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My toughest challenges in youth ministry

Topic / Leadership

My toughest challenges in youth ministryIt’s not a complete list, but here are some biggies for me.

1. The pressure is to perform — have big events, lots of kids involved in activities and bible studies. I have trained sr. pastors about how to work with their youth leaders and I know they often feel the same pressure to perform. Sometimes the pressure is self-inflicted, sometimes not. Youth pastors feel it, too, and unfortunately it’s the teens who feel the results of it.

2. The adults and parents who pay my salary are looking for a youth ministry like the one they experienced when they were in grade school, even though that was 20-40 years ago. Today youth ministry sometimes means doing very “non-performance” based things, like not coming into the office in order to spend the day with a kid instead, or taking kids deep into the Word as the group shrinks because it’s not solely entertainment anymore. I’m not sure why people think that having kids involved in programs somehow equals spiritual growth. To me, that means we’re just keeping kids busy.

3. Perhaps my biggest frustration is that parents are often not taking ownership of their kids’ spiritual growth. They outsource it to the “experts” (i.e. church youth leaders) expecting us to make their kids grow. I’m not sure how that can be possible, though, when parents are just as spiritually apathetic as their kids, except they hide it at church on Sunday mornings. Their kids, on the other hand, don’t feel as much of a need to put on a church show each week. Then, when they graduate and are finally on their own, they decide that church and a relationship with God isn’t worth their time because they never saw it at home. I feel like I’m fighting an uphill battle that cannot be won until parents own up to their own responsibility to grow and model Christ for their kids, and to initiate spiritual conversations with them.

Thankfully, my sr. pastor gives me the freedom to fail, to think outside the box, and to not follow the performance-driven ministry model that leads me to nothing but frustration. Actually, based on my suggestion, all of the pastors in my church meet every week to pray and help me think through some of these youth ministry issues. We went through “Ministry Mutiny” by Greg Stier together, now we’re reading “Youth Ministry 3.0” by Mark Oestreicher, and next we’ll do “Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors” by Mark Riddle. The best part about it is that the entire church is starting to think along the same lines about how we do (and don’t) do ministry. Essentially, it’s not as much about doing something as much as it is about becoming something: a community of believers.

Of course there are many more challenges than what I mentioned above, some of which are discussed in more detail in an old 2006 guest blog series called, “Issues in Youth Ministry: What needs to change?”

What are your toughest challenges in youth ministry?


Posted on May 4, 2009

  • I agree so much with #2. Glad to see other people struggle with the same frustrations…

  • PJ.

    Dude, I totally feel #1 right now. Exected to teach 3-4 times a week AND keep up with "other duties as assigned".

  • I agree agree with #3. I'm constantly telling our parents that our ministry is a tool to help them, not take their place. Although on the flip side, we get many students not from a Christian home. Then I think it is our responsibility to be the ones to help them 'grow' them spiritually…which is really done by the Holy Spirit.

  • My biggest challenge – "competing" with other events in kids' lives. Almost every activity a young person is involved with (sports, music, drama, etc.) comes with a punishment structure if they don't attend. I'm obviously not going to kick a teen out of our group because they don't come regularly…and yet, it's frustrating for everyone when kids' participation is sporadic at best. How do we affirm the ways in which young people are using their God-given gifts through school & community activities AND still stake our claim that involvement in Christian community is important?

  • I would add a challenge- athletics & schedules. They eat time away from our students schedules so they can't be involved in YM stuff, but it also takes priority over the church for some reason…

    And another challenge is just apathy. Students who grow farther from the church because they just don't care. I see this especially in older high school students. It's like youth ministry isn't cool enough for them anymore. They just want to grow up into college before its their time.

    • Definitely agree about the apathy.

      And again, about athletics and schedules, check my comment above to Erik.

  • I am definitely tracking with this post. At 35 years old I've gone back into youth ministry after 8 years as a senior pastor (I sincerely felt pulled by God back into YM). I don't have time or energy for a plethora of programs. I do have time and energy for a weekly youth service, a trip to the HS/MS for lunch, and a few one-on-one or small group discipleship/relationship opportunities. That's it.

  • Wes Olsen

    What do you think the harm would be in being a church with the youth? Not a youth outreach, group or hang out, but like a church service but with youth. I am having a hard time wanting to make things "youthy" so the kids will feel that this all cool, but lead to be missional to this age group in a church context.
    This may have been discussed before, but just wondering. I read a lot too, and I always notice that they point to the same thing….the Bible.

    • Wes, I actually feel this "mini-church" approach to youth ministry is really unhealthy and almost dangerous. We have our own youth pastors with our own youth worship bands, youth services, youth sermons, youth programs, and even our own youth buildings/rooms and then we wonder why kids have a difficult time integrating into the church after high school. Of course, there's a lot more to it than that. Check out the recording of this LIVE YM Talk conversation on problems with youth group as a mini-church.

  • Wes

    I get a 404 code to this link.
    I could comment more after I watch the video. I am pretty new to youth ministry, I am part time, but spend full time on it, and I am still learning what this should look like, but following Jesus and what He wants.

  • Wes

    Found it in the archives of August 08.

  • I have also read Youth ministry 3.0 and Ministry Mutiny. I wasn't a big fan of 3.0, but definitely tracked with Ministry Mutiny. It has sparked a lot of thoughts about why we do what we do, and I am in constant reponse to the "whisper" of God. I agree with you Tim about the mini-church set up, but i also believe that we need to have a place that is relevant to the teens to learn. One way we make sure that the teens see themselves as a part of the bigger church while being fed at their level is giving them oppurtunity to serve in the main church. The hope is that the connection to that now will encourage the connection to remain when they graduate and move on. The toughest thing for me is number 2. Not just for the parents, but a senior pastor who still believes in the "fun is key" mindset. He is a great guy with great vision for the church, I just do not know if he fully grasps the amount of change that has happened in youth ministry since he was doing it 15 years ago. I will probably ask him to read MInistry Mutiny. I will be ordering Inside the Mind of Youth Pastors next.

    • It's good to read books you don't agree with. Those probably make me sharper about what I DO believe than books I agree with.

      Yeah, a relevant place isn't a bad thing, but why can't the entire church be that place? Why do we have to create a mini-church for it to be "relevant?"

  • No we do not need a mini-church to be relevant. We do need an environment that reaches the age we are trying to reach. I will go to the extreme by saying that there is no reason for a Kindergartner to be in the main service. I know that is a little far fetched, but if you are saying there is no need to have an environment dedicated to the age we are currently serving, then where does that cut off happen? Society at large has already done a good job of pushing teens aside and telling them they aren't needed until they can enter the work force. The church has done the same. We need to give them the opportunity to meet God where they are first, then show them that there is more to it then just coming on Sunday or Wednesday night, or whenever your youth group might meet. I have a good 30 percent of teens coming here that do not have parents that come in the morning. I would have very little ability to encourage them to come to a Sunday morning service that doesn't always meet their spiritual needs since the message is geared to an audience from age 20 to 50.

  • So again my question is: What would your recommendation be for the cut off age? How are you handling this in your church?

    • I guess I don\\'t see why church services can\\'t be geared toward kindergarten also. Maybe our approach to Sunday services would need to change a bit, but I think they need to anyway. I think there\\'s wisdom in the village approach to raising children and teens and think that integrating all ages into the worship service is a key element in helping them stay connected to a body of believers even after they graduate.

      • I agree with Tim, here. For two nearly thousand years churches were all inclusive and not age graded. It wasn't until the Sunday School movement of the 19th century that we got so compartmentalized. Later on, it was Kid's church or even separate worship services for youth, which I've heard about. I'm not saying these things don't have their place, but what if our services did have something for everyone? Has our society become so needy that we have to have everything "your way, right away", even at church? And what about the value of families being able to discuss the worship service after the fact rather than not knowing what happened when your children were in the other building at "church for kids"?

  • Once again, I ask: How are you handling this in your church? Give me some feedback to show how it works. Honestly I do not think the society we live in can do such a thing given the state of the family as it is. You are saying that a new family that has never been exposed to a worship service should be able to come in and expect to have the whole family reached in one service? Given our current state of what family is anymore, I do not see that working too well. How do you tell the single mother with 3 children who is looking to come to be connected to God that she can as soon as she gets her kids under control enough to listen to a message? How do you get an abusive, or addictive father to see that he is supposed to be the spiritual leader in the home when he hasn't even figured out how to function as a dad yet? There's much more I would like to discuss with you about this, but I do not think this is the place to do this. You can reach me by email if you'd like. It's jason@crosscreekonline.com.

  • Joaquin Loustaunau

    My biggest challenge is lack of time; I have a full time secular job, and volunteer as our church youth pastor. also, we always struggle with transportation needs. We are expierencing growing pains, and I guess I should count it all joy!

  • I agree that #1 is a challenge for me…more from myself than anyone else. I have always resented the stereotype that youth workers are overgrown kids who are irresponsible, lazy, apathetic, etc. and so I put a lot of pressure on myself to refute that idea. Also, I struggle with spending time with kids outside the office. Our church's sexual ethics policy really prevents a lot of one-on-one time with students and so I have to be very diplomatic in the way I hang out with kids outside of our meetings. I honestly haven't been good about it because it's so much easier to sit behind my desk and plan events (not all of which are bad) than finding ways to work the system to "hang out" with Timmy or Sarah. But my biggest challenge is that church is still just a social event for my kids. When they know a certain person isn't going to be there, they won't come or they'll go wherever that person goes. We have one of the smaller youth programs in town because our magnet kids are not the football captain/homecoming queen types that draw in lots of other kids.

  • Good points, some of my challenges are the parents not caring about the youth, they just send them to us for a babysitter. Being not paid that is another big thing, myself and the others all are not paid (4 of us all together) get burnt out easily because of the drama that the youth keep stirred up. But, God is good so He helps us through.

  • Timothy Temako

    One of my biggest challenge is helping youths to balance the type of life they live in campus and the biblical teachings or ways of life.

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