There is quite a lot of discussion of youth ministry among Christians. There are blogs devoted to discussion of it, and many mentions of it elsewhere, outside the blogosphere. What one does not find so often, however is mention of the fact that the term “youth ministry” can mean two very different things.
- Ministry to the youth — youth are the objects of ministry
- Ministry by the youth — youth are the subjects and agents of ministry
My contention in this post is that ministry by the youth is the more important of the two, yet it is also more neglected, and tends to be dominated by the other model of “youth ministry”.
I shall try to describe the differences and relative advantages of the two models using examples from my own experience. I’ve not made a great study of the subject, nor have I done much reading about it. I should also say that my conclusions may be as much due to personal prejudice as anything else. In my own youth I never belonged to any structured youth organisation, never attended Sunday School and so had no experience of such things. Though I was exposed to religious teaching in the classroom from the age of 11 on, I hated the idea of teaching religious subjects to children in school, and loathed the idea of teaching Sunday School, and tried to avoid these as far as possible. So if anyone who reads to the end of this concludes that it is based on nothing more than my prejudice, I won’t blame them.
The contrast between the two kinds of youth ministry became particularly clear to me when I went as assistant priest to an Anglican parish in Durban about 35 years ago. The parish had had youth ministry of a “ministry to the youth” type before I arrived. There was a parish youth leader who was leaving. I had no inclination to take over as youth leader and arrange programmes for the youth who attended. I also had the convenient excuse that I was banned at the time, and was prohibited from attending social gatherings, which the Friday night youth meetings undoubtedly were. They were sometimes quite rowdy affairs, and at times the neighbours complained about the noise and called the police. A lot of those who attended were not members of the church, and sometimes motorbike gangs came and hung around outside, mainly to chat up the girls who came along to the c hurch hall, but didn’t go inside. It wasn’t something one belonged to — it was a programme laid on, that one “came to” if one had nothing better to do, and if the bikers outside weren’t more interesting.
The parish priest and I met a few of the young people who did come to church, and told them about the two kinds of youth ministry. We said that up till now it had been “the church doing something for the youth”. That would end. There would be no more youth worker, no one arranging programmes for the youth. But if anyone was interested in the other kind of youth group, not the “church doing something for the youth”, but “the youth of the church doing something”, we would be willing to help and support them in it. It was not something that would be done by someone else, that they could “come to” if they felt like it. They were it. If something was to happen, they would have to make it happen. Rather reluctantly, a few decided to give it a go.
We gave them the model of the Anglican Young Peoples Association (AYPA), an international Anglican youth organisation. It was based on parish branches that had a committee, which planned the programme, and was responsible for liaison with the clergy, parish council and other parish bodies. The committee was elected by the members, and the members were admitted publicly at a service after a trial period, and committed themselves to a rule of prayer, Bible reading, communion and so on. The responsibility was on them to make it work. It took a couple of years to really get going. The first elections were something of a popularity contest — people voted for their friends, who were not necessarily the best people for the job. Eventually a group of recently-confirmed 12 and 13 year olds, tired of the poor performance of the older committee, staged something of a coup and at one annual general meeting elected people that they thought could do the work. Thereafter it flourished, at least while I was in the parish. It showed, to me at any rate, that if one trusted people with responsibility they would be more likely to behave responsibly, and I believe that the youth made a real contribution to the life and ministry of the parish. The President of the AYPA was eventually coopted as an ex-officio member of the parish council, and though too young to vote, made useful contributions in discussions at meetings, and was listened to. It was such a success that the younger brothers and sisters of members demanded one for them too, and eventually we started a mini-AYPA for 8-11 year olds, running on the same principles, and arranging their own programmes. They had adult advisers and the clergy as chaplains, but had plenty of ideas of their own.
I had learnt about the AYPA and its principles about 15 years earlier, as a 17-year-old school leaver in a Johannesburg parish, where I was introduced to other members and invited to join. In that parish the AYPA branch consisted of young people who had left school and were either working or studying at university or other tertiary institutions. There were four principles of the Association, Worship, Work, Fellowship and Edification, and the committee tried to plan activities that would emphasise one or other of the principles in a balanced way — for worship, about once a month they would invite one of the clergy to give a devotional address, followed by Compline. For work, there were things like building projects at a clinic in a neighbouring parish, cleaning the church and other such activities. For fellowship, there were parties, treasure hunts, games evenings and the like. For edification, there were Bible studies, visiting speakers, film shows and something peculiar to AYPA called Corporate Mental Action. But all four principles were supposed to be reflected in all activities of the association and its members. Members of the committee visited other parishes, and encouraged them to form branches too, and eventually there was a diocesan council and diocesan rallies, bringing together the youth of several parishes. In those days of apartheid, it was one of the few means for black and white youth to meet and get to know each other.
At all meetings the parish priest was welcome, but never indispensable. He usually attended only by invitation, when asked to speak, or to take the chair at the annual general meeting when the new committee was elected.
At the same time I was studying at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits), and at the university there was an Anglican Society (Ansoc) that functioned along similar lines. It was one of many student societies, some religious, some sporting, some cultural. There was a Jewish Society, a Muslim Society, a Catholic Society, and an ecumenical Protestant one called the Students Christian Association. The Anglican Society did have a full-time chaplain, at that time the Revd Tom Comber (though he was also chaplain to a girls school), but the society was essentially run by its elected committee.
The Catholic Society was affiliated to the National Catholic Federation of Students (NCFS) and some members of the Anglican Society thought it would be good to have an Anglican Students Federation too. They wrote to Anglican Societies at other universities, teacher training colleges, theological seminaries and the like and invited them to attend a conference, held in July 1960 at Modderpoort in the Free State, which was more or less central to the whole country.
About 50 students from various parts of the country attended the week-long conference, and every day there were a couple of speakers. The speakers had been invited by the Wits Ansoc committee, and each read a paper, which was followed by small group discussion, usually on questions formulated by the speaker. It opened with Bill Burnett (then known as Bendyshe), the Anglican Bishop of Bloemfontein, speaking on “The theological roots of Anglicanism”. Fr Victor Ranford, SSM, spoke on “Empirical knowledge and revealed truth”. Brother Roger, CR, spoke on “Pilgrims of the Absolute” (you can find a version of his paper here). Alan Paton spoke twice, on “Christianity and communism” and “Ourselves and the African continent”.
On the last day a business meeting was held, at which it was decided to form an Anglican Students Federation and a provisional committee was elected to draft a constitution and organise another conference the following year. Like the AYPA, the university Anglican Societies were student bodies run by their members, and the Anglican Students Federation was run by a committee elected at the annual conference, which met once or twice a year, and arranged the conference. The annual conference also elected an ASF chaplain from among the chaplains present. Most, with the exception of Wits university and the theological colleges, were part-time chaplains.Thus there was no central organisation, no bureaucracy. The Anglican Students Federation was youth ministry, done by the youth, for the youth.
The Students Christian Association, the generic Protestant student ministry, was another matter. It was run by an “adult” committee, and was, in accordance with the apartheid policy of the government, run in four separate sections: Afrikaans, English, Black and Coloured. In 1964 the Afrikaans section (CSV – Christelike Studentevereeniging) decided it would be more in accordance with government policy for the four to be entirely separate and independent of each other. So there would be the CSV, the SCA, the SCM (for blacks) and another body for coloureds), and the assets of the combined body would be divided among them in proportion.
This would mean that there would be no nonracial ecumenical student body in South Africa, and John Davies, then the ASF chaplain, expressed his concern about this to members of the ASF committee, who called a couple of meetings of people from the National Catholic Federation of Students, and the non-Afrikaans branches of the SCA and others to discuss the possibility of replacing the disintegrating SCA with a new nonracial body.
A conference was held, and eventually such a body was formed, the University Christian Movement. But it had one feature from the SCA that bodies like the ASF did not have – paid employees and a central office — in other words, a bureaucracy. It was thus not a student-run organisation, but a ministry to students rather than ministry by students. Eventually it disintegrated into its racial components just as the old SCA had, though under the influence of black consciousness rather than separate development.
At various times when I was involved with the ASF there had been proposals for having a travelling secretary, as the SCA did. The proposals were never taken up, partly because of cost, but also partly because having a central bureaucracy would mean that the ASF would cease to be a student-run organisation. Bureaucracies are invariably and inevitably run for the benefit of the bureaucrats. Ecumenical bureaucracies are worse in this respect than most others, because there is less supervision. There might be a board that meets once or twice a year, to supervise (in the case of the UCM, it exercised supervision on behalf of the supporting churches) but ultimately the direction of the organisation is in the hands of the paid staff. But whether it is a national student organisation or a local parish youth group, the distinction is the same. Is it ministry to the youth, where the youth are objects of ministry done by a youth minister, youth worker, youth pastor, travelling secretary, call it what you will. Or is it the ministry of the youth themselves, as part of the church? Are the youth objects to be manipulated, or members of the church in their own right? And in my experience the kind of youth ministry that is ministry by the youth is far, far better than the kind where the youth are the passive objects of someone else’s ministry. And I’ve seen it working among tertiary students, among post-school youth (mixed working and students) in a parish, among high school age youth, and even among those of primary school age.
At one point the 13 and 14 year-olds in the parish youth group wanted a camp. They came to me and said they wanted a camp. I said, “Well, set a date and organise it.” “How?” they asked. “Form a camp committee. Some of you are Girl Guides — get them to contact the Guides about hiring a camp ground and tents. Work out how many people you expect, how many meals you need, how much food you’ll need, set a camp fee, and plan it.” They did. It might have saved a lot of trouble for them to have a “youth minister” who would take care of all the details but they wouldn’t have learnt so much. Apart from anything else, planning a project together and carrying it out helped them to work better together as a team.
At another camp, held at a different venue that belonged to a Christian youth organisation, the caretaker kept coming to the people who looked to him like “adult leaders” and asking who was in charge, and we replied “They are,” pointing to the kids. He would say “Shouldn’t they be going to bed now?” And we would say “They’ll go when they’re ready.”
I far preferred the populist approach to youth leadership: the people shall govern. And on the whole, they governed themselves fairly effectively.
The older generations sometimes say things like “The church must do something about the youth, because the youth are the church of the future”, but unless the youth are acknowledged as part of the church of the present, they’ll not be much use in the future. At best, providing a “youth pastor” to do ministry “for the youth” will simply raise the next generation of Christians with a consumer mentality, who complain that they are not being fed. So let youth ministry mean ministry by the youth, not to the youth; not “the church doing something for the youth”, but the youth of the church doing something.