A Protestant/Evangelical Youth ministry is a Christian religious ministry intended to instruct and disciple youths in what it means to be a Christian, how to mature as a Christian, and how to encourage others to claim Jesus as their Savior. This is accomplished through teaching, relationship building and/or mentoring. Youth ministries may vary widely depending on their denomination, size, liberal or conservative outlook and geographic location. The ministries themselves are almost always built on relationships between the youth minister and the student and their shared perception of their relationship to God. Because of the evolving nature of Youth Ministries it is difficult to pinpoint a specific starting point, however a modest estimate would date the profession to approximately 150 years old. Youth have become an integral part of nearly every church’s ministry programming, and youth ministries continue to have a profound impact on the societies in which they exist.
The beginnings of youth ministry took place in the mid-1800s, in the wake of the industrial revolution. Churches took note of all the young men who moved into central urban areas to work in factories. Laypersons who noticed that these young adults working six days a week and gallivanting about town on Sundays aspired to educate them. And so, early youth ministry began when churches brought older children and teenagers into classrooms to teach them how to read the Bible. Early ministry was designed for unchurched children with no formal education; while the primary goal of early youth ministry was education, a desirable secondary effect was that students would realize through biblical passages that they are sinners in need of forgiveness.
Eventually, churches opened up Sunday school to church members and unchurched children and teens alike. Teachers encouraged the students to bring their friends along, and the movement gained momentum. Laypersons would often work independently, neither subjecting themselves to congregational scrutiny nor receiving church funding. This fostered the development of interdenominational teaching programs and, eventually, faith-based organizations devoted to youth such as the YMCA and YWCA, whose American branches were founded in the 1850s.
The most recognizable first effort to offer periodic Bible studies, social networking and outreach opportunities for youth was spearheaded by Dr. Francis Edward Clark. He began the Christian Endeavor Society in 1881. Dr. Clark wanted to change the view of young people in churches from “pitchers waiting to be filled” to young adults “responsible for larger service in the church of Christ.” The Christian Endeavor Society revolutionized youth ministry and became extremely popular in its first few years of operation. Dr. Clark set the limit for each society at 80 members. As more young adults came to members, more societies were formed. By 1887, there were 700 societies with over 50,000 members spread out across 33 states.
One common speculation is that churches in the 1880s became fearful that they would lose all of their young members to these societies. In response, many mainstream denominations began their own youth organizations modeled after the Christian Endeavor Society. Some examples are the Methodist church’s Epworth League, or the Lutheran’s Luther League. These new church-based organizations as well as interdenominational ones already in existence flourished, increasing in attendance and international outreach involvement as a part of faith-based foreign aid.
After WWI, the focus of many youth ministries began to shift from efforts to outreach and convert to efforts to educate students and increase their understanding of their faith. It was during this time that the teenagers began to think theologically as well as gain a social awareness of the world around them. From the 1930s to the 1960s, the churches emphasized fellowship and theological understanding.
Before 1940 it was the pastor’s job to do everything in the church, including youth fellowships. During the late 1940s there was some introduction of church youth committees - youth were returning from the war with great life-experience and they could not be kept out of leadership in the church just because they were in their twenties.
The 1940s was also the beginning of parachurch ministries. Young Life was founded by Jim Rayburn in 1941. The Young Life parachurch model proved to be effective at reaching young people for Christ, and by the early 1950s, parachurch youth ministries with full-time staff flourished. Billy Graham was the first full-time parachurch worker for Youth for Christ (YfC) in the USA. This movement spread quickly around the world. During the 1950s, parachurch ministries grew rapidly in most Christianized countries, and the focus of activity was on large events, known as Rallies, and stadium events, known as "Crusades". The emphasis was on promoting inter-church activities (between local denominational churches) – mainly in the format of youth rallies – the type of “stadium” events made popular by YfC.
The 1960s were characterized by campus ministries. Many college-aged students did not have their theological needs met by these fellowship groups; soon thereafter, even younger adolescents began to see their organizations as institutionalized and irrelevant. Denominations stopped publishing youth group (Sunday School) resources and large group gatherings dwindled down into small meetings and then into nothing. Then specific church-based activities for youth emerged, as Friday night youth groups began.
During the 1970s, many denominations implemented strategies for modernizing existing youth ministry in the hopes of reviving it. This is the point where differences in youth ministry stated to emerge on a denominational basis instead of organization to organization. Youth ministries operate in different ways today, but most of them have the same set of goals, which will be discussed in the Goals of Youth Ministry subsection of this article.
During the early 1980s the counselling revolution hit the church with its emphasis on honesty and openness. Professional counselors began to be employed in churches. This influenced youth groups and the Bible study meetings became "fellowship groups" or "home groups" with an emphasis on caring and meeting people. It was also during the 1980s that a large number of local church youth pastors began expressing the desire to stay in youth ministry as a lifelong career.
The 1990s saw the start an emerging church movement, and many of the youth leaders from the 1970s and 1980s were pioneers in this approach.
During the 1990s there was also a move to create international interaction between different youth structures. Pioneers in this approach are the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry (IASYM).
Today's youth ministries hold regular meetings, often at the same time as adult functions at the church. Youth group meetings generally feature the same types of activities as a Sunday morning church service, modified to reflect the culture of the age groups involved. Services may include a time for worship, drama, games or other activities, fellowship through conversation and/or food, and prayer. Many youth ministers also present a sermon or devotional. It's common for youth groups to attend Christian summer camps each year.
Most denominations arrange their youth ministry programs according to related educational levels. American churches tend to separate youth by grade level, creating smaller sub-groups within a youth ministry program. These distinctions usually fall between middle school and high school. Traditionally, elementary age children and below have separate programs altogether, though this, too, may be managed by the same youth pastor. Some youth groups even extend up through college students, creating an additional sub-group often referred to as "college and career".
Before the turn of the century, many denominations placed less emphasis on the role of youth in the church. It is more important now than ever before that young people should “serve in churchwide responsibilities.” Churches now encourage teenagers to evangelize at their age, rather than waiting until adulthood to “make a difference.”
In addition, many sermons are delivered with the intent for youth to “come to know Christ” if they have not done so already. Once they do, emphasis is often placed on getting youth to invite their friends or siblings along to the services. Many youth groups, like the churches they may be associated with, vie to embark on mission trips. These acts of faith-based foreign aid often involve service projects alongside conversion efforts.