a week in the summer. No longer would the weekly meeting be our focus. Instead, I began to understand the mission of the church—a mission focused on the justice, compassion, community, grace, love and peace of God—must be at the center of everything we did. It was the yardstick by which we should measure every activity on the calendar, every project, every road trip. If it did not support, encourage and promote God’s mission, then it had no place in our ministry.

I’m not going to pretend this transition happened without some tension in our youth group. It quickly became apparent that many of our teenagers really could not articulate the mission of the church. They knew why they came to youth group, but did not see the bigger picture of how they were called to be part of God’s mission in the wider world. So we began to spend time in Bible study and conversation, looking at the teachings of Jesus and how He understood His place in God’s mission. We invited our youth to consider their spiritual gifts and discern God’s individual calls on their lives. We explored issues of justice and discovered our teens’ passions for making the world a better place. At the same time, we took a hard look at our busy youth group schedule. Activities once understood as firmly held traditions fell off the calendar when we were unable to see how they connected with our understanding of the mission of the church. There was a time when we would take our youth to play paintball, but we began to ask ourselves, “How does a game of simulated violence connect with our commitment to Christ’s way of peace?” When someone suggested activities requiring the use of food as messy props (remember “Fear Factor”?) we asked, “How does wasting food connect with our mission to care for the needs of the hungry and poor?” When our youth asked to play competitive games, we asked, “How does the cultural message of winners and losers promote an understanding the kingdom of God where all are welcome?” Asking such questions became a discipline, a yardstick by which we could measure every part of our ministry together.

Eventually, our youth developed the same discipline and began to take more leadership in the shaping of the week-to-week programming of the ministry. When a student suggested a new activity or project, the group learned to ask, “Why would we do this? How does it help us live out our part in God’s mission?” If we couldn’t figure out the answers to those questions, we knew we either needed to jettison the activity or transform it into something more missional. For example, a Super Bowl party became less focused on sports and more about creating an opportunity for building community and enacting Jesus’ table-sharing ministry. A lock-in became less of a slumber party at church and more of a time of retreat, worship and sabbath together. We moved from being a group that was inwardly focused on our own desires to one that sought to be open to the leading of God’s Spirit into the world. To be sure, many of the traditional programmatic activities remained, but transformed into opportunities to connect more deeply with God’s mission.

The New Differences
There has been some debate as to whether this move from programmatic ministry to missional ministry is a paradigm shift only or something entirely new. I like to envision the models as two overlapping circles. Yet, there are distinct differences that will require a shift in approach for anyone transitioning to a great emphasis on mission. Where the programmatic model focuses on the weekly meeting, the missional approach focuses on God’s call to be Christ’s hands and feet in the world. Where the programmatic model is focused on drawing youth into the church building as the endgame, the missional approach is focused on sending youth out as disciples of the way of Christ to whichever mission field they may be called. While the programmatic model sees evangelism in terms of increasing the numbers of church members, the missional approach calls on us to help youth live out and share the good news in their daily lives. The programmatic model is focused on activity, particularly those that will attract youth. The missional approach is focused on ministry, continually asking, “What is our mission, and how do we follow it?” In this way, mission no longer is seen as one activity among many, but rather as a 24-7 call to live out Gods’ will in the world.

The transition from a programmatic mindset to a missional youth ministry approach happened gradually in that St. Louis church of my seminary days. It was not always met with full support by adults who looked with nostalgia at the more activity-centered youth ministries of their own adolescence, but how could I fault their resistance? I, too, had been deeply baptized in those same waters of consumerism and me-centeredness. Yet it was hard to look at the efforts of our teens and not see the impact this shift in approach had made in them.

My final mission trip with those St. Louis youth of my seminary days could not have been more different from our first mission trip together. Actually, to call it a trip is slightly misleading as we only travelled across town. Those youth, understanding we are called to participate in God’s mission at all times everywhere, opted to stay in their own backyard, serving the needs of their own city. Instead of deciding on our own what sort of projects we wanted to do, we matched the gifts of our group with the work of various local outreach organizations, particularly those where we could establish long-term volunteer partnerships. Instead of spending our free evenings pursuing diversion and entertainment, we devoted time to visiting areas of need in the city, studying Scripture and praying together. It was definitely a God-centered experience for us all. In a way, it proclaimed the new mantra of our missional youth ministry: “Seek what God wants, and our hearts will keep coming back for more.”

Youth Programmatic Youth Ministry
The weekly meeting/worship service is the focus.
Marketing is used to bring participants into that meeting.
Evangelism is focused on making participants into members of the group/church.
Programming (Bible study, mission, fellowship, worship) is all designed to draw or attract participants into that weekly meeting and church membership.
Most of the work is done by professional or paid ministry staff.
Mission is a programmatic element, seen as a scheduled activity several times a year (i.e., the annual mission trip.)

Missional Youth Ministry
The mission of the church is the focus.
Participants are sent out to embody that mission in the world.
Evangelism is primarily about living out and telling the good news.
Ministry, rather than programming, makes up the bulk of the activity. All activity (study, mission, fellowship, worship) is seen through the lens of “What is our mission?”
Strong emphasis on the priesthood of all believers—empowering youth to find their own call within the ministry of the church and to live it out in their daily lives.
Mission is a year-round focus, not a periodic programmatic element, and it involves all aspects of daily life, as well as special opportunities such as summer mission trips.

Brian Kirk has served in youth ministry for more than 25 years and is a published church curriculum writer and co-authored Missional Youth Ministry: Moving from Gathering Teenagers to Scattering Disciples (Youth Specialties, 2011).

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About The Author

Brian Kirk is associate pastor at Union Avenue Christian, a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation in inner city St. Louis, and also serves on the adjunct faculty at Eden Theological Seminary. Brian has been involved in youth ministry and teaching for over 20 years.

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