Tuesday, October 18, 2011

5 Things I'd Change About Youth Ministry

I've been out of student ministry since 2007, but that doesn't mean I've been away from it.  I read everything I can, I talk with lots of friends who are still employed by churches and I have watched as a large church youth ministry left my own teenage son feeling disenfranchised.  These experiences, as well as my own 28 years as a youth pastor, lead me to this post.  For those of you who are professional youth pastors, you may find these statements to be simplifications and exaggerations.  I can live with that.  Let's get started...

  1. We need to quit jumping on every new bandwagon that comes down the trail.  Churches in general, and youth pastors in particular, tend to overreact to every criticism we receive.  As a result, we have little respect for history.  Someone once wrote that "history wouldn't repeat itself so often if we would just listen the first time."  In every church, in every youth group, there is much to learned from what has happened there before.  Ignore it at your own peril.  Yes, we need to be willing to change, but we also need anchors- traditions and cornerstones for our ministries.  Jesus should be our primary mooring; but there must be others as well.  And we must develop a respect for moderation.  Why must we change the focus of our youth meetings, the method in which we present the lesson and the night we meet all at the same time?  If it's because that's what they did over at Church World, then you're making a major mistake.  Change can be a wonderful blessing, but not if understanding WHY we need to change is a lost art.
  2. We've got to stop pretending that we have easy answers to the questions and disagreements surrounding Christianity.  In fact, we need to learn (and learn it from Jesus) that questions are often better than answers.  We need to stop settling for simple cliches in areas of faith that are very complex.  Exploration is good.  And we need to accept the fact that Christianity comes with built-in gray areas.  Your students already know that.  To try and convince them that faith should be doubt-free and absolute in nature is a lost cause.  I always said that if a student's answers about faith sounded too much like mine, I had failed them.  They need opportunity to grow and develop a faith of their own.  There is joy in the seeking, and growth in the questioning.
  3. Youth Ministry is not now and has never been about systems.  I know of a church that brings in "experts" (strangely they have never asked me!) every couple of years to tell them which system and what staff people they need to reach this generation for Jesus.  Does it really take a new system every 2 years to be effective?  No.  Student Ministry is about relationships.  If your church has forgotten that fact in the mad-dash to install a new system every time attendance drops, then you need to trash it and start all over again building relationships.  Leave room for excitement and mystery.  Create space for differences in theology.  Make everyone feel loved and appreciated.  And most importantly, make sure everyone encounters the radical, amazing, crazy, indescribable love of Jesus Christ.  It's not about a scheme; it's about sharing life together.
  4. Help your students understand that following Jesus is more important than theology (I can feel the stones bouncing off my computer screen even as I type).  How do we do this?  By teaching that we are connected by the Cross of Christ.  Baptists and Catholics?  Connected by the Cross.  Lutherans and Pentecostals?  Connected by the Cross.  Quakers and Methodists?  Connected by me (HA!)...and the Cross!  Our orthodoxy and our practices may vary wildly, but our Savior does not.  Churches are not autonomous.  My church is not "more correct" than yours.  We should not be divided by the style of music we sing or the manner in which we receive communion.  We should be bound together in Christ's love. It's not about loving A church, it's about loving THE church!  We should all be a part of the same Jesus Revolution, and if a church or youth group is hindering that pursuit...then something is terribly wrong.
  5. We must return to the biblical concept that says bigger is NOT better!  We certainly don't believe that now.  We spend our time copying big churches, thinking that's the way it should be. Our church leadership is often totally obsessed with business leadership models.  Face it friends- when we reached the point where someone thought it was a good idea to sell student ministry franchises, we jumped the shark.  Mega-churches seldom have any grasp on what will work for your group of 10.  And trust me on this one- there are a hundred groups of 10 for every one mega-church group.  You should not feel inadequate with a small group- you should feel normal and blessed!  Faithfulness is not measured in numbers.  Jesus chose to work with a group of 12.  He then broke a small group of 4 (James, John, Peter and himself) out of the twelve.  I worked with some very large youth groups, and you know the first thing you have to figure out?  How do I make this group feel smaller?  Trying to achieve "big" makes us jump on bandwagons, focus on systems not relationships, and implies that our way of "doing church" is the very best one.  Of course we all want to reach new people for Jesus.  Just not because it will make us big.
As long as you're already mad at me, here are 2 more quick bonus tweaks for you: (1) Every student ministry should have a gathering of some sort on Sunday evenings, because that is when the most students have the most available free time.  I know all of the excuses not to, but I'm telling you that not meeting on Sundays means you are missing lots of students.  (2) Youth ministry was never meant to be about games and silliness.  But no student ministry is complete without games and silliness.  In this day and age, more than ever, teenagers need to learn how to play.  Trust me on this.  I'm old.  You should respect your elders- or so I'm told!  :)  Have a blessed day!

Because of Jesus,


  1. BRILLIANT! I've been saying and advocating for most of these kinds of things with my youth ministry from the beginning (although #2 drives my students nuts "Can't you just tell us the answer?").
    thanks for putting this one in writing. :-)

  2. Thanks, Seiji. And don't feel bad- #2 drives a lot of people nuts!

  3. Well, thanks a lot Carl. According to this, I have to throw away our doctrinal covenants and tear out everything we've been doing in our Purpose-Driven, Program Free, Small Group, Large Group, Concentric Circles, Venn Diagram Baptethodist Youth Group. I was just about to figure out why our numbers were not growing and you just totally poured water on my fire. Also, my token catch phrase "Because that's what the Bible says", according to you, needs to go out the window, too! Man, you've given me a lot to think about. In all seriousness, this is an excellent post every youth worker should read!

  4. Thanks, Jason. You can still use "that's what the Bible says;" you just have to stop using "because I said so!" :) And a program free Baptethodist Youth Group might just solve all of the world's problems!!!

  5. Carl and Jason that is so funny because some of my close friends use to joke around with me and call me a Bathodist because I went to a Baptist church in high school and have worked primarily at Methodist churches. I am currently feeling the tension with "bigger is better". Our group has only about 20 teens in it now when it use to have about 40 teens. We have had some really big classes graduate so it is easy to freak out and say, "Oh my goodness! What has happened?! We need to find the fix right now!" but the truth is my current group has a lot of teens right now who have been in church all their lives so they know the answers or at least the right things to say but honestly don't get it. I will never stop trying to help our ministry grow....but definitely not for numbers sake but because if our ministry grows that means we are reaching more teens for Christ. However, I will not compromise on the gospel, or water it down, or not speak the truth so we can have big numbers.

  6. Anonymous10/18/2011

    Bound together in Christ's love. Awesome. I'd go to that church any day!

  7. A friend just reminded me of one more thing I'd change- quit teaching teenagers what the Church is against and start teaching them what we stand FOR! Great reminder via e-mail. Thanks, Tom.

  8. great post. I needed this tonight. :)

  9. I am so glad so many found this post to be encouraging. That was my prayer!

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