Youth ministry is in trouble. Not only are most teenagers indifferent about Christ and the gospel, but youth ministers, by and large, have found themselves on the brink of exhaustion, toiling under the weight of unrealistic expectations, acute disappointment, and the perpetual onslaught of daily responsibilities. Add to these discouraging factors the crushing reality of broken homes, one’s regular exposure to unsavory features of youth culture, and the confusion caused by the current lengthening of adolescent development, and it is not difficult to see why Jeff Baxter, author of Together: Adults and Teenagers Transforming the Church, has raised the alarm.
Baxter is not just about sounding a warning; he desires to provide a solution to ailing youth ministries and youth ministers. He hopes to encourage youth pastors—and the church at large—to reconsider the goals and priorities of their current youth ministry and to recalibrate their efforts according to the biblical schematic. Specifically, Baxter wants to see students grow in genuine spiritual maturity, to be firmly integrated into the life of the church, and to have parents actively involved in the discipleship process of their teenagers.
Accordingly, Baxter develops his book by examining several important aspects of youth ministry. First, Baxter addresses the issue of adolescence and adolescent brain development (chapter 2). Next, he confronts issues related to age-segregation and parental involvement in the spiritual lives of their students (chapter 3). Baxter then surveys the cultural landscape, noting some of the central contours of our current age and how such realities impact students (chapter 4). In the latter half of the book, Baxter gives attention to the subject of leadership within youth ministry (chapter 5), evangelism in a changing culture (chapter 6) and the importance of simple discipleship (chapter 7). Baxter concludes the book with a brief parable, closing remarks, and collection of appendices for further evaluation and reflection.
Much of Baxter’s work is to be commended. He approaches the crisis of contemporary youth ministry with compassion for youth ministers and a desire to see students follow Jesus Christ in sincerity and growing maturity. Throughout Together, Baxter offers helpful observations into the nature of modern youth culture and its effect on students, while providing practical insights for effective and godly leadership. Baxter also exhorts pastors to integrate youth into the greater church body so that students might learn and grow from their interaction with older and wiser Christians. Youth ministers are also admonished to prefer intentional discipleship over mere friendly, informal contact with students and to cultivate a healthy partnership with parents.
Despite these strengths, however, Baxter’s book falls short of delivering a robust theology of youth ministry due to his heavy reliance on the psychosocial category of “adolescence.” Adolescence is defined as “those in the period between puberty and adulthood, [and] the time when a child is growing up into a mature adult” (39). Baxter recognizes that the category of “adolescence” is a recent classification and attributes the emergence of this developmental phase to “biological and cultural influences” (40), and he believes that many teenagers are experiencing undue stress, loneliness, and suffering a lack of identity due to pressure to grow up too fast (42-44, 78, 79). As such, youth pastors must “take this specific phase of life seriously,” (40) and become “familiar with what is going on in teenage brains in order to disciple youth for Jesus Christ” (38)—effectiveness in ministry to youth will depend largely upon one’s familiarity with this cultural and biological phenomenon.
It is difficult, however, to discern exactly how the category of adolescence is expected to inform youth ministers. Baxter emphasizes that youth ministers must “limit the pressure” (50) on youth in light of their current situation. He states clearly that this does not mean that pastors are to lower the standards of Christian practice and belief as they pertain to youth (50), yet he does not provide a clear answer as to what it does mean to limit pressure on teenagers. In addition, his discussion throughout chapter 2 on deviant teenage behavior seems as if he has allowed the category of adolescence to provide excuses for teenage sin and rebellion. This concern is again found in Baxter’s chapter on the gospel in which little to no room is given to important issues of sin, repentance, justification, or sanctification (see 103–23).
Furthermore, in his insistence that teenagers are currently encouraged to grow up too fast, Baxter is not careful to identify the actual cause of teenage immaturity. Baxter argues that, “Today’s teenagers are faced with tremendous pressure to be ‘adult-like’ in their thinking and actions” (49). Requiring students to assume adult responsibilities such as “making car payments, grocery shopping, caring for younger siblings” impedes teenagers from growing at a “healthy developmental pace” (49). As a result, teens’ desire for independence often entices them to embrace “adult-like” behaviors such as smoking, sex, drinking and reckless driving (49). But is such foolish behavior really to be blamed on the expectation that teens should accept growing responsibility?
Baxter fails to ask whether lowering such expectations may actually perpetuate teenage immaturity and the kind of deviant behavior described above. Indeed, psychologist Robert Epstein has argued that the category of adolescence harms teenage development because it robs young men and women of the opportunity to accept greater responsibility and to temper their unruly impulses, thus keeping them from steadily growing into the adults they were meant to be (see, Robert Epstein, Teen 2.0). This is especially tragic because Baxter desires to see teens grow into adult maturity but clinging uncritically to the category of adolescence will hinder teens from doing just that.