Biblical Mandate for Youth Ministry

“Biblical Rationale for Youth Ministry in the New Testament” (Pt. 3 of a 3 part series)

The model established by God through God’s people can be describe as such: begin religious instruction in the family home as spiritual practices, add knowledge through the larger community of faith, and provide mentoring from key spiritual leaders for specific practices and duties.

Perhaps the greatest picture we have of the desired result of a healthy and effective youth ministry is the one given to us in the Gospel of Luke when describing Jesus as a young teenager.  Luke 2:42 states that when Jesus was 12 years old he went to the Temple in Jerusalem with his parents.  While this is not intended to be a discussion on Christology, the reality is that Jesus did grow from a natural baby to a young adult.  During this time he began to encounter the challenges all teenagers face: obedience to parents, developing a self-identity, puberty, relationships with others and with God.  Jesus was fully God and added to himself humanity, so it must have amazed the teachers of the Law to be conversing with a normal looking twelve year old boy.  Others were amazed as well with his answers as he gathered a crowd around him (Luke 2:47).  The holistic growth objectives Jesus demonstrated give all youth workers targets to aim for. 

I would pay “big money” to watch an old home movie of Jesus going through puberty; alas we will never know how Jesus handled pimples but we do have strong evidence of how Jesus treated other people.  This loving reputation continues almost 2,000 years later as Jesus is still beloved by most cultures (Christians have a different reputation unfortunately).  The Gospel biographies are filled with stories of Jesus breaking down cultural barriers showing love to Gentiles, the outcast, to women and children.  Jesus was bombarded with requests for help and he was known for his sacrificial love given to all.  The teenage years are very egocentric and one of the greatest challenges for all youth workers is to turn an adolescent’s attention outward to the needs of others.  Jesus modeled what a life growing in healthy relationships looked like.  It was a life of vulnerability and interdependence.  Jesus never formed an exclusive clique but did give greater attention to a smaller circle for both support and mentoring.  Jesus’ stature with God was recognized at his baptism as the Heavenly Father’s voice boomed his approval and love (Luke 3:22). Too often this is the only focus youth workers have: developing students’ spiritual life. While this is foundational, it is not the only aspect of a students’ development we must invest in.  God made us physical, intellectual, emotional, relational and spiritual beings, and the youth worker would benefit all involved if he or she considered how to add knowledge in all these arenas.

Biblical Rationale #4) Jesus modeled the holistic growth objectives for a healthy youth ministry: developing intellectually, physically, relationally and spiritually.

One of the greatest compliments I ever received was from a student who rose to speak at a “thank you” celebration when I left my first church.  I had been involved in youth ministry at this church for 14 years, the last ten as the youth pastor.  I had begun to recognize the benefits of developing the “new pathway” of youth ministry and invested many hours in the lives of a few young men.  All five of these men are currently serving in full time ministry today, most as youth pastors.  This particular student, James, is one of those five I poured myself into during the last few years at that church.  As many people stood to say nice things to my family and I, this young man silenced the room when he simply said, “You are my Paul and I am your Timothy!”  And with that he sat down.  The emotion I had been trying to control burst forth at that moment and I realized I was finished.  I had completed the task God had called me to at that church.  I also recognized very quickly my new calling was to find a “Timothy” as soon as I could at the new church I was birthing a youth ministry at.  What a compliment that student paid me; on my worst days, I think about that moment and smile.  So if I think that, how must Paul feel to be the example to measure ourselves to?

Paul began his religious training early in life; yet it was on a road leading to his next conquest that he truly met God.  As Paul was mentored first by Ananias and later Barnabas (Acts 9), so too Paul would mentor other church leaders in their development: John-Mark, Silas, and finally Timothy, whom he called his spiritual son (1 Timothy 1:2).  While we don’t know Timothy’s exact age, we can assume he was a young adult, perhaps even older if Church tradition is correct in his birth being in 17AD (Wikipedia: St. Timothy).  Paul revisited Lystra on his second missionary trip, approximately five years after the first.  It may be that Timothy’s family became Christians during that first visit.  During those five years, Timothy matured in his faith under the spiritual guidance of his mother and grandmother.  Paul notes the family spiritual environment in his last epistle writing, “I have been reminded of your sincere faith, which first lived in your grandmother Lois and your mother Eunice…” (2 Timothy 1:5).  Timothy is further evidence that the “new pathway” of youth ministry begins in the family home and continues to blossom in the larger community of faith.  Timothy was an active part of the church in Lystra, of which “the brothers at Lystra and Iconium spoke well of him” (Acts 16:2).  This larger spiritual community had spent time with Timothy and found him teachable and faithful.  They saw great benefit in Timothy joining Paul’s team and recommend Timothy to Paul.

Timothy joined Paul during his second missionary trip and was mentored in the practices it took to develop healthy churches.  Timothy must have thought he was off to a rough start when the first thing Paul decided to do was to circumcise Timothy to make him more acceptable to synagogue leadership, as this was Paul’s primary place of engagement for the Gospel.  While Paul had just argued that circumcision was not needed (Acts 15), the reality of Timothy’s Jewish mother but Greek father would have made him an outsider to believing Jews around the world. When Paul later sent Timothy to Ephesus to correct false teachings that had infiltrated the church, he continued to mentor Timothy from afar.  The Pastoral Epistles, two of which were written to Timothy, have become the cornerstone upon which church leadership continues to be built upon today.  I can only imagine Paul reflecting back to the day he first selected Timothy, “Paul wanted to take him along on the journey…” (Acts 16:3).  Paul had chosen others and was disappointed; the sting of Demas’ betrayal stayed with Paul (2 Timothy 4:10), so he must have been proud to see Timothy’s faithfulness ‘til the end.  Paul had chosen “in effect, that Timothy is he heir in ministry and his representative to the church in Ephesus” (Arnold, Vol. 3, p. 449).  Paul could finish strong knowing that the ministries he birthed would continue under the leadership of Timothy and others (i.e. Titus). 

This call to mentoring is the culmination of the Biblical rationale for youth ministry: Youth ministry is the initiating of a youth worker to disciple the life of a younger believer for God’s purpose to be realized.  Jesus modeled this spiritual leadership practice as well when he selected his twelve disciples.  “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted… that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons” (Mark 3:13-15).  Both Paul and Jesus selected younger believers to invest in with the purpose of expanding God’s kingdom through them. Timothy is an example of what God can do in the life of a young adult who plants deep spiritual roots in the family home (mother and grandmother), is encouraged and strengthened through the local church (in Lystra) and mentored by a godly leader (Paul).  

Biblical Rationale #5) Biblical youth ministry is initiated by the youth worker to disciple the life of a younger believer for God’s purpose to be realized

The model established by God through God’s people begins with spiritual instruction in the family home is reinforced and strengthened by mentoring from key spiritual leaders for specific practices and duties.  In the occasions that students come from non-church homes, the community of faith must become the surrogate spiritual family to these teenagers.  This includes youth mentors as well as other adults in the church that will provide meaningful “touches” to remind the students of God’s love and hope.  The three components of this model work in a synergetic manner and should be central to any vital youth ministry.  This means it is the youth worker’s responsibility to nurture and train both the parents and the larger community of faith to provide spiritual instruction to teenagers.  Mentoring is foundational to all aspects of the biblical mandate, whether it’s in the home, the church or through youth programming.  My prayer is this model will cause us to reexamine our ministry practices, as when this biblical model of youth ministry is embraced I believe we will see revival come to the next generations of youth.