Review: A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry by Michael McGarry

Youth ministry literature has evolved in 20 years. Previously, back when I started in the youth ministry game, the books published about youth ministry were all about the ‘how tos’. Each book provided practical tips and ideas to make my youth ministry bulging with so-called bored teenagers. All these ‘practical’ books have their place, certain skills need to be developed in order to run events, small groups, and training workshops for leaders and volunteers. But, what’s been missing for the majority of the time I’ve been involved in youth ministry is the theological foundations of youth ministry. 

Thankfully, over the last few years, more theological exploration of youth ministry and its biblical mandate has provided helpful and significant thought to the intersection of youth ministry, church, and family life. One recent contribution to theological understanding of youth ministry is Michael McGarry’s recent book, A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in The Life of The Church.

From the outset I must say that this is an excellent book. In many ways it is the book those of us who think theologically about youth ministry, and the role of youth pastor, have been waiting for. 

This is an excellent book … the book those of us who think theologically about youth ministry, and the role of youth pastor, have been waiting for. 

I have not read a youth ministry book which actually quotes Hebrew and Greek in its pages. But now I have. And it’s not just quoted for McGarry to look scholarly, it’s quoted to show the meaning behind a number of texts in the Old and New Testaments that build towards the book’s aim of,

…presenting a clear and simple but thoroughly biblical framework for thinking about youth ministry as the church’s expression of partnership with the family for co-evangelising and co-discipling the next generation. (p3) 

The State of Youth Ministry

McGarry begins the first of eight chapters by outlining the state of youth ministry today. In this he reflects on the three problems facing modern day youth ministry:

  1. the high drop-out rate of teenagers and Millennials in the church;
  2. the fact that youth culture is no different inside or outside the church, and;
  3. the fragmentation of youth ministry, otherwise known as the silo effect, between youth, family and the church.

This leads McGarry to state what will become the main contention of the entire work, but also affirms what many of us working in youth ministry understand our role to be. He writes that,

Youth ministry must be seen as the bridge between the local church and the home. When teens are committed more to the youth ministry than to the church, it should be no surprise when many of those teens walk away from their faith after their teen years. (p13)

A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in The Life of The Church
Michael McGarry
purchase on amazon
A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in The Life of The Church
Michael McGarry
Randall House.

Chapters two and three roll through the biblical storyline. The Old Testament texts (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Joshua 24 and Judges 2:10; Psalm 71:18; 78; and Nehemiah 8:1-3) describe Israel’s command for family discipleship, a warning to minister to the next generation, examples of intergenerational worship, and teaching about the separation of children from worship in the faith community. Surprisingly the New Testament analysis doesn’t centre on specific exegesis of particular texts but takes a broader view of the culture and context of the time. For example: we’re given a greater understanding of what it meant to be under the teaching of a Rabbi; who a Rabbi taught; and what it meant for Jesus to be a Rabbi to his disciples. This flows into a discussion about how old the Apostles were likely to be, what it means by entire households coming to faith in relation to ministering to young people, and theological reflection in light of Paul being a mentor to young elders. He examines Titus 2:1-7—where direct commands are given to the older generation to disciple the younger—and a few other texts that speak of children rounds out the understanding of generational discipleship in the New Testament. This biblical overview then provides McGarry with theological foundations to say,

Without a doubt, parents are entrusted as disciple-makers of the next generation. Even while stressing the importance of family discipleship, non-parental adults and the broader faith-community provide a formative influence in the lives of children and adolescents.” (p36). He continues by asserting, “One of the key emphases that modern youth ministry and church leaders should take from the New Testament is the priority given to passing the faith to the next generation and then raising them into leadership in the church…Rather than viewing children and youth as ‘members in waiting,’ the biblical witness consistently affirms their value and reflects a shared commitment by the community of faith toward the next generation. (p56)

Historical Perspective

McGarry next takes a look at how youth ministry has been undertaken across church history and its intersection with ecclesiology, family life, and the gospel. Each of these are chapters on their own, and there is much to be gained by reading them thoroughly. 

From the time of Augustine, through the Reformation with Luther and Calvin, during the time of the Puritans, and into the modern period, McGarry makes the case for historical youth ministry in the life of the church. Whether it is formal catechesis classes in the lead up to baptism in the early church or discipleship plans given out at youth small groups in the modern era, the teaching of young people and the passing on of the faith has been a continued task of the church. Sure, the way this has been done has changed over time, but the discipleship emphasis behind it hasn’t. 

McGarry makes the case for historical youth ministry in the life of the church … the teaching of young people and the passing on of the faith has been a continued task of the church.

I found these chapters some of the most helpful, not because they describe what has been but the way this impacts how we should view youth ministry today. As McGarry rightfully points out:

Youth ministry desires to see students become members of the Church through faith and members of a local church by participation in God’ ongoing work in that particular community. To this end, a church must resist seeing youth ministry as primarily a place in church to keep students from being bored. (p75)

This should lead us to think more thoughtfully about how local churches view their youth ministries. Young people aren’t simply the next generation; they are also the current generation who can provide significant contribution to the mission of the Church. 

Upholding the Family

This contribution and discipleship is not separate from the family either. McGarry spends a whole chapter devoted to upholding the family as the primary disciple-maker of children. Yet this is nuanced, recognising the difference in culture and context from the Bible’s understanding of family and current day family dynamics. Critically, the church can play an important role as family itself, providing what might be lacking for both parents and children in their own situations. And again, this is where youth ministry is able to be a bridge between faith, church, and home.

A church’s youth ministry should not be viewed as usurping parental authority, but as a ministry to teenagers by men and women who are spiritual family-members. (p113) 

Ironically, for a book that sounds less practical than others within the youth ministry literature A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry is extremely so. I’ve been trying to think about what else could have added to the volume, but this book does a great job in outlining the various themes of scripture, history, and modern day youth ministry. A more thorough discussion about youth ministry and mission, as related to the church and home, would have been helpful. But, this is a book that should helpfully shape youth pastors, leaders, and ministries to think more about how best they can serve young people and the significant people around them. As McGarry challenges us,

Intergenerational discipleship must become an actual value rather than an aspirational value in order to equip believers to fulfill the created purpose of worshipping God and working in a way that reflects God’s sovereignty over all creation. (p94)

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