Book Review: A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry by Michael McGarry

In A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church, Dr. Michael McGarry presents the foundation behind effective student ministry from the Bible and the importance of ministering to the next generation in a theologically thoughtful way. McGarry begins by acknowledging the temporary nature of youth ministry. For youth ministry to be more than a fun teenage experience, it must be connected to the nuclear family, the church family, and the long-term spiritual growth of the student.

Seeking to ground youth ministry within the biblical narrative, McGarry presents a case for ministry to teenagers from the Old and New Testaments as well as church history. In exploring youth ministry in the Old Testament, we see the community of faith coming together to raise up the next generation in the faith. The family of faith begins with the nuclear family, but it is also clearly expanded to the religious community as well. 

In the context of the New Testament, McGarry reminds his readers that Jesus’ disciples would have been most likely teenagers to guys in their mid-twenties so Jesus serves as a Rabbi leading the next generation of disciples. McGarry also points to the communal nature of faith as presented in Ephesians 2 to point to the importance of the community of faith coming alongside the nuclear family in raising up the next generation. 

Throughout church history, the process of catechesis shows the intention with which those who came before us approached discipling the next generation.  In many modern church contexts that would push back on the idea of a formal catechesis, McGarry notes that “catechesis does not depend upon a rigid commitment to written catechisms; it rests upon a faithful commitment to evangelism and discipleship where the catechist (or, youth minister, in this case) methodically and intentionally teaches Christian doctrine and Christian living to those who have expressed the desire to learn” (p. 75).

After addressing the biblical and historical foundations, McGarry addresses today’s application of youth ministry by exploring ecclesiology, the family, the gospel, and youth ministry as a bridge between the church and the home. In addressing ecclesiology, McGarry remarks “youth ministry is for adolescence. The family is for life. The church is for eternity. Therefore, a biblical theology of youth ministry must be primarily anchored in the Church, for this is the true family to which all Christians eternally belong” (p. 79). Youth ministry must never be divorced or siloed from the local church body.

In addressing the family’s role in discipleship, McGarry notes “the biblical sense of family means that family discipleship is a community project” (p. 104). The balance between the role of the family and the church in discipleship of the next generation is a heated discussion. McGarry explores the tension by writing “it is unfortunate and unbiblical to set the disciple-making mission of the family aside for building a large youth ministry. It is also unbiblical to prioritize family-discipleship to the point that the family of faith has nothing to contribute to children and adolescent’s spiritual development. Both the Church and the family were created by God to multiply faithful worshippers – may this become an increasingly shared mission” (p. 113).

At the center of discipling the next generation stands the message of the gospel. McGarry comments “the gospel has increasingly become an evangelistic tool that is treated as the entryway into the family of God (initial salvation) and as the exit (final salvation into glory), but the gospel has not shaped youth worker’s daily understanding of what it means to be a Christian: an adopted and beloved child of God (regardless of his/her worthiness)” (p. 127-128). He goes on to state “the gospel is not a doorway into and out of the Christian life, but the lifeblood itself” (p. 128). For a youth ministry to be gospel-centered, “the gospel is on the main stage at all times” (p. 131).

In concluding A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, McGarry turns to the youth ministry as a bridge between the church and the home. He concludes “a well-run and exciting youth group is never the point of youth ministry. The goal of youth ministry is not even to produce teenage Christians. Instead, the purpose of youth ministry is to produce adult disciples whose faith took root and was nourished throughout their teen years” (p. 141).

A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry is a great gift and resource to those seeking to impact the next generation. With biblical and historical clarity paired with practical and thoughtful application, Michael McGarry has blessed the church with a book that will hopefully shape youth ministry for generations to come.

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