I think I’m doing youth ministry all wrong

Service vs ServantDespite knowing otherwise in my head, the way I actually lead my church’s youth ministry is mostly from the mentality that our youth ministry is a program or service we provide to families. It’s almost like I’m unintentionally feeding the consumeristic perspective by sometimes using language like, “We offer small groups…” and, “We provide connection points for your teens…” Since when was ministry ever supposed to be about what a paid staff member and a couple adult volunteers are expected to spiritually provide for teens and families?

Youth ministry should not be about how the church can serve the youth or even how we can provide programs that help them grow spiritually. That’s the parents’ responsibility. In fact, I don’t think youth ministry should even accidentally enable parents to outsource their God-given responsibility to us, something I know my ministry is all too guilty of. Support parents, yes, but enable them to outsource? No.

The Greek word for “church” is literally “ekklesia,” a community of believers who are “called out” to serve and edify each other and the people around them.

Instead of fueling the consumerism mentality of what a church “offers” or “provides” and which church in town does it best, youth ministry should probably be about helping teens use their God-given gifts to serve the body. It should teach families that youth ministry isn’t just about what the church does for them, but that they are “called out” to think beyond themselves with a servant’s heart. I bet teen church drop-outs would decrease if they actually served as a valuable and essential part of the local body of Christ.

Youth ministry should be less about us doing youth ministry and more about youth doing ministry.

I said that two years ago, but it’s just now starting to really sink in for me. It demands a pretty radical shift, one that I’m not sure I have the vision nor the guts to really carry out yet.

Our programs program people to consume from the church, and I’m programmed to just run programs.

Please note, I’m not necessarily anti-program — I just think that too often we end up serving the programs instead of using them as very dispensable tools to equip teen believers to serve the body of Christ.

What do you think? Should youth ministry be more about providing a service or creating servants? What if focusing on the latter causes all those with the consumeristic mentality of the former to leave the group? Is it okay for your youth group to shrink numerically if it’s for the right reasons?

Posted on February 2, 2010

  • Steve

    Event though I do not always do this, I have always tried to keep the mindset that youth ministry (like all ministries) are built on relationships. It is up to our adults to cultivate relationships with our students and their parents in order to do 2 things: (1) build up the family structure, allowing families to honor God together and (2) be the family for the students who do not come from Godly parents (mentoring). All the other stuff is created to cultivate those relationships. Our goal is to love students and families as Christ has loved us. We just happen to use programs as one tool.

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  • Good points Tim. As Andy Stanley writes in "7 Practices of Effective Ministry", we have to think steps not programs. Where do we ultimately want to take youth in our years with them and then how do we get them there? We always have to be asking the question of "why". Why does this program exist and why am I do that? If we continue to ask the whys and look for the "hows", then I believe that we are developing students who are growing in maturity of their faith rather than providing programs for them to participate in.

  • Tim, great thought.

    Students will mirror us.

    If we – in an effort to be all about teenagers – appear to be all about our programs (which we often do because we must hype the event because attendance can’t drop because we’ll get fired) then our students will be about our programs.

    If we are all about worship music, the students will be too.

    If we’re all about being on a mission together, the students will see that.

    In my long career as a youth minister – 1.5 years – I’ve grown to believe that the things that are lacking in my group are the same things that are lacking in me.

    • While I understand what you're saying and agree that modeling Christianity is critically important, I'm not sure I agree that students mirror us. If that were the case, then most of the kids in my youth group would be a lot more Christ-centered and would be digging into their Bibles much more at home.

  • i love this. this is what church staff (and youth pastors) need to hear. you feel it. And you're right the point isn't the programs, but programs are the channel in which you get the most feedback regarding how you are doing in ministry. And I totally get your feelings here. I think this post will resonate with a lot of people.

    I would only add that our intentions as individuals to change this consumer mentality alone as staff only leads to more consumerism and entitlement in the people we try to reach.

    The more we try to solve the problem, (that is someone else's to solve) we further cultivate the sense or culture of entitlement that defines consumerism in our church.

    Tom – I'd suggest that Andy's sorta right. sorta. For the same reasons I stated before. Clarity for Why in the staff or leaders doesn't eliminate consumerism. It bolsters it.

    In the language I use in my book (. Church A – top down, command control
    Church B – grassroots, shared responsibility for spiritual formation.)

    Most churches want to make Church B by the means of Church A.

    Perhaps a better question than Andy's is: "In what ways am I contributing to this consumer mentality?" Hint: it happens every time we interact with people in our congregation, not just in the programs. (seriously. every interaction)

  • Kendra

    Recently, I got a little slap on the wrist because I wrote an article about how our first purpose is to worship God. And pointed out that our second purpose is missions. I think the opposition to this came from 1. My senior pastor not understanding that I teach worship is a 7-day a week thing, not a Sunday morning thing. And, 2, her not understanding youth culture today. I agree we should teach our kids to serve, but I always emphasize that as Christians we serve to lead others to Christ, not to make ourselves feel good, because it’s a cultural expections (to do 120 hrs or comm service a year), or because it’s our civic duty. It’s difficult to lead others to Christ unless we are their ourselves.

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  • Methods (programs) are just the scaffolding that helps us build onto the foundation of the message. Great post Tim! Check out the article I wrote last year –

  • Serving as a FT youth minister for 5 years and trying to make a shift 3 years ago to what you described is extremely difficult. Many people are ok with the current format of consuming, but something needs to shift within most churches and youth ministry formats. Thanks for this post and conversation.

  • I don't think it's about doing youth ministry or about youth doing ministry. I think it is about creating a community that does life together–which would include attempting to live out the teachings of Jesus, which I guess could be called ministry. To encourage youth to find a place of ministry in the church is still internally focused. To me, the point of youth ministry is facilitating a faith community that encourages youth to follow the way of Jesus in concrete ways both in the community and in their life in the larger world in which they live (family, school, job, friends, etc).

    • Encouraging students to find a place of ministry in the church is only internally focused if the church is internally focused. If the church is focused on it's community, then serving the church would mean the teens are helping the body serve the community, which is external focus.

      I disagree that the point of youth ministry is to create a faith community that encourages youth to follow Jesus in real life. I think that community should be the home. Youth ministry is here to support the home community, not become a surrogate for it.

  • Richard Jones

    Sorry about the two posts.

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  • Great post. ONe that I am struggling with in my own youth ministry right now. I have to wonder though, where does evangelism fit in here? Last summer we had an MTO (Ministry to Others) night where we cleaned the church, stacked wood for the elderly and stained the deck of a disabled man in town. About 4 new people came out that night and were obviously confused as to why their friends would invite them to such a "lame" night.

    • I think evangelism fits in perfectly: the teens serve the body of Christ and together the body serves the community, in an idealistic world, of course. I get what you're saying, though. You're thinking that we're encouraging the teens to focus inward on the church body, which is true in one sense, but in a bigger way I think we're pushing them to think outside themselves, which includes both the church and those who are not connected to it.

  • great post. I don't think it's ant-program to say that programs don't create faith. God has always worked in relationships and the great commission calls us to discipleship not events. Programs can sometimes serve those goals but like you said we often serve the programs instead of their purpose. Your blog is in step with another blog I've been reading:

  • Troy YOung

    Tim, I have been battling with the same issue for the past 6-9 months. Through my prayer life and Bible study, God has directed me in this direction. I have read that we can look at the church as one body with many parts (1 Corinthians 12:20). I believe we need to look at student ministry as a smaller part of the main body, all working together to fulfill one purpose, and that is to Glorify Jesus Christ.
    A lot of times, and I am very guilty of this, we try to make ourselves look and act different from the main body. I think this is very wrong, which I think is one of the cause of the drop out in graduates today. We give our selves different names, with a different logo, with a different purpose statement, and a different teaching method from the main body.
    This is where I am starting to change. I am making the student ministry look close to the main body as possible. We use the same logo, we use the same name, other than adding student ministry, we teach the Word the same (verse-by-verse), and our purpose statement goes like this, "Our purpose is to fulfill the purpose of the main body of the church." That is it.
    I know, some of you are saying, "No way I will lose everyone if I do that." Well guess what, we are growing, no only numerically, but spiritually. We are more solid spiritual as a student ministry than I have been a part of in the past twelve years. Our graduating seniors from last year, have committed to colleges close to the church so they can continue to serve. That is a first for us.
    I am like Tim, I have done YM wrong for to many years, and I am still learning.

    • Yeah, there's a lot of danger in creating a mini youth-church inside the larger church body. We have our own youth pastor with our own youth service in our own youth room/building with the youth band and youth sermon and, although it may look good from the outside, it's unintentionally communicating something very wrong about the body of Christ. And then we wonder why students don't connect to "big church" after high school — it's partially because they've never been a part of it from the beginning!

  • I took over the youth group back almost a year ago. At first it was kind of weird because I use to be in the youth with these very same kids, and now I am the one teaching and helping them while learning some of the same stuff.
    One of the first things that God showed me to do was to have a name to come behind, there really wasn't one. Back in the day we had event names, but nothing we could identify as. So I came up with Redemption Youth Ministries. Whether this specific name was what the Lord wanted or not is up to discussion. I got so excited about it I just said lets go with it, but He is definitely using it to identify the group and what the "mission" of the group shall be. He wants us to be ministry oriented, not program oriented. I'm not saying that these programs don't have their time or place, but they aren't our focus. Whether it be serving for the food pantry, hanging door hangers, or ministering to the people of the county…serving is our focus.
    One thing that I am so grateful for right now is the literally vivid images He puts in my mind while I am praying about the youth. They give me so much hope for the youth's future. It is absolutely incredible when God just throws stuff at you right at the moment you need it the most…right when you are about to reach your point of frustration.
    I was listening to this lecture and the man said that you shouldn't want for the youth to be saved alone, you should want them to serve.

  • Hey Tim,
    Love the post. We have found an organisation, Soul Survivor, that has helped us see this vision become a reality with our youth group. And hit both of your comments in bold.

    Would recommend checking them out, the New Zealand site is, i believe there is a US site as well. Don’t know about Canada.

    The ethos has started to filter into our group. They have come up with suggestions on how we can help out in our community more. We had a couple of young people last year come up with an idea to give food parcels to our emergency services people as a thank you. It was amazing. They did it, i just facilitated. We have also got involved with groups trying to replant areas in native forests, done 150 meals for frozen food ministries in multiple churches. It’s been great.

  • Wow. I sense you are having some philosophy of youth ministry indigestion. Great stuff!

    I gathered from your post that you are wanting to move into a direction from "come and see" and move into "go and tell" mentality of youth ministry. So your youth ministry may want to reconfigure/reconsider to a missional mind-set.

    These attractional youth ministries love allowing students to "come and see" the message of Jesus in their perfectly manicured youth room by presenting culturally relevant stuff (X-Boxes, Flat Screen TVs, sick sound systems). These type of youth ministry are being missional in some way, but it is not enough to be a Biblically and missionally obedient youth ministry.

  • Al C

    As a parent who is sometimes involved in youth ministry, sometimes not, but always ministering to my own kids, I appreciate having other youth leaders to help in mentoring my own kids. So for me, I see it as "partnering" rather than "outsourcing". The real issue is parents who aren't involved in ministering to their own kids. While I pray that more parents would get with it, I'm just glad their kids show up. And I'm glad our ministry is investing more time each year in parent training and support.

    • Partnering is my goal as well. As much as would love for our youth program to not be an "outsourcing" model for families, the reality is parents are going to use our program it for whatever they want. Therefore, it is all the more important that we stay focused on our ultimate vision and where it lies within our Church.

      We just did our first Parent/Teen time together a few weeks ago and it was a great connect with them. We are probably going to do more throughout the year.

  • Corey

    I love the ideas in this post. In fact I think I totally agree. I only have one question.
    What about the teens whose parents don't mentor, encourage, love and teach them? Honestly, the MAJORITY of the teens in our youth group have parents who probably never talk to their kids about God, or anything else for that matter. Our church has offered training for parents, and is willing to teach parents about how to connect with their children, but I see very little evidence of this happening. If the kids are not getting any spiritual guidance at home, and definitely not at school, where should they get it?

    If the parents of our teens loved God and sought after him with all their hearts, we would see a huge difference in teenage behavior and mindset. While I agree that teens don't just mindlessly mirror adults (at church or at home), they are influenced by them. What I see are a group of teens who are growing up to be just like their parents… and it isn't always good.

    • Yeah, that's part of my tension, too. For some kids, if they don't get it at church, they don't get it anywhere at all.

      What I'm thinking, though, is not that we eliminate spiritual training at church but rather we somehow cultivate a value for both the ministry and parents that it's ultimately their responsibility and we're here to support that.

      Another option could be to have the parents continue to be the spiritual leaders at church and allow the kids who don't have Christian parents to sit in with a family that does. Essentially, all the parents become "youth leaders," ya know? *shrugs*

  • I'm late to the conversation, but here are some thoughts:

    We minister in a cultural context (I am speaking for those of us in the United States, but it applies in other places as well) that is highly consumeristic and for which we have a distaste but from which we cannot separate ourselves. Couple that with our task as missionaries (I see myself as a missionary within our culture, perhaps because I live in Utah where a very small percentage of people attend a Christian church–however, I think this applies to all of the United States), which is to make disciples, baptize, and teach (Matthew 28:16-20). Suddenly, we are faced with ministering to a culture that we know has sinful elements (such as self-centered consumerism) but that we want to faithfully reach with the Gospel. This is no small task, and I am thankful that folks like Tim are taking a step back, picking the issue apart, praying, and wondering aloud how to be faithful in our calling. Great stuff.

  • You're right bro! This is like my post. Good word for sure man! Let's make it happen! :D

  • Wen

    about to break from a youth group because of lack of discipline, not just with students but with the leaders…I've struggled for months and tried to pray, study and make change but things are affecting my own youth now so I have to respond now! I believe that if we would stop talking so much and start asking them to present lessons, asking them to tell us WHAT they need to learn, where they feel things need change and less time choosing for them…they'd grow. They'd grow in understanding of the word, in love for God and in respect for one another. Too much 'teaching' is going to waste. Half the time they are talking over the discussion or changing the topic to confuse things. I'm feeling small and useless and though I love these kids, I have no control. Prayers are appreciated…

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