Most church youth programs are spiritually shallow, speaker says

LOUISVILLE, Ky.(BP)--Barry St. Clair has been involved in youth ministry for more than 30 years, writing some 20 books on the subject.

So when he recently called most youth ministry programs "a mile wide and an inch deep," he had quite a few intent listeners.

St. Clair, founder of Reach Out Youth Solutions, spoke Sept. 22 at Boyce College, the undergraduate school of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, during the school's annual Youth Vision Conference. The audience consisted of current and future youth ministers.

The Georgia-based speaker, who is a Southern graduate, said the goal of youth ministry should be to "reach every student on every campus with the life-changing message of the gospel." But too many youth ministries are falling short of that goal, St. Clair said, because they have the wrong emphasis -- entertainment.

"Why are we not getting there?" he asked. "Because most youth ministries that I know in the local church -- and I've been doing this for 30 years -- are a mile wide and an inch deep. I don't blink when I say that."

St. Clair told the story of one youth minister whose youth department grew from 12 to 80 attendees in just a few short weeks. There was only one problem -- transformations were not taking place.

St. Clair read a testimony from the youth minister who recounted, "No one's life was being changed. Then it occurred to me -- I was completely fooling myself [in] thinking I was doing anything closely resembling ministry. I was an entertainer, the ringmaster of a great show held every Wednesday night."

The current youth ministry emphasis, St. Clair said, began after World War II when the population as a whole began focusing on adolescents.

"So churches mimicked what the secular world provided for kids, starting in 1945 and 1946. And from that day to this day we have continued to mimic that same, exact thing," he said. "And you wonder why we're a mile wide and an inch deep?

"You're the product and I'm the product of churches that have operated on the wrong paradigm. We're the product of churches that have operated from this paradigm mimicking secular culture."

Too often youth programs contain nothing more than activities to keep teenagers busy, St. Clair said. Those programs, he said, often lack any spiritual content. Some teens end up living out hypocritical lives in front of their peers, while others often lack the spiritual boldness to impact their schools.

A "radical shift" in youth ministry, he said, is needed.

St. Clair pointed to Psalm 78:1-5, in which the Israelites are challenged to pass on their faith to the next generation. In a youth program, St. Clair said, this must begin with the passionate faith of the youth minister, although it also must include disciple-making through relationships with youth.

"If you're going to have that kind of youth ministry, then it's going to take a passionate faith on your part and [on the part of] the people who are the leadership in your youth ministry," he said. "It's going to take a group of people who are committed to relational disciple-making."

After being discipled, teens will want to share their faith with their friends, St. Clair said. The youth group will then grow because transformations are taking place.

"Life-changing needs to be taking place, and what that means is this -- every student who comes under the influence of your ministry has the opportunity to encounter Jesus Christ," he said. "Not one time, but weekly. They should be discipled in a way that helps them understand how day by day -- even moment by moment -- there is this personal, passionate, loving relationship with God, and that they can walk with him and know him and follow him and pursue him in every single aspect of their life."

St. Clair called for youth ministers to pray for a "Jesus-focused ministry" and to model their programs after Matthew 9:36-38 reflecting Jesus' compassion for the people and his instruction to his disciples to pray for laborers.

In a youth program, the laborers include an adult leadership team.

"I take that leadership team and I begin to invest my life in that group of adults," St. Clair said. "The fascinating thing is that most people who are called to youth ministry are called to youth ministry because they love kids. You build this leadership team, just like Jesus did with his 12 disciples. He invested in those guys and poured his life into them."

Youth ministry, he said, isn't as complicated as some have made it.

"It boils down to this: Leaders walking with God, creating an environment of prayer, and in that environment of prayer a leader gathers around himself other leaders and invests in them," he said. "Those leaders disciple kids. Those kids disciple others. [Then] those kids reach their friends."


(BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: ST. CLAIR AT SOUTHERN.