When it comes to interpreting the bible, I tend to be a fairly simple person. For example, I am a Baptist because the only baptism I see in the bible occurs after a person has become a follower of Jesus Christ.
When it comes to youth ministry, when I look in the bible I see parents being exhorted to disciple their children. For example, look at Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Luke 2:51-52, and Ephesians 6:1-4. Passages such as these indicate that it is the parents' duty to raise their children to be followers of God.
I see no evidence whatsoever of separated-out youth ministry.
However, I also realize that separated-out youth ministry is a reality in most local churches. I have been around churches long enough to know that the vast majority have no intention of changing to a family-integrated model (which I prefer). Therefore, what can be done to take youth ministry from its current state, and transform it into a much more effective one? How can youth ministry actually disciple children to become Christ-centered adults?
I think we can learn much from one of the charges that Paul gave to Timothy toward the end of his life. In II Timothy 2:2, Paul wrote, "What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men who will be able to teach others also." Timothy was to disciple faithful men, who would then do the same with others. I realize this is a bit a of leap (albeit a very small one), but this verse gives us a method for how best to assist the youth in the church. Those working with the youth should disciple them to grow in Christ, with a goal of them maturing and then discipling others in the future. The key is that the goal of all of this is growth in Jesus Christ.
When we look at most churches today, we see youth groups that focus on games and play time. They eat pizza, hang out, watch movies, and sing a few Christian-contemporary songs. Overall, the youth are not growing in Christ, but are bringing secularization into the church. Most youth workers are expected to do all the teaching of the youth, with the parents abdicating their responsibilities.
In oder for churches to begin really discipling their youth, it must be a total decision and commitment by the entire church. All of the adults need to be on board with this change. Most important, both the pastoral staff and the parents with youth need to agree to make changes.
First of all, the church must stress the fact that the parents, especially the fathers, have the primary discipleship responsibilities in the family. Scripture is clear on this. Far too many fathers are abdicating this precious responsibility. Church leaders must realize that many dads have never done this before, and should work with the fathers in teaching them how this can be done.
Youth workers should supplement what is being taught at home. I am not suggesting a coordinated teaching curriculum. Rather, I'm suggesting that the youth workers must tell the youth that they should expect their parents to be their primary disciplers. They should respect their parents for this, and learn from their instruction. The youth must first look to their parents for discipleship, and second look to the youth workers at church.
Positives of this paradigm/model include emphasis on parental responsibility, less stress upon the youth workers, opportunity for youth from non-Christian homes to still be discipled at church, opportunity for youth workers to address youth-specific issues, and chances for youth to serve the community together in concrete ways.
Above all, when the youth gather, the stress of all activities should be on the splendor and glory of Jesus Christ. When they see that He offers true fulfillment of their desires, they will want to live as salt and light in this world. On the flip side of that, youth ministry must avoid the legalism that is typical in so many youth groups today.
It makes sense to have at least some of the youth workers be church members who have actually raised godly children. I'm not saying that the youth pastor (if the church employs one) himself must be a father, but it certainly would be a bonus. When all of the youth workers are under thirty years of age, then who there has been successful in discipling their own children to adulthood?
Finally, separated-out youth ministry should be limited in time and scope. The youth should, on the other hand, be involved with the adults whenever possible. As a concrete example, youth have no business sitting together during worship services. This inevitably leads to goofing off and note-passing. Youth should be sitting with their families during worship. It leads to parental oversight and modeling of worship to their children. Youth who attend church without their parents should sit with a family of one of their friends.
Youth ministry is a difficult thing. There is no doubt that our young people need biblical discipleship. Our churches have a responsibility to help parents take the primary role. Youth workers need to be a Christ-like supplement to parental discipleship.
For more in-depth discussion of this issue, take a look at Reforming Students.