What are youth ministries for?

The following originally appeared on The Rooted Blog as the first of a series that asked the question "what are youth ministries for?" This part looks at how the question has been answered historically.  The others look at it Biblically and philosophically.


Hitting a moving target requires an ever-changing aim.  This is as true in youth ministry as anywhere else.  The aim of youth ministries historically has shifted as the needs in society have changed.  It’s hard for us in the 21st century to imagine a world without adolescence, a world that would not understand the concept of a full time youth pastor.  We only need to turn the clock back a few centuries to find our role in the church completely irrelevant.  Why is that?  In the early days of youth ministry, specifically the 19th century, much of the efforts toward youth were devoted to children.  Most teenagers were in the work force at that point.  Later in the century the public high school emerged and by the early 1900’s the concept of adolescence was first described by psychologist G. Stanley Hall.  So, it’s not surprising that the aim of youth ministries historically has changed.

In a blog post for The Gospel Coalition, I looked at the history of youth ministry from the middle of the 20th century forward to see significant developments.  In this post we will look at just a few purposes or aims of youth ministries in the past.  For a more comprehensive look at the history of youth ministry, I would suggest Mark Senter’s book “When God Shows Up: A History of Protestant Youth Ministry in America.”  Meanwhile, let’s look at just five purposes that youth ministries have served or are serving at some point in history.  I am sure you can think of more.

1.     To keep kids off the streets.  Several ministries to young people emerged in history for the specific purpose of keeping kids off the streets.  The YMCA is an example of an organization that formed because rural young people were moving into the cities to find work and needed support in their new life in the city.  A gospel opportunity was seen and the YMCA became a place to gather young men and provide Bible studies, fellowship, and prayer meetings.  Many American youth ministers today would not describe this as their primary purpose for youth ministry. The typical suburban teen has more activities in their life than they have time for. Yet as I spoke with an Egyptian pastor recently I heard of a real need for the church to provide a safe haven from life on the streets.  He described to me how seven days a week loads of teens show up at his church and they feed them, help with homework, provide Bible studies, prayer, activities, etc.  What might not be viewed as a currently relevant purpose in one context may be vital in another.

2.     To keep a vibrant faith in the lives of young people. In the late 1800’s, Christian Endeavor emerged as an international movement that sought to help young people grow in their walk with Christ. Several mainline denominations soon formed their own organizations for similar purpose.  The denominational versions could take on a more catechetical approach as they brought to the table their own particular theological and ecclesiological emphasis.

3.     To provide Christian fellowship for teens.  Following the formation of denominational organizations that promoted Christian faith, local churches began fellowship groups for young people. These in some cases shifted the focus from discipleship to training in churchmanship. In many denominations over time these fellowship groups became a holding place for youth to be involved until they would be old enough to participate in the full life of the church.

4.     To reach unchurched young people with the gospel.  The para-church movements of Youth For Christ and Young Life took a decidedly more evangelistic approach.  The emergence of a distinct youth culture created a context to reach teens that were not being ministered to in the church.  Youth For Christ began with evangelistic rallies (Billy Graham being one of the main evangelists) and Young Life took a local club approach where groups met in students’ homes.

5.     To make disciples of young people.  In some ways reacting to the para-church movements, a number of organizations emerged that either sought to disciple teens or created resources for the church to make young disciples.  In some contexts this has meant resourcing or partnering with parents.  Most American youth pastors would likely describe their purpose in youth ministry as primarily making disciples.

Looking at the aims of youth ministry over history helps us see how context shapes the needs and opportunities for ministry to students.  My friends who do urban youth ministry speak of the need to get students off the streets while those doing suburban ministry complain that their students are far too busy for youth group meetings. Most of us however would deplore the idea of simply providing fellowship for youth because we have seen the need for making disciples and evangelizing the unchurched. Some would argue that there was a time in recent history when it appeared as if youth ministries existed merely to attract large crowds and make the church leadership feel good about the future of the church.  Fortunately things are changing in the youth ministry landscape both here and further afield.