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

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:

  1. How to be saved.
  2. The value of the Word of God.
  3. How to share my faith and lead others to a personal relationship with Christ.
  4. How to be an active member of the church body.
  5. The importance of being discipled and discipling others.
  6. The importance of engaging lost friends.
  7. The power of an invitation to church.
  8. That fun and creativity pave the way for effective ministry and evangelism to take place.
  9. The importance of authentic worship.
  10. The power of strong, Christ-centered preaching.
  11. What healthy adult involvement in the lives of teenagers looks and feels like.
  12. The impact of visitation.
  13. How to minister through presence.
  14. How to minister by living a righteous life.
  15. How to care for and include others.
  16. What missions are all about and how to participate.
  17. How to cooperate in ministry.

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, 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! Pharoah!” 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…

To read the complete article (discussion of each item in the above list), visit skopos.org/rad_full