Postmodern youth ministry…a review

I first read Tony Jone’s book Postmodern Youth Ministry during my last year of undergrad studies. I realized quickly that it was a groundbreaking book for youth ministry, but I never fully realized at the time how important and influential this book would be.

I recently re-read the book and it shocked me to see just how relevant this book is for today’s youth ministry, and especially for tomorrow’s youth ministry. I still believe that for the most part, youth ministry culture has not fully caught up to what Tony was experiencing and writing about nearly a decade ago.  Looking back, this book was even more profound and prophetic than I had originally thought. Here in the northeast, we are very much witnessing the phenomone of postmodernity and its effects and influence on society, culture, worldviews, education, and religion.  I’m not convinced  other parts of the country have been struck with this reality, but they will in due time.

Tony’s opening thought “The day my world changed” was brilliant and true. In youth ministry, we cannot just claim that Jesus is Lord for everyone. In postmodern thought, that belief may be true for us, but cannot be an objective absolute truth for everyone.  Truth is relative and subjective, and this is visibly seen in today’s teens. (I realize that many will have major issues with the above statement. I am simply explaining the cultural realities surround postmodernity…whether you like them or not is another issue)

The first few chapters are a wonderful summary of what postmodernism is, how it came to be, and what its effects and influences are. Such ideas include that skepticism and cynicism rule the day, the argument that no text has an actual meaning because each reader imports meaning into the text; question everything; objectivity is out while subjectivity is in; never make lists; pluralism and tolerance are key; there is no Truth with a capital T..and ideas such as these.

Tony writes, “The students with whom we work were born into a culture in transition, and children born today are entering a thoroughly postmodern world. This is not to say that all students will adopt postmodern traits, but postmodernity will be the reigning school of thought, and postmodernity will be the reigning culture when our students arrive at college.”  Living in the northeast, I can vouch that this is true and failure to understand and acknowledge this will do much damage to churches and youth leaders.

Now, many might perceive the above characteristics to be negative and starkly opposed to the Bible and kingdom of God living…and to some extend I agree. However, postmodernism also brings with it some values that are highly biblical and kingdom of God minded.

Postmodern values:  experiential, spiritual, relative, communal, creative, environmental, global, holistic, authentic.

“Postmodernity may afford us the ability to recover some aspects of authentic Christianity.”

A missionary dives into culture headfirst and swims around, learning, perceiving and discerning.  A postmodern world demands that we admit that our contexts influence and shape us- that we be honest about our own subjectivity and we use those influences to benefit our communication of the gospel.  In my experience, in order to reach and effectivley ministey to postmodern students, one has to be a bit postmodern…or at least understand and appreciate it.  One’s aim cannot be to change or destroy postmodernism, but rather to work from within to bring about transformation within the system.

Tony implores youth leaders to shift toward authenticity. Our students want real, more than relevant. They don’t want worship services. they want worship experiences.

Students don’t want to be tricked into attending a meeting at someone’s house or a warehouse only to find out later that there’s a hidden agenda of saving their souls.  Andrew Root has written much about this issue of relationships vs. influence.

Additionally, students today are experiential, participatory, image-based and connective–everybody else is rational, passive, word-based, and highly individual.

Dan Kimball chimes in the discussion with saying, “the more blatantly spiritual our services and the harder we worship God, the more we will see postmodern youths connecting and responding to the gospel.”

Its not about watering down the message and creating seeking friendly environments.

Its also about a shift toward transcendence.

Postmodern youth ministry strives to promote students to feel they are entering sacred space when they walk into the room.

By taking this approach (which in many ways is contrast to the seeker sensitive mega church model), students get the strong impression that they are taking part in something unique, sacred, and eternally significant when they come to youth group.

I remember my years at Gordon College.  Every Sunday night our chapel turned into Catacombs, and we worship through icons (images), ancient hymns, silence and meditation all by candlelight.  These were incredible moments of touching the transcant and encounting the mysterious Divine.  Especially in the busyness of finals and athletic and social life, I needed these evenings to refresh my soul.

Every year, for the past eight years, I have been attnending the Youth Specialatiies National Youth Workers Convention.  Most years, they would transform spaces in the convention center to make a prayer room, labyrinth, and offer Vesper services.  Having not come from a faith tradition that promotes these, at first I was skeptical.  But having experienced the sacred, it has truly transformed my worship.

And now, with my own students, we bring in many comtemplative practices and create sacred space.   Some of our biggest “outreach” evenings will be for our prayers stations and spirituality spaces.  Students want to tap into their spirituality.  We should be open and willing to provide environments for them to do this in a Christ centered way.

Postmodern youth ministry also shifts the emphasis on evangelism

Tony writes, “In the postmodern context, it could be said that we ought to first evangelize experientially and teach the content of the faith later.  After all, Jesus says to his disciples Follow me!- not, Do you accept me as your personal lord and Savior?

“In modern Youth ministry, reductionism showed in our proclivity to purchase a program or curriculum, or take our kids to a really hyped up rally rather than do the long, hard work of building relationships and sharing Christ over time.”

Postmodern YM stresses the importance for a long-term discipleship. seeing it as a journey, and not a one-time close the deal event of conversion.  For too long, youth pastors have been counting conversions rather than counting conversations.  Coversatiions take time and devolope into relationships.  Relationships bring about community and transformation..which lines up more to the biblical example we have.

Teaching is re-imagined as well.

Instead of scripted talks and didactic teachings every week, Tony argues that we must facilitate discussion and dialogue.

We don’t need to try to convince or prove certain truths to students.

Rather, we can invite this pre-Christian student to experience the truth of Scripture by inviting him or her into the life of our community.  I have written about this shift. To read more see the link below.

Shift from facts to experience/encounter

“As pre-Christian students experience biblical love, and as they’re exposed to the stories of Scripture, the Bible will begin to take on “truth value” for them, and after time they will find the Bible is indeed a metanarrative into which every human being’s story in written.”

Postmodern YM allows students to first Belong to our community, then Behave by participating, and allowed time and grace as they come to Believe.

By comparision, traditional youth ministry often required the right Beliefs and Behavior before students could really Belong.  And we wondered why we weren’t making a different in the community and reaching unchurched teens!

Tony provides a great section about the web of belief and evangelism and how apologetics have been done in culturally appropriate ways that need to be done differently in a world which absolute, foundational truth is being overthrown.  How this works itself out is still in flux, but I do believe the way (method) and content (message ) of our apologetics and evangelism must change when doing ministry to postmodern teens.  I will attempt to write about this specifically at a later time.

In a postmodern world, we must exhibit authenticity and integrity as we teach students the essential truths of the faith.  If we oversimplify things, they will be blown away when they go into college or the working world and find that life and faith are not as simple as we lead them to believe. Better that they’re confronted with the rigorous complexities of faith now, in a community of faith where they can ask questions and work through spiritual dilemmas

Chris Folmsbee and Barefoot Ministry offer a great model for this approach:

Simplicity- Complexity- Perplexity- Humility.

For too long, youth ministry has intentionally tried to keep students in the Simplicity category by providing a simple faith and really not allowing much room (or time) for questions and doubts. We shied away from difficult passages and stories and offered cliche and trivial Bible answers to really tough questions and situations are students faced.  And then, they go offer to college and, in light of knew knowledge and experiences, everything they grew up learning seems to simple to be believable anymore.  Has this happened to anyone?

One of my favorite sections of the book contains a great chapter entitled The How of Discipleship

Tony shares his plan for catecissms and the spritual formation (education + trasnformation0

Re-reading this chapter causes me to rethink my plan for spiritual formation and to strive to teach not only bible, but history, doctrine, ethics, etc…

Included in Tony’s plan were the Ten Commandments, Lord’s Prayer, Apostles Creed, the sacraments, early church history, Old Test, New Test, Worship, Prayer, Missions and Outreach, denomicational distinctives…all combined within a structure of service, community, and hands on experiences.  Imagine restructuring your Sunday Am “Sunday school” (a.k.a babysitting and online curriculum) and have a real purpose and plan in place.

“Every church has to find a regular method to disciple its students appropriate to its local culture, its denominational heritage, and the congregation.”

At my church, I am currently in coversation about doing just this which the possibility of offering either a 6-month or 10-month class for all incoming freshman and a similar type of thing for outgoing seniors.

We would also combine such ancient practices such as lectio divina, the labyrinth, the spiritual disciplines, etc..

I’ll keep you posted on our progress, but I have thanked Tony for pushing me towards this thinking.

The last section of the book discusses relooking at how we view (and talk about) the Bible.

Doug Pagit’s voice is heard in the pages when he writes,  “The Bible is the nonfiction storybook of God’s interaction with his people.  It’s the lens through which we look at the world- not simply the object we study.”

J. Heinrich Arnold writes, “You will never be able to prove- even to yourself, that Jesus exists. Belief must be an inner experience.  As long as you try to prove the object of your belief intellectually, your efforts will stand in the way of such an experience.”

We read the Bible with our own lens that are fashioned by our surroundings. To try and say that we come to the text objectivity is self-deceptive.

In postmodern youth ministry, instead of trying to defend or prove the Bible (especially to the postmodern mind where objective Truth simply doesn’t exist), we must reclaim the Bible as narrative.

Tell stories.

A great job description for future youth workers could read something like this.

Youth pastors: Brings the Bible to life for students.

We do this so they can fully enter into the story and then have their lives changed and transformed by the story, kind of like that 80’s movie The Never Ending Story

What if  everything we did as youth workers was focussed on the goal that we might be conformed to Christ’s image!  No more measurements based on numbers or size of budget of staff.  And our annual review, the senior pastor would ask, Are you and your students being conformed to the image of Christ?

That is ultimately the goal of postmodern youth ministry.  The goals is the same (or should be) of all types of youth ministry.  The difference resides in who we are trying to reach, acknowledging that the realities of postmodernity necessitate that how we do it and what we say change and adapt to the culture…adapting for the result of transformation!

In conclusion….

Tony is attempting to do this in a postmodern context. In many ways, he is a missiologist and practical theologian.

If you do not understand postmodernity, you may not understand what Tony is trying to do.  If you are thoroughly emerged in a modern mindset and worldview (and no one is claiming that to be bad mind you), then you may in fact question and disagree with Tony on many levels.

Personally, I am glad that people like Tony Jones has a passion to reach a particular people with the gospel of Jesus.
Though his methods and message may be different than where many of us have come from and feel comfortable, it needs to be that way in order for a genuine and culturally approcatiate encounter with God to take place in the hearts and lives of postmodern students.

I am glad to hear that Tony is desiring to get back involved in youth ministry on some level whether speaking, teaching, or hopefully some more writing. (I personally think his heart has always been there)

As a final side note:  One of the great aspects of this book is that Tony was among the first to include commentaries infused within his content.  Authors such as Brian McLaren, Mike Yaconelli, Kara Powell, Dan Kimball, Mark Driscoll, Leonard Sweet, and others offer their opinions, critiques, and unbiased views on Tony’s thoughts.


The rise of Emerging Youth Ministry

Last week I had the privilege of teaching at Nyack College.

Below is the link to their youth ministry site.


I was a guest in the Advanced Youth Ministry course taught by veteran youth worker and author Len Kageler.

He has written such books as The Youth Ministry Survival Guide (Zondervan/Youth Specialties) and This Way to Youth Ministry (Zondervan/Youth Specialties).

I was honored to teach two consecutive classes, which I entitled “Emerging Youth Ministry and the Emerging Church.”  Sounds like a good name for a blog!

When I first polled the class of 16, only 6 of them had ever heard about the emerging church or word “emergent”.  I was very surprised by this, but also realized that these students were not actively reading and pursuing information apart from their required courses.  They simply don’t have the time or resources to do so.

They also didn’t have the opportunity like many of us to attend progressive conferences and seminars such as Youth Specialties (where I was first introduced to these topics years ago)

So, I knew I was starting from scratch and beginning with the basics, which was both challenging and encouraging.  Since most had not heard anything about the emerging church movement, they did not have preconceived ideas or notions about it like so many I encounter.  The words “liberal”, “hypocrisy”, “absolute truth”, were not associated with the movement…well at least prior to the classes!!

In order to get to know the class, I did something different.  After asking the basic questions of their name and age and where they were from, I asked a series of divisive questions. Each student had to pick one side of the room or the other depending on their answer.  The one rule was you must choose.  There can be no middle ground.

At first the questions were easy:

Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts?

PC or Mac?

Winter or Summer?

But then things got more interesting when I asked Obama or McCain?

Predestination or Free Will?

I like to further push the envelope with questions like:

Pro Choice or Pro Life?

Gays in church or not in church?

Bible inerrant or just infallible?

You can see how these questions aim at polarizing the group and often making individuals very uncomfortable.  They want to either not choose at all or choose a middle ground.

What’s the point of this you may ask?

Good question

It allowed me to lay the foundation for why and how the emerging church movement began over a decade ago.

In addition to finding ways to contextualize the gospel message to postmodern generations, the early emerging leaders were sick and tied of western Christianity (especially evangelicalism) polarizing the faith with such questions.  Depending on your answer, you were either in or out of the group.

Usually these questions were not about the core or essentials of the faith, but about externals and various/particular viewpoints on doctrine and theological interpretations.  As this has occurred over time, so to have factions and divisions, thus leading to literally thousands of splits and new denominations being formed.

The emerging movement resists polarization and attempts to find the middle ground between traditionally labeled “liberal” and “conservative”, among a host of other “categories”.

It does not seek to label people or groups based upon particular viewpoints.

It also rejects having to give answers or make certain theological statements and claims (which is an endless source of frustration to those who want to label the emerging church based upon such convictions and beliefs!)

For more about this, I suggest checking out Tony Jones’ blog at and reading his latest book The New Christians.

Back to the class…

After this activity I asked each student about the youth group they grew up in.

“How would you describe and define youth group growing up?”

Almost to a student, they responded by saying how large the group was (big or small) and what activities and events they did.  (I thought to myself, this class is going to be interesting!)

One student defined her experience as being involved in a small community, having a really tight relationship with her youth leader and sharing life together…even up to today.

Now that was an answer I could run work with.

Her experience marks what I believe emerging youth ministry to be.

It is not about numbers, programs, events, activities, and systematic ways of describing and calculating success and growth.

It is more organic, fluid, relational, authentic, and a host of other words I could use.

As the class progressed I did a brief background into the history of youth ministry with its pro’s and con’s and made my case that we are indeed in a new cultural phenomenon and context that demands news ways of thinking about youth ministry.  No longer is it about “doing” youth ministry, but rather it’s about a state of “being” youth ministry.  Youth ministry should be defined as who we are and are becoming, rather than what we do.

It was a very engaging class and we discussed how postmodernism affects the way students see the world and religious faith (including truth, objectivity, and experience).

I discussed various ‘shifts” in our approach to youth ministry (which I will probably write about in more detail at a later time).  But the main idea is that we need to shift away from certain modes of thought and operation (such as being program driven, attraction oriented, exclusive, isolated, big, hierarchical, etc…) and move towards new ways. Read A New Kind of Youth Ministry by Chris Folsmbee for a good philosophical transitionally approach.

I discussed the practical applications and implications of such transitions in an actual youth ministry setting.

Many of these appear to be in direct contrast to former ideas, and some are clearly and intentionally just that.

I also described some basic characteristics of emerging youth ministry as I see it.  Many of these are passed down from the emerging church movement, but need to be fleshed out in our local youth ministries. Some characteristics are currently shaping my own youth group and some are shaping and transforming other youth groups.  I can honestly say that while my own youth group might not display all of these shifts and characteristics now, we are certainly heading in that direction and seeing the benefits and effectiveness of such shifts.

But back to my opening activity…emerging youth ministries will live in between the two sides. Some aspects of your ministry may lean heavily towards one side or another (hopefully not too many towards the side of traditional/systematic 1980’s youth ministry!)

Emerging youth ministry will not feel the need or pressure to define ourselves by these categories however.  Besides, it is rather difficult to define a community, especially a diverse one because at the end of the day they are just that…a community and not a pile of beliefs, events, or choices.

Emerging youth ministry will be a community of students and adults actively following Jesus and participating in God’s redemptive plan in the world. (It’s still a working definition so don’t quote me on that…yet)

What I found very exciting and encouraging is that by the end of two classes, there was definitely a sense of enthusiasm and interest in an emerging philosophy of youth ministry. Many students simply had never thought a new approach was plausible and possible, although they all saw the need and potential.

In fact, in a survey given at the end, all the students claimed to learn new information and all but one said they would sign up for a course offered exclusively on this subject.

I think what is happening is this.

Students are resonating with these shifts and characteristics either because many of them were the ones that worked best while they were in youth group, or because they see the downfalls of much of the traditional ways and are hoping for change.

Often, disillusionment gives birth to action.

I could see the eyes open and light bulbs go on as we discussed the need to focus on creating experiences for our students rather than just dumping more and more information on them.

There was an excitement buzzing around contemplating the need to be more involved and engaged in our local community and in service, rather than being in isolation and hoping that bigger and better forms of entertainment will attract students to our doors.

Especially at Nyack College (which places a high value on spiritual formation), the students agreed that we must develop new and creative ways for our students to encounter Jesus, rather than just learn about him, and a shift from orthodoxy (right believing) to orthopraxis (right living) needs to take place.

True spiritual formation (in my experience) rests in the middle ground of the two, but often youth ministry focuses on the first while ignoring the later.

Many of these changes, or “shifts” come as a result of lessons learned from youth ministry veterans such as Len Kageler, Doug Fields, and Mark Oestricher.  Younger leaders such as Chris Folsmbee, Andrew Root, Dan Kimbal, Tony Jones, and many of you are learning from the past and trying to figuring out what this all means and can look like in our contexts.

Emerging youth ministry is not a tightly packaged program or philosophy. Its more messy, alive, and confusing then that.  We are on this journey together, and I for one appreciate all those who have gone before us. They too were attempting to communicate Christ in relevant ways to their own culture and time.  And much of it worked back then and still works now. But we are finding it to be less and less effective with our ever-changing culture and spiritual climate.

The definition of “Emerging” is to be newly formed or just coming into prominence

Adj.1.emerging – coming to maturity; “the rising generation”


future – yet to be or coming; “some future historian will evaluate him”

2.emerging – coming into existence;

I like those definitions as they relate to the current state of youth ministry and its future. Emerging youth ministry is coming forth out of our past; coming into its own; birthing something new and different out of something already established.


We are hatching from our birth parents coming into existence, prevalence, and prominence.

So, we press on. Learn from past, live in the present, and keep our eyes on the future.

Times are changing and so must the way we think and approach youth ministry. I am encouraged to see that many of the younger youth leaders (especially those in training) are eager for change and willing to join in this adventure as well.

shifting our physical space in youth ministry

Ascetics makes a difference in youth ministry. What I mean is that where you meet and what it looks like impacts effectiveness. Now, I am not going to get all Martha Stewart on you and argue for garden-fresh and pleasing aromas and certain hues of earth-tone colors for your window dressings.

Over the past 10-20 years in youth ministry there was a move from the small to the big.

Youth pastors rallied together in their desire to move out of the youth room and into the fellowship hall (and progressively into the Sanctuary and then maybe….a local gym)

Personally, I would envision having bleachers full of students looking down at me, or me looking up into hundreds of faces (if I were teaching at a local theater)

Throw in maybe a fun skit, heavy use of media, and lots of loud music and free prizes.

It resembled a mini youth conference..and a school assembly morphed together.

Is that really what our students yearn for?

We must ask ourselves how often each week are students being taught at and being spoken to.

Think about their environments at school.  Teacher in the front of the classroom, instilling knowledge and facts to silent students all sitting in rows.


At home, the setting may be less formal and structured, but their parents still bark orders at them, telling them what to do and what not to do.

Now, I am not saying that either ways of communication and education is wrong, or necessarily out dated. However I do believe that by the time our students come to us on a Wed or Friday night, they are sick of it.

Where is the dialog, interaction, and participation?

At school they are instructed to face forward looking at the back of each others heads..kind of looks like church on Sunday morning.

No wonder why kids seem to hate both!

Could it be that today’s students do not learn best in a stagnant, uncreative, and individualistic environment?

Today’s church must rethink its structural set up for fear of losing these upcoming generations.

Take the example of Solomon’s Porch in Minneapolis. At first glance, I had to admit that their “church” resembled my youth room in many ways. Plenty of couches and chairs in a circular pattern. The speaker, Doug Pagitt, sits on a stool in the center and makes himself, and his message, very approachable during the teaching times. People are encouraged to interact with the message, ask questions, and be creative and conversational in their response. And, probably most importantly, is that everyone is humanized. They sit in a way that looks the other person in the eye and promotes physical contact and touch.

solomons-porch solomons-porch2

A bit different than the “sit 3 inches away from every one on the cold hard pew”…type of atmosphere that you and I may have grown up with..and sadly still exists in many churches today.

Nowadays, youth groups must celebrate and work back towards the small.

Youth rooms (old couches and half broken chairs) are not such a bad thing after all. Maybe we should thank those elders who vetoed our youth budgets all those years!

Now, if you really can’t fit in your (used to be a janitor’s closest) youth room anymore, then perhaps you really do need a bigger space to meet.

However, trying to jam pack more and more students into an already over crowded room (just so we can justify needing a newer and bigger youth room)…I’m not so sure that is a really good thing anymore.

Growth is good, don’t get me wrong. And many times, you will naturally grow numerically without having to try very hard.

But a word of caution for you: Don’t change your approach because you are growing.

Find new and creative ways to keep the eye contact, open dialog, interaction, and student participation alive in your meetings. Bleachers and movie theaters are probably not the best idea for that.

Lastly, I believe it is also important to find ways to utilize current space and transform it into sacred space. Much has been written about this topic and I would recommend the following resources. (listed a bit further down actually)

I will simply say that without too much effort, you can permanently transform places into sacred spaces for your teens. Or, a few times a semester turn your youth room or fellowship hall (or whatever space you meet in) into something new and different. Create atmospheres that allow for the mysterious, transcendent, and wonderful Spirit of God to be experienced in fresh and memorable ways by your students.

Teenagers these days are very into spirituality and mystical things, and while we don’t want to make Christianity into a trendy New Age cult phenomena, there is definitely a historical precedent to these ancient practices. So, in some ways it is nothing new, but rather a return to tradition.  (at least you can tell your parents and elders that!)

The Sacred Way– Tony Jones

Contemplative Youth Ministry– Mark Yaconelli

*Sacred Space:A Hands-On Guide to Creating Multisensory Worship Experiences for Youth Ministry

by Dan Kimball and Lilly Lewin  (Lilly Lewin’s blog)

* (an index and description of great prayer stations)

(youth specialties always does one of these and you could probably do in a fellowship hall,  sanctuary without pews, or a gym…and might actually be the best use of a gym you could find)