Alaina Kleinbeck: Youth ministers are advocates for all young people in their communities

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Young people are vulnerable, and churches must experiment with more holistic approaches to youth ministry, writes the director of Duke Youth Academy.

Youth speak the thoughts and questions adults will only whisper:“Christian worship is where people go to show off their fake smiles.” “Why did that pastor talk about the Supreme Court’s decision on an immigration case during communion?” And, after reading and taking comfort in Isaiah’s messianic prophecies, “Is God ghetto?”

The honest, insightful and inquisitive force of young people is a unique gift at this moment in U.S. history and the Christian story.

Yet today’s young people are also perhaps uniquely vulnerable. Youth populations in the U.S. are increasingly diverse on a range of identity markers, putting many at risk of violence or aggression. Some face diminished opportunities for economic growth. And many have trouble seeing the relevance of faith to the stark realities of their daily lives.

Certain parts of the public sphere have become more aware of these vulnerabilities, but the church has struggled to develop formational opportunities for youth, youth leaders and pastors to help young people make sense of their Christian faith in this challenging context.

It is time for those who minister to young people -- who are coming of age in a moment of political and social turmoil and decreased connection to traditional religious practices -- to re-envision the work of youth ministry in holistic, theologically grounded ways.

Youth ministry is no longer (perhaps never was) simply minding the doctrinal and moral formation of the young in a congregation. Rather, youth ministry must now address the realities of all of the young people in the community. Just as the Eucharistic feast is not just food for the congregation but an embodied testimony to God’s ongoing nourishing presence in the world, youth ministers are not just ministers for those in their spiritual charge but embodied advocates for all young people in the communities where they reside.

This work can take many forms. It might include participation in mentoring programs through local schools or social organizations, or in programs that care and advocate for local gang-affected youth, such as Houston: reVision; it might mean building relationships with other youth ministers and their youth to share resources, burdens, ideas and energy.

The pressing needs of adolescents (and younger children) in our communities present an opportunity for faith communities and institutions to think more broadly about our call to serve and form young people. When a local congregation cannot afford a full-time youth minister, the focus can turn to equipping laypeople for intergenerational ministry and mentoring. If a small-membership church has no young of its own, the church can explore how to support young people through the school system and other social agencies.

Christian institutions are positioned to facilitate experiments in alternative forms of local youth ministry and to train youth ministry practitioners (lay and professional) for robust community engagement as a centerpiece of their ministries. Young people need guidance developing a faith that is discerning, capable of sitting with pain and sustaining hope in spite of it, and insistent that the reign of God is seen in the present, everyday actions of the church and her people.

We have what we need to make this shift. We can listen to and harness the bold voices of young people. We can use existing theological and material resources to imagine new ways of practicing our faith. When theology meets the imagination and courage of the young, the ancient practices of Christian teaching and worship can take on new forms and remind all involved about the endless possibilities of faith in the incarnate God.