Thursday, November 13, 2014

Throwback Thursday: Student Ministry Warning Signs

Tuesday's encounter with a youth pastor with no passion for youth took me back to this vintage post, first published in 2012 and shared here with updates. I still really like this one...

I have been out of student ministry for nearly 8 years now. In youth ministry, 8 years is often a lifetime. The large, big-budget church my family attends has completely reorganized its student ministry 4 times in those 8 years. Some of my youth pastor friends have changed jobs 5 times in those 8 years. So I have missed a lot of changes. I have always been suspicious of people who try to teach youth ministry when they are not doing it- and that is me now, so you should probably take this rand with a grain of salt. But lately, I have been aware of some scary stuff. I read lots of blogs written by youth pastors, and I tweet with a couple of hundred youth workers each week. And I can't help but notice that there are some things they seem to be quite proud of that my 28 years of service in youth ministry cause me to see as red flags- warning signs that a storm is coming! My purpose today is not to say anyone is wrong. I do not know other the inside workings of other student ministries or ministry situations. My purpose is to ask everyone involved in youth ministry to step back and make sure your ministry is doing all it can to build relationships between the students you serve and the Jesus you worship. Here are questions I hope you will consider...

  1. Has your ministry become lopsided?  Ministry to students should cover many areas. We need to teach them to be disciples. We need to show them what it means to have the heart of a servant and how to share the gospel with others. We need to give them opportunities to worship. We need to offer them a place where they feel loved and included, and where they experience true fellowship. Has your ministry become a place that focuses almost exclusively on one or two of those things? Lopsided ministries often begin to exclude those on the fringe, or to become social clubs that have no heart for Jesus. Neither of those is acceptable...
  2. Do you preach to your students each week?  We have known for years that lectures and sermons are the least effective ways to communicate with young people, yet I read each week of all the time youth pastors are spending on sermon preparation. We think our words inspire and convict them, but often they are rolling off teenagers like rain off of a freshly waxed car. There are so many better, more creative ways to teach and engage students with the Word of God- but they require much more planning, work and risk. We ask better of school teachers. We in the church should demand better of ourselves.
  3. Do parents like you too much?  If parents are on board with everything you do, you may have a problem. Yes, we should work with parents (the ones who care and love their teenagers, never forgetting that we also serve students who get zero parental support), partner with them and be supportive of them, never seeking to undercut them as the primary models for the students we serve. But who is it we have been called to serve? If you never have to explain yourself to parents, then chances are you are not challenging your students. The radical Jesus of the gospels makes adults uncomfortable; your ministry should too. You know teenagers. If adults are approving of all of your exotic lessons, weird games, strange meeting times and loud music, then perhaps they are not exotic, weird, strange or loud enough! Occasionally it is a good and holy thing to scare some parents...  :)
  4. When you start planning a new year of ministry, do you begin with last year's calendar?  If you know what you will be doing January 22 of 2015 because you know what you did January 21 of this year, then get help. You are in a rut, and your creativity is dying- or at least in pain! Start from scratch. Brainstorm brand new ideas! You may wind up doing similar things, but don't make what you HAVE done the starting point for what you NEED to do!  Lameness alert!!!
  5. Are all of the adults who work with your student ministry from the same age group?  It is so easy to fall into the trap of thinking all adult volunteers (and paid youth staff, for that matter) need to be young and hip. The truth is, teenagers come in all shapes, sizes, personalities and needs. Seek variety in your team. If every youth ministry team meeting takes place at Starbucks or via Facetime on your iPhones, you may have an issue. It is not the church's job to raise a new generation of hipsters...
  6. When was the last time you tried something that failed miserably?  If it has been a while, then you may be playing it too safe. Challenging and engaging students requires a little craziness and a lot of outside-the-box thinking. Those things lead to ideas whose times have not yet come- and abject failure. God will use those failures to make a difference. And on occasion what we see as failure becomes a glorious success in the hands of God. I once lost $8000 on a concert where nearly 100 people gave their lives to Christ. Failure...or not? If you aren't failing a couple of times a year, then you aren't risking enough in the name of Jesus.  
  7. Is your group too homogeneous?  I am not talking about ethnic or racial diversity; those are important issues that deserve more space than I can give them here. I am talking about the caste system that exists in our schools. I am talking about cliques.  Are you actively seeking to help break down barriers? Do you seek to reach all types of students, or just those who fit some predetermined profile set forth by your church? Are you only accepting of teenagers who have already cleaned up their act? You know- clean language, proper attire, no tattoos or piercings? Too many youth pastors are drawn only to students who are like them. Beware of this. Paul wrote we should be all things to all people so that they might know Jesus. As a youth pastor, I would have loved to have been described with the same words Grace the school secretary used to describe Ferris Bueller: "The sportos, the motorheads, geeks, sluts, bloods, wastoids, dweebies, ****heads - they all adore him. They think he's a righteous dude." Jesus is for everyone... 
  8. Is spontaneous a dirty word in your ministry?   Some of the very best lessons, worship times and fellowship events I was ever a part of were NOT the things I had planned for that day. I heard from a youth pastor a while back who almost had a stroke when his guest speaker didn't show up. Come on, people! We are supposed to be the "Masters of Disaster," the queens and kings of improvisation! Sometimes I think in our desire to appear "professional" we have cut out a big part of the heart of youth ministry- spontaneity. Be willing to go with the flow. Be willing to endure a little holy chaos. In fact, be willing to CREATE a little holy chaos! And above all, be willing to let the Holy Spirit take you places you didn't plan to go. Tameness, sameness and lameness will always be the enemy when it comes to reaching the hearts of students, because none of those words describe Jesus.
I could go on, but I will stop now. This feels like a sermon, and I am sure most of you quit reading back around #3! It is my prayer that these words may rattle a few cages. I gave much of my life to doing student ministry, and I believe with all of my heart that it still has a huge role to play in the future of the church- if we go about it with passion and creativity. Let me know what you think!

Because of Jesus,


  1. Good stuff, CJ! Sticking my toes back in the water after the first of the year and it's great to get some of these reminders. You're always a blessing, my friend. (Tarhole fandom aside) :P

    1. Glad to inspire, Drew. And Tarholes? Ouch...

  2. Anonymous11/13/2014

    Great stuff as always, Carl! I struggle with #2 and #4 personally; my senior pastor is horrified at the possibilities of #3, #6 and #8. A great list for some ministry should searching that would make an awesome seminar at any of the 2000 youth ministry conferences next year!!! ~Chris Cooper

    1. Thanks Chris! And is just me, or does REAL youth ministry terrify most senior pastors and church boards? :)


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