Issues in Youth Ministry: Paul Martin

Issues in Youth Ministry: Paul MartinWhat do you see as some of the main issues youth ministry is struggling with today?

Defining Success.

I think one of the biggest problems in youth ministry is how we define success and failure. Two statistics illustrate this point. The first is that the average tenure of a youth worker is about 18 months. The second is that the average youth ministry looses 60 to 95 percent of the youth they have ministered to from the church when they graduate high school. These two statistics show the problem with how we sometimes measure success.

The most common measure I hear for success is the number of bodies in the ministry. If that is the measure for success, then the goal is to make the youth ministry with as much consumer appeal as possible. I don’t know where this started, but it is a great quote – I first heard it from Grant English. It goes like this, “What you save someone with is what you save them to.” If we save teens to games and social comfort, then that is what we save them to.

The second statistic says a lot about the realization of success. There is a German word called spannungsbogen that is a very precise term not recognized in any other language as far as I know. Spannungsbogen describes the time between realizing the desire for a thing and actually getting it. Most youth ministry job descriptions are a mile long and are very idealistic. Yet, given enough time, a youth minister can achieve the job of youth ministry. The one sure way to keep that from happening is to pull support from a ministry at the first sign of trouble. We are not very good in the church in waiting for success, and we are even worse at allowing failure which is usually necessary in achieving anything.

What do you see as some of the main issues youth ministry is responding to effectively?

I think the hope of youth ministry is true discipleship. I say true because I don’t think discipleship is Bible study or small group accountability. The youth ministries that I see having a long term impact in the lives of teens are the ones that do discipleship well. They have people who are mature in their faith who take the time to be deliberate in investing in teens and helping them develop their faith into something that will guide them for the rest of their lives. By faith, I mean trusting God when life doesn’t look like we think it should. There are ministries out there doing this and people’s lives are being changed in droves because it is very attractive to people who have know purpose.

In what ways does youth ministry need to change?

The biggest area I see where youth ministry needs to change is where I think the church needs to change. That area is emotional health. We spend a lot of time teaching the Bible as if correct knowledge means proper living. When I was growing up in youth ministry, people said the new computer speak of the day – garbage in=garbage out. With a perfect processor, then yes that is true. What I see in myself and other leaders, though, is that sometimes “garbage in” becomes “productive out” or “productive in” sometimes becomes “garbage out.” Without accounting for our hearts, then we can’t understand our drive in life and our glory to God. Without learning how to effectively deal with our own hearts we can’t deal with others. Yet there is little to know training in our seminaries in how to deal with anger, hurt, abuse, joy, or conflict and defensiveness. Our churches suffer because we are generally emotionally crippled or unresponsive. Even worse, leaders in the church are often driven by their own emotional needs rather than the needs of the people in their ministry.

Paul Martin is a youth ministry blogger at

[Read previous authors and posts in this series, “Issues in youth ministry.”]

Posted on December 1, 2006

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