What is it that defines a youth ministry?

Does it need to be on Wednesday nights? Sunday mornings? Does it need to meet in a church building? Does it have to include a game, a bible study,  or a small group time? Does it require every teenager that is present to ascribe to a particular set of beliefs? Does it require that any of them do? 

We might well argue that a youth ministry is simply a way that teenagers gather surrounded by caring adults who share the love of Christ with them and that everything else is just window dressing. 

Which brings us to Snack Shack. 

Snack Shack is a volunteer-staffed cafe open after school every day in the Argentine neighborhood of Kansas City, Kansas. It is a gathering place primarily for teenagers, and the volunteers are all teenagers as well. The cafe is managed by a couple of paid staff members of a youth-serving non-profit called YouthFront, Inc., specifically on their YouthFront Neighborhood team. But Snack Shack wasn’t started as an effort by the non-profit to connect with local teenagers – it was started by teenagers themselves. 

YouthFront Neighborhood is only a small part of YouthFront’s infrastructure. Their primary work is running a Christian summer camp. The summer camp serves primarily the Kansas City area. It has everything you would imagine at a typical camp – cabins, field games, swimming, and a little cafe where campers can buy candy bars, sodas, postcards, etc. 

The snack shack at the camp, like at many camps, is an informal gathering place for teenagers across interests, age groups, and cliques. It’s a laid-back, fun, low-pressure environment for teenagers to act like teenagers. 

Seven years ago, a group of teenagers returned home from camp and missed having that kind of place to gather in their own neighborhood. Argentine is an underdeveloped area with limited commercial investment, and when the Sonic in town closed, teenagers were left without a place they felt they could just hang out. 

The teenagers noticed an unused strip mall close to their high school and, alongside YouthFront staff, looked into what it would take to lease it. They learned that the school board actually owned the space, so they petitioned the board to lease it to them at a heavily discounted rate to help provide a safe space for teenagers to study and socialize. And they agreed. 

Since then, Snack Shack has become an anchor for young people in the neighborhood and is filled with teenagers five days a week alongside YouthFront’s staff, who provide a consistent, caring presence and have forged deep relationships with them. 

Phil Kim is one of them. Phil is one of the first group of graduate residents in Community Ministry through CYMT, and he has helped CYMT pioneer a whole new understanding of what “youth ministry” can be. When discussing his experience in his courses, he articulates the way that his work highlights the importance of an incarnational ministry,

“Its about a ministry of presence. I see my kids five days a week, I know what’s going on with them, and we get to talk about everything…Sometimes those conversations become about God, but a lot of times its just talking and being there for them.” 

He highlights the importance of his pastoral care coursework as part of CYMT in helping him serve his kids.

“My pastoral care class was really helpful. Our kids talk about real stuff sometimes, and in that class, we learned how to respond well.” Phil highlighted that the classwork around responding to teenagers experiencing family conflict and mental illness had been incredibly empowering and valuable. 

The staff, deeply interwoven with these young people’s lives, have helped them build programs that create what teenagers are looking for, including volunteer opportunities, day camps, and, ironically enough, a youth group for learning more about faith. 

We at CYMT believe that great Youth Ministry happens in the places where adults can authentically show up with the love of Christ in the lives of teenagers. Youth Ministry is the pointing towards hope and grace and love and peace that can happen when we meet young people where they are and offer a vision of the future. 

We all know that, in the aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, shifting family priorities, and a changing culture, the church and youth ministry, as we once knew it, is likely gone for good. As the Church navigates its uncertain future, ministries like Phil’s and YouthFront’s remind us that God’s work is never as limited as we imagine and that God will find a way to reach young people, whether that’s in a church basement, a summer camp, or a strip mall snack shop.