Though it is important to be aware of the various segments and age-stages and life-cycles of God’s people, when that group becomes a special interest group to which we focus to win, I fear something might be lost. Though there is something to age, experience and wisdom (not all happen based on chronology alone!), there is something wrong when that focus or special interest group trumps the community God creates through the gospel, and the life to which the gospel calls us.
Here are some interesting thoughts to ponder regarding Dietrich Bohnoeffer’s reflections on ministry to youth in the context of the church. The author claims that making youth the focus actually hurts the youth and the church. And the reason for hurting the church is because this special-interest focus misunderstands the church. And yet, this is what we hear and observe over and over again.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer delineated his thoughts on youth ministry in “Eight Theses on Youth Work in the Church” (Volume 12, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works):
- The future of the church is not youth itself but rather the Lord Jesus Christ alone.
- The question is not, What is youth and what rights does it have? but rather, What is the church-community and what is the place of youth within it?
- Being in the church-community means being in Christ; being in Christ means being in the church-community.
- Youth enjoys no special privilege in the church-community.
- The Bible judges youth quite soberly: Genesis 8:21;Isaiah 3:5; Jeremiah 1:6;Ecclesiastes 11:10; 1 Peter 5:5; 2 Timothy 2:2 and other passages.
- Church youth work is possible only on the basis of addressing young people concerning their baptism and with the exclusive goal of having them hear God’s word.
- The authenticity of young people’s protest against their elders is demonstrated by their willingness to maintain solidarity with the guilt of the church-community and to bear that burden in love, abiding in penitence before God’s word.
- There is no real “church association”; there is only the church.
Though this focuses on youth, lest we think this is only a youth problem, it happens at the other end of life with those who want music a certain way or demand certain ministries or programs because it is their preference and they built the church with blood, sweat and tears. And it is not just the bookends of life that are affected, it also happens in between with those who want their church experience to consist of other young, professionals living and working in the city (consider the look of many of the young church planters).
This does not mean one does not focus for a time or a season on a certain age, youth in this instance. It is important to be aware. But it must be remembered that it is done in the context of the church. It is a reality, and a good ministry practice, that we address people in various ages and stages knowing they are going through experiences unique to that season of life. But when any group becomes the focus as an end, making the part (certain age or stage) the whole (the church) or the whole (the church) subservient to the part (certain age or stage), life and ministry become misaligned, the gospel and its entailments become secondary or used, and the church suffers. Ministry to parts must always be done within the context and with an eye to the whole.
For another context, consider the family. This is similar to parents who are aware of the ages and stages of each child who parent them appropriately for that age and stage, but always within the larger family. Even though the growing teenager wants some independence, parents grant a growing responsibility, but it is not apart from the context of life together in the family but within. He/She is not allowed to avoid or ignore his/her brother or sister.
And for another context that often makes the parts the focus and end, consider parachurch ministries. They are good and important and serve an invaluable role in the lives of many Christians, but they are part ministries that must also bear in mind that they exist to serve the church. It is the church the Lord Jesus promised to build, not the parachurch.
Certainly time and place, culture, affect this. However, it also raises good questions for us. With what do we agree and/or disagree with Bonhoeffer’s theses? Do we relegate his thoughts to a by-gone day? What do we learn about what he writes historically? What can we learn for the present? Do we have a parts and whole problem in the church?