Erin Lane: Youth ministry is not the future. It is the church right now.

Youth ministry is not just a stepping stone to real leadership.

I was sitting across the dinner table from a young man I had just met and chatting with him about where he went to church. It was pleasant enough. He offered that he attended a local non-demoninational church where he played guitar on Sunday mornings and volunteered with the youth group on Wednesday nights. I nodded eagerly as I chewed. My husband is a youth pastor and always lamenting the lack of committed volunteers.

I was about to commend the young fellow’s efforts when he dropped the line, casually and without irony, “But I would really like to get more involved with the church’s leadership. I guess the youth are fine for now.” It hung heavy in the air and dry in my mouth.

Like many young leaders in the church, he considered working with the youth a stepping stone to the main event of adult ministry. This isn’t uncommon. A handful of senior pastors I’ve known over the years have gotten their start in youth ministry. They’ll laugh nostalgically about the days when they were in their twenties, staying up through the night for a Star Wars marathon or backpacking in the wilderness through odorous summers.

It’s true that youth ministry takes energy and a flexible sleep schedule, among other things. I volunteered to go on one of our church’s youth mission trips a week before getting married and spent the last day of the trip holed up sick in a darkened hotel room, seeking refuge from the germy little bodies. Our wedding ceremony was punctuated by my intermittent sniffling.

I don’t assume that all youth pastors that go on to become senior pastors thought of their initial job as an inconsequential training ground. But is it not telling that I’ve not once heard of an adult pastor reporting to a youth pastor? I’d argue that even when using the word “adult”, churches often mean the coveted 18-49 year old market. Should we be suspicious that this mimics the demographic assumed until recently to be the most influential by national advertising and marketing firms? It’s as if the bodies and minds we consider most rational, most normative perhaps, warrant the most attention.

For bible-touting Christians, this should sound antithetical to a gospel that prizes social outcasts; the widows, orphans, and poor can be a needy bunch requiring much of the same irrational love, sweat, and attention that teenagers do.

With a master’s level degree in Christian Education and a call to lifelong youth ministry, my husband is a rarity in his field. Statistics vary widely. Whether the average tenure is eight months or four years for a youth pastor, it is not an enduring career for most. Those practicing without theological education number as high as 70% of the field.

Jeffrey Conklin-Miller wisely pointed out in his recent article on Youth ministry as learning laboratory” that the answer is not to start treating youth as quasi-adults, thus promoting youth ministers to a more respected position in the church hierarchy.

The real solution is to start recognizing youth as not the future of the church or the future leaders of the church but the Church enfleshed right here and now.

As a seminary student, I worry that many of us young ministers have been told that we are natural born leaders and must exercise our God-given gifts to their full potential in the church. I worry that this translates into a pursuit of leadership success above the pursuit of following, serving, and bending the knee for Christ’s broken body.

For churches and their leaders who continue to treat youth and their pastors as less-than worthy, I worry that they are missing the oft recounted but little practiced teaching that the kingdom of God belongs to the children who are able to receive it instead of lead it.