Mark Cannister received his Doctorate in Education from the University of Pittsburgh. He spent fifteen years in parish family ministry. He began teaching youth ministry at Gordon College in 1992. Mark serves on several national youth ministry related boards and has written five books about youth ministry.
The main purpose of Teenagers Matter is communicated in its subtitle: “making student ministry a priority in Christian churches.” Cannister uses the preface to make his case that many churches have not done enough in this regard (xiv). Cannister’s model of a more comprehensive ministry would include eliminating what he believes is a false dichotomy in teen ministry between nurture and outreach. He emphasizes a ministry that not only feeds strong teen members but reaches out to those on the fringe and those outside the church. His ideal ministry is one that creates an environment for faith to grow and gets teenagers involved in meaningful church service.
In chapter 1 Cannister pushes the reader to move past a “good enough” model for youth ministry. “The vast majority (80 percent) of stakeholders in most churches, including pastors, elders, deacons, parents, and students, tend to be satisfied with the small slice (20 percent) of a comprehensive student ministry that is typically known as discipleship” (2). This quote reflects Cannister’s view that Bible study is only a small piece of a comprehensive youth ministry.
In chapter 2, Cannister reveals his somewhat odd views on how spiritual transformation happens. He takes a theory of identity development and attempts to use it as a spectrum of spiritual growth. The theory consists of four statuses: diffusion, foreclosure, moratorium, and achievement. Cannister spends almost twenty pages walking through these four statuses and determining how we might use them to assist teenagers in their spiritual growth. His advice could best be summarized as an encouragement to create a safe atmosphere where doubts can be explored (70).
Chapter 3 explores what a well-resourced youth ministry might look like. Cannister stresses the need for accurately determining our congregation’s needs, especially in regard to volunteers. (77). This leads into an extended discussion on creative staff building, including things such as budget reallocation (81-82), parachurch partnerships (83-84), and internships (84-87).
Chapter 4 focuses on helping teenagers to become part of the church. Cannister is critical of the typical church’s efforts in this area. “It’s time for a reality check. In many cases, our young people have never been part of the church… More often than not, teenagers are segregated from the adult population of the church into specialized, ‘age-appropriate’ programs” (115). Cannister stresses that teenagers feel more connected to their church when they are allowed to make meaningful contributions to areas like worship and outreach (126-127). The other key point in this chapter is the need for adults to reach out to teens: “Adults make connections with teenagers by demonstrating a curiosity about the interests of teenagers. This type of relational ministry is often the lifeblood of student ministries” (120).
Chapter 5 encourages the youth worker to keep youth ministry planning very simple and to focus on spiritual growth. His simple process includes a decision for Christ, in depth Bible study, and equipping for evangelism (153-154). The chapter concludes with some practical ideas for adding new programs without frustrating members and leaders in the congregation.
The next chapter discusses plans for getting parents involved with youth ministry. He strongly warns parents against ever giving the impression, intentionally or unintentionally, that church and Bible study are optional (200-202). The chapter concludes with Cannister reiterating how vital parents are to youth ministry. “When teenagers matter, parents matter. There is simply no separating teenagers from their parents. Good, bad, or otherwise, the influence of parents in the lives of teenagers is extremely powerful, and youth leaders must recognize this important connection” (209).
The final chapter includes several encouragements built from the topics in previous chapters. Cannister points out that youth ministers will need to fight a gravitational pull toward maintenance rather than pushing forward (220). On the last pages of the book, Cannister envisions a new day of synergy, in which all the adults in a congregation are active in their church’s youth ministry efforts (227-230).
Anyone reading this book in our WELS circles will likely notice that Cannister is writing with a mental image of a church that is very different than the typical congregation in our synod. The majority of his own parish experience was at a large, non-denominational church, and this seems to be the lens he uses for his youth ministry perspectives. You can see this view in some of the assumptions Cannister makes about the resources the reader will have at their disposal. This includes budgets, volunteers, facility space, and staffing for a calendar packed full of events.
Cannister developed many of his main arguments for a comprehensive youth ministry well. It is hard to argue against an encouragement to get young people more involved in service roles, reaching out to unbelieving teens, and having established adult members more involved in the lives of our congregations’ teens. Cannister also demonstrated some expertise on the psychological state of teens today, and I found it helpful to consider some of the challenges he proposed:
In previous generations, students were skeptical of the message. Today, students are equally skeptical of the messenger. Our culture has changed, and teenagers no longer grow up with an innate feeling that they can trust adults. Our certificate of authenticity is no longer a given (43).
Often practical theology books spend many pages discussing theory and are short on practical advice. I found Cannister’s book to be reasonably balanced in this area. He wove many suggestions into the text. One example would be an anecdote about a pastor who gathered his entire staff and had them list every possible way a teenager could serve in their church (127).
Cannister’s arguments occasionally fell short, due to weaknesses in his theology. He clearly expresses a belief in decision theology. “Of course, we are not simply in the salvation business, and we cannot assume our work is done following the recitation of a prayer accepting Jesus as Lord and Savior” (xxiii). The flip side of Cannister’s psychological prowess is an overemphasis on the human element in faith formation, to the detriment of what the Bible says about the means of grace. In Cannister’s model, the Bible becomes just one of several ways that faith is formed. “Allowing teenagers to contribute [in service roles] is important for the faith formation of adolescents…” (123). Cannister mistakes the fruits of faith for a means to develop faith. This is also evidenced by his positively referencing a pastor who cancelled his congregation’s youth Bible class so that the teens might have time for service roles (127).
Overall, the book is somewhat light on Scripture references. The passages that Cannister uses typically are simple encouragements to grow in faith and reach out to all nations. He also expresses some disdain for denominational differences as he critiques the Christian church in the introduction: “Training up the next generation of Presbyterians or Methodists or Lutherans or Baptists became more important than raising up the next generation of Christ-followers.” (xxii)
This book could be a resource for any congregation that endeavors to have a better, more detailed youth ministry plan. I personally appreciated Cannister’s encouragements to view teenagers differently: “Teenagers are not, in the words of Richard Lerner, ‘problems to be fixed, but people to be developed. They are not immature or incomplete adults; they are active partners in their own positive transition to adulthood’” (41). I do think we tend to think of teens as simply “bigger kids.” The teens in our congregation sense this view and, perhaps, often resent it. Seeing them as active partners in ministry might help us move past a “good enough” view of ministry. Encouraging them to get involved, especially in outreach, helps them to see we value their God-given talents as young adult members of Christ’s body.
I also appreciated Cannister’s encouragement to staff for youth ministry. I recognize that pastors in our synod simply do not have the time to carry out a comprehensive youth ministry alone. Reading this book with some leaders from the congregation could serve as a catalyst for getting more volunteers involved. At the very least, it could serve as a reminder to a congregation’s adult members that they all need to be part of a congregation’s youth ministry efforts.
The major strengths of this book were 1) an encouragement to honestly rethink our current student ministry practices and 2) practical suggestions for improving that area of ministry. The major weakness was a misunderstanding of the means of grace. This book could prove very useful to youth leaders, provided they have sufficient spiritual maturity to work through the author’s theological deficiencies.