Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 2): Theological Basis for the Shift

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In the previous article, I gave some vistas of the modern landscape of rank & file youth ministries, in hope of sparking some interest in doing things differently so we may achieve some different results. One of toughest things about about dealing with young people is that you may never see the fruit of the seeds you plant. But if the vast majority of crops wither within five years, that’s another problem entirely. It’s time to reexamine how we farm.

I believe the ‘who’ that’s missing from most contemporary youth ministries is quite simply adults of the congregation. As I started to examine scripture and considering why and how we do what we do in youth ministry, I discovered that adults intentionally being around the youth for the explicit purpose of spiritual formation was not a new thing at all. In fact, it was quite ancient.

The Theology

Since there aren’t really youth groups in the Bible,[1] let’s look at some relevant passages about spiritual formation of the young, and adults’ role in it. These passages constitute a (non-exhaustive!) foundation of a theology of multi-generational youth ministry.

Genesis 18:18-19 (NIV)

18 Abraham will surely become a great and powerful nation, and all nations on earth will be blessed through him. 19 For I have chosen him, so that he will direct his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing what is right and just, so that the Lord will bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.” (emphasis mine)

One of the main reasons God chose Abraham, according to this passage, is so that he would pass on his faith to his children and his household. In fact, this passage teaches that unless Abraham does just that, the promises from God will remain unfulfilled. But also notice the distinction made here between ‘children’ and ‘household.’ Abraham’s mission was to extend far beyond his blood relatives. Indeed, one of the promises made to him in Gen. 12 was that all the nations of the earth would be blessed through him. His household, i.e., his servants and servants’ children as well as his own family, was where the fulfillment of that promise was to begin. And this passage assumes that Abraham the adult will be the proactive party in this spiritual formation of the young.

Most every discussion about spiritual formation of children will, and should, include the familiar passage from the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9).

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 (ESVUK)

“7 You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.”

This is fairly straightforward; teach your children about God at every opportunity. No need to belabor the point here. However, just a few verses later in the same chapter, we find this:

Deuteronomy 6:20-25 (ESVUK)

20 “When your son asks you in time to come, ‘What is the meaning of the testimonies and the statutes and the rules that the Lord our God has commanded you?’ 21 then you shall say to your son, ‘We were Pharaoh’s slaves in Egypt. And the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 And the Lord showed signs and wonders, great and grievous, against Egypt and against Pharaoh and all his household, before our eyes. 23 And he brought us out from there, that he might bring us in and give us the land that he swore to give to our fathers. 24 And the Lord commanded us to do all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that he might preserve us alive, as we are this day. 25 And it will be righteousness for us, if we are careful to do all this commandment before the Lord our God, as he has commanded us.’

Part of what it means to teach our children about God is to tell, and re-tell the stories of God’s glory, providence, and grace in our own faith journeys. But first look at the question of the children. Notice that it’s assumed that the children will one day ask, “Hey, dad? Why do we have to follow all these rules? How come we have to go to worship?”

There’s no need to be insulted when children ask the question. It’s normal that children will question why we live the way we live. Our life of faith is neither easy nor convenient, which is how most of the world aspires to live. So our naturally curious children will call us on it about the time they really want to sleep late on Sundays. But when that day comes, says Moses, we are not to answer them with rules, citations, and traditions which hold little value to the youth.

We are to answer them first with our stories. We are to answer them with what God has done. Only then will it make sense to follow God’s statutes as a Thank You for our salvation. We don’t live the way we live because we like the people and wholesome activities. We live the way we live because we were once dead, and Jesus made us alive. Taking cookies to the fire station every week doesn’t make much sense to someone who’s never been pulled from the flames of a burning building. But to the one who has been pulled from the flames, weekly cookies not only makes sense, it seems woefully inadequate. So it is with Jesus.

So we’d better learn how to tell our stories in compelling ways, and pronto, because one day our children, and the children of others, are going to ask. It is vital that our responses inspire them, because it is a story that deserves to be told inspiringly, after all.[2]

Ezekiel 47:21-23 (NIV)

“‘So you shall divide this land among you according to the tribes of Israel. You shall allot it as an inheritance for yourselves and for the sojourners who reside among you and have had children among you. They shall be to you as native-born children of Israel. With you they shall be allotted an inheritance among the tribes of Israel. In whatever tribe the sojourner resides, there you shall assign him his inheritance,’ declares the Lord God.”

Ezekiel was written to God’s people who were in the exile to Babylon, between 586 and 536 BC. Ezekiel himself was among them. In this passage, God is giving the people a vision of what their re-entrance to Canaan will look like one day in their future. In that context, then, there are several relevant observations. First, there will be some non-Israelites–“sojourners”–along with Israel when they return to the promised land, and they will have been part of the Israelite community long enough to have had children. So their children will necessarily intermingle with Israelite children…and their parents. Second, these sojourners are to receive equal treatment; there is to be no difference as to how the Israelites treated these goyim vis-à-vis their brothers. They are to be welcomed into the family of God’s people with open arms, the implication being that they will be given ample opportunity to confess the Lord, their males be circumcised, and their families keep Torah. Some will do exactly that. The takeaway? Even as far back as the exile, God makes provision for families without a connection to the Lord to be in close proximity to those who do, and children were part of the equation.

Psalm 145:4-12 (NIV)

“One generation will commend your works to another; they will tell of your mighty acts. They will speak of the glorious splendor of your majesty, and I will meditate on your wonderful works. They will tell of the power of your awesome works, and I will proclaim your great deeds. They will celebrate your abundant goodness and joyfully sing of your righteousness. The LORD is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. All you have made will praise you, O LORD; your saints will extol you. They will tell of the glory of your kingdom and speak of your might, so that all men may know of your mighty acts and the glorious splendor of your kingdom.”

This is such an appropriate passage for several reasons. First, notice how high God is lifted in exultation! And it’s the OLDER generation that’s doing it! In our churches, more often than not, it’s the teens who get excited about worship; the upbeat fresh songs, the clapping, the general excitement and energy level are all far more common among the young than the old in our day. Not so in this passage.

Second, the description of the Lord as gracious and compassionate, etc., is a direct quote from Exodus 34:6-7, the passage in which God reveals his relational character to Moses. That Exodus passage is either directly quoted or alluded to more than two dozen times in the Old Testament alone. So the Psalmist is evoking some powerful imagery, indeed justifying why this God is worthy of the praise at the beginning of the passage. This praise will pass down from one generation to the next. As each generation hears the praise of the one before, they themselves will catch the vision.

Ah, but the best part is who will be the eventual beneficiaries of all this praise: all people. What a delightfully oblique reference to the promise to Abraham in Genesis 12. And what is it, according to this Psalm, that all people will know? God’s mighty acts, and the splendor of his Kingdom. And they’ll know it by having been told by the previous generation.

Did not Jesus come to show us exactly these two anchors, with love as the vessel? When was the last time we declared God’s mighty acts to anyone, let alone a teenager? And if we don’t have a vision for the splendor of the Kingdom, how can we expect a teen to have it?

Among these and other passages which are important for understanding the intergenerational vision, the following trends emerge:

“Father’s House” is used 27 times;  “Household/s” 118 times; “Father’s Household 11 times. “Clan/s,” i.e., a several households of the same tribe, is used 226 times. “Tribe/s” = 293 times. “Youth Group” is used zero times.

From my research, here are my top three conclusions.

  1. House / Household / Family was the main context for moral education (which included literacy), and the initial context for vocational education (cf. Exodus 12:24-28; Deut. 6:4-9; Is. 28:23-29; Ps. 78:1-7).
  2. “Household” included more than blood relatives, e.g., aliens, fatherless, & widows (Ezek. 47:21-23; Deut. 14:28-30; 26:11).
  3. Therefore, familial AND extra-familial household members, in some cases non-Israelites, shared the task of educating the children, both morally and vocationally; passing that knowledge on to succeeding generations. But when the parents couldn’t, or somehow were kept from doing so, that responsibility fell to the extended family in the tribe.

If we transpose this Tribal system on our churches, I believe our youth ministries will drop some new anchors in teens’ lives in preparation for the coming culture shock of Not Being In Youth Group. And again, this doesn’t call for a complete change in youth/children’s ministry programming. This is simply about getting more adults to be along side the teens/children as those programs are planned and executed. These ideas are not without biblical precedent.

  1. MOSES TO JOSHUA (Exod. 17:9; Num. 13; Deut. 31:1-8; 34:9)
  2. ELI TO SAMUEL (1 Sam. 3)
  3. JESUS TO THE TWELVE (NB: Peter, James, John; John, the Apostle Jesus loved. (esp. John 15)
  4. PAUL TO TIMOTHY (1 Cor. 4:17; Acts, Ephesians; 1 Timothy)

None of these proteges were related by blood to their respective mentors, and this is not a list of obscure characters. These are heavy hitters. Another interesting tidbit: in our world, an “orphan” is a child who is without both parents. But in the Biblical world, particularly that of the New Testament, an “orphan” could refer to a child who only had one parent, usually the mother, i.e., the “fatherless.”[3] So when the word appears in James 1:27 (“Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” NIV), a perfectly reasonable interpretation that the orphan and the widow are related, i.e., a single-parent household. As such, Timothy could have been an “orphan.”

There may not be many teens in our churches who have lost both parents, but I guarantee we’ve got single-parent household teens by the truck load. Let’s find ways for those teens to connect with a father- and mother-figures of faith. The youth minister can introduce and connect people, but it’s our boots that should be on the ground.

The Vision

We want our teens to learn to have deep, meaningful fellowship across generations, so that when all the razzle-dazzle of youth ministry is gone, they don’t go with it. We want there to be something more nourishing and substantial in their church experience, and for it to be in community. That is what will sustain a young person and keep them plugged in at their new church away from home, indeed anywhere. But it is imperative that we help them exercise their relationship muscle now so they know how to use it freshman year of college. We want our teens to leave our youth group and feel comfortable developing friendships with people twice and three times their age. The vision is that they’ll be glad for their time in our youth ministries, but they are ready for something more mature, not pine for their high school faith days.

Of course they’ll want to make friends with Christians their own age, as they should. And it’s been pointed out to me that sometimes teens leave their parents’ church because it is just that–their parents’ church. It’s a fair point. But suppose they go to a church of all upwardly-mobile hipster twenty-somethings. Eventually the same thing will happen; the whole process has just been deferred, and they still won’t know how to be in community with people twice their age.

We must help them learn to get out of their age demographic for the purposes of their Christian walk, but also for the sake of the family aspect that church is supposed to be. If they can learn that one thing, they have taken a big step toward maturity. (And incidentally, for you baby-boomers and beyond, hanging out with a college kid would not be the worst idea in the world for you either. You’ll find yourself feeding off their contagious energy. Just try not to kill their optimism; it’s what makes them charming.)

In a nutshell, we want to change our youth ministries from being program/activity driven to being relationships/service driven; and that the relationships be with faithful adult Christians. My friend George the Youth Minister, says it this way: “We want for this to go from a ministry TO the teens, to a ministry OF the teens.” But the good news is, a youth ministry need not jettison its programming. It need only integrate faithful, loving adults of all generations into it. It’s the ‘Follow me as I follow Christ’ method. Every teenager deserves to be friends with at least one faithful adult Christian. “And every teenager, left to his own devices, will always gravitate to the oldest person he can find who will take him seriously, and treat him with dignity and respect.”[4]

In their survey of the most effective faith-nurturing practices of adults, Johnson & Yorkey found that in the students who continued their faith, more than 90% of them had a half-dozen mentors in their [growing-up years].[5] “Almost without exception, those young people [who came from our youth ministry] who are growing in their faith as adults were teenagers who fit into one of two categories: either 1) they came from families where Christian growth was modeled in at least one of their parents, or 2) they had developed significant connections with an extended family of adults within the church. How often they attended youth events (including Sunday school and discipleship groups) was not a good predictor of which teens would, and which would not, grow toward Christian adulthood.[6] (emphasis mine)

Our marching orders are simple: get in there and cultivate some relationships with the younger generations. Doing so will earn the credibility to pass on your faith, both by word and deed. Are you a grandparent-type? Then find a teen in your Tribe (read: Church) who needs a grandparent. Do you have a good rapport with your teenager’s friends? Then leverage that relationship toward Christ by buying them a cheeseburger that’ll lead to a conversation.

I’m convinced that one of the biggest struggles our youth have is quite simply age-isolation. It’s so easy to dive into the virtual world of ‘Likes’ and ‘LOL’ but never actually get to know an adult who genuinely likes them and who will actually laugh out loud with them. Everyone of us is a youth minister, whether you are related to the teens in your church or not; to the teen with both mom and dad, to the single-parent teen, and to the teen who show up when they have every reason not to. Otherwise, what models will our teens have, if not you? Upon whom will they look? Many have said it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a church to raise a child’s faith. As the sign in the University of Colorado library reads: The generation who knows only itself is destined to remain adolescent forever.

You can read part 1 here – Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 1): The Necessity of Age Desegregation in our Churches

[1] 2 Sam. 18:14-15, a grisly example to be sure, is about the closest thing to youth group in the Old Testament.

[2] So Joel 1:3 (NIV), “Hear this, you elders; give ear, all inhabitants of the land! Has such a thing happened in your days, or in the days of your fathers? Tell your children of it, and let your children tell their children, and their children to another generation.” Cf. Psalm 78:1-7; 145:4-12.

[3] Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, ed. Frederick W. Danker, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 725. See also John 14:18; the only other place in the NT the word ‘orphanos’ appears.

[4] H. Steven Glenn and Jane Nelson, Raising Self-Reliant Children in a

Self-Indulgent World (Roseville, CA: Prima, 1989).

[5] Greg Johnson & Mike Yorkey, Faithful Parents, Faithful Kids (Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House, 1993), 249.

[6] Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry, 2d. ed. (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity, 2004), 102.

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