Trevor Pearce, full-time youth worker at All Souls Church in London, challenges us with his thoughts on this key ministry.
It's a Privilege
Having been involved in youth work for over twenty years, and having been a paid youth worker/pastor for over sixteen years, the key word I would use to describe my time is privilege. With every year that passes I am more convinced that youth work is still the most fruitful place to catch people for God's kingdom, and also the finest place to train gospel workers. Having been saved, discipled and trained myself in an excellent youth work, it seemed most natural for me to reproduce the pattern that I had received. That pattern was to unashamedly put building relationships through teaching the Bible with color, clarity, and cultural sensitivity at the very centre. I count it a privilege that the churches that I have worked in set me aside with no other aim, but to make disciples of young people and to train the leaders. In the last sixteen years I have marveled at how many opportunities God has given me through church based youth work, and schools work, to share the gospel with thousands of young people. I thank God for the hours that I have spent with children's and youth workers, teaching and training them how to handle and then teach, God's word. I thank God for how many of them have carried on growing in their faith and winning more souls. I thank God for how many of them, are now either at Bible College, or are now in full-time Christian work. All this has been God's work, and to be part of it has been one of the greatest privileges of my life.
It's a Pain
When I say pain, I don't mean the work, but more how youth work is perceived within evangelical churches today. The overriding experience that I have had is that most pastors make the fatal, and potentially damaging, mistake of thinking that children's and youth work is the place to blood youngsters in ministry. The hope is that with a bit of youth work experience under their belts they will then be ready to get promoted to real big boy ministry, which is of course adult ministry. Because this is the evangelical culture great damage is done.
All the really gifted people only stay in youth work for five minutes. Having displayed some real potential, they are quickly either packaged off to theological college or become full-time workers amongst adults where they can supposedly have a bigger impact, and a real influence, and therefore never touch youth or children's work ever again. If I had a pound every time I was asked, ‘so when you are going to get your own church then?', as if adult ministry or becoming a pastor of vicar was some kind of promotion. Try telling that to Jesus (Mt 19:13-15). The reason I am half decent at youth work, and have worked out Biblical principles for it, and how to work them through in a church, is because I have been doing it for a good amount of time. I could count on one hand how many people I know in this country, that have been in full-time youth work for as long a I have, and that's a tragedy. Therefore let me make a call, a plea to those who are gifted teachers of the word, to make a career in teaching and discipling children and young people. To make a career in helping parents to disciple their children and young people.
Secondly, if we throw young inexperienced kids into positions of leadership within youth work, two things happen.
a. It will potentially become their ministry graveyard. A few years ago I met an experienced pastor who had just employed a young lad of about 22 to be his youth worker. One of the first things he said to me was, "well I hope he gets on ok for I have not got much time to give to him". This sad comment reflects many youth work situations where children's and youth workers are just left to get on with it, with big expectations from the pastor, but with a wafer thin support and training base for them. Therefore, is it any wonder that they fall and fail, and potentially are lost to full-time ministry forever. Every year I help lead a residential conference for children's and youth leaders. Without fail there are always workers who have either burnt out, or just thoroughly disillusioned with ministry. Often the reason is that they are either far too inexperienced for the job, or that pastors expect them to do a tremendously difficult job, with no training, and no support. When our churches employ a new vicar or pastor one of the first things we will look for is the training and experience he has had. He will be teaching adults, who have a good degree of spiritual discernment, and on the whole want to be taught. When we are employing a children's and youth worker we must wake up to the fact that they will be teaching young people who have very little spiritual discernment. They will be teaching people who the media aims their biggest missiles at and are, therefore, incredibly vulnerable. So keep on asking those questions about new pastors, just ask them about youth workers as well. In doing that you may be saving a young youth worker from a ministry graveyard, and your church and youth group from untold grief.
b. If we choose to employ those very young in the faith to be one of the main influences upon our children, youth and their leaders, don't be surprised if theological error creeps in the back door. A great example of this was the Steve Chalk controversy on penal substitution. By the time pastors woke up to the problems in the book, it had been in print for six months and already done its damage in the minds of youth leaders and therefore youth groups. If churches employ youth pastors who have a reasonably worked out theology, then they would quickly be able to refute such error. But if the youth worker is young in the faith, then clever or popular people will potentially lead them and therefore their young people astray, to devastating consequences. My message to pastors is: wake up! To young workers: be careful what you let yourself in for (1 Tim 3:1-8).
It's a Partnership
Lastly, youth and children's work must be seen on the context of a partnership with parents. The Bible is clear that the key responsibility in the discipling of children lies not with the Sunday school teacher or youth workers, but with parents (Dt 6). Therefore, I rejoice in the culture that is developing today where the focus on many youth and children's jobs is centered upon supporting and equipping the parents to disciple their children.