Prevenient Grace & Youth Ministry

2013 Confirmation  



This week I am leaving full-time youth ministry to return to the realm of government contracting.  The decision to make this occupational change was a tough one to make but it was ultimately a decision that was made for my family.  In the midst of this transition, I want to reflect and share my thoughts on youth ministry.  What are the goals of youth ministry?  What is a theological starting point for youth ministry? I will conclude this series of posts with my own philosophy of youth ministry.

Prevenient Grace and Youth Ministry

Developmental Needs of Adolescents

If you were to ask someone who works in youth ministry if teenagers are really human, the youth worker might respond my with a sarcastic “no”.  In reality, the response from the youth worker is accurate.  Teenagers, adolescents, are still developing.  Their bodies are beginning to experience drastic changes and as as part of this development their brains are rapidly changing.  We often ask middle school boys if they thought about the consequences of their actions, but the reality is that middle school boys for the most part of not capable of thinking past their spontaneous actions.

Early adolescence is the time period when formation is most effective in teenagers.  This would explain why most Christian communities choose to invite youth to participate in confirmation classes just prior to becoming a teenager.  Faith communities choose to engage youth and begin Christian formation during the time when the youth are most receptive to learning about the faith.  This allows youth workers and faith communities to establish a relationship with their youth at a young age, and hopefully begin cultivating that relationship over the years that follow the youth’s confirmation experience.

The years a young person experiences during adolescence is a time of “storm and stress”[1].  Although this theory has not been embraced by all adolescent psychologists, if we think back to our own experiences between the ages for 12 and 18, patterns of storm and stress can become prevalent.  Whether it is a shift in friendships or changes within a teenagers dynamics at home, we can at least agree that the years a young person experiences during adolescence is a time of stress.

The Culture of Teenagers

For those who do not have teenage children, or do not work with teenagers, it can be hard to understand the teenage culture of 2013.  Between 1940 and 1960 the field of youth ministry identified the “youth culture”[2], which separated teenagers from larger cultural settings.  This was the same time when Billy Graham was beginning his youth for Christ movement.  During this time period the rise of institutional Christianity began also. Mainline denominations began to spread and establish roots in every big city and small town across America.  The separate youth culture that began during this time became ingrained into the culture of most mainline churches[3].

hrcThe idea of prevenient grace being the baseline for my own youth ministry pairs well with the grace that many teens show one another today.  Teenagers today are much more open and accepting of the differences among their peers than their parents would have been at the same age.  The lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) movement has gained traction among teenagers who no longer see sexual identity and orientation and divisions within their community.  As a result of this acceptance, teenagers are expecting that their faith communities match their own level of acceptance.  Prevenient grace, although a theological term that many teens have never heard, is an concept that many teenagers are engaged in (either as participants or recipients) on a daily basis.

Teenagers today have access to more information in a thirty second Google search than their peers would have had one hundred, fifty, or even twenty years ago.  News and information is shared via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and email, and no longer does it take days or weeks to exchange ideas or new.  Teenagers today live in a world where they are more connected to the global community than many of their parents are.

Doug Pagitt argues that we have moved from the industrial age[4] to the information age[5], to the inventive age[6].  The world our teenagers are growing up in is more concerned about the ideas they are able to produce than the goods they will be able to manufacture.  Because the knowledge which at one time had been reserved for the elite levels of academia are now available to teenagers at the click of a button, teens are now part of not only learning communities, but are also able to contribute to the academic conversation as peers in the academic community.

The inventive age has given way to teens living in a world which they view through screens.  This includes smartphones, tablets, laptops, televisions, and desktop computers.  This has led to teenagers building realities which are beyond their face-to-face interactions with friends and family.  It might seem silly or inauthentic friendships, but the realities created by teens online are just as real as the relationships they build with their next door neighbor.

Teens are able to not only create friendships on every continent but they are also able to create identities which are different from the identities expressed with their peers they interact with on a daily basis.  Because of the connectedness created in the inventive age, grace is prevalent throughout the lives of teenagers.  Teens are more accepting of not only those who are identified as LGBT, but other differences and nuances that now exist among their peers are not seen as separating distinctions that would have been viewed as dividing issues thirty years ago.

In Light of Methodist Tradition

“What Christian adults know that teenagers are still discovering is that every one of them is an amazing child of God.”[7]

It has been my experience in the Methodist church that grace is an important theme that Methodist communities embrace.  The concept of the open communion table highlights the importance of grace practiced in Methodist communities.  Grace is something that I experienced as a member of a Methodist community during my teenage years.  It is because of the love offered to me, even at times when I did not necessarily deserve it, that I today now view grace as an important theological baseline for youth ministry.

God works through all of us preveniently.  Yet, when we do not want God’s love to work in us or when we do not think that we deserve that love, God still works through each of us.  Teens are at a point in their lives when it can become easy to think that the world is against them, that no one cares or loves them.  When a teenager gets into trouble at school or in community, often they are told that they have ruined their chances at college or a good job, ruining any hopes of a successful future.  What if the church was different?  What if members of Christian communities, especially those working in the field of youth ministry, looked at teenagers differently.  Grace that is offered preveniently to teenagers lets those teenagers know that they are not only loved by God but that they are are also loved and valued by the communities in which they live.

[1]  Dyson, Drew. “Taking Theology to Youth Ministry” (lecture, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 9/21/2013)

[2]Dyson, Drew. “History of Youth Ministry” (lecture, Wesley Theological Seminary, Washington, D.C., 9/21/2013)

[3] This is why in 2013 we still see the youth membership of congregations separated from the larger activities of the church.  We have established “youth Sunday” where the youth of the community are invited to participate in worship.  We have children’s church and youth worship each week to cater to the needs of the young people, while keeping the adult worship service free from distractions that could be cause by children and teenagers.

[4] “The Industrial Revolution of the late 1800s brought about dramatic cultural upheaval in Europe and the United States.  Certainly earlier inventions like the printing press had a broad impact on society.  But the printing press didn’t directly change the way people fed themselves or moved from place to place or earned a living.  The Industrial Revolution did.”  Pagitt, pg. 21.

[5] “The next cultural shift began while the Industrial Age was still booming.  During the 1920s and ‘30s, the Information Age began to take hold, thanks in no small part to the growth of the manufacturing and shipping industries that had taken place during the Industrial Age.  As people had access to books, newspapers, radios, and eventually televisions, knowledge and information became the most valuable assets of the culture.”  Pagitt, pg. 21.

[6] “In the same way, the Inventive Age is being born out of the Information Age.  Knowledge is no longer the goal but the means by which we accomplish new, even unimagined goals.”  Pagitt, pg. 21.

[7] Dean, pg. 197.