Youth ministry: More than pizza

More churches are realizing that effective youth ministry is much more than eating pizza and hanging out.

That’s the conviction of Wendell Loewen, assistant professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, who now oversees the college’s youth ministries program, now in its sixth year.

“Churches have been responding to youth with a lot of pizza and very little commitment,” Loewen said. “I think people are beginning to understand that youth ministry is more than pizza and ski trips, that there is something legitimate here.”

That relatively recent change in perspective has fueled a demand for more trained youth workers, which in turn prompted the college to launch its program in 1996.

Loewen, who has spent some 16 years in youth ministry of one sort or another, joined the Tabor faculty in 1997.

“I’m not on the front lines now, but I see my role as preparing those who will serve on the front line,” he said.

Tabor’s youth ministries major reflects a national trend to approach youth ministry intentionally and academically.

Said Loewen: “What I see is that people who have been in youth ministry for quite some time have now moved into roles that I occupy, and we’re saying to prospective youth ministers coming down the pike, ‘Look, this is serious business. It may look like a lot of fun-and it is-but it’s more than just have another pizza and let’s hang out.'”

Currently, some 20 students are working their way toward a degree in youth ministry. If Bible majors who have an interest in ministry are included, the number rises to around 30.

Even so, the supply isn’t keeping up with the demand, Loewen said.

“We find ourselves in an interesting situation,” he said. “We would like the churches to contact us-not first or only-to see if there are students available. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough students to meet all the needs.

“We have dozens of churches calling us-‘We need an intern,’ or, ‘We’re looking for a part-time or full-time youth pastor’-and we have only so many to offer.”

Tabor’s program is built on four components, Loewen said. Graduates should leave the college with:

–A stronger understanding of Scripture. Students take a core of Bible classes taught from the perspective of a Christ-centered theology, Loewen said.

–Practical ministry tools. Those would include classes in preaching and communication, Christian education, and youth-ministry administration.

“We’ll give them the toolbox, we’ll give them the tools and show them how to use them,” Loewen said. “But to really understand, you’ve got to get out there and put them to work.”

–Personal mentoring. Students are linked with a professor in the Bible department and participate in a two-year class called “Ministry Discernment Seminar,” where students discern their call to ministry.

“We talked about out spiritual journey, our strengths, our weaknesses, and where we think God is leading us,” Loewen said. “Then they meet with the professor twice a month, one on one.”

Occasionally, he added, the class serves the function of discerning people out of ministry when they conclude their abilities and interests don’t fit the demands of ministry.

–Practical ministry training. “Two years ago, we revved up the practical component to the point that students are expected to do an internship, which is a six- to seven-month term in a ministry setting,” Loewen said. “It could be a church or camp or some sort of urban ministry organization, wherever their gifts lie.”

A goal of Tabor’s program is to give youth ministers a solid theological and contextual basis for meeting the real needs of young people.

“Young people are searching for something to be true to, someone to be true to them, a cause that’s worthy of their life and big enough to die for,” Loewen said. “In too many cases, we’re asking them for an hour a week, a slice of their time. I think we ought to understand that they’re capable of so much more.”

Loewen said the center of youth ministry is to care for young people and to be responsible for the Christian gospel, which he says is to help them understand who Jesus is and to nurture their relationship with him.

“The gospel is not just escaping damnation, it’s knowing that God is with you through life,” he said. “So part of our task, then, is to be with young people, to walk them through the mystery and the mess of life. People are uncomfortable with mystery, which is God and life in the world, and they’re also uncomfortable with mess, which is us.”

Youth is a life stage where such issues are particularly critical, he added.

“If you listen to the way teenagers talk, you can get a little window into where they are,” he said. “You often hear them talk about how they would ‘die’ if something happened, or that they’re ‘sold out.’ Their language is very raw and on the edge. That’s what they’re experiencing.

“I think teens live kind of a raw humanness, and they’re not equipped to handle what they’re experiencing,” he said.

“But young people are not problems,” he added. “They remind us what it is to be human in a very acute way. Sometimes we don’t like to be reminded of who we really are.”

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