A debate is raging in some Christian circles about a perceived lack of a biblical basis for youth ministry. Some are blaming youth work for the much-reported departure of young adults from the church following high school.
Proponents of the anti-youth ministry movement contend that there is no support in the Bible for an age-divided church. These voices argue that because churches have segregated the various generations into ministry silos (including children’s ministry, young ministry, and college-age ministry), there is a lack of inter-generational connections in the church, which has resulted in a mass exodus of emerging adults from the church.
The Next Generation Principle in Scripture
However, interwoven throughout the narrative of Scripture is a rather obvious principle. Each generation is expected to reproduce their faith in the lives of the succeeding generation. There are numerous personal illustrations of this next generation principle in the Bible. Here are a few examples.
1. Moses’ ministry in the life of Joshua. The story of Moses is certainly one of the most compelling leadership accounts in the Bible. Moses may have been one of the greatest leaders the world has ever known. Yet, he was a man with all-too-human flaws and weaknesses — one of which became the “Achilles Heel” that kept him from entering the promised land (Deuteronomy 32:51-52).
One of Moses’ greatest accomplishments may have been his positive response to God’s instruction to train Joshua to be his successor as the next leader of Israel (Numbers 27:12-23). The Old Testament narrative describes how Moses willingly trained young Joshua to lead during the next stage of Israel’s history. This story is a great illustration of how God wanted His people to reproduce their faith in the lives of the next generation.
The full narrative of the nation of Israel also contains a negative example of how Joshua personally failed in his own implementation of what Moses had taught him about leadership. The account is found in Judges 2:7-10. God’s Word makes a point to tell readers that “the people served the Lord all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua.”
But the story takes a disappointing turn in verse 10, “When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the Lord nor the work which He has done for Israel.” Joshua failed to do what Moses had done with him. He did not invest his life in someone younger to take his place.
2. God’s command to Israel. Another example of this principle is found in a similar account of God’s clear instruction to Israel in Deuteronomy 6. In this passage, the Word of God emphasizes the Shema, a twice-daily prayer that helped the Jewish people understand and remember the role that their relationship with God should have in their lives.
Hear O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one! You shall love the Lord your God will all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength (Deuteronomy 6:4).
Obviously, the main focus of this chapter is for parents, especially fathers (Deuteronomy 6:2), to teach these words diligently to their children (Deuteronomy 6:6) as life happened. Godly parents were expected to make their love for God such a priority that it would permeate every aspect of their lives — and that life itself should be considered as a teaching opportunity to communicate these truths to their children.
There is one other emphasis in Deuteronomy 6 that deserves attention. Notice that this chapter (verses 3 and 4, “Hear, O Israel.”), and the entire book of Deuteronomy (Deuteronomy 1:1, “These are the words which Moses spoke to all Israel…”) is written to the nation of Israel as a whole.
Youth worker and author, Mike McGarry makes an important point in his book, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry,
Parents were given the primary calling to impress the commands of Scripture on their children’s minds and hearts, but this was never meant for parents alone… All the generations of Israel were expected to come together in order to raise up the younger generations for covenantal faithfulness.
The Jewish people were obviously a part of a community of what God was doing. Parents were never expected to carry the total burden of teaching and training their children alone. The community as a whole was actively involved in the process of communicating God’s truth to the next generation.
3. Elijah’s ministry in the life of Elisha. Another Old Testament example of this principle is found in the story of Elijah and his follower, Elisha. 1 Kings 19 gives the account of God telling Elijah to “anoint” Elisha to be a prophet in his place (1 Kings 19:16).
There is a very revealing statement in verse 21 of that chapter. “(Elisha) followed Elijah, and became his servant.” Elisha was expected to learn from Elijah by staying close to him and by watching how Elijah lived and ministered. Elijah obeyed the Lord and committed himself to training someone younger who could carry on his work after he was taken by the Lord up into heaven (2 Kings 2:11).
4. Christ’s ministry with His disciples. Christ Himself also vividly demonstrated this principle in his ministry with His disciples. There is biblical evidence that suggests that the majority of Jesus’ followers were young men at the time of His training ministry with them.
There may have been only two of His disciples who were “grownups” at the time. One would be the Apostle Peter, whom the Bible tells us was married (Matthew 8:14-15). The other would be Matthew who was already employed as a “tax collector” (Matthew 9:9-12) when he was called to follow Jesus.
It is obvious from reading the gospels that Jesus focused His earthly ministry on training the next generation. He called them to walk away from their families to be discipled by someone other than their parents. This group of students was mostly young men who were called and trained by Christ to carry on His ministry on Earth after He returned to heaven.
5. Paul’s ministry with younger men. The Bible also contains several examples of how the Apostle Paul invested his life in the lives of younger men. Two notable examples jump out of the pages of the New Testament. The first was John Mark who was obviously a young man when he was chosen to accompany Paul (and Barnabas) on the very first missions’ trip ever (This account is found in Acts 12-13).
The other was Timothy, a young man from a humanly dysfunctional family, who was also recruited by Paul to go along with him on another missionary endeavor. (This story is located in Acts 16:1-8). These two young men are introduced in Scripture alongside their parents, and yet they too were discipled by someone else.
It’s interesting to also note in Scripture that Paul expected his personal students to keep this pattern of discipling the next generation going. 2 Timothy 2:2 puts it this way, “The things that you have heard from me among many witnesses, commit these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also.”
In this letter to his disciple, Paul made his instructions quite clear. Timothy too was to invest his life in the lives of the next generation and to intentionally train other younger men to carry on this strategy as well.
Other Biblical Principles to Consider
The Bible also contains some important educational principles that apply to this question. Passages such as 1 Corinthians 13:11, (“When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things”) that give credence to an age-segregated teaching ministry. It only makes sense to realize that children learn at a different level than do adults.
Another key passage that provides important instruction for church ministries is Ephesians 4:14-16,
that we should not longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into the head — Christ.
It’s clear from this text that the church has a biblical responsibility to help children “grow up” spiritually by providing instruction from called and qualified pastor/teachers (Ephesians 4:11). Later, in this same Epistle, the Apostle Paul turns his attention to parents, especially fathers, by challenging them to “bring up” their own children in the “training and admonition of the Lord.”
These two God-ordained institutions (the church and Christian parents) are to be actively involved in the process of helping children grow in spiritual maturity. Here too, the vitally important process of raising children for the Lord was never intended to fall on parents only. The New Testament presents the training functions that a community of believers in the local church can have as well.
Practical Applications for Today
The Bible presents this important principle. Each generation is expected to reproduce their faith in the lives of future generations. Of course, this mandate applies to Christian parents who have the primary responsibility of raising children to grow up in spiritual maturity.
However, parents were not expected in Scripture to shoulder this responsibility all alone. Believers have historically been a part of a community of other godly people, some of whom who have the God-given calling and privilege to teach and disciple the next generation to actively live for the Lord and to serve Him.
Christian parents must take their responsibility to raise their children “in the training and admonition of the Lord” very seriously, but they do not have to do it by themselves. God’s community today, the local church, has other godly adults who can be used by God to assist in the discipling process of the next generation. That’s what youth ministry is all about.
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Mel Walker is the president of Vision For Youth, Inc., an international network of youth ministry, and he is also is the youth pastor at Wyoming Valley Church in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Mel has been actively involved in various aspects of youth ministry for over 40 years. He is also an author, speaker, and a consultant with churches. More information about his speaking and writing ministry can be found at www.GoingOnForGod.com. Mel has written 12 books on various aspects of youth ministry, plus he speaks to hundreds of teenagers and parents each year. Mel & Peggy Walker are the parents of 3 adult children—all of whom are in vocational ministry. You can follow him on Twitter: @vfyouth. He recently wrote a book on discipleship for youth leaders, Discipling Student Leaders: A Strategy for Discipleship in Youth Ministry, which can be purchased on that website.