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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  • November 7, 2011

    Rick Heltne

    I agree in large part with Tony and not just because he is a friend of mine. To expand the notion, I have had a number of conversations of late as to whether relational/incarnational youth ministry isn’t also the incubator for what is being called missional church movements.

  • November 7, 2011

    Neal Watkins

    Enjoyed your article.. As a youth minister, it has always been a strange (but seemingly necessary objective) to give the students a “space” of their own – creatively, spiritually, and often physically.

    In a practical sense, I wonder if encouraging that “separate but equal space” is what often leads to an older church that burns out stale, and a younger church that finds itself struggling to sustain itself, often financially. In another sense, it seems to me that we might be missing a large portion of our responsibility as youth leaders when we fail to integrate students into a larger community (or vice versa) and identify the value of their leadership for the larger church.

    I have no issue with the church evolving in any direction to any model or style. I just find it sad when evolution means splitting. What does it say about how teens and young adults value their churches when their solution becomes to start a new one? What does it say about how their church values them when that’s the only solution left?

  • […] It’s not just the emergent church. Soon, Jethani plans to outline a similar pattern in the megachurch. See the rest of the article here: Youth Ministry and the Law of Unintended Consequences […]

  • November 7, 2011

    Dan Kimball

    For a long time I have been saying when I speak places that as a church planter, I feel I am leading a youth group for adults. Not in what we teach or style of what we do. But that in youth ministry you are passionate about evangelism and an incarnational approach to ministry. In youth ministry you probably spend more time incarnation ally understanding culture, youth, you are out of the church office, you are listening and observing. Then how we communicate and how we strategize what we do is based around the mission of seeing youth know Jesus and follow Him is a result. When I was leading a youth ministry that is what we did. When I shifted to young adult ministry, that is what we did. It looked different, but philosophically it was the same. When we planted a church, that is what we did. Saying that, I don’t mean that you teach and have content that remains for youth. But what I love about this is that youth ministry forced us to think more missionally and take risks and not be afraid to rethink things for the sake of the mission and seeing new disciples made. It is sad when that sense of being outside church walls and thinking incarnationally is lost.

    Bill Hybels planted Willow Creek after leading youth ministry. The same heart for mission continued and rethinking the mission for that time period and people.

    With the “emerging church” a result of youth ministry, of course it was. For many, it was generally those who were passionate about reaching the next generation in youth but wanted to do something about what happens post-high school as so many weren’t connected with the broader church. That is why Youth Specialties got involved in the beginning because it was was happens after high school for students and are churches paying attention to the post-high school years. For some of us, as we planted churches this same passion continues although now in a multi-age church. At Vintage Faith Church we are seeing new Christians, a passion for theology and doctrine (I am saying that being in the middle of a series on doctrine and theology and seeing growth in numbers and seeing people place faith in Jesus who were not Christians). A lot of college students too who are passionate about doctrine and theology.

    I just heard that Chris Seay’s church in Houston, is booming and seeing new growth and life and disciples made and moving into a larger facility. I was just with Phil Comer who is one of the pastors who launched Solid Rock Church in Portland (and the guy who mentored me and brought me on church staff for the first time in Santa Cruz) and they have 6,000 people now in their church and a great majority college and young adults. So I have so much optimism seeing what is happening out there not with young adults leaving church, as much as young adults now being part of churches. I am actually writing a book now on common themes in churches who are seeing young adults returning to church or becoming Christians in these churches.

    With the whole intergenerational thing you mention, I agree we need mentoring and intergenerational relationships and wisdom and love passed on from one generation to the next. But there are plenty of dying churches who have grandpa’s and grandkids in the same worship service and then the kids leave as they get old enough. I don’t think that is the answer of trying to get all ages into the same worship service. But I do we need to teach what is “church” to youth and college age and not only build silos of ministry.

    But at the same time, I am a strong proponent of youth ministry being needed still and I think we can put way too much focus on trying to get all ages in the same worship gathering as what then makes intergenerational ministry a success. You are in a movie theater with all ages, and that does not produce relationships and in most churches on Sundays you are basically sitting in seats listening to someone and looking at backs of heads. So I would rather put more effort on intergenerational relationships that happen during the week than on trying to get them all into the same worship gathering.

    Some thoughts on what you wrote – but totally agree that youth ministry influenced the future church and created the emerging church. But also created so many things and how we go about ministry today. And I hope it continues to do so, as if we lose the risk taking, and passion for mission and evangelism and incarnational approach that youth ministry has, the future church could stagnate. Isn’t that what happened to where we needed to begin youth ministry in the first place? There were all generations in church at the time, but the church culturally lost touch, and then parachurch youth ministries had to try and fill a gap. And then youth minister eventually became professional and normative. So I hope we don’t ever lose that passion and may we never lose touch that way or we may see the same thing happen again.

  • November 8, 2011

    Andy Rowell

    Skye and Dan, just a note that it is fun to see you guys reflecting on this. I was there when Tony gave his original presentation.


  • November 8, 2011


    I’m coming from the opposite side. That youth group experience felt to me like legitimate Body life. We shared everything in common, mutually encouraged one another, held each other accountable, and I’d even argue expressed the gifts of the Spirit in common and in an orderly fashion.

    The youth didn’t leave the local church, the church left the youth.

    Thank you for the excellent article, Skye, and I hope my brothers and sisters here can forgive my ire. I sincerely feel our Sunday morning routine has robbed Christ of his fully functional Body, and if that’s not worth getting mad about I really don’t know what is.

  • November 8, 2011

    Deb Grupe

    When the church Establishment refuses to change, or resists change, they really can’t be surprised when their younger members split. So many pastors and parishioners still want the church of the 1960’s. Be realistic. That was 50 years–over 2 generations–ago. “The Church is always reforming.” Sadly, the church of the Reformation often forgets that very principle.

  • November 8, 2011

    Deb Grupe

    Jeremy is spot on.

  • […] Read part 1. […]

  • November 9, 2011

    michael j. kimpan

    interesting article. strange that there was no mention of tony jones, or his highly influential ‘postmodern youth ministry.’ not to mention his influence and work since…

  • […] suggests some of the unintended consequences that may have come from the model of youth ministry that has […]

  • […] Skye Jethani weighs in on Tony Jones’ suggestion that Evangelical youth ministries are responsible for the Emerging Church. It’s a very interesting discussion. […]

  • […] The author, more or less, has laid the blame at the feet of youth workers throughout the years.  I think that may be an overstatement, however, I am starting to see the how youth ministry influences the church in some significant ways.  The preferences and styles of the church are being shaped by the youth ministries that students have gotten involved in.  It is the law of unintended consequences. […]