The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 1


Yesterday, I mentioned an article in USA Today that lamented the loss of teenagers in church youth ministries, especially in large churches that run on an attractional model. Kids today are too savvy to fall fall for simple marketing techniques, so the number of ex-youth-group-members is growing.

What then does this mean for youth ministry?

Many moons ago, all the way back in 1991, I wrote a paper in my youth ministry class at Wheaton that shook up the profs. They later asked me to present the paper to the class. That paper questioned preconceptions, showed why the existing youth ministry model was inherently broken, and proposed solutions for fixing the problems. What follows will recreate some of that paper.

If you’ve been around an American church, you’ve probably seen an average youth group. Much of what goes on in these groups is an outgrowth of ideas and activities fostered by Youth for Christ in the 1940s, the late Mike Yaconelli of Youth Specialties in the 1970s,  and YS’s various publishing offshoots and imitators.

While it may be fashionable to point to these sources  as the promoters of the failed attractional youth ministry model, the real problem is that the entire basis for youth ministry rests atop a series of assumptions that once held true in 1840s England but has no connection to the reality of the modern American household.

Youth ministry, as we understand it, didn’t always exist. In most Christian homes, children were taught the faith by their parents and relatives, with some older children sent away to a university or boarding school for advanced theological studies.

The industrial revolution changed all that.

In a case of “you can’t keep Johnny down on the farm,” young men from the countryside in England (and later America) were attracted to factories and mills in the early years of the 19th century. They rushed to the cities, caught up in the allure and the “we can accomplish anything through science and industry” mantra that made a pastoral life seem like a dead end.

Urban Christians watched in dismay as the conditions for the train wreck formed. The first generation of youth to abandon their parents’ lifestyle for one that never existed before had no guidance away from the family farm. Young men far from home faced an enormous number of previously nonexistent problems and a host of all-too-familiar temptations. The YMCAThe term juvenile delinquent entered the dictionary.  Something had to be done.

Enter the Young Men’s Christian Association, better known by its initials, the YMCA.

Founded in 1844, the YMCA was one of the very first concerted youth ministries.  It emphasized Bible study and wholesome physical activity as a cure for the problems facing young male factory workers who had only known agrarian life. The YMCA workers and volunteers took the place of parents miles away, guiding their charges to a more heavenly course. Famous Christians of the day wholeheartedly trumpeted this outreach, with noted American evangelist Dwight Moody as one of its leading voices. The YMCA met a genuine need and did a good work.

Over the decades, what started with the YMCA continued to evolve. That  model eventually drifted into suburban churches to form the typical youth ministry we see today.

But does anyone see the problems?

Teens in 2010 aren’t faced with the farm/factory choice. They’re not leaving home at 14 to work and board in mills 100 miles away. The entire basis on which youth ministry rests no longer exists.

Sadly, you won’t find too many Christians today asking why we’re still using a model that hasn’t applied in the last 100 years. We have this assumption that any successful church will have a youth group that functions like a separate cult, with its own leader and unique ministry vision. In fact, many church leaders when pressed to show the viability of their church will point to the youth group. They have to. The “quality” of the youth group is often the determining factor for retaining—or losing—visiting families with children.

And its not just an obsolete basis for youth ministry that has contributed to its current, ineffective state. Many more issues make reaching young people a tougher proposition than it’s ever been.

Stay tuned to read about other issues and a model for youth ministry that offers real solutions that benefit the youth, their families, and the church as a whole.

Other posts in this series:

11 thoughts on “The Youth Ministry Problem, Part 1

  1. Dan,
    Thanks for tackling this issue. Our attractional youth ministries are ONE of the many contributing factors to an entertainment-based church culture. We have gotten to the point in this country where we think we have to provide comfort to the congregation and programs for the children and youth. Sure, we need to provide counseling and care for church members, but that should largely be done through relationships, not programs. There are certain things that we can provide, but ultimately, if father’s and mother’s aren’t equipped to disciple their own children, then we have failed them. If a church hires a youth minister, that person’s goal should be to help parent’s be better parents for their teens. That probably means someone who has had teens themselves, rather than a 19 year old guy who loves camping and food fights. This is a huge blindspot in the American church so I’m hoping you will shine some light on the problem! Let me know how I can help!

  2. Jenny

    My husband was once told by his supervisor that he likes to “stir the pot.” He likes to bring up stuff that has settled out of sight, so it can be examined. He considers it a spiritual gift. I think you have that, too. And I’m not complaining.

    As an “assistant” to someone “on the front lines,” I have known for a long time the frustration of many youth workers to reach the lost and yet satisfy the church in which they work by staying within the parameters of acceptable ministry operations. While Gary is not as limited by these as some others, he still feels like he’s swimming upstream in a lot of ways.

    Lately, I have become aware of this problem from the other end: as my daughter, on fire for Christ, seeks fellowship with like-minded peers, she in continually disappointed in the leaders and structure of the groups she visits. She’s a pretty girl and outgoing, so the first meeting is usually a lot of fun, but as she gets to know the other kids and the leaders, she becomes disenchanted. Yes, they’re social. But no, they aren’t interested in Christ. And while the leaders MIGHT be, they seem to be swimming up the cultural stream with their charges, and only rarely communicate that interest. And this leaves the question of discipleship entirely out of the equation.

    As a home schooler, I have long operated on the assumption that it is our job as parents to teach our children what we want them to know. We have, by and large, not depended on any other teacher anywhere, school or Sunday School, to deliver knowledge, and that includes knowing God. Consequently, the conversations I have with my children after youth group and Bible study are almost always discussions on how they can lead their peers in knowing God, living as a Christian in a secular world, how to respond in love to behavior that is obviously hateful. One of my children asked me recently, “Is it wrong of me to really like [the kids from XYZ youth group]?” Not sure what she was really asking, I pushed back, “Why shouldn’t you?” “Because,” she told me, “they really aren’t nice people.” The ensuing discussion helped her realize her part of “in the world but not OF the world,” and helped crystalize in my own mind some of these ideas about the failure of youth ministry in so many churches.

    Is the youth ministry in our own church failing? I sure hope not! My whole family is living it! But I also know youth ministry there is about discipleship and studying the scriptures and living the life. I know it works with my children, but today I have to ask, is that because Gary and I have already evangelized and discipled them at home?

    Once again you have given me something to think and pray about.

  3. Diane R

    Don’t even get me started on this one…LOL. When I was growing up, parents taught the high schoolers, not 25-year old “youth pastors” working with 18 year-olds (including 15-18-year old girls). Not sure this is a great idea. While churches could have a youth pastor to head the department, why aren’t we recruiting other age groups than the under-35 crowd to work with them. In the church I just left, college girls are working with the junior high headed by with the youth intern who is only slightly older. Not a good situation IMO.

  4. The church I grew up in and still attend (, even while doing cross-cultural ministry with a local Spanish-language church, saw the problems of kids dropping out after they graduate HS, and decided to do something about it. They totally restructured youth ministry. They still have two associate pastors on staff for student ministry, who do the preaching and event planning, but they also have “class pastors.” The class pastors are a man and a woman (usually a married couple but not always, because sometimes one spouse is committed in another area of ministry that precludes being in youth service on Wednesdays). These class pastors start working with a graduating class (class of 2016, etc.) when the students enter middle school in 6th grade, and stay with them through their freshman year of college (8 years total). They serve as mentors, counselors, activity leaders, and Sunday School teachers for that class throughout their secondary ed years. They become a part of the students’ lives (especially needed for those students who come whose parents aren’t believers).

    In 9th grade, the students go through an intense course called “The Passage,” which covers not just what we believe as a church, but why (they memorizse Scripture, read several books of the Bible, and work through Lee Strobel’s “The Case for Christ”). By the time they graduate this class (there is an exam at the end), their faith is no longer just their parents’ faith or their church’s faith, but they come to own it themselves.

  5. Great thoughts. Simple solution. Give youth higher expectations for their faith. Help them do THEIR ministry. Connect them with mature adults who don’t crave the spotlight or want to plan a program. It’s easier than it sounds and nothing like the complicated system we call youth ministry, which is a failed experiment at best.

    Thanks for the post.

  6. Bill M

    I agree completely with Timothy Eldred’s comment. Why are we even still discussing youth ministry? Well, aside from the fact that there is an entire industry built up around it. . .

    Check out tne NYT article today on 20-somethings. It’s a superb, secular analysis of what has gone wrong on the way to age 30. The youth-group mentality has played right into this sorry state of affairs.

    Let’s scrap the whole thing and pull out the letters to Timothy, Titus and the Thessalonians. Let’s try treating them as adults, expecting adult behavior from them, and counseling and encouraging them when they fail (as they surely will). Let’s develop relationships with them around real things like work, the elderly, poverty, marriage, and so on. In other words, let’s go back to the “ancient paths” from which we never should have departed.

    I am looking forward to the next posts. Thanks for being bold.

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