Part one in a three-part series

It was 30 years ago this weekend that I towed an old Dodge Omni to Roanoke, Virginia. The destination was Parkway Wesleyan Church where I would have a chance to work with a hero of mine, Dr. John Ott. I had just finished my years at Indiana Wesleyan University (IWU, known as Marion College for most of my time) and was blessed to learn under mentors like Dr. Todd Guy and Dr. Keith Drury. In ministry, I worked with Dr. Eddie Shigley at College Wesleyan Church in Marion, Indiana (JCB Youth), and Rev. Dave Dyer at Lakeview Wesleyan Church, also in Marion (leading worship for the college ministry). IWU also gave me the gift of traveling four full years (school year and summer) in the ministry team “His Instrument” and that experience allowed me to meet a great number of pastors and see the Church from coast to coast.

It was praying with my mom and the ministry of Whiteford Wesleyan Church in Ottawa Lake, Michigan, however, that sealed my calling (even if I needed time in college to fully accept it).

I am forever grateful to Parkway Wesleyan for taking a chance on me, Lakeview Church for a great season of ministry and Skyline Church in San Diego, California, for opening the door to a whole new level of leadership. I was invited to teach at IWU after 15 years of local church ministry and it was an amazing call to serve. For me it was an opportunity to represent the local church at a level I felt was critically important. While at IWU I have been privileged to join three local church teams along the way at College Church, Eagle Church in Indianapolis and Cypress Church in Galloway, Ohio, where I currently serve in a teaching role. I love how IWU sees the value in this and encourages me to stay connected to the local church. My role at IWU also allows summer student ministry to be a big chunk of my life. I oversee the many IWU summer ministry teams we send out every year and I am speaking at camps as well.

Please hear me before reading this list. I love the Church (The Wesleyan Church) and am proud of its historical and current commitment to youth ministry. I have been so blessed to know those at the denominational level since Dr. Keith Drury and respect them all. I regularly pray for and support the current leadership of Rev. Zach Coffin, NextGen director, and the leadership of Dr. Anita Eastlack, executive director of Church Multiplication and Discipleship for The Wesleyan Church.

As I reflect back as well as think forward, my intent is to celebrate youth ministry with both deep introspection and observation of practice and failure (with the second squarely on my shoulders in my own ministry). This list barely scratches the surface. However, one per ministry year seems enough. We can only get better by learning lessons from the past.

  1. God’s word does not return void. “So shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Isaiah 55:11). All those events, camps, retreats (and the list goes on) are seed planting and good. Just because you may not see the harvest while they are teenagers doesn’t mean they will not bloom. Just stay in ministry long enough and you will see.
  2. Don’t work out your personal issues and struggles with God and the culture with adolescents in a sermon or small group and call it “being real.” Yes, stories of real-life struggles are helpful after you have healed from them. Remember, we are talking about life change and biblical principles to adolescents; they are not your personal small group or accountability group of friends.
  3. In 30 years, I’ve seen youth ministry pendulum back and forth from a stepping-stone profession to a high-value role and now as a proving ground to see how quickly we can move a person up to a “more important” position. Youth ministry has been an easy target to pick on or to craft an article about when we need to rant. We need great student pastors for the long run and to support them for a long run.
  4. The entire world is dialed in on this age group. Is the church? This age is celebrated in education to become a great middle school or high school teacher. In the media, it’s a hot topic. In music, instantly identified as talent. In fashion, a top target. The sex industry, a new client and to Satan, a priority. We need to increase our investment in this age group.
  5. “Belonging” is a high cultural value; it’s powerful. It used to be jocks, preps, band, brains and everyone else just slid in. Today, it’s about trying to be one of the “cool kids.” Belonging has expanded to any identifiable relationship. According to multiple mental health professionals whom I have talked to, the vast majority of adolescents that are claiming a sexual identity crisis are doing so with absolutely no tendencies or understanding of their own development. This includes physically, emotionally, socially, and most importantly, spiritually. Intimacy in relationships is being defined for them, and this culture celebrates belonging to something rather than being lost in the crowd. We can’t ignore this. The good is news is we don’t need to create a culture, but rather embrace the one Jesus has already created. The good news is we, the church, can be that place that offers unconditional belonging. As Henri Nouwen, a Catholic priest and author, said, “Spiritual identity means we are not what we do or what people say about us. And we are not what we have. We are the beloved daughters and sons of God.”
  6. We super impose our own spiritual development on teens and in doing so ignore the culture they live in the majority of their day. We teach, “do as we do and not as we did when we were your age.” We want them to skip this developmental stage. The reality is adolescents don’t process the same as adults and we need to walk them through this stage just like someone walked us through it.
  7. Youth ministry is helping pull teens out of a raging cultural storm. Every mental health professional and medical professional will tell you that this group is more like a developing child than they are an emerging adult.
  8. The classic church stats about youth ministry are worse than weather predictions. It’s true, a big core of students leave the youth group right after graduating as they go to college (see #1). The best indicators of a healthy youth ministry are stories of life change.
  9. Know the difference between strategy and tactics. We all have the same strategy and that’s what unifies us. Strategy is why we do what we do and is solely based on biblical principles. Tactics, however, are subject to context and answer the what, when, where and how. Again, we need to be united in strategy and diverse in tactics.
  10. The word “programming” is not a dirty word. Again, the pendulum swings out of control here. Study Jesus and you’ll see how he organized people to do the work of the ministry. If done well, it only pushes teens and our ministry deeper along with greater influence.

Stay tuned for part two.

Rev. Charlie Alcock is Youth Ministry professor and director of Youth Ministry Events at Indiana Wesleyan University in Marion, Indiana.