“I often wonder if perhaps we have moved so far away from the biblical ideal (for youth ministry) that we may not recognize it any longer.”
(edit: You can now read my book review of Wright’s follow-up to Rethink. It’s called ApParent Privilege.)
This is the title of the latest book that I have read. reThink, written by Steve Wright and Chris Graves. There are a plethora of books on the subject of youth ministry, why should anyone care about yet another book? The reason why this book IS different, is because it is not yet another model. At least not in the sense most of you may be thinking. Wright does an excellent job of pulling out the common themes/characteristics of typical modern day youth ministry models (YMM) and treating it as just one model. He then evaluates that model in light of scripture. What this book seeks to do, is to take a hard look at the current YMM and ask, “Is it Biblical?” If it isn’t, then how fast can we get rid of it and replace it with one that is Biblical?
And YES, all the other youth ministry books claim theirs is the most Biblical, too. The question then is, “What are the fruits of the ‘typical’ modern day YMM?” The entire first chapter of the book deals just with raw data/statistics. And, let me tell you, the evidence is overwhelmingly against the current youth ministry model. Nobody needs statistics to argue for a Biblical YMM (all you DO need is good hermenutics), but when the stats are on your side, it makes your argument that much more potent.
For example: the lowest number cited in regards to student drop-out rate for church membership after high school graduation was 61%; the highest was 88%. In regards to the tenure of youth pastors, the stat cited was 3.1 years at a given church. If you were looking at just the bottom line, which I am glad the author does much more than that, then this would be seen as a miserable failure. Even at the low end, 61%… if a college basketball coach averaged a 61% win record every year over the past 10 years, he would no longer have a job. Youth ministries have had this model for over 50 years.
So, what is the typical youth ministry model that Wright rails against? It is hard to describe it in just a few words, but let me try to sum up what Wright thinks are the basic characteristics of a typical youth ministry:
1. There is little to no parental involvement.
2. Parents are seen as competition for the youth pastor.
3. Youth are won over by the youth pastor’s charismatic personality, gimmicks, and entertainment instead of being won over to Christ and to authentic Christian relationships.
4. Pragmatism, rather than the Bible, is the default method of evaluating ministry effectiveness.
5. Numbers are the prime indicator of success.
6. The youth group is at best weakly connected with the rest of the church and at worst totally severed.
7. Because of the above mentioned characteristics, far too many youth (presumably even the ones that are truly saved- I’ll get back to this later.) not only graduate from the church when the graduate high school, but they graduate from God.
(I would say that my youth group can be described like this, but it’s difficult for me to do so. That’s because my youth pastor that discipled me in high school endorsed this book. Needless to say, I’m going to have a very interesting phone conversation with him some time in the near future.)
After lambasting this current YMM, he evaluates the only two other choices: Total Family Intergration and what Wright calls a hybrid model; a model that takes the Biblical elements of both family ministry and student ministry and “co-championing” them both together. This hybrid model takes seriously the charge to parents that’s made in Deuteronomy 6:4-9 for parents to view themselves as the primary disciplers of their own children. This is the primary principle behind Wright’s argument. If it is true that the parents are the primary discipler of their children, then everything else needs to fall in line behind it. We can see what this looks like by basically flipping the above-mentioned list on its head:
1. Parents are to be challenged and encouraged to be involved in all aspects of student ministry.
2. Parents are considered as the primary disciplers of their children and partners with the youth pastor.
3. Youth are won over by a gospel-saturated family life (or won over by the friend who comes from a gospel-saturated family life) and, not surprisingly…
4. …by the preaching of God’s word (here’s a great quote from the book about preaching God’s word: “Does the church have the courage to become relevant by becoming Biblical?”).
5. High attendance numbers do not matter nearly as much as retention numbers.
6. The point of the youth ministry is to teach the youth how to operate within the life of the church as a whole, therefore the youth are purposefully trained to operate with other ministries in the church.
7. When these principles are implemented (with a high dose of prayer), then you will see far greater and more lasting fruit as a result.
Co-championing both the parents and the youth ministry. I love the thought of “co-championing”! Since this is the thesis of the book, this is where Wright shines. On the one hand, he spends half the time discussing why the parents are the primary discipler of their children. On the other hand, he spends the other half discussing the importance of peer ministry and why parents can’t be the ONLY disciplers.
His sense of honesty and vulnerability. Wright tells a story about the time he bloodied the nose of one of his youth. Obviously, this happened when he was a young youth pastor, but it still takes guts to talk about such an embarrassing ministry faux paux. Because, in this day and age of religious posturing, inflated membership rolls, thick skin, and shallow relationships, his vulnerability and honesty is refreshing to say the least.
Practical application. After laying enough convincing groundwork, Wright gives us a glimpse of how his church implements this vision. Great ideas like a Parent Leadership Team show us newbies how to get started.
The number of awesome quotes. Wright uses good word economy in this book and has also done his homework in providing some of the most insightful comments by other Christian writers.
What didn’t work:
Before I give a negative critique, I must say that some of these missing links may be left out purposefully for a second book.
Not enough on childhood/teenage conversion. There is an unspoken controversy regarding conversion. Parents want to believe their kids are saved. Youth pastors want to believe they are leading youth into a genuine relationship with Christ. Yet, the best methods, the most biblical YMM cannot substitute for the regenerate power of the Holy Spirit. This book assumes the salvation of the youth in question and that’s fine for its purposes. It also at least exposes SOME faulty evangelism methods. But, a whole chapter should have been devoted to this issue.
Arguments against total family intergration model of youth discipleship were weak overall. I am very happy Wright at least addressed the ‘other model’. The other model is the one that sees any expression of youth ministry as unbiblical. But, when it comes to reacting against total family intergration, Wright only gives one argument (albeit, a good one) against that other model of ministry. He says we should avoid both extremes (typical YMM and total family intergration), but 90% of the counter-arguments are against the typical YMM. I can think of at least 4 more arguments against total family intergration.
More practical application and troubleshooting. Yes, he poured a lot into unpacking the “parent leadership team” concept, but it would have been nice to have something written about youth who do not have Christian, involved, caring parents. It would have been nice to see MORE of how his youth group does evangelism.
Again, these are all things that can easily be covered in the next book, so my complaints are ultimately only minor.
Thank God this book was written! My hope is that this enters into the church growth circles as an alternative to what’s currently out there. The more exposure this book gets can only mean good things.
P.S. Here is another book review by fellow Southern Seminary grad, Tony Kummer: http://saidatsouthern.com/book-review-rethink-by-steve-wright/#comments
and here is the link to the Amazon.com webpage, where you can buy the book: