Pioneering a “better way” for youth ministry

Amazon not to content to stay the same

This is on the front page of right now. Does anyone else feel this way about youth ministry?

I feel like I’ve been wrestling with “figuring out a better way” for a few years now. As much life-change and transformation we see taking place as a result of youth ministries around the country, is this really as good as it gets? Is it possible to serve the Lord, His bride, teenagers, and families in a way that might yield even more fruit? Or even if it’s not about the quantity of fruit, could “a better way” yield higher quality fruit?

We hear stats all the time about teenagers leaving the church after high school, giving up on their faith, and living totally different lives at youth group than they do at school. No matter how much we teach about pre-marital sex, alcohol, and integrity, how much of that really seems to take root on a level deeper than behavior modification?

Or, on a more selfish level for youth workers, not a week goes by where I don’t hear from a youth worker who’s struggling with church politics, difficult parents, or a senior pastor. Many of these youth workers are on the brink of either being fired or quitting. But they don’t quit because quitting feels so wrong, like leaving vocational ministry is akin to disowning our mother. So we stay and accept the financial, emotional, and sometimes spiritual drain as part of the job. To compound the guilty feeling for stepping down, we go to youth ministry conferences where we are encouraged from every angle, “Don’t throw in the towel! It’s worth it!” Is it? Could it be that the structure in which we serve is fundamentally flawed? Or what if we could step “down” to a volunteer role and instantly be ten times more effective in ministry to teens and their families? (Would you do it? Personally, I’m finding that’s there’s plenty of student ministry to be done everywhere. You don’t have to be employed by a church to be in youth ministry.)

To me, the solutions I see being proposed to all these issues and more usually feel like band-aid fixes. Sure, getting parents involved in the youth ministry is a good thing, and having more regular communication with your senior pastor is always beneficial, but are those solutions to the bigger issues? Are they addressing a root problem or the symptoms of something else?

Hear my heart in this: I’m very passionate for serving the Lord, His bride, teenagers, and their families. Just like you, I want to see a transformation take place in youth ministry that allows us all to honor the Lord more faithfully and introduce families to Christ in a way that’s conducive for faith to revolutionize hearts and communities long-term.

I don’t think I have all the answers, but after a few years of thinking, praying, and ongoing conversations with youth workers and other leaders, I feel like there are definitely answers out there for the root problems. As I learn to articulate it more clearly, hopefully we can work through this together and, like Amazon, pioneer youth ministry in a way that reaches beyond “normal” to “figure out a better way.”

Posted on July 25, 2012

  • Youthpastor96

    I think the problem is that we feel parents need to help the youth ministry when the youth ministry should be equipping parents. Think about it. The role of a pastor is to equip the saints for ministry by preaching the Word, shepherding the flock, and doing the work of an evangelist. A youth pastor is an extension of the pastor in helping him in his role specifically with families. We have separated youth from the church and created a flawed solution of programs which then separated youth from their families by taking all their time. Youth Ministers and entire churches need to transform their thinking. The staff of the church are not called to do the ministry of the church, but to equip the church to do ministry. Youth ministries have been doing the Fields of Dreams model too long. Sure the youth come, but then they’re bored once out of youth because there’s not as much excitment, trips, camps, chubby bunnies, etc. Some churches are trying to branch out and do adult youth ministry such as Ed Young Jr driving a tank into the sanctuary to preach on the armor of God. Doing this he altered the gospel and was placing guns in for the sword and tracks for the feet. Preach the gospel and partner with families, don’t water down the gospel and ask families to partner with you. It’ll take baby steps to get there, but I think we can.

    • I certainly think that’s a good direction to take and thinking through what role pastors play in the church is important. However, I’m not sure it addresses the root beliefs we hold about ourselves, the church, and spirituality that create the situation in which youth ministry finds itself.

  • Good stuff Tim. I think there needs to be those who are innovating, pioneering, and doing new things to see where we can take ministry. But we also need those who, for lack of a better phrase, “maintain the status quo.” In other words, there is a place for those ministries who aren’t trailblazing. Just like we have old brick and mortar stores, we need those ministries that provide that consistency. It doesn’t mean they don’t change and try new things, but they don’t have to be trailblazers either.
    Also, you mentioned several “problem areas.” The sad thing is those are not problems of models or level of innovation, they are people problems. I don’t care if you discover tomorrow the perfect ministry solution, you will still have problems because you still have people.
    But it sounds as if I am disagreeing with you when I’m not, I totally agree that there is a better way and we should be constantly searching for it. Like you, I don’t know what it is but I have a sneaking suspicion that it requires us to simply get out of the way of God moving.

    • Good thoughts, man. I think the pioneering thing is more of a personality thing. However, I do get a bit nervous whenever anything or anyone talks about just maintaining, whether that be a ministry, a business, or just someone talking about their skill set. Consistency and predicability are okay, but I feel like just maintaining has some long-term repercussions.

      I agree that these are people problems, but I think what people believe about different things have created a model of ministry that compounds those problems. There isn’t a ministry solution, but I do think there is a “belief solution,” which directly addresses people and the problems that arise from what we believe about certain things. I’ll be sharing more about that a bit later.

  • Personally, I think it’s a grace problem. And I have to point the finger at myself, too. It’s easy forget that the Gospel of Grace should be at the center of everything we do in ministry. If someone were to “follow” my youth ministry around for a month (meaning seeing every interaction, every program, every email, etc.), would the Gospel of Grace really be prominent? I twinge with regret when I think about how the Gospel of Grace hasn’t always been prominent in my leadership.

    The reason why so many solutions seem like just band-aids is that they don’t get to the root of the problem. Either we’re pointing and encouraging people continually toward Jesus who offers us grace, or we don’t. No new program, family-based approach, or event can fix a grace problem.

  • Shawn

    Good thoughts. Although I’m of the mindset is that we, as youth workers, may not be willing to take many risks, even if it’s not the popular way to do it. I’ve met too many youth workers who, when you ask about their ministry, talk about the latest games they play and the latest concerts they took the group to. Maybe the pioneering lies within us to say that we’re not dealing with kids, but disciples. Not disciples in the making, but disciples who deserve as much attention and intentionality as the adults. In my current position, I took over for a guy who loved games and that was the group was known for. Once we (me and my team) made the change to more intentional discipleship, we’ve seen students blossom into young people who are seeking Christ passionately! Even students in the community want to come to things like Bible study because they’re seeing change in lives and not just fun, bells, and whistles. I feel that too many in youth ministry are always looking for the next fad/books/processes that promise to deliver healthy ministries. And then find themselves caving to parents who are upset because their kids “aren’t having fun at church” any more. I know that this isn’t every church…but it seems that many that I’ve been running into have the fun mentality. At least in the northeast…this is common.

  • I always love this conversation. Completely agree, Youth Ministry needs to be advanced. And it seems, from my opinion, that when you talk about Advancing Youth Ministry you get base-level presumptions; those that think it needs to be advanced by limiting Youth Ministry (more part time or non-paid, getting out of the way of parents/church doing ministry, etc. etc.) and the opposite, those who thinks its advanced by Youth Pastors doing more, but better. Not trying to say one is right and wrong just the easiest way to describe it.

    I greatly appreciate Bill’s comments below, the problem areas arent the problems but the people, far too true. I do disagree with the sentiment that we need some status quo churches though. We need stability, and that may be more of what he was trying to say, but anytime I hear status quo I want to kill it.

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  • Kurt Johnston

    Is current model flawed? Yes, yes, yes!
    Will a new, “better way” be flawed? Yes, yes, yes!

    Perhaps the better/best way is whatever works better/best in your context….instead of the “one size fits all” assumption that we seem to have bought into over the years, and seem to be searching for. We just seem to want a new “better way” of one size fits all.

    Being a volunteer work best for you? DO IT.
    Being bi-vocational work best for you? DO IT.
    being a full time youth pastor? DO IT!
    Big church, small church, para-church? DO IT!

    I’m not smarter, sharper more successful because I’m full time, nor is somebody else more noble because they gave it up to be a volunteer….we are just pursuing this wonderful, messy, captivating thing called youth ministry differently, in a way that seems to work for us.

    Diversity in theology and methodology is a really, really good thing. I hope our little youth ministry tribe can continue to celebrate our various expressions.

    • Thanks for the comment, Kurt. I think where I’m going with this is not necessarily addressing the model problem because I think models flow from something deeper. I think we have a “belief problem” in that what we believe determines our models, our goals, and even our theology. I’m hoping to help us identify some belief problems I’ve had and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one.

      Appreciate what you guys do, Kurt, and all you contribute to the kingdom!

      • As Kurt said we need to do what works, so don’t we have to figure out what it means for youth ministry to be working? Isn’t that the thing that could be universal whereas the methods can be different? So what does it mean for a youth ministry to be “working”? I think that is where we have to start.

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