Feeding the sheep or guarding the goats?

The youth pastor has a difficult balancing act to accomplish. He is expected to spiritually nurture the religiously inclined young people while at the same time running a program that will appeal to the restive youth who are on their way out of the church. And he must do both without alienating the adult members!

Kevin J. Howse is a doctoral student at Andrews University, on assignment to Newbold College, England.

Each year nominating committees in churches around the world spend a cumulative millennium of time discussing how to fill the youth leadership positions in the church and with whom. The poor "volunteer" (whose arm is in a cast from being twisted) normally flounders around for twelve months and hopes for the best. In larger churches, meanwhile, nominating committees clap their hands in joy, singing, "Let the youth pastor do it."

When this youth pastor (often a young man just beginning his ministry) arrives at his church, he is frequently confused by the enormity of the congregation, its programs, its possibilities, and its problems. Upon these youthful and inexperienced shoulders also rests a heavy load of expectations, the likes of which would bring both Atlas and Hercules to their knees. From church members, both adult and youth, from the senior pastor, from his denominational superiors, and from various church officers comes a bewildering blend of voices demanding that he: (1) run a contemporary and fast-moving youth program that will at the same time meet the scrutinizing tastes and standards of the adult leadership and membership; (2) relate with the youth no one else can relate to—those who are socially and religiously alienated—while also identifying with and supporting the church institution, its committee actions, and its ways of doing things (the very items these alienated young people reject); (3) feed the sheep who are good at heart and dedicated to the Lord and church and at the same time guard the goats who are resistive under orthodoxy and camping on fools' hill awhile; (4) speak to contemporary concerns and yet at the same time preach the "old, old story"; (5) wear the hats of evangelist, pastor, counselor, teacher, administrator, sports coach, and "all-around nice guy," with dignity and humility; and (6) be both peer and parent, friend and preacher.

The youth pastor is expected to have a formidable array of virtues and gifts, and a wisdom matching Solomon's. Such pres sure wears away at the very identity of the youth pastor himself. All too often he falls into the youth pastor syndrome, a state of confusion that leads to apathy and finally to a disruption in his family, life, and work.

Some years ago I found myself caught in this youth pastor no-man's land betwixt these conflicting expectations and pressures. For the first month I was besieged by young and old, right and left, about what was expected of me as the new youth pastor. I was delighted with the input but was skeptical that it was representative. Consequently, I developed a simple questionnaire that I hoped would give me a clear picture of the expectations both youth and adults had of my role. The instrument was not born in a moment of genius, but seemed adequate to the task. Four broad categories of a youth pastor's work were selected by classifying the verbally expressed expectations I had received during that first month:

1. Evangelist: coordinate and lead out in personal and public youth outreach to the Christian and non-Christian community.

2. Administrators coordinate and facilitate youth programs, helping the youth to do for themselves.

3. Counselor: engage in problem-oriented counseling aimed at helping the distressed young people of the church.

4. Religious educator: teach and pastor, preparing and training youth in principles of Christian living through seminars, small groups, lectures, et cetera.

The congregation was asked to rank these four categories according to the importance they placed on each of these functions for the youth pastor. The survey was completed by 118 young people and 112 adults. I should make it clear at this point that the sampling methodology was not as controlled as I would have desired, but it was controlled as much as practicable. When the results were tallied, the two groups gave the following priorities to the four activities: [See pdf or print edition]

The first and most obvious observation that can be made regarding this survey is that the adult church community thinks that youth have more problems that require therapeutic assistance than do the youth themselves. Both in this situation and in my subsequent ministry I have detected a definite feeling among adults that youth for the main part have serious problems. As time went by, it became more and more obvious that this impression came, not from firsthand con tact with youth, but rather from hearing about sensational situations in which a small number of youth got into difficulty. In other words, youth at large are often judged by the minority of youth who get into trouble. Youth are also often judged by criteria of Christian maturity that few adults can attain. A later and more exhaustive study of the entire youth population of my church revealed that problem youth in that church represented only 8 to 12 percent of the youth population. The majority of the youth, I am convinced, are sincere Christians; fun-loving, immature, and sometimes wayward, yes, but sincere Christians nonetheless.

For me, the lessons were obvious. We do our youth a great disservice when we allow the glaring mistakes of a few to shadow our opinions of the whole. Worse still, we do a great disservice to the majority of sincere Christian youth when we target our time and ministry primarily toward the minority of youth whose presence is so obvious by their misbehavior.1 Both the "sheep" and the "goats" must be attended to in their own way and with their special diets. Youth ministry, which is always trying to reach fringe groups, is generally reaching only minority groups and may be neglecting the solid core of youth who comprise the silent majority.

Second, as I moved around the church I felt the need to protect and shield this majority group from undeserved harsh judgment and to help those standing on the sidelines to get involved with youth so they could see their positive strengths and virtues and thus help this majority grow.

A second observation regarding the survey is that there was considerable agreement between the youth and the adults. More than 80 percent of both the adults and youths surveyed ranked the counselor/religious educator roles as being either their first or second priority. To me this meant that my function was to be a teacher/healer to the youth of the church, and by so doing the expectations of both youth and adults would be met.

Third, although administration ranked a poor fourth by both adults and youth, I found myself actually becoming more and more bogged down in paper work, commit tees, fund raising, et cetera. There is often a strong expectation that the youth pastor will sit on all church committees so that he knows what is going on. He is invited to attend many functions that detract from his central purpose to minister to youth.

One solution is to train young people who have the gift of leadership, but this takes the confidence of the church and time to develop. These individuals are selected to represent the youth council on the various church committees so that when the youth council meets, the activity of the entire church is also taken into consideration. As the elders function to carry some of the administrative load for the pastor, so youth leadership can be trained to do likewise for the youth pastor.

Counseling rated high on both youth and adult lists. But the work of counseling and educating youth brings no quick results. This fact causes disappointment to many. Church leadership especially seems to expect drastic, fast, and demonstrative change to take place. Many are tempted to judge the effectiveness of a youth pastor on short-term results. Results do take place under a competent youth pastor, but often they are not obvious, nor do they happen in the way expected. The development of a sound Christian perspective on life takes time to develop and nurture. The quality of one's ministry in preparing youth for life can be evaluated only when those youth move out from home and school and move into the stream of life.

Popularity, too, is a poor criterion of youth-pastor effectiveness, although for many, including the youth pastor, this is one of the most important standards. While it is true that the work of youth ministry is made easier if one's personality is such that friendship and trust are readily developed, it is also sadly true that many youth pastors never move past the point of merely developing their own popularity. The youth pastor is called upon to minister, to serve, to instruct, to counsel, and even to take firm stands for matters of principle where his popularity may be jeopardized. He is not to draw upon affirmation and group acceptance as the motives for his service, but rather he must draw upon his own spiritual commitment and his dedication to the philosophy of youth ministry. Youth ministry, like any other ministry, can be lonely at times; thus the job requires a strong sense of inner security, a positive self-concept, and a daily walk with God.

Although evangelism rated low in the expectation charts, I found that over the long haul evangelistic results were achieved. This was especially apparent in the small group fellowship ministry. These groups met with the purpose of providing interpersonal affirmation and support as well as spiritual guidance through Bible study. When needs were expressed and met in a young person's life, an enthusiastic response often led to that person's bringing friends.

Some have suggested that there is no need for a special pastor to take care of the youth population of the church. I agree that ideally the nurture of youth would best be done in the home or in some intergenerational setting. But we must also recognize that few churches or pastoral teams would be ready for such a program. My survey, limited though it was, confirms what we all know—youth are undergoing a once-in-a-lifetime experience that requires all of our best concentrated efforts in nurturing them to full Christian maturity. Education and counseling combine in a unique way to give guidance to youth who are in a period of transition from family- and peer-oriented religion and values to a personal and independent life in Christ.

Youth ministry, correctly implemented, should combine with the agencies of the home, church, and school to build the character of the church of the next generation.

Ministry reserves the right to approve, disapprove, and delete comments at our discretion and will not be able to respond to inquiries about these comments. Please ensure that your words are respectful, courteous, and relevant.

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Kevin J. Howse is a doctoral student at Andrews University, on assignment to Newbold College, England.

July 1982

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