For the last several decades as we have equipped, trained, enticed and, at times, begged adults to care for kids in the name of Christ, youth ministry has been the particular calling of the few as representatives of the many to make disciples of our children and emerging adults.
In the early 20th century, American youth ministry grew out of the tent revival movement, later morphing into what became known as parachurch ministries. The message was rooted in the evangelism practices of the day, which were both individualistic and pietistic. Along the way, depending on tradition and denomination, churches began to take up the cause of reaching out to the young in their own style, with their own leadership and dedicated space. This was a time when young people were feeling increasingly marginalized and US culture was going through the beginnings of generational fragmentation. Even in the church, congregational youth ministry soon took root as a staple of congregational life. By the 1980s, youth ministry had largely secured its place in church structure and strategy.
Throughout its history, in both parachurch contexts and in congregations, the seeds of personal faith and individual piety have remained the core drivers of youth ministry. The pragmatism of the early years brought together a wide diversity of practitioners to the youth ministry community, and at the same time held at bay the deeper theological grounding that was desperately needed. In the midst of a focus on content (“Jesus”) and target population (“kids”),1 other questions kept challenging the dominant pragmatism: What happens to our students when they graduate from high school? Where do they go? Where do they fit? Many have recently agreed that youth ministry, with all its rich history and impact on the church, needs to move beyond a small group of committed youth workers and find its place as an expression of the local and global body of Christ.2
ADOPTIVE MINISTRY: LIVING INTO OUR MUTUAL ADOPTION
John’s gospel opens with God’s decisive and cumulative redemptive act—the Incarnation of the Word who was “with God” and “was God” (John 1:1). Between those first words and the ultimate outcome described in John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (The Message), a sentence is included that summarizes the blessing of the Incarnation for all of humanity: “But those who did welcome him, those who believed in his name, he authorized to become God’s children” (John 1:12). The magnitude of this statement cannot be overestimated, but it has not only most often been reduced to the singular (“I am now a child of God”), but also has effectively been treated as an anecdotal accessory of the benefit of faith. Note the plural, however: “authorized to become God’s children.” We once were not a “child of God,” but now in and through Christ, we are his children. We’ve been reclaimed and renewed, and the result is our restoration as God’s own sons and daughters—together.
This, then, is the essence of adoptive youth ministry. We all—young and old, rich and poor, clergy and laity, regardless of ethnicity or status or power; all of us—were once estranged as orphans, and we are given a new place, a new home, and a new family. “He lifted us out of the pit of death, out of the mud and filth; he set our feet on solid rock. He steadied our legs” (Psalm 40:2, as plural reality). The goal of youth ministry can no longer be to “make individual faithful disciples,” but rather to strategically, structurally, and proactively include the young as vital members of the household of God. The goal of adoptive youth ministry, then, is to equip and invite the young to live into their calling as children with God’s other children.
To understand what adoptive ministry is, it is important to know what adoptive ministry is not because it can be easily misunderstood. It is not the following:
1. Adopting the young. This is, I admit, how I first envisioned adoptive ministry. If adults saw children and emerging adults as their own “adopted” children, then they would have a greater sense of responsibility for and compassion toward them. In a summit of youth ministry leaders a few years ago, it became clear that this use of the term “adoption” was in fact no different from “assimilation,” which in essence was saying to young people, “You become like us and then we will accept you.” In that hierarchy, power and dominance unintentionally taint relationships. Even the most benevolent adult who treated a young person as an “adopted child/niece/grandchild” still speaks from a basic position of power. This is not the biblical vision Paul was planting. In adoptive youth ministry we must hold a higher view of our young, while we still recognize that they are in developmental transition and therefore in need of proactive nurture.
2. Maintaining the status quo. “This adoption stuff you’re talking about may be biblical, but it’s also radical. Do you realize this?” This insightful comment came from a senior pastor who was wrestling with the implications of Paul’s theology for congregational life and practice. Adoptive ministry so values the newly included sibling that the community itself knows it must become something new. To live into our mutual adoption in Christ brings a fresh look to the way we staff, structure, and program our life together. The more we allow the Bible to teach us, the more disruptive it will be to our way of “doing church.”
3. Doing away with targeted programming. While every adoptive system must adapt, I do not advocate for making sweeping, wholesale changes without a thorough and prayerful process that includes careful, communal reflection. In fact, much of the programming we have in place may actually be enhanced were we to take our place and status together seriously. So many, especially our most vulnerable subgroups (e.g., youth and children’s ministry, but also senior adult and single ministries) must be given opportunities for safe and welcoming relational environments and experiences in order to be effectively welcomed into the larger community of faith. Targeted population ministries provide such safe places, but members must never be satisfied to remain only there. The challenge, then, is to see these structures as gateways into a greater experience of unity in the body, guarding against a functional “we/they” separation.
WHAT ADOPTIVE YOUTH MINISTRY IS
Many practitioners and thought leaders have come to recognize the value of practices that draw God’s people into more intentional connection with one another. For example, the Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith research has helped scores of churches encourage parents and congregations to take a more active role in a young person’s faith journey. Parental partnership with youth ministry and intentional intergenerational opportunities are good examples of adoptive youth ministry in action. However, without a foundational theological grounding from which to develop, these and other programs can easily devolve into mere programs among many others. Adoptive youth ministry provides a basic theological core from which strategy and programs emerge. Having this philosophical center, intergenerational relationships then become contextual applications for living out mutual adoption in Christ.
Adoptive ministry, therefore, is the following:
1. Living into our mutual adoption in Christ. Adoptive youth ministry does not seek to encourage adults to “adopt” kids, but rather to remind each member to live into their own story of adoption within the family of adopted siblings. The gospel is the great leveler. All have been lost, all have been orphaned, and we all are powerless to rescue our- selves without the saving mercy of God to bring us back home as his children (John 1:12, again note the plural). So a 75-year-old former banker is an adopted son of God living in a family among other sons and daughters of God, and as such he has been given the blessing of a sibling relationship with a 15-year-old daughter of the King. He must not treat her as a surrogate grandchild, or even daughter, but rather with the respect and inclusion of a fellow sinner saved by grace and given the gift of adoption, just like him. This, in and of itself, changes everything. Youth ministry people have known this for decades: the 75-year-old man needs his 15-year-old “little sister” every bit as much as she needs him.
2. Adults being intentional about voice, empowerment, and inclusion for the young. Our dean in Fuller’s School of Theology, Joel B. Green, notes that in the Gospel of Luke, “Jesus’ mission [opens] the way for the inclusion of people in God’s kingdom, who otherwise have no apparent claim on God.”3 Every congregation contains those who feel “included” and those who do not. Those who hold the power, whether formally or environmentally, have greater responsibility to both nurture and empower vulnerable sisters and brothers into maturity and thriving. Again, intergenerational ministry programs can be life changing for both the old and the young, but all too often these types of initiatives break down because the adults feel slighted that the young do not initiate with them. A commitment to adoptive ministry means that adults, regardless of age, must be trained and equipped to think like older siblings who also are charged with the ministry of nurture and empowerment. It is not up to the outsider to seek inclusion with the more mature, which is a common fallacy perpetuated in the church. Rather, older siblings have the responsibility to guide and serve younger siblings.
3. Understanding the role of leadership in the adoptive church. I have always wondered why most of the Reformers were so exegetically careful with so many of the excesses of the dominant church, but somehow left in place the hierarchy and subsequent separation of leadership from laity. This obviously deserves deeper consideration, but one thing is certain. Throughout the New Testament, leadership is not a permit for those in power to stand above or even separate from the congregation, but rather is a call to a servant’s role based on gifts, history, and communal affirmation to perform two functions (aside from direct ecclesial duties, such as sacraments): maintain the continuity of the gospel and ensure the integrity of the body (e.g., Acts 2:42 and Acts 6:1–6). This means that a deacon, elder, or pastor is different in role but not status in the household of God. In a fallen world, the Scriptures make clear that we all need each other, and we all have various gifts and re- sources to contribute (1 Corinthians 12). Leaders therefore must take the lead in modeling, teaching, and equipping the adopted siblings of God to live together in unity and love.
I offer adoptive youth ministry, then, as a grounding biblical and theological metaphor that can guide us to a greater awareness of and sensitivity toward one another in Christ. As young people grow, they need their parents to be equipped, and they need the body of Jesus Christ to both nurture and empower them as full participants in the kingdom of God. Using the familial language of Scripture levels the playing field in a hierarchical world, reimagines the value of the young, the disconnected, and the vulnerable, and draws God’s people together as siblings in a world of radical isolation and generational atomization. As Fuller professor Dennis Guernsey wrote in 1982: