A rapidly changing youth culture has presented unique challenges to parachurch ministries.

When America gave birth to the Peace Corps in the early 1960s, President John F. Kennedy charged his first wave of service recruits with a simple task: “Work yourselves out of a job.” The concept soon became a philosophical imperative for humanitarian workers overseas. As the reasoning went, there would be no need for external assistance once the needy were taught to fend for themselves.

For some evangelicals, this idea sounded familiar. Two decades earlier, budding parachurch youth ministries such as The Navigators, Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and Youth for Christ trumpeted the same philosophy as they carved a niche in the evangelical world.

Their goal was to model effective techniques in youth evangelism at a time when the church was doing little to reach its young people with the message of Christ. The leaders of parachurch agencies emerged as spokesmen for the evangelical community, and their ministries experienced exponential growth.

But times have changed. Today, the widespread perception among church leaders is that youth ministries in many local congregations have endured an awkward adolescence and matured into effective vehicles through which to communicate Christ. This is attributable in part to the example of the parachurch.

Some have suggested that the parachurch has outgrown its usefulness, that the movement has succeeded to some extent in “working itself out of a job.”

Of the five largest U.S.-based parachurch youth ministries, only two—Campus Crusade for Christ and The Navigators—have avoided significant declines in ministry sites and student participation over the last decade. Inter-Varsity has closed more than 100 campus programs in recent years.

Last year Group, a magazine for youth workers, quoted a former Youth for Christ regional director and several youth pastors as voicing disenchantment with the traditional parachurch mode of operation. The article suggested that current structures and philosophies of contemporary campus ministries are obsolete.

Several parachurch leaders have since said the article misrepresented their ministries at many points. Taylor University President Jay Kesler, who served 12 years as president of Youth for Christ, said that the secularization of America’s youth, not obsolete forms of ministry, is the major reason some groups have experienced a decline in numbers.

Parachurch spokesmen generally acknowledge great gains in congregational youth work. But they say local churches alone may never be able to evangelize successfully in an increasingly secular society. Said Kesler, “The sad fact is that there are more unchurched young people today than there were 30 years ago.”

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Kesler said today’s youth “have no memory of a Christian context, and church youth ministry isn’t crossing that chasm. A mission field has grown up right under our noses.… We are going to have to pursue this new mission field with the same abandon that foreign mission societies have historically pursued their evangelistic goals. That kind of incarnational outreach has seldom been produced from the local pews.”

Parachurch ministries have been hampered by a rapidly changing youth culture. Said Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship President Gordon MacDonald, “Traditionally, parachurch ministry has been able to respond to [cultural] changes almost immediately. Perhaps the changes are coming too fast now.”

Youth culture is far less homogeneous today than it was 25 years ago, when a large percentage of youth rallied behind a common antiwar protest. “It wasn’t unusual for us to get 300 kids out to a Friday night meeting during that period,” said Tim Gibson, a former area director for Young Life. Gibson said young people today comprise a variety of “interest groups” from “preppies to punks to athletes to computer ‘whizzes.’ It’s much more difficult to have an across-the-board program that will appeal to them all.”

“We’re not able to get to the point quite as quickly in our evangelical efforts,” said Roger Fleming, assistant to the U.S. Director of Navigators. “We have to back up the educational process and slowly try to engage the students in an acceptance of a Christian world view.”

Les Mazon, assistant pastor for youth ministry at Whittier Area Baptist Fellowship in Whittier, California, said that “kids nowadays are suffering from The Day After effect. They’re trying to soak up as much of life as they can because they don’t believe they have a future. A mindset like that requires approaches you wouldn’t have dreamed of using before.”

Youth for Christ Acting President Dick Wynn observed that youth used to be drawn to “small group Bible study and interaction. The kids wanted to participate.” But today, he said, “there seems to be a renewed attraction for group-oriented entertainment. So we’re finding a … return to our old breakaway formula incorporating a stand-up communicator and some entertainment.”

Wynn noted that last fall’s Youth Congress ’85, cosponsored by his organization and Campus Crusade for Christ, was Youth for Christ’s first attempt at staging a national conference since its Capital Teen Convention in 1962. Youth Congress ’85 drew 15,000 high school students to Washington, D.C.

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Another way parachurch ministries have adjusted is by retooling their club formats, decreasing the emphasis on director-student dialogue, and offering more opportunities for peer interaction.

Despite the odds, some parachurch ministries are expanding. Youth for Christ has initiated an experimental program on 164 junior high campuses. It has added 172 new Campus Life clubs (high school ministries) in the last two years. The group has also established Youth Guidance affiliates in 80 cities to work with youth in the juvenile justice system. Also, both Youth for Christ and Young Life have increased their outreach to urban areas.

Parachurch leaders say they continue to be troubled by a long-standing perception that they struggle with local churches for superiority in territory and programs. “We want to be an arm of the local church,” said Steve Sellers, associate national campus director for Campus Crusade. “It was never, nor will it ever be, our intention to compete.… One of the prerequisites for every staff person is an active involvement in a local church.”

Sellers said Campus Crusade’s goal is to have an outreach on all 3,200 colleges in America by the year 2000. Plans call for lay people from local churches to staff a large percentage of these programs. Youth for Christ reports a surge in lay volunteer support in recent years. In 1985, some 6,600 volunteers worked alongside 970 full-time staff in the Campus Life program.

Gibson, formerly of Young Life, said that “the church has always needed a prophetic voice, and that’s the role parachurch organizations can play. I don’t think it was ever a question of working ourselves out of a job. Rather, I’d like to think of it as an issue of the parachurch groups continuously giving themselves away to the church.”

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