When I was a youth in the 1980s, I looked forward to Tuesday nights when I could watch the next episode of The A-Team. The A-Team were four disavowed former members of a US Special Forces unit who fought injustice.

Every episode included some derring-do and always finished with the team’s leader, John “Hannibal” Smith, saying, “I love it when a plan comes together”.

Reading Dr Ruth Lukabyo’s 2020 monograph, From a Ministry for Youth to a Ministry of Youth: Aspects of Protestant Youth Ministry in Sydney 1930–1959, Hannibal’s catchphrase rang in my ears. That’s because the research helps fill a missing piece in Australian church history and draws conclusions about effective youth ministry. 

It is first and foremost a scholarly work not aimed at popular culture, but it does teach us from history how we might most fruitfully engage with popular culture to reach the next generation with the gospel. This is exciting for those invested in youth and children’s ministry – which should be all of us. 

The book maps the contours of Christian youth ministry in Sydney over the past century and, in doing so, provides pastors, parents and church leaders with historical proof that a principled approach to youth ministry is key to a successful ministry to young people.  

Lukabyo considers “success” in terms of numerical growth of young people involved in a resilient ministry that has an impact on the wider church. In other words, a ministry that raises up and replenishes its leaders and positively contributes to local churches. 

She shows how the beginning of the 20th century saw a move within liberalism from emphasising individual salvation to championing the social ramifications of faith. 

From the 1930s, as liberalism began to recede within Sydney’s churches and conservative evangelicalism gained ascendency, the focus of youth ministry changed from one of psychological improvement – advancing a new social order and an emphasis on the nurture of those youth who attended – to outreach-focused witness. 

Lukabyo observes four distinct characteristics in this effective witness:

  1.  peer ministry;
  2.  youth leadership;
  3. conservative, evangelical theology; and
  4. empowering young people to share their faith with other youth.

T.C. Hammond, while principal of Moore College, wrote in 1940: The fundamentals of the Christian faith have not been taught with sufficient care for years. As a result, the youth of our day are often ill-instructed. We have too many purveyors of a cheap gospel which makes its appeal solely to the emotions and does not supply a solid background of Bible fact on which the awakened soul may confidently rest.

Lukabyo’s study closes with the 1959 Billy Graham Crusade, noting that some 60 per cent of those who made decisions for Christ were young people, most of them already involved in a local church. The 1959 crusade is viewed as the high watermark of conservative evangelicalism in Australia, which stood on the shoulders of 30 years of effective youth ministries in local churches. 

Looking back on those ministries – in churches, schools, universities, and parachurch organisations – over the preceding century, Lukabyo sets out some key markers for effectiveness in the ministry model of the 1930s and 1940s:

  1. youth ownership and empowerment;
  2. a “bottom-up” leadership model;
  3.  support from key people in church leadership (rectors, parish councils, bishops);
  4. engagement with schools and local communities.

We see that there is no single right model of youth ministry. However, principles clearly emerge from Lukabyo’s historical study, the social sciences and from Scripture that all point in a fruitful direction. As former Archbishop Peter Jensen observed when he launched the book, we are compelled toward both faithfulness and freedom: faithfulness in evangelical ministry and freedom in finding new ways to implement theologically driven principles.

In short, Lukabyo finds effective youth ministries are those that respect the agency of young people. They are not “Christians in waiting” but individuals loved by God and capable of responding now to the gospel of grace, becoming mature, lifelong, disciple-making disciples of Christ. 

The secret to an effective youth ministry

An effective youth ministry looks to nurture these young people into Christian leadership with the support of key church leaders, and has strong links to schools through SRE and lunchtime fellowship groups.

The importance of relational discipleship is something Anglican Youthworks has been quietly championing for 20 years now. A recent Youthworks survey of Sydney churches found those that adopted a principled approach to their youth and children’s ministry saw the greatest growth through the volatility, uncertainty and complexity of 2020. 

Churches with a commitment to continuing relational discipleship grew as they found creative ways to video conference, equip parents and engage young people along a pathway of Christian discipleship toward maturity in Christ, despite restrictions.

This contemporary proof of principles being the key to an effective youth ministry is underscored by the historical proof uncovered by Lukabyo in her research. It’s why we can expect that an effective youth and children’s ministry will underpin a thriving, flourishing, growing church. 

It’s this synergy that makes me want to say, “I love it when a plan comes together!”.

The Rev Canon Craig Roberts is CEO of Youthworks.