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.


The New Christians…a review

I was eager to read Tony Jones’ new book The New Christians: Dispatches from the Emergent Frontier. I have tried to stay current with his writings and other authors along the Emergent frontier such as Brian McLaren, Doug Paggit, Dan Kimball, among others. While many of these other “emergent” books are musings, thoughts, and reflections, I was hoping that The New Christians would provide additional clarity to what lies behind the Emergent movement. The history, philosophical background, religious questionings, theology per se, and the hopes and dreams of the emerging leaders truly emerged in this book. I find the conversations well articulated, inspiring, challenging, and beautiful at the same time. While much in this book does raise theological questions for me, these questions are much needed and long overdue.

Emergent Christianity is a middle ground, or a third way, between the foundationalism of traditional liberalism and conservatism. In many ways, it is a reaction against the beliefs, assumptions, presuppositions, and affects of modernism, especially modernism’s impact and influence on western Christianity. We are living in an ever increasingly postmodern age, and thus the emergent movement is an attempt to re-think and re-imagine what Christianity can and should look like for this new generation and generations to come.

Yet a wonderful component of this movement is that it does not shun or deny the importance of other traditions and movements within historical Christianity. Dispatch 1 states, “Emergents find little importance in the discrete differences between the various flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements” (8).

I resonated with one of the problems associated with the individualism of evangelicalism that Jones highlighted. Too often, all of the emphasis in placed on an individual’s personal commitment to Christ, which is then followed up with the command of “personal” devotions. We have made Christianity a personal faith, distancing it from the social and communal entity it was meant to be. Furthermore, in promoting this personal holiness, Christians are more concerned about their own lives then the lives of others. I have witnessed more time being spent in devotions, Bible studies, and Sunday school classrooms than helping the poor, advocating for justice, and reaching those in need.

I often wonder what the point is striving for godliness and holiness if its end result does not make you more sensitive, compassionate, and loving towards others? As Jones states, “the church that doesn’t challenge its members to face the core ethical issues that confront them every day at work is the church that has abdicated its responsibility” (17).

The emergent generation feel great disappoint with modern American Christianity, desire inclusion rather than exclusion, and has a hope-filled orientation. I share all of these and especially agree with the phrase, “Our calling as a church is to partner with God in the work that God is already doing in the world-to cooperate in the building of God’s kingdom” (72). And I also agree with the emergents is that God can, and does work through non-believers to accomplish his purposes. After all, isn’t it reasonable to think that God’s purposes are much bigger than our own? Our goals seem to boil down to one thing; getting people saved so that they can escape hell. God’s purposes for his creation is to renew, restore, and repair relationships and bring about new life…here on earth first. So I don’t think God is going to deny the help of well-meaning individuals or organizations because they don’t have the correct understanding of him. As dispatch 6 states, “Emergents see God’s activity in all aspects of culture and reject the sacred-secular divide.” (75) Truth is wherever God designs to expose it; it is most perfectly and poignantly instantiated in the person of Jesus, and from him it flows out into all creation” (75)

As I tell my students, “All God is God’s truth”. This means that they do not have to be afraid of science, art, and other religions because if they discover something to be true or beautiful, they are free to claim it as being form God. I also make the equation that God is love. Therefore, wherever they find love, even in other religions, God is present. As Rob Bell said, our world is drenched in the presence of God. “If God is in it, then emergent Christians will find God there” (76).

From one personal note, I really understood Tony’s experience at Dartmouth with Campus Crusade. That style of evangelism and ministry is what I grew up with and in many ways still feel pressured to do and make my students do. The problem is that I too find it very uncomfortable, anti-relational, generally unsuccessful, and the opposite of Jesus’ way of loving. I have grown to really not like (I won’t use the word hate, but am tempted to) door-to-door evangelism that we do on our mission trips each summer. And I hate (I will use this word now) the fact that I feel that way. I feel so guilty, especially when others, like my wife, really enjoy it and thank God each time for the opportunity. I ask myself what is wrong with me. But then I compare it to the joy I have in sharing my life’s experiences with some good and trusted friends who do not consider themselves “born-again” Christians. Yet in some many of our conversations, we share deep spiritual things and I have truly felt the presence of Jesus there. That is the kind of “evangelism” I love to engage in, but of course this takes months and years of trust and mutual friendship. Should I be alarmed that I really don’t have a goal with these friends? Sometimes I feel that I should try to lead them in a prayer of salvation or invite them to church when an alter call will be offered. Yet, does God need our clever sales pitches to work in their hearts? However, I remember my own conversation was a very radical event that truly changed my heart and life in an instant. What if the Holy Spirit desires to work in a similar way, but is waiting for my friends to truly make a personal commitment to Him. Now I am starting to sound like an evangelical again!

Human life is theology. That statement stuck with me as I reflected and ponder about its significance and realized its truth. It is a great way to start conversations with people and also to challenge and convict Christians. The statement about what kind of house we buy is extremely revealing, as was the question about parking spots vs. Darfur.

I feel so dissatisfied with traditional answers to questions such as what does God allow evil in the world, or can someone be a homosexual and a Christian. I get completely infuriated with Calvinist’s responses to almost every question I have, while other Christians simply do not want to engage in these tough questions. Those who pose these questions are branded as having a questionable faith or battling the demons of doubt, or come crap like that. (Pardon my language)

I have also had conversations such as the one posed between the True Biblicist, “Brain”, and the Emergent. I do not think the Bible was written (past) or should be read (current) as handbook to Christian living. It is certainly a guide and rule of faith and while it does contain some things I believe to be universally true, its main purpose is to point its readers to the person and life of Jesus. True Biblicists run into myriad problems by attempting to stick to the letter of the law. I find this today with the issue of divorce. While I do not think divorce is good, healthy, or favored by God, I believe His heart is much bigger than even his commands. If a person were in a very bad marriage (abuse, neglect, adultery, etc…) than wouldn’t a loving heavenly Father want his child to be free of such a thing? Of course, people can easily abuse this freedom, which is why there is a command against it. But in my opinion, each situation is different and therefore these commands are contextual. This line of reasoning follows the approach of “wise interpretation” offered in the book. Seeing hermeneutics as an art, and not a science is a big challenge that can lead to transformation and freedom. Experience and humility are also needed.

I like the phrase “hermeneutic of humility” offered by Jones. Interestingly enough, I am about to finish a class at seminary on Hermeneutics and never once heard this phrase mentioned! I too believe that we can have “proper confidence” and become better interpreters through dialogue and conversation. I also believe that the Holy Spirit can and does inspire and illuminate our reading of the text each and ever time we approach it in humility and openness.

And yes, paradox does exist in the real world, our personal experience, and within the Bible. And, as Jones declares, we can and should embrace it. “God can be the creator of the universe and the breaker of the rules of physics. God can be sovereign yet no the author of evil…as is so often the case, the ‘truth’ lies in between, in a person (Jesus) who was truly human and truly divine-in faith, no fideism” (155). We should not handicap or limit who God is or what he can do. Does God really only work in absolutes. Is he that limited and uncreative? My God is not boring, static, and cannot be contained in a well-articulated theological box.

Much more could be written, and I suppose I already wrote too much. (Maybe I should start blogging!). Each section of this book offered great insight into the thinking of the emergent movement and caused me to rethink my own views. On the whole, this movement resonates deep within me. I am finding solidarity with these authors and friends and am finally finding people (albeit through books) that I can dialogue with about what is going on inside my mind and heart. I hope to engage more often in conversations with others rather than just let my mind wander and ramble in writing.

I am glad that Jones added stories and examples of some emerging churches such as Solomon’s Porch, the Journey, and Jacob’s Well, and I hope to visit some of them one day. I also appreciate Appendix A and hope that everyone who reads this book (especially its critics) will spend time reading the four commitments and subsequent practices of the Emergent Village and movement. In closing, I am encouraged and inspired by this book and hopeful that it will bring change and transformation to American Christians and Christianity as a whole. I find myself charting a similar path as the author has and I am hopefully optimistic that I will continue to dialogue with others, learn, grow, and change throughout my journey.

Additional Quotes (that I really liked)

“Emergents trust the Holy Spirit more than they trust in the methods of doing church” (61).

“If church is what happens when people encounter the Risen Jesus and commit themselves to sustaining and deepening that encounter in their encounter with each other, there is plenty of theological room for diversity of rhythm and style, so long as we have ways of identifying the same living Christ as the heart of every expression of Christian life in common.” (53)

“Emerging Churches are communities that practice the way of Jesus within postmodern cultures…they are missional communities emerging in postmodern culture and consisting of followers of Jesus seeking to be faithful to the orthodox Christian faith in their place and time” (56).

“This, then, is a high view of the church: the collected people of God, in community with God’s Spirit, will stay on track and engaged with God’s work in the world” (185)

Dispatched 15: Emergents hold to a hope-filled eschatology: it was good news when Jesus came the first time, and it will be good news when he returns” (176).