When it comes to a biblical foundation for ministry to youth, the Old Testament emphasis is on the family’s responsibility to educate. The OT places the responsibility for teaching young people on the shoulders of parents and especially the father (i.e. Deut. 12:28; 29:29; Josh. 4:20-24; Ps. 78:1-8; Pro. 13:1; 13:24; 22:6; Joel 1:3). Solomon’s proverb serves as a relevant summary: “Listen, my son, to your father’s instruction and do not forsake your mother’s teaching” (Proverbs 1:8).
The most famous of all the Old Testament passages concerning ministry to youth is found in Deuteronomy 6, which includes the Shema:
1 These are the commands, decrees and laws the LORD your God directed me to teach you to observe in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to possess, 2 so that you, your children and their children after them may fear the LORD your God as long as you live by keeping all his decrees and commands that I give you, and so that you may enjoy long life. 3 Hear, O Israel, and be careful to obey so that it may go well with you and that you may increase greatly in a land flowing with milk and honey, just as the LORD, the God of your fathers, promised you.
4 Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. 5 Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be upon your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates…
20 In the future, when your son asks you, “What is the meaning of the stipulations, decrees and laws the LORD our God has commanded you?” 21 tell him: “We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt, but the LORD brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand. 22 Before our eyes the LORD sent miraculous signs and wonders—great and terrible—upon Egypt and Pharaoh and his whole household. 23 But he brought us out from there to bring us in and give us the land that he promised on oath to our forefathers. 24 The LORD commanded us to obey all these decrees and to fear the LORD our God, so that we might always prosper and be kept alive, as is the case today. 25 And if we are careful to obey all this law before the LORD our God, as he has commanded us, that will be our righteousness.”
Clearly, God intended for the parents to be the primary educators when it comes to the spiritual lives of their children. The Shema commands parents of young people to devote their entire lives to God and use every opportunity to teach their children. However, the Shema is also an address to community. The Hebrews as a group shared in the responsibility of educating children in the Lord. This point is made clearer in the New Testament.
It was Jesus that showed special concern for the care of young people by encouraging them to come to Him and rebuking those who would hinder them (Matt. 18:4-6; 19:13-15; Mark 10:13-16; Luke 18:15-17). He even says, “if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Mt. 18:6). Again, God’s concern for the upbringing of children is made a priority and anyone who would hinder this would have been better off dead. So, although the command to educate children spiritually is a command to parents, the community also serves as a either a support system or a deterrent.
Jesus goes a step further, though, in expanding the responsibilities to care for children when He distinguishes between an earthly family and the heavenly family or “the church” (Mark 3:34-35). The implication of Jesus’ words is the placing of priority on the heavenly family. The priority of those inside the church is first to others within the church.
Paul echoes this same thinking in Titus 2. Here, Paul indicates that it is the responsibility of adults from within the church to educate younger generations. He says to Titus:
3Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. 4Then they can train the younger women to love their husbands and children, 5to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.
6Similarly, encourage the young men to be self-controlled. 7In everything set them an example by doing what is good. In your teaching show integrity, seriousness 8and soundness of speech that cannot be condemned, so that those who oppose you may be ashamed because they have nothing bad to say about us.
Together, the words of Jesus and Paul suggest that young children be taught the things of God and this includes in the context of the local church by older, believing adults. So, a biblical perspective of student ministry would indicate it is best for the spiritual education of youth be the primary responsibility of the parents. These perspectives would also suggest the church’s role in educating youth is also vital.
Theologically, then, youth ministry is grounded in God’s mandate for missions. In ministering to students the goal is to raise up worshippers of God. That is what the church has been commanded to do by Scripture. It’s done in the context of student ministry because of the cultural separation of adults and children. Someone once told me, “Student ministry is a missional response to a cultural reality.” This assertion that student ministry needs to be missional is grounded in the great commission and the principle of contextualization. Christians are called to be active in the process of making disciples (Mt. 28:18-20; Mk. 16:15; Acts 1:8; 2 Corinthians 5:20) and with the cultural establishment of an adolescent age group, there is a need for relevant ministry directed toward youth.