Biblical Mandate for Youth Ministry

“Ancient Roots of Modern Day Youth Ministry” (Pt. 1 of a 3 part series)

Adolescence is a relatively new phenomenon. G. Stanley Hall was probably the first to use the term in the early 1900s when he wrote Adolescence: Its psychology and its relation to physiology, anthropology, sociology, sex, crime, religion and educationin 1905 (Senter, p.93). However, it was the emerging education system of the 1800s that created an age group that presented unique needs and parental desires.  In 1875 the government permitted the first public high school to “educate young people prior to college” (Senter, p.93).  Prior this era, the expectation of pubescent children was to take on adult responsibilities. While churches had already begun various types of Sunday school efforts to teach children the gospel as well as academics, and the YMCA had programs for young men, “the discovery of adolescence both from a legal perspective and from an educational point of view meant that youth work would have to change” (Senter, p. 93). 

The confusion of how to approach this age group has continued for a hundred plus years. The classic writer Mark Twain’s suggestion, “When a boy turns 13 put him in a barrel and feed him through the knot hole.  When he turns 16, plug up the hole”, reflects a communal frustration of what to do with adolescents who are struggling to transition from childhood to adulthood.  Many parents wring their hands in worry as they contemplate the decisions made by their aging children.  Godly parents search the Scriptures looking for insight on how to raise young adults, who are no longer mere children.  The difficulty is that the Bible is silent about teenagers, as adolescence was not a mindset in that culture. However, this lack of specific instruction does not necessitate reverting back to Mark Twain’s methods of “controlling” young adults.

Perhaps Mark Twain was onto something significant though, as historically the age 13 seems to begin the transitional years from childhood to adulthood.  Many cultures have ceremonies celebrating this arrival of adulthood, although the exact age varies greatly from age 7 in some Hindu cultures to as late as 20 in Japanese celebrations (Wikipedia: adolescence). 

Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah have become cultural institutions unto themselves.  However, these elaborate parties have significant spiritual roots in the Old Testament. Dating back to the time after the Exile, Jewish leaders sought to teach their children the Hebrew language to be able to read the Torah.  Not wanting to see their faith extinguished with age, the synagogue schools become a primary method for the instruction of reading, writing and speaking the Hebraic language. “Young boys attended once they reached the age of manhood at thirteen” (Anthony, p. 35).  This rite of passage entitled the boy to privileges and responsibilities of adult men, such as serving with other men in the synagogue and in the courts (Anthony, p. 35). 

Providing a “language” for their faith was, and still is today, a primary need for adolescent faith development.  While not specifically discussed in Scripture, this shows the purpose of discipleship classes: equipping our students to live and pass on to others the doctrine of God.  The Hebrew roots of Youth Ministry are also found in the educational roles of the priests.  While only boys were allowed to participate in formal education, older boys from the tribe of Levi were apprenticed by older priests (Anthony, p. 28). Elisha’s “company of the prophets” listed in 2 Kings 4:38 provides another type of leadership training group that was present in Ancient Israel. These “prophets schools” are an example of God’s design to rise up the next generation of Spiritual Leadership through mentoring that begins in the family and continues through the larger spiritual community. These various methods of spiritual instruction would look very similar to discipleship groups of today’s Youth Ministry. Small groups of adolescent boys gathered around the local priest or prophet, being mentored in the duties of the synagogue or the teachings of Scripture. The continuation and expansion of faith in the generations to come, we can assume, was their goal, as would be the same for Youth Ministry today. 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. This pathway we will see was practiced and praised throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, which be discussed in parts 2 and 3 of this series... stay tuned for more!