Which youth ministry language do you speak?

Ask for some chips in the UK and you will most likely end up with oblong batons of potato that have been deep fried in oil and wrapped up in paper. Ask for chips in the US and you will be given a packet of thinly sliced potatoes that have been fried or baked until crispy. The reason for this is that Brits and Americans use the same words but have slightly different understanding of what those words mean. We actually speak a different language to our American cousins.

The same is true in the world of ministry to teenagers. Church members, youth workers, and pastors can all be using the same terminology, but be speaking very different languages.

For example, below is something that a lot of ministers or youth leaders might say:

“As a church we are committed to biblical youth ministry where we help teenagers to grow in their faith and reach out to non-Christian teenagers.”

Yet in that one sentence, a whole range of meanings could apply. For example, I have come across the term ‘biblical youth ministry’ used by different people to mean…

  • a youth ministry that seeks to take the principles and patterns for ministry we are given in the Bible and apply them to teenagers.
  • an open youth club that has a 5 minute Bible talk.
  • a church with multiple ‘streams’ of youth groups, some of which focus on discipleship, others focus on reaching out to teenagers in the community, etc.
  • a church that doesn’t have a youth group at all but instead honours and incorporates teenagers within the life of the church.

As you can see, a whole host of meanings being ascribed to one particular term. The danger comes when we assume that our meaning of the term is a) right and b) the same as everyone else. We’re going to think about the latter of this mistakes.

In the UK at present, the work of the church in making disciples of teenagers is in a perilous place. This is in part because everyone is using the same terms (youth ministry, youth work, etc) but in reality we mean very different things.

Churches, church leaders and youth workers (vocational or not) need to make sure that everyone is speaking the same language (or at least be aware when you are not!). This is especially important when appointing leaders or pastors. When you use the term ‘youth ministry’, what do you mean by it and what do the people you are working with mean by it? What are the key principles and priorities? What are the means of bringing this about? How does it cash out into everyday life?

I am very thankful to God that I am serving with another pastor who speaks the same ministry language as me. But this has not always been the case. Indeed, it has taken me six years to realise that the various people I worked with had different things in mind when we talked about ministry; and youth ministry in particular. Perhaps if I had realised this sooner, mistakes or misunderstandings could have been avoided. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.

Similarly, I know of many (far too many) good youth workers and youth ministers who are no longer serving vocationally (if at all). I suspect that in large part this is simply because they were speaking a different language of youth ministry compared to the church and/or leadership that appointed them.

I will make a case for which is the right understanding of ‘biblical youth ministry’ another time. It is a subject that is of upmost importance in UK churches as we strive to deal with the lack of young people who know Jesus as Lord and seek to live for him each day. But in the meantime, make sure that you are clear on what you mean by the various short-hand and summary terms you use for ministry (youth or any other kind), and make sure you are clear on what other people mean by them too.