The specialist: Our youth worker

THE well-meaning adult church said to the youth worker Su Ling (not her real name): “You are gifted in ministry and you are no longer in your 30s, you should think of moving up from ministry to general ministry or even ordination.”

The leader meant to praise Su Ling’s gifts and support her ministry but instead subtly undermined her call to youth ministry. In formal and informal interviews with more than 60 Singaporean youth workers I have found that most church youth workers feel valued by the church. But they also sense that many in the church see the position as something one does for a season in their life – until they reach their mid-30s.

The calling is often undermined at home as well. It was surprising to me as a foreigner coming in and speaking to youth workers how many of them were discouraged by their parents from becoming youth workers. They were told by their parents that youth ministry was something to do as a volunteer not as a full-time calling or vocation.

It is little wonder that many church youth workers move from their position either into secular youth work or other positions in the church after four or five years.

It is not just that youth workers leave early, it is also that people who hear the call and have the passion for youth ministry fail to consider it as a profession because they do not see it as a viable profession. These seem to be contributing factors to the shortage of church-based youth workers in Singapore.

There are other factors as well that cause a shortage of youth workers. The most influential people in a teenager’s life are their parents. What is more, the long-term success of youth ministry is seen in the church’s ability to welcome young adults into the adult congregation when they become too old for the youth programme.

This means that if youth ministry is to be effective the youth worker must also be involved in ministry to the parents who are assisting them in caring for the spiritual lives of their children. It also requires the youth worker to minister within the whole congregation assisting all adults to be involved in the lives of the young people and to provide an inviting environment for young adults.

When this happens the whole church becomes responsible for the young people in their midst and the youth worker becomes a facilitator to the whole faith community. Often their work is limited to working only with the young people by the church structure or by their own lack of training. This limitation lies at the heart of growing frustrations. The constraints placed upon their position and their feelings of inadequacy due to lack of training lead many to leave church youth work.

Ultimately the chronic problem of the shortage of church youth workers is a whole church problem. The ministry with young people is the key for the whole church. A friend of mine wrote: “Children ask simple questions; Youth ask profound questions about life and God; and adults can’t be bothered to ask anymore.” This quote captures the fact that developmentally 12-25 is the age when people make life decisions, form their identity and develop helpful or unhelpful habits.

If a church embraces evangelism and discipleship as key goals then that means it is necessary to make the youth ministry
central. It is the age when the majority of people respond to God and develop their relationship with Him. If we are to fulfil the calling God has given us then identifying, training and supporting leaders to specialise in this ministry become critical.

So how do we as a church address this problem? Singapore youth workers and worldwide research suggest some ways forward for the church. The youth worker must be generally trained theologically, pastorally, managerially, and in addition, as a specialist to deal with the unique features of the adolescent years.

If the ordained pastor-in-charge is the general practitioner then the youth worker might be seen as a heart specialist. Therefore for the sake of the church and the youth worker, churches need to give people with the call to this specialised
ministry the space and support to receive training. Some youth workers may not want to take the time but this ministry
of eternal significance requires people who understand both the faith and young people.

Secondly churches could begin to view the youth worker not as a person who does the youth ministry but as the youth specialist who empowers the whole church to be in ministry to the young people. This would mean empowering them to discover creative ways of bringing the youth programme and adult church so they could both minister to one another. Adults need to be renewed by the young people’s fresh experiences with God and the youth need loving adults to accompany them in their new faith.

Thirdly we need to value the youth minister as one who has a special gifting and calling. One way of doing this is for the church to recognise the position with a title. The deacon’s ordination may be one of a number of ways for doing this. What is important is that the structure and the people recognise the training and significance of the position in such a way that the youth workers feel affirmed and recognised by the church and community in their calling.

There are other issues that cause the shortage and drain of youth workers from church ministries but addressing these will go some way towards addressing the systemic causes for the shortage of youth workers. Research has shown that youth workers in Singapore express passion for the ministry they are engaged in, so the challenge is for us to finds ways to support them!