Book Review: ReTHiNK: Is Student Ministry Working?
Written by Jim French, Vice-Principal, Youthworks College
Book Review: ReTHiNK: Is Student Ministry Working? By Steve Wright & Chris Graves (2008), Wake Forest, NC: InQuest.
Overview of ReTHiNK
Steve Wright is a Southern Baptist (The Assistant Pastor of Youth Ministries at Providence Baptist Church) who has been in student ministry (which is youth ministry in the Australian context) since 1988. Following on from this book under review, a ReTHiNK conference was convened in 2009. There is also a web site called “Lasting Divergence” with the tag “That the next generation might know. Psalm 78:6” that has been launched this year building on the main premise of the book which is the privilege and responsibility of parenting in spiritually forming their children. Wright also has a book out on the topic of parenting privilege called ApParent Privilege. (2008), Wake Forest, NC: InQuest. (There must be something wrong with the type setter at the printers because both titles of his books have trouble working out what is to be capitalized!)
What's the book about?
In the introduction to the book Wright reflects;
"This book was born out of deciding to rethink student ministry. We started by asking some tough questions, searching the Bible for its framework for ministry, looking at the latest research and being honest about the problems of student ministry" p. 13.
The main idea in the book is that parents are primarily responsible for discipling their children. He states this on page 194, “To see parents in charge of the spiritual formation of their children and the lives of young people transformed.” Again on page 201 he writes, “This book is about change – changing the current model of student ministry to a biblical framework."
Wright’s search for a biblical framework for youth ministry leans heavily on Deuteronomy chapter 6 and by the end of the book the reader has had their attention drawn to this chapter repeatedly (along with Psalm 78:6)!
How do we know if youth ministry is working?
The book’s first chapter is a diagnostic challenge of stopping and taking a step back from ministry and asking "how is it going"? Wright has four areas that he seeks to question in order to gauge how effective youth ministry has been. These are; 1. Student Retention - whether there is a continuation in church attendance into young adulthood, 2. Duration of Youth Ministers in ministry, 3. Baptism Rates (remember he is a Southern Baptist), and 4. Biblical Literacy.
He looks at a range of statistical data to give answers to these four questions. He cites that 58-84% of young people from Christian families leave the church as young adults. The average length of time a youth pastor remains in ministry is about 3 years with about 17% leaving before two years and only 8% lasting longer than ten. The Southern Baptist Convention has seen a 35-40% reduction in baptisms among children aged 12-17. Wright uses the Barna Research group which researches teen worldviews (among other areas of church life and spirituality). In one questionnaire conducted 63% don’t believe Jesus is the Son of the one true God. In conclusion to the array of statistical data presented on biblical literary a quote by Josh McDowell is used to sum up the data, “It’s not that they (young people) haven’t embraced a version of Christianity; it is simply that the version they believe in is not built on the true foundation of what biblical Christianity is about”.
The challenge that the first chapter of the book presents is simple enough, that is, to stop and assess youth ministry and its effectiveness in discipling young people into adulthood and church. The answer to this question that is posed by Wright ("is youth ministry working?") is a comprehensive and loud “NO!”. Youth Ministry in North American churches has failed in discipling young people over these four indicators. Wright posits that a large percentage of young people “graduate from God” (p. 67) and never return to Christianity.
If there was a preliminary caution to flag with this book it would be Wright’s reliance on Barna’s research which tends to look for and highlight statistics that present the traditional church in a poorer light than some think fair (DeYoung & Kluck (2009), Why We Love the Church. Chicago, Illinois: Moody, pp. 28-31).
What should youth ministry and Christian parenting look like?
There are a number of good imports from this book including Wright’s push against youth ministry that is centered around fun: "Student ministry in many cases has become the local YMCA or teen amusement park; students check in and out, but mostly out. After all, once they have experienced years of fun-and-games, all-you-can-eat, no-responsibility, free-from-parents amusement, then we have helped train their appetites for pleasure to find more alluring fulfillment in the adult world." (p. 53).
Wright wants a youth ministry that is Bible-based and is therefore faithful to the Bible's emphasis on parents’ responsibilities to their children. However, he critiques a growing trend in North America which has reacted against the entertainment model and gone to the other extreme, advocating that youth ministry ought to be abolished from church and that the discipling of young people ought to be the sole activity of parents. Wright respectfully disagrees with Voddie Baucham who advocates an exclusive focus on the family model (pp. 87-8).
Wright also challenges the common attitude of parents to “contract” out the discipling of their children to the youth minister and calls youth pastors to work alongside parents by equipping them to do the work that God has given them responsibility for. Wright’s argument is that both church and the family are needed and they need to work in partnership.
Both the church and its student ministries have biblically assigned purposes: namely exaltation, edification, and evangelism. It is interesting in passages concerning the early church, such as Acts 2:4, we see these three purposes functioning in perfect unison. These purposes of the church are different than the purposes of the family, which is why God ordained two institutions rather than one. We cannot listen to the extremists who are attempting to push us to one or the other institution. It’s time for the two institutions to step closer together and become partners to rescue this generation (pp. 101, 102).
How can Church and families work better together?
Wright makes a helpful point when he addresses the need for churches and the youth ministry to disciple the young people of families who are not Christian while continuing to honour the non-Christian parents. To give a Christian worldview to these teenagers and be there to support and give impartial advice, to connect Christian young people together and provide a place for intergenerational service. This answers the often-asked question that many people have in regard to the principle of this book, namely parents being responsible for the discipling of their children, which is, “What about non Christian kids?”
The book has some practical suggestions of how church and families could work together. The most worthy of these are to include some of the Christian parents in a ‘steering committee’ that, along with the youth pastor determines the direction of the spiritual formation of young people in the church’s youth ministries (pp. 134 ff.)
Much of the book is taken up with the process of change if a youth minister, presumably after reading the book, is convicted that a new model of youth ministry is needed at their church.
Does the book work in an Australian context?
In thinking about this book in our context … baptism rates may not be the gauge that most youth ministers in Australia would be using to evaluate their ministry, however the question of transition into church and continued maturity in Christ through the young adult period is a serious issue that does need to be addressed. One of the good things about this book is that it reminds us to stop and re-evaluate our ministry to young people. At least one extra evaluation criteria that could be added is the effectiveness of leadership to build a sustainable youth ministry that continues after the youth pastor leaves the church.
This is a good book that fits well with two major principles that Youthworks College advocates in regard to children’s and youth ministry:
1. Church as family and Family as church
2. Christian parents have the primary responsibility for discipling their children.
I would highly recommend this book, however I don’t think it is the definitive book on this subject and there is more that needs to be said in presenting a working model of a church that values both family and youth ministry and sees church and family working together in both a biblical and culturally appropriate way.
Other books worth reading on this subject include:
Perspectives on Family Ministry: Three Views (2009).
Family Ministry Field Guide: How Your Church Can Equip Parents to Make Disciples (2010)