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.