Rad: An Appreciative Retrospective of My Days Spent in a 1980’s Youth Ministry…in a Small Town, Traditional Church (Full Article)

A group of young youth ministers gather around a coffee shop table discussing youth ministry calendars.  Drawing a blank for the fall, they begin to joke.

“Hey, I know!  How about a hay ride?”

A general chuckle and sip.

“Yeah, and then we can end up at a bonfire where we write down the sins we struggle with and nail them to a big cross ‘once and for all.’”

Laughter all around and the clinking of cups on saucers.

“Sure.  Why not?  Then we’ll wrap it up with five choruses of Kumbaya!”

Uproarious laughter and a straightening of postures.  It’s time to get back to serious planning so eavesdroppers don’t take them seriously and assume their espousal of 20th Century youth ministry philosophy…whatever that was.

Conversations like this one make me cringe, but I understand the thinking behind them.

I have a confession.  Are you ready?

I was a product of 1980’s youth ministry.

There, I said it. Whew! It feels good to get that out there in the open.

These days, I look back on my junior high and high school days with fondness, but, early on in my youth ministry career, I thought harboring any kind of positive feelings toward my youth ministry experience growing up would somehow invalidate my current influence or relevance in the modern spiritual landscape.  I fought hard, not only to update the wheel, but to reinvent it completely until, years into my career, I woke up and realized that those days spent in the friendly confines of my home church were actually rich and incredibly formative, providing a strong spiritual and experiential foundation for my life and heavily influencing the way that I live out my faith today. It wasn’t all just fun and games as some might suggest and I used to believe.

For the record, 1980’s youth ministry, for all of its levity and spoofable moments, taught me the following:

How to be saved.
I came to faith when I was fifteen, but I began my journey toward faith in Christ when I was ten. Having just moved from the big city to a new, much smaller town, I was a kid on the outside looking in, but I found a place to belong in the local church. It was through that exposure to the things of God that I gave my life to Christ. They presented the Gospel clearly there, in all of its depth, no sugar-coating, so that we understood life could only be found in Jesus, by grace and through faith alone.

The value of the Word of God.
Even in the midst of all the fun we had—and we had a lot of fun, as our leaders pulled out all the stops when it came to outreach and connection—the primary focus of our youth ministry was the Word of God.  They challenged us to memorize it, ingest it through daily time with the Lord, meditate on it, and walk in it.  We understood without question that the Word of God, not social environment or emotional experience, was the foundation of our faith and necessary for spiritual growth.  And, deep down, I knew, that the study guides they handed out were for reading and serious use.  It was just a bonus that the spines of those guides were perfect for hitting my friends in the back of the head when the leaders weren’t looking!

How to share my faith and lead others to a personal relationship with Christ.
As a student, I learned how to invite people into a faith relationship with Jesus by watching, and I’m thankful for the many opportunities I was given to watch that process modeled.  I’m thankful that our pastor did so every Sunday morning and that we held crusades, revival meetings, and evangelism conferences.  I’m thankful that it was a common occurrence in youth Bible study. I’m even thankful for the ‘end times’ movie marathons we held on the occasional weekend just to make sure kids were thinking about eternity, if for no other reason than it prompted me to look into more effective methods of evangelism…and left me with some totally awesome movie posters currently displayed in my office!

How to be an active member of the church body.
Through church training, discipleship training, and church business meetings, we learned that there was more to belonging to the Body than showing up and having fun.  We learned that our faith came with a certain amount of obligation to, responsibility for, and expectation from our brothers and sisters in Christ.

The importance of being discipled and discipling others.
Even before I was saved, I was being disciple toward faith. The leaders in my church and in the group pointed us toward faith in Christ and obedience to him in a number of ways, through Disciple Youth small group, Sunday school class, Sunday morning and night services, and Wednesday night Bible study.  They clearly explained and demonstrated what it looked like to follow the Lord in obedience. If my friends or I missed it, it wasn’t because leadership wasn’t putting it out there for us to grab hold of.

The importance of engaging lost friends.
If youth ministry is anything, it’s social.  As Christian adults, it is our responsibility to help teenagers navigate the sometimes turbulent waters of adolescent relationships in light of their faith by providing them with the opportunity to connect with one another appropriately in a safe, Christ-centered, God-honoring environment.  My home church taught us how to engage one another in appropriate ways as we engaged the living God.

The power of an invitation to church.
An invitation to Sunday school class from a friend in the fifth grade changed my life and set me on the path I walk today. It connected me to a community of believers and introduced me to the God who saved me, and I’m so glad he asked.

That fun and creativity pave the way for effective ministry and evangelism to take place.
Let us never forget that youth ministry is, in fact, ministry to youth, those dreaming, growing, willing, open, and honest individuals who happen to be right in the middle of the wackiest seasons of upheaval in their entire lives! How can anyone who claims to love and understand teenagers miss the fun and humor in that?  Instead of suppressing or ignoring it, we should capitalize on it. My leaders sure did! In fact, my youth leaders—pastor included—embraced the craziness with both arms.  As a result, I learned how to cut loose, be real, have fun, joke around and take myself less seriously, yet remain committed to Jesus and loving others, a lesson we could all stand to learn.

Our leaders took great pains to make sure that every event was exciting and fun, that the lesson came alive, and/or that the illustration was worth the extra effort, and our discernment never dulled. Like students today, we were smart.  We knew the difference between light moments and heavy moments and understood the proper time and place for each.

I’m sure critics accused our leaders of surface, entertainment-based ministry, but they never allowed themselves to be bullied into sub-par execution of any event or used the gossip of critics as an excuse to be lazy with the wildly creative minds God has given all of us.

The importance of authentic worship.
Worship in the 1980’s church and/or youth group is the butt of many jokes, but some of the songs that we sang back then still resonate with me today, songs that got me through difficult times and still challenge me in my most difficult moments. Believe me, if I have in my heart the rich words of a hymn of faith in me now, it isn’t because that’s what we did in our home; it’s because of those ‘boring’ services we endured and those ‘lame’ music ministers who drilled them into us at Fifth Sunday Sings and Select-a-Hymn Nights.  We experienced authentic worship through a variety of means, congregational singing, the public reading and preaching the of the Word, skit performance, the sharing of personal testimonies, corporate prayer, and the giving of offerings.  We were also given the opportunity to lead out in worship during Sunday morning services, youth camp, youth choir and special music performances, and youth Bible studies.

The power of strong, Christ-centered preaching.
Our pastor regularly challenged us to follow Jesus and follow Him more closely and brought in, on a regular basis, other preachers throughout the year that offered fresh perspective on familiar truth and introduced new ideas that challenged my thoughts on faith, the church, faithfulness, and obedience.

What healthy adult involvement in the lives of teenagers looks and feels like.
My home church was simply crawling with adults. You couldn’t get into trouble or hatch your nefarious plans without bumping into one, maybe even your mom or dad, a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle. They were everywhere, it seemed! Sometimes we wished there weren’t so many, but it was beneficial to listen to parents teach Bible study and encouraging to witness their interest in what interested us.  Their example served us well and their presence provided accountability. In truth, those adults with their noses all up in our business made us feel cared for and protected.  It was nice to know that we weren’t on our own as we celebrated victories and struggled to come to grips with the unexpected and difficult: divorce, suicide, pre-mature death, and the normal stuff that comes with being in middle school.

The impact of visitation.
On Sunday afternoons, my friends and I loaded up on the church van with one of the men in our church and hit the streets.  We visited the homes of church members, visitors, or just random folks in order to pray with them, share the Gospel, invite them to church, or just check in and tell them they’d been missed.  The experience gave me a deep appreciation for others and taught me to value their needs and feelings.

How to minister through presence.
For a small community, we sure saw an awful lot of tragedy in the lives of our friends and families. By the time I was in my late twenties, I had attended more funerals of friends than weddings. You name it, and we experienced it. In fact, I can’t think of many families I know that weren’t touched in some way by divorce, death, dysfunction, or some sort of addiction.  Still, in the midst of pain, I saw—and felt—love from people who cared and were simply present and available through difficulty.  We learned by doing.  We had to.

How to minister by living a righteous life.
The first godly people I ever really encountered were members of my home church. Week after week, month after month, year after year, I watched them serve faithfully, sacrifice with no expectation of anything in return, and, most importantly, walk in confidence of their Lord as a result of their personal relationship with Him.  Even then, I recognized the difference between those who actually walked with the Lord and those who just claimed to and understood that God had called His children to a different life.  In the lives of these saints, I witnessed what it meant to ‘walk…worthy of the calling.’ Those sweet men and women of God continue to have an impact on me and my life and work to this day, many unknowingly, and serve as representatives of the ‘mark’ that I ‘press on toward.’ They are proof that there have been, are, and will continue to be faithful men and women of God who cling to their faith for life. They push me.

How to care for and include others.
In youth group, I learned that everyone mattered. Regardless of ethnicity, creed, status, skill, or stability of condition, they mattered, so we included them. We were patient. We were available, and we did our best to understand where they were coming from, no matter how unfamiliar their background and experience.  We chose to care, something I continue to choose today as a result of that experience.

What missions are all about and how to participate.
I have another confession: I was an honorary Acteen. In the absence of a leader for our Pioneer missions study, my buddy and I joined up with the girls’ mission class.  Besides getting to hang out with a bunch of girls for an extra hour, we enjoyed learning about the work the Lord was doing around the world and about those He was using to do that work.  We prayed for them on a regular basis and considered whether God might want to use us in similar ways.  Eventually, I would surrender to vocational ministry as a result of my heart’s having been readied to hear the call in this way.

How to cooperate in ministry.
Through associational and state youth events such as youth rallies, Falls Creek, Youth Evangelism Conference, Super Summer, Dawson McAllister conferences, and the like, we understood that our ministry and the Church were neither confined by nor limited to the little, orange-carpeted, wood-paneled sanctuary or blonde brick building where we met. We saw that there were kids just like us in Coweta, Edmond, Sulphur, and the big cities like Tulsa and Oklahoma City that wanted to know and follow Jesus, too. Somehow, it made the task seem more doable.  Understanding that our faith was about something bigger than ourselves and that we were a part of a larger whole, we also participated in special offerings, sacrificing to help out those missionary ladies, Lottie, Annie, and Edna. I was inspired.

I could go on and on, but this is a long list already.  My point is that my experience in 1980’s youth ministry during those formative years did have meaning and was relevant, as proven by the lasting results in my life and the lives of so many others who experienced it with me, regardless of what it may have looked like on the surface.  Sure, things got silly sometimes–we could have done without some of the theatrics characteristic of the decade itself–but there was plenty of “meat” underneath any fat that could have been trimmed.

Oh, I’m sure that there were youth groups back then, just as there are now in this “enlightened” age, where shallow was about as deep as it got, and I’m sure that they served up a slice of superficial on a weekly basis.  However, it bears saying that the presence of fun, fellowship, intensity, and emotion do not necessarily indicate an absence of depth.  In fact, modern congregations who lop them off in the quest for “real” and “meaningful” only hurt themselves and limit what could be.

To modern youth ministers, I would simply say this: Practice makes progress, true, and student ministry today is obviously more informed and arguably more focused than youth ministry thirty years ago, but criticizing, discounting, or refusing to draw and learn from what happened in the past simply because you were not there to feel the impact of it serves no one and does nothing to validate personal opinion, popular ministry trends, or recent innovations in the world of church. For the sake of unity in the Church and the benefit of all involved, let’s not become arrogant in our attitude toward or flippant in our discussion of early youth ministry or any other area of ministry, the productive work of passionate and dedicated ministry pioneers just as full of the Holy Spirit and just as determined to reach teenagers with the Gospel as any youth minister today.

On a personal note, I owe a debt of gratitude to the youth ministers and leaders who loved me, put up with me, gave me opportunity, and laid up for me a stable foundation for future spiritual growth so many years ago in that small town, traditional Southern Baptist church.  Thank you all from the bottom of my heart.

Okay, DJ, cue up “Pharaoh! Pharaoh!” Someone get out the panty hose and apple sauce, and let’s all raise a glass of red kool-aid to 1980’s youth ministry! Just don’t spill it on the new fellowship hall carpet. People might blame those rowdy teenagers…