Ministering to the youth

Ministering to the youth on their own turf

A living faith demands communication in living terms. Youth ministry is no exception.

Rick Ferrett is a Seventh-Jay Adventist minister on Pitcairn Island. He devotes most of his ministry to young people.

Call it the generation gap or call it the generation leap. Look to the developing countries or survey the prosperous West. Go to a distant island or a bursting metropolis. You cannot miss it. You cannot evade it. You have to confront it.

The youth culture. The youth value system. The way youth look at life, its mysteries, and its challenges.

It is a universal phenomenon that confronts nations, communities, and homes. The Christian church is no exception: it too is facing from within and outside a distinctive youth culture.1

Therefore, it becomes increasingly necessary that in ministering to young people today, we understand their turf what they think, how they feel, how they relate to each other—and shape our ministry accordingly. Instead of letting our preconceived ideas confront them, we should let their ideas of life, truth, and values define our approach to youth ministry.

One of the most crucial areas of concern in youth ministry is that of value formation. How are values formed? What role do cultural and societal forces play in creating value systems? When a young person says "I just did what seemed right at the time," is that an indication that values do lie beneath decisions? On the other hand, when a person's actions contravene professed values, what shall we say? Is behavior a true indicator of values? How correct is the statement that "once a value be comes internalized it becomes consciously or unconsciously a standard of criterion for guiding action?"2

For many young people today values are formed and governed by the concept of "now time." They tend to view the past and the future as inconsequential. Society in general and the media in particular have not been slow in detecting this attitude and have capitalized on the "now" theme in their effort to capture the mind of the youth.

Another factor that has momentous impact on young people's development of values is the peer group. Researcher John Horrocks has noted: "The family important as it is as a limiting and defining agency and as much as it is the central focus of any child's existence nevertheless cannot usually transcend, or indeed in many cases even meet, the achievement of the 'peer group' in shaping values and in providing perceived personal security as an individual.

"Research has suggested that within the group situation the adolescent can feel a sense of power, belonging, and security; he can make decisions in collaborating with his peers that he would never be capable of making alone.. . . Thus we may see the peer world for most adolescents as a tremendously important source of attitudes, the inhibitor as well as the initiator of action, the arbiter of right and wrong." 3

Hence the difficulty of an older generation to understand fully the youth—their vocabulary, thought process, feelings, perceptions, and values—unless it takes the time needed to identify itself with the world of the youth.

The problem is further complicated by a twofold weakness in how today's society transmits values. First, there is a lack of commitment to any absolute norm, leaving values in a state of constant flux. Second, there is an inconsistency be tween proclaimed attitudes and observable behavior within society, particularly in authority figures such as parents, teachers, political leaders, clergy, etc. A young person is often faced with the dilemma of relativism on the one hand and the hypocrisy of inconsistency on the other.

As traditional patterns of approval/disapproval regarding values diminish, adolescents are generally left to establish their own values within the "peer" group. But peer pressures tend to support a relativistic bias in valuing. For example, a teenager may disapprove of premarital sex personally, but may not wish to take any stand on a peer's conduct. Objective or reflective thinking as a basis for value is often missing; instead impulse becomes the norm. Since youth focus on the present, they tend to judge values in terms of immediate experience rather than of long-term consequence.

The fundamental problem with focusing on the "now" is that it can degenerate into a mere search for satisfying sensations. The craving for entertainment shapes one's values. Consequently, hedonism—seeking pleasure for itself, without accountability—determines what values an entire generation accepts.

Yet the gospel of Jesus Christ locates meaning in life outside the experience of personal pleasure or the gaining of personal ends. Not that the gospel calls for a total renunciation of the ordinary pleasures of living, but it does demand of a Christian that these do not become the focal point of values in life. The gospel requires that we seek first the kingdom of God. Once that priority is conceded, the Christian claim opens the way for living here, living now, and living fully. So the critical problem for the church is to teach its youth to differentiate between the way those in the secular world live in the "now" and the way Christians ought to live.

Scripture as the value norm

But we must go a step further. What shall we teach our youth about how to use Scripture as a norm for developing values? Is the best approach merely authority-based, or is it an internalized process of valuing? For any and all problems our young people face, a common approach has been to give them a good dose of proof texts, quotations, and Bible doctrines. A set of well-defined beliefs and doctrines, presented as a "truth system, " is expected to perform the magic of keeping youth in line with moral and ethical demands. A logical extension of such an attitude has been to see the Bible teacher as a facilitator of knowledge and information, to project the Bible class as an intellectual pursuit just like any other class, and to expect from the student a factual mastery of the subject. Consequently, both the student and the teacher miss the essential purpose of Bible teaching: the making of a new person by the grace and power of God.

However, Scripture introduces not so much a "truth" system based on knowledge and information, but rather a "reality" system, based on the possibility of a new relational dynamic. God's Word reveals to us the real world we live in, the true nature of humanity and God, the pattern of relationships between God and us, and the possibility of entering a new reality governed by God's love and power.

L. O. Richards illustrates the point graphically (see figure).4 He argues that as long as we remain on a truth system in our study and appreciation of the Bible, we remain content-oriented. We may discover and accept truth, but this acceptance is on an intellectual level and does not necessarily govern experience and values.

On the other hand, the second system, which makes the biblical approach to reality its theological basis, helps students find a different way of sorting out life's issues. The students still learn scriptural teachings and doctrines—truths. But rather than remaining merely the object of an intellectual pursuit, these truths become a reference point for experience. And rather than discovering merely someone else's ideas, the students find a genuine standard for evaluating life experiences and conduct.

So system 1 is an intellectual approach to Scripture and system 2 is an internalized approach. The first leads to discovery of truth and calls for acceptance of value norms on the basis of authority. The second leads to internalizing truth and letting that truth govern experience in interpersonal relations and practical Christian living.

Which of these two systems would young people be interested in? A survey of 502 Seventh-day Adventist students in Australia between the ages of 12 and 18 revealed some interesting patterns. The study aimed to ascertain whether young people were more concerned with areas of personal relationships and practical Christian living or with theological and doctrinal areas. A think sheet (see box) consisting of 19 items was distributed. The participants were asked to indicate how important they considered each of these items, rating them in a scale of 1 to 5—1 being least important and 5 being very important.

The survey found that young people consider personal relationships and practical living as the most important areas of concern. They regarded doctrinal and theological issues as less important, although they do not despise doctrine as such.

They also consider issues of intense personal nature as very important (see graph), and would like to know what the Bible has to say about them. A simple question like making and keeping friends received the highest interest rating, suggesting that young people would be interested in hearing what the church has to say about it. Similarly almost 75 percent of the young people surveyed were interested in the issues of temptation and effective prayer. The only practical questions that received low interest scores (3, 6) were those that the students most likely found irrelevant to their situation.

What does all this mean? Without doubt, young people are more interested in a "reality" structure than a mere truth system—which suggests that our traditional methods of teaching and relating truths are inadequate. Bible teaching and value communication, to become effective and meaningful, must move away from emphasizing content only to applying content to experience, from cold facts to warm human living. Only then will teaching have relevance to the valuing task.

In a way the survey dares the older generation to provide opportunities for young people to question, analyze, argue, choose, and possibly arrive at their own conclusions. For too long we have been fearful of facing questions for which we have no answer; we have sought comfort in evasion. "The tragedy is that so many young adults never allow themselves to question beliefs or to be confronted with the searching demands of life in order that their religious 'cliches' and moralisms can be fully examined. For all too many young adults it is not the loss of faith that besets them, but a superficial faith."5

Teaching to think

A teenage student once told me why a Bible class she attended turned her off completely. The teacher was well educated, spoke clearly, showed concern, and was generally nice. He said nothing that really disturbed the student, and yet she had little interest in his class. What was the reason for her frustration? The teacher's inability to welcome and handle questions.

Young people's questioning our closely held beliefs does not mean that they are on the road to perdition. It generally means that they are trying to understand and experience all the alternatives. Real truth is never afraid of openness to question, to debate, to clarification. In fact, it is truth that leads to change in values and belief structures.

Learning situations that are characterized by an issue-answer atmosphere rather than issue-discussion one usually offer a specific solution or point of view as the ultimate solution. Those who teach Bible from this orientation seek to move in a straight line to a previously worked-out solution, arguing logically, but usu ally indifferent to alternative views. Such an authoritarian approach carries a ring of finality about it; once an answer is found, there is no need ever again to reexamine the questions.

Our youth today would reject such an approach. Rather than dismissing alternatives, they want to generate several and then explore them all. Therefore a person teaching Bible or communicating values should try to move outward, seeking new insights and ideas and holding off decision until alternative views are explored. The process emphasizes "opening" outward to the right answer. Once an answer is decided upon it needs to be tested in experience, while the seeker remains open to better solutions.

Both approaches may lead to valid answers. However, the latter is more likely to win and keep the youth because it exposes them to the realities of existence and provides them the opportunity to explore the meanings of life experience in the light of Christian faith.

Have we failed to provide that ideal learning situation? Could it be that we have called our young people to come in side our church walls to talk about our faith without offering the counterbalance of taking them into the "world" to test the reality of faith and belief against the facts of human life and existence?

Whatever the answer, we cannot escape from the conclusion that our ministry to young people should be on their turf, in their world, meeting their demands. To do this successfully, youth ministry:

1. Must flow from an understanding that the youth's expressions of life may differ from ours, but that they are just as valid.

2. Should relate Scripture and doctrine—not merely to achieve intellectual assent and doctrinal discovery, but to create an understanding of a reality structure in which the relational and personal dynamic operates on biblical principles.

3. Cannot ignore or evade problems society poses, but must face them squarely and let Christian principles work on them.

4. Must provide young people direct experience and involvement in the great issues of life where their beliefs and faith can be tested.

5. Must present doctrine as a basis to challenge lifestyle and bring about change in behavior.

6. Must work and play with, teach, counsel, and guide young people on a footing of equality; it must enter their world and be part of their lives.

7. Must be ready to admit that adults don't always have the answers, and that together we can make an honest search for answers.

A living faith demands communication in living terms. Youth ministry has no other option.


The survey referred to in the article
reads as follows:

As you read through the list of
statements below, indicate how
important each item is to you by
giving it a score of 1 to 5 (1 = not
very important, 5 = very important).

1. Salvation: being good versus believing?

2. The judgment: is it going to be that bad?

3. What do you do when you don't enjoy church?

4. How to beat temptation.

5. The Bible: why we can trust it and how we can enjoy it.

6. How to grow up in a home with no mom or dad.

7. What entertainment can a Christian enjoy?

8. The trinity: what is it all about?

9. How to get better grades at school.

10. How can I have more/better faith?

11. The millennium and other last day events.

12. How to get the right boyfriend/girlfriend (dating and all that).

13. How to pray effectively.

14. Daniel: the four superpowers and the mark of the beast.

15. How can I be better prepared for a career/employment?

16. What about sex, drugs, rock, and all that?

17. Making good friends and keeping them.

18: The Holy Spirit, "angels,' and spooks.

19. Easy ways to share your faith.


Reference Notes:

1 "Youth Today," InterVarsity Newsletter,
November 1970.

2 M. Rokeach, Beliefs, Attitudes, and Values
(SanFrancisco: Jossey-Bass, Inc., 1968), p. 160.

3 J. E. Horrocks, "Adolescent Attitudes and
Goals," in Muzafer and G. W. Sherif, Problems of
Youth (Chicago: Aldine Co., 1965), p. 21.

4 L. O. Richards,Youth Ministry (Grand Rapids:
Zondervan, 1972), p. 29.

5 A. Moore, Young Adult Generation (Nashville:
Abingdon Press, 1964), p. 77.

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Rick Ferrett is a Seventh-Jay Adventist minister on Pitcairn Island. He devotes most of his ministry to young people.

June 1991

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