Where does youth ministry happen? If you jot down a list of three answers to that question, chances are some variant of “youth room” is in the mix. Your terminology might be cooler or more relevant, but the odds are good that your ministry has a designated space where the gospel is communicated to youth in an age-specific teaching context. The reason for this is that youth ministry has borrowed liberally from educational theory and practice, and so while you may have rearranged the furniture, renamed the space, and given yourself a better title, at the end of the day much of what we call youth ministry really boils down to the traditional categories of classroom, teacher, and instruction. Even when we get really creative and call it “small group discussion” we often fall right back into the model that we labeled the “instructional approach” in our previous Course in a Nutshell session.
Despite the ubiquity of the instructional approach it’s not the only way. What I’ll call the “community of faith approach” takes an entirely different tact to communicating the gospel to youth. In this approach, the youth room is largely seen as a contrived environment for learning; instead the life and actions of the intergenerational faith community are seen as both the content and context for passing on the faith.
The community of faith approach starts with the assumption that when we worship, baptize, partake in the Lord’s Supper, and practice our faith together, we’re being formed. When we greet one another, love one another, serve in our community together, if there are young Christians present, the Holy Spirit is at work forming them. When the pastor preaches, when we pray together, when we read and discuss scripture together as a church, the gospel is being communicated to youth and they’re being formed as they partake in practices that demonstrate what the gospel looks like in motion.
The community of faith approach wants to discard the one-eared Mickey Mouse model of youth ministry. That’s the model of youth ministry many of us have pursued in which the church exists as a kind of Mickey Mouse’s head, and the ear (which is youth ministry) is kind of stuck on the side not having much interaction with the church at all. 
While the instructional approach places considerable emphasis on the teacher’s ability to teach content that youth can understand and apply, the community of faith approach recognizes that the context communicates as much as the content. The community of faith approach emphasizes the situatedness of learning, and that the gospel is communicated through lives lived, not merely through words spoken.
With that attention to formation and teaching through lives lived, and through learning in situation, the community of faith approach sees the teenager less as a student than an apprentice. This approach leads us to see young people as members of the Body of Christ who are learning as they are leading and participating in our midst. Faith formation doesn’t require a separate space; rather, it happens in participating with parents, peers, and elders worshipping together, learning together, and living the Christian faith together. Communicating the gospel is not primarily a matter of finding the right words so that teenagers can understand the faith and apply it; it’s a matter of modeling for youth what faith is, what it looks like, and what it means. This isn’t accomplished by a Sunday school teacher or youth pastor alone. Rather, our lives together as Christians translate the gospel into life.
The community of faith approach assumes that young people become gospel people by watching, participating, and being immersed in a habitus (or a habitat) of faith. It’s a matter of teenagers being included in the prayers the church prays, the actions the church takes, and the love the church shows. It does not mean disbanding age-specific youth programs, but it does mean that these age-specific programs don’t take youth away from real and meaningful interactions with the rest of the congregation.
The community of faith approach leads us to think about youth ministry differently. Currently, our model is to try to find some willing and interested adults in the congregation who will remove themselves from their adult interactions and make the journey up the stairs, down the stairs, or across the parking lot to “the youth area.” Our age-specific programs not only separate youth, but actually require some of our most passionate adults to separate themselves from the larger congregation as well.
But what if we reversed the equation? What if we infused youth into various ministries of the congregation? So, for example, maybe we contact Aunt Mildred who works the Thursday soup kitchen for the church, and we train her to receive youth well into her ministry, and then we send a small group of youth to serve alongside her on an ongoing basis. They serve with her, she trains them, and maybe they even end up doing a Bible study together with the soup kitchen workers. If done right, such a model could form youth while breathing life into the congregation, rather than trying to find the most vibrant people we can and sucking them out to youth ministry across the parking lot.
What I’ve described is merely one way to think about communicating the gospel to youth using a community of faith approach. The key to the approach is recognizing that the Holy Spirit is at work forming young people in and among the relationships and practices of the community of faith—and not just in the youth room.
For an example of the community of faith approach, we’ve included two sample lesson plans that you can download:
 Stuart Cummings-Bond, “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse,” Youthworker Journal, Fall 1989, p. 76.
Further Reading in the Style of the Community of Faith Approach:
Kenda Creasy Dean, The Godbearing Life
John Westerhoff, Will Our Children Have Faith?
Click the links below to read the series in its entirety:
Communicating the Gospel to Youth: A Youth Ministry Course in a Nutshell
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