Professor says youth ministers must prepare for long-term commitment
David Adams is emphatic in affirming youth ministry as a career. Adams is associate dean of students at Boyce College -- the undergraduate program of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary -- and is director of the National Center of Youth Ministry.
He says that today's youth pastor has a task similar to that of a missionary to an unreached people group and must be a person who is not only educated, but dedicated long-term to reaching youths.
"There's an emergence of demand from the local church," he said. "... These kids today are worried about the destruction of the world, being murdered at school, dealing with real issues and real fears. You can't just put unqualified, well-intentioned leadership in front of them."
The National Center for Youth Ministry recently dealt with the question of youth ministry as a career during the "Vision Conference" which was part of the organization's second annual Youth Ministry Emphasis Week, held Sept. 23-29 at Boyce College.
The Vision Conference assembled 132 youth leaders and youths and sought to cast a vision for the task of ministry to adolescents. The conference featured 11 speakers encompassing 31 different topics.
Gene Dodson, youth pastor of Immanuel Baptist Church in Wichita, Kansas, led a forum on the characteristics of a senior high adult worker. Dodson has spent the past 20 years in youth ministry and sees it as one of the most critical aspects of the modern-day church.
Dodson compares the position of youth minister to that of a high school teacher. A teacher would not typically plan on using the job as a stepping-stone to another vocation, but would consider it a lifelong career, Dodson said. Youth ministers should view their calling in much the same regard and should prepare for it accordingly through educational means, he said.
"I think the church has missed the boat in comparison to the secular world," he said.
"We have kind of dumbed it down to an almost inexcusable level where the best qualification is that the youth minister is someone who is young and can keep up with the kids. Surely, we have a higher criteria than that for the most productive facet of the ministry."
Among those participating in the Vision Conference were many who, like Dodson, have spent their entire ministry careers in youth and have many years of experience. It is one of the integrating points for youth leaders who attended the conference; all shared a vision of being well prepared for a ministry to youth that will involve a lifetime of work.
"The largest youth organization in America is the public school system," Adams said. "Go to a 25-year-old algebra teacher and ask him, 'What are you going to do when you get so old you can't relate to kids?' First of all, he's going to say that your question is ludicrous. Second of all, he's going to say, 'I plan on retiring in the school system and education.' Only the church has bought into the idea that the youth group is a place to practice ministry until you ultimately get into a real ministry."
Adams says the nature of and need for youth ministry has changed over the past half century in direct proportion to the sociological upheaval brought upon families by the societal changes that followed World War II.
Prior to World War II, most teens lived on farms and grew up with the knowledge that someday their parents' land and work would be their inheritance, he said. The urbanization of America -- coupled with the fact that both parents began working full-time outside the home -- has brought with it a growing disconnection between parents and their adolescent children, Adams said.
This disconnection has left public schools as the network that shapes their worldview. In turn, this has sapped the spiritual vitality of youths, and left them in much the same spiritual condition as a remote people group who've not heard the gospel, he said. This puts an increased burden for knowledge on both parents and youth ministers, he said.
"With this as a backdrop, young people are becoming a distinct sub-culture which (requires) that mom and dad virtually become cross-cultural experts," Adams said.
"To a great extent, today's moms and dads and certainly the adult world, have a great difficulty understanding and relating to the adolescent world. We almost need to train them like we train foreign missionaries to relate cross-culturally and to another people group called teenagers, even though they happen to be in the upstairs bedroom."
For teens, schools have become the network that molds their worldview, Adams said. To face the acute problems this societal shift has birthed, today's youth pastors need to be more than a person of boundless energy; they need to be prepared to competently face the myriad complexities that accompany modern adolescent years.
Said Adams, "Today's youth pastor must be a theologian first. He must know the word of God. He must be a counselor, an expert on culture, an expert on family dynamic. ... There's a lot of demand on today's youth leader. He's got to be it all. Our model (at Boyce College) has been, 'Look, you're in the Marines.' We want the very best and brightest to go into youth work."