Youth Ministry & the Law of Unintended Consequences (Pt. 1)

Did the modern youth ministry movement create the Emerging Church? That’s the question Tony Jones addresses in a recent blog post. While presenting a paper at an academic conference, Jones fielded questions from professors of youth ministry primarily from evangelical colleges and seminaries. Jones said to them, “You all have strong feelings about the emerging church movement, most of them negative.  Well, you are directly responsible for the emerging church movement.” He went on to describe how contemporary youth ministry shuns the “accoutrements of power (vestments, titles, special roles and rites). Instead, youth are encouraged to engage all of the practices of the community equally.” In other words, the rejection of structural authority and the focus on a flat structure of relational authority which has marked the Emerging Church Movement was learned in youth groups. Jones noted how many ECM leaders first had lengthy youth ministry experience within evangelical churches: Tim Keel, Doug Pagitt, Dan Kimball, Tim Condor, and Chris Seay. To the youth ministry professors who may have a negative view of the Emerging Church, Jones said, “You taught them relational youth ministry, so what kind of churches did you expect them to plant?” What do you think of Tony Jones’ premise that evangelical youth ministry created the Emerging Church? I think he’s on to something important here–namely that ecclesiology is taught (explicitly but primarily implicitly) well before adulthood. Kids form their understanding of church very early, and it stays with them into adulthood. This poses a problem for many children and youth ministries that do not have a long view of formation. I think it’s fair to say that many youth ministries are focused on helping students through high school by creating a fun, engaging environment where they might learn about faith in Christ and hopefully connect to relatively safe and healthy peers. But how many youth ministries are aware of forming a students ecclesiology or practical theology of formation? The problem is a result, at least in part, of what Kara Powell calls the “Kitchen Table Syndrome” that marks many evangelical churches. This is how she describes the isolation and separation of youth from the adults in the community…much like the way kids get their own table at Thanksgiving. It’s a “separate but equal” vision of ministry. The intent is to provide age-appropriate teaching, which is certainly good. But the unintended result is the formation of youth ministries that do not carry the values and traditions of the wider church. In addition, by isolating students they are less likely to form meaningful relationships with older adults in the congregation–relationships that would provide continuity within the church from one generation to the next. Without this continuity we shouldn’t be surprised when 25-year-olds emerge who want nothing more than to deconstruct the way the church operates, slash the authority hierarchy, or just leave the church altogether. To use Jones’ logic, it

was the youth groups of the 80s that created the Emerging Church of the late 90s, which sought to deconstruct the church systems of the 80s. The irony in Tony Jones’ comments to the youth ministry professors is important to see. While decrying the Emerging Church, they failed to see how they helped create it. It’s called the Law of Unintended Consequences, and it can explain more than the Emerging Church. In part 2 I’ll look at how the megachurch movement also is rooted in youth ministry, and possibly the exodus of young adults we are now seeing as well.

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