youth ministry anti-model

Upon being hired at Augsburg College, I was intent on establishing Augsburg College as THE place to study and train for youth ministry in urban settings. It made complete sense given Augsburg’s unique location and the diversity of its student body. Over time, I have come to a place where I do not think the teaching of urban, or suburban, or rural, or small group, or confirmation, or congregational, or intergenerational, or missional youth ministry will serve the church or the world. In fact, I think this approach actually harms the church, its leaders and the young people we are called to serve.

Instead, I’d like to propose an “anti-model”. Let me explain by painting the history of adolescence and youth ministry with broad brushstrokes (I know I am oversimplifying this, but I still think it works). G. Stanley Hall placed “adolescence” on our radar as a unique life-phase around the turn of the 20th century. With this came a biological, universalizing understanding of adolescence. This led the church to adopt what I call a “Water Tower” approach to youth ministry. Somewhere out there is a water tower full of “ministry”, all you need to do is get your church plumbed correctly, turn on the tap and you will have ministry in your location. It will be identical to ministry in all other places. This will work because adolescents (being understood biologically) are the same everywhere.

Soon we became critical of a strict biological understanding of adolescence and we began to recognize in the influence of culture. Joseph Kett is a great example. Biology is not the only thing shaping adolescence; culture plays a role as well. This led the church to adopt what I call a “Water Bottle” approach to ministry. All you need to do is understand what youth in your culture prefer. Then you head on down to the local Ministry-Mart and pick up a case of bottled water (packaged ministry) that meets the needs of your youth. It might be sparkling water, flavored water, etc. Kids aren’t the same everywhere so we need a way to get exactly what OUR kids need, but we still need to go somewhere else to get it.

Both of these, however, are theologically short-sighted and allow absolutely no agency to our youth or God. Biology and/or culture are the only actors in these two understandings of adolescence and we know this is not true. We know that our youth are not only shaped by culture, but are also shapers of culture. We know that biology is not the only thing determining the future of our young people, we also believe that God is calling them into a future. This calls for a new way of thinking about young people and a new way of thinking about ministry.

Rather than subscribing to a biological or cultural understanding of adolescence, I propose we construct a vocational understanding of adolescence. Rather than limiting ourselves to a Water Tower or Water Bottle approach to ministry, I’m advocating for a Living Water approach to ministry (see living water post) that recognizes God’s living water flowing to God’s people in all places, offering life and hope that is unique to that time and context.

This anti-model is not without some structure or direction. I do think ALL ministry shares particular foundations and practices, but I think our conversation around these practices and foundations has been far too limited by our context(s). I would like to move to the meta-level, that actually enables a community to begin to truly understand how ministry might become contextualized in their location.

I think there are 5 foundations for ministry that create a framework for all ministry everywhere. I also think there are 3 core practices of ministry that allow a community to engage in creative context-specific ministry. My goal is not to universalize ministry with youth, but to talk about ministry (and the educations of leaders for ministry) that truly grows from a process of a community discerning and proclaiming Christ’s incarnation in their location.

The three core practices of ministry are: interpretation, discernment and proclamation of the incarnation. I believe everything we do with children, youth and families can essentially be identified as one of these three practices. These practices happen within a framework shaped by 5 foundations: relational, theological, holistic, experiential, and vocational. We generate and engage in the ministry practices of interpretation, discernment and proclamation in ways that are always relational, theological, holistic, experiential and vocational.
I will begin to flesh out each of these practices and foundations over the next few months. Please stay tuned and please share your 2 cents (or more). I’m eager to hear if you think this works and makes sense.

This post is the first post (of 9) in this “anti-model” series.


About jeremypmyers

Jeremy Myers teaches youth and family ministry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. His current academic interests include articulating a vocational understanding of youth and a public understanding of church. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Paul, MN. Bluegrass music, strong coffee and huge pancakes are a few of his favorite things.
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9 Responses to youth ministry anti-model

  1. danielgriswold says:

    I think that it is good to learn all models, and approaches (including yours) but ultimately all ministry in context specific. You experience Christ, you walk and learn about Christ, you share Christ with others. In the Minister to Youth, youth ministry is a call based on a need and the community affirms the call. The associated human needs surrounding the need for Christ are always different (in diff combinations infinitely combined) so the YM has to be creative in addressing the context – Constantly being filled with Christ – Constantly giving of Christ’s love.

    I suppose what I am saying is that all youth ministers should study all possible models, and then apply all possible good practices as worship in application to the needs of those we minister among.

    That makes a youth ministry professional, and not just someone who copies others success and ends up running because the mission is to hard (in 18 months by statistics).

    Great blog. Thanks.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks for the comment, Daniel. Yes, always contextual. That is the point I am trying to make and I hope it does not sound like I’m proposing another model. I’m trying to offer something constructive without dictating a model, trying to offer a solid but dynamic way of thinking about ministry that allows it to always be contextual but also to move beyond context (to be incarnational – from somewhere else). I guess I’m questioning the wisdom in teaching “all” models and letting people choose the best. There are great things about all the models we’ve seen in the history of our discipline, but I’m wondering if it is time that we put the idea of models (and the ridiculous expectations that come with it) to rest.

      • danielgriswold says:

        Even as I read it I realized how post-post modern I am in my approach to youth ministry. I think you would like Dean Borgman’s book “When Kumbaya is Not Enough.” It asks lots of good questions and addresses much of what you’re aiming at here. Again good stuff.

  2. Mark J. Jackson says:

    Great post, Jeremy. Perhaps it goes without saying, but contextually-appropriate ministry (and, therefore, ministry models) isn’t merely “a good idea,” but essential. In my work with congregations, I sense the growing temptation to be like someone/something else — the church down the road, the model in a book, or how “youth ministry was at my church in 1972.” Unfortunately, churches become quickly disappointed at the results. I appreciate your “anti-model” in that it suggests practices that can be utilized in creating holistic, contextually-based ministries. While I’m not deeply theological in my approach (OK, maybe I am), I am certainly practical — and this is practical.


  3. Pingback: Youth Ministry as Interpretation | tree of life

  4. Pingback: youth ministry is discernment | tree of life

  5. Pingback: youth ministry is proclamation | tree of life

  6. Pingback: Youth Ministry Is Theological | tree of life

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