Mickey Mouse youth ministry

The picture of a one-eared Mickey Mouse is an image that has been used to describe the relationship between youth ministry and the rest of the church. 

A large circle represents the life of the church and the adult congregation (Mickey Mouse's head), with a smaller circle, the youth ministry (Mickey's one ear) loosely attached, off on the side.

The same observation reminds me of the story of Abishag the Shunammite from 1 Kings Chapter 1:1-4

Is this a metaphor for youth ministry and the church?  Every church wants to have a lively youth ministry - but is it merely seen as something to come alongside the dying body of the church to keep it feeling warm and happy while making no demand for any actual physical involvement?

Last year the Youthworks College Theology of Children's Ministry Conference welcomed Dr Timothy Paul Jones, Professor of Leadership and Family Ministry at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in the United States as our keynote speaker (here's the Southern Baptist report on Dr Jones' visit to 'a small school in the Australian bush')

Speaking at the Conference, Dr Jones quoted a prediction made in 2006 that, at some point in the future, churches would begin:

    [to] build buildings to support segregation"”and they will do it with excellence. They will not build for racial segregation, but to support age segregation. . Both the natural appeal of such buildings and the programming centered there will guarantee [that] teenagers will only experience church life with people almost precisely their own age. Adults will find no ways to bless children, much less even see them. Young people will be cut off from the richness of almost all adult relationships. And, most importantly, they will not see members of their own families until it is time to meet at their cars to go home. 
(Richard Ross (2006). "What Will Church Be Like in Ten Years?" Presentation to the NNYM Executive Council; in T P Jones (2009), TCMC Paper, Youthworks College)

The title of the essay was "what will church be like in 10 years?" 

The mistake was that what Ross predicted would happen in ten years, happened in two. 

Dr Jones' observation is that churches in Sydney are actually more segregated in terms of age than those in the US - here the grandparents go to church at 8am, parents and young children at 9:30am and teenagers and young adults at 7:30pm. We don't even get to meet in the carpark!

Problem or Reality?

So is this a problem or simply a cultural reality? I suspect it's both.

The cultural reality is that there is an increasing isolation of young people from adults in most parts of our community. 

But there is also a problem here. By fitting in with this society-wide pattern of community relations (or lack of) churches miss the opportunity to fully express and benefit from the reality of God's new society in Christ.

At Youthworks College one principle we've been thinking through in relation to children's and youth ministry is “the church as second family”.

As a family, or the Family of families, the church community is where teenagers can see models of godly decision making in the young adult 'older brothers and sisters'; where they can learn from models of long term faithfulness in the elder 'grandparents in the faith'; where young people from broken and divided homes can find role models and advocates in spiritual parents.

But the traffic isn't all one way. 

Young people often have an optimism, creativity and energy that can energise the whole church. Adults who have no children of their own can, along with those whose family relationships have been broken as a result of their commitment to Christ, receive 'a hundred times as much now in the present age. brothers and sisters. and children' (Mark 10:30).

Ongoing discussion

There is much to be gained from connecting young people more fully into the life of the church as a whole rather than being left out off to one side.

In future posts I want to explore more the question of why we've ended up with this sort of separation along with various models of how to overcome it. I also want to reflect more on the second principle guiding our reflections on children's and youth ministry - that of the family as first church.

For now, am I correct in suggesting that though a separation of age groups in the church is a reflection of our culture that it is a structure that is undermining one of the great blessings of the church community? 

I'd be interested to hear whether this is evident in other churches and what others might see that we're missing out on as a result.

Graham Stanton was the Principal at Youthworks College

Comments (14)

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  • Keith Dalby
    February 22, 10 - 9:53pm
    Hi Graham, thanks for this insight. It has always concerned me that we disconnect our families in church when they are already disconected in the world. The problem, then, is, how do we engage both adults and younger people in our services? Here at St. Johns we have traditional services, but most of our younger people sit in the congregation with their parents. Only some go to Sunday School. This is a conscious decision by the arents not to be disconnected from their children in worship. The rest start off in church, and come back for communion, and therefore start and finish in the church. This has its own difficulites. Our evening serice is very integrated with younger people and their parents, but it is a different service totally to the morning. I suspect the way to go is have a multiplicity of service types that encourage all age worship, but this is hard too, and I suspect compartmentalising or segregating as you pu it, is actually the easier option because it is so much more complex to engage multigenerational congregations. By the way I like your new blog, keep it up. Keith
  • Jeremy Halcrow
    February 22, 10 - 9:58pm
    In the typical church I suspect the 'seniors' who attend the early morning Prayer Book service feel even more isolated from the life of the whole parish.

    So is it really a question of integrating across congregations?

    Given the social fragmentation you describe, Graham, are you suggesting that treating each 'generational'-congregation as a separate entity can be unhelpful? And if so, how can the NT inform us in this discussion?
  • Colin Murdoch
    February 22, 10 - 11:13pm
    Since I was a teenager,the breadth and variety of Worship Services, ministry to children and youth, families and seniors has certainly changed...

    We have gone from a traditional and more conservative worship style, to one that became more contemporary-this usually meant and was Christian speak,that the organ and piano were not the only instruments played nor hymns but songs of praise used or sometimes a combination of both to appease those who liked the hymns and more traditional style-to a more upbeat style-plus we had a traditional Sunday evening service emphasis on Youth!

    However, some of the more senior persisted, while other churches introduced a more traditional either earlier Sunday am or mid-week service for them...It may have met a great need but unwittingly some were becoming more disconnected despite many giving years of leadership, wisdom, money, faithfulness and mentoring to the Generation coming through;and we did this with a commitment to Marrieds with children and youth because this was the prevailing emphasis in Christendom worldwide...It was the way we had always done Church!
    Then a growing multi-cultural society saw some Churches accommodate people from other NESB and special services commenced...
    In a genuine desire to meet the needs of a changing consumer driven society, we may have met some important needs; but at what cost to the Kingdom of God, future Generations,and Fragmentation vs Cohesion in the Body of Christ?
  • Rob Woof
    February 23, 10 - 12:13am
    Hi Graham, Thanks for this article. I go to a small church whose single morning congregation is mostly parents with kids, but the older kids are now in years 7/8/9 at high school. As we think about how to help these older kids grow up into active adult christians, we have some thinking to do. This article gives us much food for thought in this area.
  • Craig Schwarze
    February 23, 10 - 1:43am
    Hi Graham, thanks for this important post. I've actually been thinking a lot about this issue lately as my boys are now in their teens.

    More and more, I like the idea of having congregations that cut across age and ethnic groups. Of course, it is easy for me to wish for single congregations, because I sit right in the middle of the dominant demographic. I know that if a single "style" is selected for liturgy and music, it will be one that I am comfortable with. For the old and the young, combined congregations will mean compromise.
  • Colin Murdoch
    February 23, 10 - 1:43am
    Let me paint an expanded picture of Mickey Mouse, how the Church could view him, and how God might want us to be active participants as we Love God and Love others in carrying out the Great Commission and the Great Commandment...

    The Church is Mickey's face-with eyes and his smile that see the Great things God and His People are doing in ministry and a nose to smell out/discern new opportunities for ministry...

    We are all ministers-ministers and laity alike-and his mouth is for us to proclaim the Good News, to teach, preach, exhort, warn, encourage and challenge each other and new generations with the Best News and Best Deal in town-A Unique Personal Growing Relationship with God and while Discipleship will be costly; it is a free unmerited eternal Gift!

    Notice Mickey's two large ears-we are to be active listeners, the older Generations-Baby Busters and Baby Boomers one side, Generation X, Y and Z the other. It is a two way street-Relationships and Listening-notice how the black part converges together above the eyes-it is to discern the way forward!
    To see the future church with all it's great past traditions and needs for some changes...Mickey's two large open hands can symbolise the attitude and heart of the Church-to children, youth,couples, families, singles, formerly marrieds and seniors who are within and outside the Body of Christ!His feet-we are God's foot soldiers...His red sash-God's armour...His tail-put it up and run!Colours-all God's People!
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    February 23, 10 - 5:20am
    I think that a one-eared Mickey Mouse is not an appropriate representation of the relationship between the youth and the rest of the church. I think that a more appropriate representation is a small circle within a larger circle (ie. two concentric circles). The small circle represents the youth. The larger circle represents the older generations in the church. As the years go by, the youth grow up to become the older generations in the church. That is to say, the small circle grows to replace the larger circle.

    Therefore, this representation is nothing like Mickey Mouse but more like a target. This is somewhat appropriate because if the devil wants to destroy the church over a twenty year period, he should aim for the bullseye. He should target the youth with adverse influences. If the devil can stop the youth from growing up in Christ to become the church of tomorrow, then he can destroy the church.

    Conversely, this target represents the idea that by having a clear plan for the growth of the youth into the church of tomorrow (ie. concentrating on the bullseye), the church can safeguard the ongoing intergenerational health of the church.
  • Luke Thomson
    February 23, 10 - 5:35am
    Andrew, I agree that Youth are a vital part of the health of the church. But,

    "this target represents the idea that by having a clear plan for the growth of the youth into the church of tomorrow"

    This sort of statement is exactly what the one-eared Mickey Mouse entails. Youth are not the church of tomorrow. They are the church of today, along with every other generation. Yes, they will grow to become the leaders of the church in the future, but they are just as significant members as anyone else today. To call them the 'church of tomorrow' is to put them to one side where they do not matter and have no influence in the church now (as the one-eared Mickey Mouse idea encapsulates).
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    February 23, 10 - 6:50am
    Hi Luke

    You are putting words in my mouth which I have not said. I do not appreciate it.

    You are also making what was going to be my next point, that the church leadership needs to listen to the voice of the youth since they raise many issues which are often unresolved in the church and need to be resolved. Youth in church wrestle with their faith more than the older members do, in my opinion, which gives rise to these issues that they raise. This points to the need for genuine dialogue between the church leadership and the youth in addition to the important monologue of preaching.

    You have raised a very important point which, I think, needs to be a focus of attention.
  • Luke Thomson
    February 24, 10 - 1:07am

    Apologies for putting words in your mouth!

    I think I was connecting your statement about the 'target' with the sentence i quoted (and made you say something you didn't intend to say).
    I think it's a given that the one-eared Mickey Mouse is how most youth ministries operate, and that this is not the way it should be.
  • Andrew Mackinnon
    February 24, 10 - 4:24am
    Hi Luke

    No worries at all.
  • Graham Stanton
    February 24, 10 - 5:50am
    Given the social fragmentation you describe, Graham, are you suggesting that treating each 'generational'-congregation as a separate entity can be unhelpful?

    Thanks for the question Jeremy - I think it's a similar concern that Keith raises:
    how do we engage both adults and younger people in our services?

    and also with Craig's point that
    combined congregations will mean compromise

    At this stage I'm diagnosing a problem rather than proposing a cure.

    Combined congregations, all-age gatherings etc are one way of overcoming the isolation between different segments of the congregation, but not the only way.

    I agree Jeremy that the isolation from the rest of the body doesn't just relate to youth ministry, and in many cases may be more acute for the 'early morning prayer book service'.

    Timothy Jones talks about the next step on from the one-eared Mickey Mouse is the Headless Octopus - where ministries to all sorts of sub-demographics sit alongside each other like the legs of an Octopus but with no head to tie them all together.

    We may continue to have a highly programmed ministry (or collection of ministries) while also looking for ways to express the relations between those ministry groups that will encourage the benefits of intergenerational community life. An intergenerational community even if there isn't an intergenerational congregation.
  • Graham Stanton
    February 24, 10 - 6:03am
    And if so, how can the NT inform us in this discussion?

    I've been reflecting on the description of the church as 'God's household' in 1 Tim 3:14, and the way Paul encourages relations among church members to be modelled on family relations in 1 Tim 5:1-2.

    I referred to Mark 10:30 in the article - Jesus' promise was given to those who would have broken relations with their own families as a result of their allegiance to him and the gospel. Just as the 'family' of the church meets that need, so too it can meet the need of today where people experience broken relations with their own families because of social fragmentation.

    Whether or not we get into the theological argument about whether an age-specific service can be a 'catholic' church, I do believe that if we leave younger disciples isolated from older disciples (and vice versa) we will not be building believers as strongly as we could otherwise.

    The Macedonian Christians were encouraged to express their unity with their Judean brothers and sisters through Paul's famine collection (2 Cor 8 etc) - this was both for the financial benefit of their brothers and sisters, and for their own blessing of sharing in service. The same principle applies to the fellowship that we could express between demographically distinct congregations.
  • Tom Magill
    March 1, 10 - 1:27am
    I was having a discussion on this very topic with a parishioner last night. One realisation we came to was that even without the age-specific targeting of specific church gatherings, the very fact of multiple gatherings at different times of day will itself work to strongly influence the make-up of our congregations.

    To some extent, segregation happens regardless of age-specific targeting (or the lack thereof).