The Long Horizon: How the City Informs Youth Ministry

In his recent book Calvin’s Company of Pastors, Scott Manestch points out that for about 35 years after Calvin’s arrival in Geneva all the city pulpits were occupied by foreign pastors, not Geneva natives. This was due, as Manestch points out, to the lack of catechizing Geneva’s young people prior to Calvin’s arrival.  

This historical example has tremendous application in cities: ministry to students today will impact the church for decades to come. Unlike suburban high school students who dream of going off to college and moving on, students who grow up in New York (and other center-cities) dream of going to college and moving back. For these students the city is a place of opportunity and excitement, and therefore most in our context anticipate returning to New York to live, work and worship. Recognizing this “boomerang effect” allows those of us who are ministering to youth to take a long horizon approach in our ministry.

Imagine a spiritually mature student returning after college and getting re-acclimated to the city. Upon return he or she would walk right into a community of parents, pastors, lay-leaders and fellow students already with 10 plus years of relational capital between them – and they’re not even 25! Since many center-city churches are young and transient, the youth community can produce a mature and stabilizing presence in the life of the church.  A youth ministry in a center city with the long horizon in view will help create a diverse, multi-generational community of parents, pastors, lay-leaders and students that worship the Lord and serve the city together for decades to come. 

The Youth Community

I work at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which is over 20 years old. In the early days it was predominantly single professionals, and we have only recently reached a critical mass of families, children and youth. Though we expect our middle and high school ministries to double in the next two to three years, out of a congregation of 6,000, we average presently about 100 students per weekend between the ages of 12-18. 

With these things in mind, Redeemer's youth ministry has never been typical. With an eye towards the future, what we hope to cultivate is a youth community. The youth pastor carries out his ministry alongside the broader community of parents and lay-leaders. We lean heavily on lay-leaders, mostly young professionals 25-35, who are engaged in intense, life on life ministry among our students.  They serve as a diaconal presence in the students’ life, ministering to both spiritual and physical needs.  Meanwhile, the youth pastor shepherds the lay-leaders, recognizing and affirming their areas of giftedness, and often discipling and developing them to be future elders and deacons in the local church.

Of course, the other major congregational influence on our youth is the parents. In asking the question, “What factors would lead our children to return to live, work, and worship in the same church and city as their parents?”  One factor is the “evolution” of the parental voice.  When a child is young he or she looks to their parent for everything, and the parent has greater responsibility to make sure they do not stumble. However, as the child grows and their life-decisions become increasingly complex (college, marriage, mortgage, etc.), the youth pastor is tasked with humbly and prayerfully helping parents transition from the role of “parent-protector-judge” to that of “parent-coach-sage.” This task isn’t the sole responsibility of the youth ministry; it is a church-wide project and calling.

The Youth Worker

While many youth workers see their role as a stepping stone to “bigger” pastoral roles, center city youth workers, or those who work in a long horizon context, should feel emboldened to go against the current climate and, with the energy of a church planter, work to create a sustainable youth community that feeds into the ecosystem of the entire Church body. 

In the world of finance, knowing your time horizon is crucial to how you plan and manage investments. If you have a short time horizon, your portfolio will reflect a more conservative, low-risk strategy. However, if you have a long horizon of twenty years or more, you’ll have a greater period of time to invest in areas of promise that may carry some risk.

For youth pastors in the city, this means recognizing and embracing the “boomerang effect” and being in it for the long term. It also means involving the church community—parents, lay leaders and kids—in a church-wide process of community and discipleship. And finally, it means that everything we do is built upon preaching the gospel and establishing relationships with our students.  Holding these two together (preaching and relationships) enables the youth pastor to faithfully preach Scripture not in abstraction, but in a way that shows students how to make sense of their own individual life story within God’s grand story of redemption.

Being convicted by a vision keeps you content. On a personal note, recognizing and committing to the long horizon has in many ways saved me from myself.  By committing to the longer view, I’ve gladly surrendered to the Lord many aspirations outside of my current role. In a lot of ways, understanding our time horizon has liberated me from the possibility of “greener” pastorates and very well may have turned ten-thousand heartaches into ten-thousand blessings for myself and others.