Why Youth Ministry Needs Old People

Hipster couple talking and drinking coffee to go at university campus

Virtually every week, I’ll talk with potential volunteers for student ministry who will inform me with knocking knees and a frightened quiver in their voice: “I’m too old to work with students.”

And I just want to beat my head against the wall.

As an “old person” working in student ministry, it’s an issue with which I admittedly take personal umbrage. I was late bloomer in the field of student ministry … I entered Seminary at the ripe old age of 31. In case you don’t know, that’s the equivalent of Methuselah by student ministry standards. I didn’t have Rob Bell glasses and a hipster beard. I’ve never shopped at Urban Outfitters or Abercrombie. It’s hard to have a faux hawk with male pattern baldness. I didn’t even own a white belt for crying out loud. But God did give me giftedness and passion to work with students.

After completing my Mdiv degree as a rather ancient 34 year-old, I endured several months of church search committees lobbing thinly veiled insults about my “old age” for student ministry: “How do you plan on relating to kids soooooooooo much younger than you? … How do you stay current on what’s going on in youth culture? … Are you familiar with how to use the Internet? … What type of TV shows do you think our kids watch? … Have you considered becoming a senior pastor instead? … How are you going to ‘wow’ kids to Jesus?” And – no – I’m not making any of these questions up. When I interviewed with a major student camp program, the headhunters literally laughed me out of the room, branding me as older than Moses riding a dinosaur and unable to “relate” to kids.

Now I’m 41 … And I’m working with students. And I still don’t own a white belt.

So let’s ask the question: Should age or “relatability” be a disqualifying factor in working with youth? More importantly: What does Scripture say about the matter?

If you’re looking for a coherent model of student ministry in Scripture, one of the (very) few places that speaks of young persons and Christian education is Titus 2:1-8:

1 But as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine. 2 Older men are to be sober-minded, dignified, self-controlled, sound in faith, in love, and in steadfastness. 3 Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, 4 and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, 5 to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled. 6 Likewise, urge the younger men to be self-controlled. 7 Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, 8 and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.

What separates Titus 2 from other passages that speak about discipling young persons (i.e. Deuteronomy 6 or Ephesians 6:1-5) is the emphasis on the role of the church body pouring into the life of young people in its midst. And let’s get the exegesis right: This passage is about age (“older” and “younger”), and assumes that spiritual maturity generally comes with age (with emphasis on the word “generally”). So older men are to teach sound doctrine to younger men … Older women are to similarly disciple younger women. God has designed discipleship in the church to be intentionally cross-generational, which is the exact opposite of what exists in most churches.

Since the 1940s, our churches have largely mimicked successful para-church groups (Youth For Christ; Young Life; Inter Varsity), segregating kids into compartmentalized ministries tailored to their own interests led by specialized, expert ministers. In most larger churches (and even many smaller churches), the commonplace is that our youngest children spiritually germinate in a kids department with a separate kids worship service … And then eventually graduate to a youth department with a separate youth worship service … And then perfunctorily drop out of church upon graduation because they can’t figure out the whole “adulting in church” thing.

So somewhere along the way, we gleefully handed our kids and student ministries over to the “specialists.” The adults could finally attend a quiet and uninterrupted worship service while the kids of all age groups are being babysat by pastors in training. And adults no longer needed to get their hands dirty in the messy work of student discipleship. We humored ourselves in believing that kids would be magnetically transfixed to Christ by “relatable” young leaders with trendy gauges in their ears and handlebar mustaches. We pushed the “easy button.” We chose comfort of the recliner over the hard work of the plow. And created a bizarre hypocrisy in the church where we see quite elderly grandmothers accepted in the nursery changing dirty diapers but banned from the youth room discipling students.

Frankly, “relatability” is highly overrated in student ministry, and – more importantly – spoken nowhere in Scripture. You certainly don’t find it in Titus 2: “Let the older women use Snapchat and understand the terms ‘bae’ and ‘on fleek’ … Let the older men get Jesus tats, hipster beards and skinny jeans …” By nature, fads will ebb and flow over time, and have nothing to do with anyone’s calling to ministry. Any church that judges suitability of leaders for student ministry on whether they own TOMS instead of their walk with Christ is walking into a bear trap. Are we really willing to disqualify our strongest believers from student discipleship because they don’t know the Kardashians? I’m not saying that student ministry leaders should be frozen in time on the set of Happy Days … But I am saying that attempting to “relate” kids to Christ is a fools errand. On a transcendent level, the legit story of Gospel already relates to all peoples, all cultures and all life stages.

Please don’t translate this blog post into bashing young student ministers. I’m not. We shouldn’t look down upon young leaders setting a great example in speech, conduct, love, faith and purity (Yes … I’ve read 1 Timothy 4:12 … Simmer down, Millennials). But I am saying that our churches cannot venerate youth or relatability in student ministry to the point of tossing out spiritual maturity into the garbage bin. We shouldn’t look down on the “old folks” in church either.

So to all the “old” people out there: Student ministry desperately needs you. Don’t let anyone – and I mean anyone – tell you that you’re “too old” to speak into the lives of kids.

We need your mom jeans, your hot flashes, your crock-pot casseroles and your inexplicable Starbucks obsessions.

We need your combovers, your NPR radio and your out-of-fashion dad shorts.

We need your awkward inability to figure out what an Instagram is and your frustration in figuring out how to text emojis.

We need to hear how Christ has walked with you through the valley of the shadow: Your cancer diagnosis … The death of your spouse … Your son’s addiction … Your marital problems.

We need every hand-written note, highlight and underline in your worn-out Bibles.

We need your unbridled joy and passion for potluck dinners, prayer meetings and the unmistakeable taste of overly-percolated church coffee.

We need the spiritual maturity and discipline that comes from a lifetime of following Christ.

More than anything, we desperately need you to speak the Gospel with beauty, clarity and conviction into the lives of our young people.

So let’s get to work.