The Failure of Youth Ministry

Today I spoke at the induction of Ryan Harding, the youth pastor at Quinns Baptist Church. Over the week I spent a fair bit of time reflecting on what I would say to a youth pastor, as one who has been there done that and who has spent a lot of time around youth pastors.

I am convinced the challenge of youth ministry to keep ‘making disciples’ as the main game. Its easy to get into event mode & ‘pumped’ mode, but the stuff that lasts is the stuff that matters. Its not to say there is no place for fun stuff – not at all – we need to have fun – but sometimes the priorities in youth ministry get misplaced.

In the last few years of life Mike Yaconelli wrote his ‘Dangerous Wonder’ column in youthworker journal. In it Yac would often cut loose and speak vehemently about the failure of so much of what has been passed off as youth ministry. If it was anyone else writing they probably would have been axed – but when you own the company you can pretty much say what you like!

Here is an excerpt from one of his pieces. Remember, this man devoted his life to providing training and resources for youth pastors and developed the biggest youth training/resource organisation on the planet. Youth Speciaties are still huge.

When viewed thru this lens these are chilling words.

Youth ministry doesn’t have any staying power.

Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer Jesus at large events, and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it’s not because of Jesus; it’s because they’re young!

The success of youth ministry in this country is an illusion.

Very little youth ministry has a lasting impact on students.

I believe we’re no more effective today reaching young people with the gospel than we’ve ever been. In spite of all the dazzling super stars of youth ministry, the amazing array of YS products, the thousands of youth ministry training events, nothing much has changed.

Following Jesus is hard.

Faith is difficult.

Discipleship requires a huge investment of time. Most of us don’t have the time. Or we chose not to take the time. Or our current models of ministry don’t allow us the time.

So let’s be honest.

Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.

What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But my hunch is that if we want to see young people have a faith that lasts, then we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry in America.

I wonder if any of us has the courage to try.

16 thoughts on “The Failure of Youth Ministry

  1. hey hamo, as you know, i recently ‘retired’ from youth ministry. I reckon part of my reason for being in ministry was a NEED to do a job that i felt MATTERED. What i discovered over the 3 years as a youth pastor was that the job, the role, kinda didn’t matter at all. I saw that the opportunities to impact young people for the long term was if anything, further restricted by being employed because of all the restrictions and regulations and expectations from parents and churches. If anything, I now believe I have more freedom to effectively disciple the young guys because I don’t have to be continually concerned with meeting those expectations that actually take me away from that core responsibility.

  2. I’d sooner see a handful of young people who have and/or will have real influence with their peers make lifelong committments than see a squillion young people get excited about one big event then move to other things. Who! Who! Who! How! How! How! (Sorry about the owl and Indian impersonations.)

  3. One thing that has concerned me for a while is how many youth are lost in the transition to young adulthood. Splitting up churches into demographic segments has some advantages but I am wondering if it is not outweighed by the disadvantages. These comments really speak into that.

  4. While we were in a institutional church we worked – not in a typical youth ministry but in a college type ministry. Husband ran our business and I mostly raised kids and homeschooled them. With all our committments I think we met the criteria of being fully imersed in mostly just living. While we did participate in small groups with the college kids and other meetings the most valuable tool was something we kinda ‘fell’ into. We began – over 23 years ago – to find a student age person who just needed a spot to live for a while. Over these years we have had about 11 people live with us as a family. As I look back at my “discipleship ministry” those people were the ones that caught it the most. With each of them there was not an effort to do any sort of program. Life happened, both in our lives and in theirs and over the dinner table or around the fireplace or pool it was discussed and the implications of what it meant to live as a follower of Jesus was explored. As far as a youth ministry and counting the numbers of people who were impacted it is not much but sometimes I wonder if this model really resulted in real discipliship when all the other programs merely allowed you to get close enough to form these kind of relationships.

  5. Yeah guys – there is a tension between the need for young people to connect with friends (as we do) and for them to be part of a much bigger group – the family.

    So much of youth ministry promo stuff is designed to make anyone who is doing it small to feel like they are inadequate, but maybe if many people did it small then there would actually be some sustainable results like former leader describes

  6. Youth work just copies the same model as adult church doesn’t it? Can we expect youth workers/ministers to do something completely different from 1. what they’ve been taught is right and 2. is what their employers expect? What Yaconelli says is equally valid for adults too.

  7. I think one of the issues facing youth ministry (and I guess I have to say, the bulk of my experiences with youth ministry are outside the environs of the church) is that, at least from my perspective and from what I have observed, most of it takes place in the church with kids from Christian families.

    There is a cultural expectation placed upon these kids to perform in a particular way and to engage in particular activities – “youth group” being one. Now my experience really is limited, but I have found youth outside the church (“unchurched” if you like) to be incredibly receptive to the Jesus stuff when it is offered through a relationship built on trust and is also lived in a genuine and public way outside the church meeting hall.

    The challenge then is finding ways that don’t include inviting kids to church run events (which are kinda just “youth” versions of the Sunday morning service anyway) in which genuine, trusting relationships can be grown. If anyone’s interested I have some ideas.

  8. This is a tricky one , in the church where I go our youth group has collapsed for a number of different reasons , but even whilst it was operational we never actually saw anyone come to christ. Kids were happy to come along and be entertained, go on camps , even go along to christian youth events, but as soon as they turn 17 and have their license they are off. I guess one can only hope seeds have been planted in their hearts. When I was a teenager I went along to a youth group mainly to be out of the house and with friends. My friends and I really gave the youth leader a hard time sometimes, but low and behold at the age of 26 god in his mercy chose to reveal himself to me.

    Also yesterdday my daughter who is 17 came home from school and shared with us how 2 girls who she doesnt even know came up to her and started asking all sorts of questions about God. She said they were not being smart or anything they genuinely wanted to know some things. Who can work out the ways of our God, he is able to change things with the blink of an eye and take all of us by surprise.

  9. Hi Lesley. That’s a really important point I think. People working locally with kids locally, in whatever way seems approprite is probably best. Obviously we learn from each other. However just inventing the next model of youth ministry that everyone adopts will probably end up with Mike Yaconelli lamenting that one as well! Instead, trusting that God will be at work through our pretty shabby efforts as we try and do our best is about all we can hope for. Thanks for reminding me that God often saves people outside of the process we set up to take care of it!

  10. I reckon I’d take the cake for the uncoolest youth ministry in the city. We had four kids on our first night this year (I’m approaching 40, maybe that has something to do with it). We just don’t have the people resources.

    What it is allowing me to do is build some relationships with the young guys particularly. Have a couple of 16/17 year olds lined up to lead communion and stuff like that (first one a couple of weeks ago). That, for me, is where the significance will lie, at least for now.

  11. In Australia, having worked in youth ministry for over five years I have found it to have an incredible lasting impact on thousands of young people. I myself was saved at a youth event and discipled through a youth ministry where my parents weren’t attending any regular church service. It changed my life. I now work in youth ministry, am a chaplain in schools, through incredible youth leaders inputting their time into me I am a whole person again who can make a difference in the lives of others. We have a thriving youth ministry in Perth, WA, where our young people are committed to God, not only when they’re in the building but every day during the week. We constantly hear reports from parents and school teachers of what examples their students are.

    I think it’s a very big statement to make, that youth ministry is ineffective, if it was not for youth ministries I would not be where I am today. I was broken and searching for answers in all the wrong places. In the Bible it speaks about how someone plants a seed, someone else waters it, but in the end it’s God that brings the increase. I believe that by investing in young people through youth ministry we may be sowing seeds, we may be watering, but eventually – at some stage of their life, it will be God that brings the increase.

    The word of God doesn’t return void but accomplishes that for which it is sent.

    Keep going youth pastors – you never know who’s life you’re speaking into.

  12. I know I’m coming in late to this discussion. Random late night blog browsing led me here, and maybe someone will read it and find interest.

    Youth ministry is a failure because of your measure of success – converts. That’s all you really care about. What does it matter if a kid finds shelter from a troubled family if he dies unsaved? What does it matter if a lonely kid finds community if he dies unsaved? What does it matter if you did everything right and made a serious positive impact on a kids life if he didn’t get saved? You might get kudos from Jesus, but the kid’s soul is still lost, so what does it matter anyway, right?

    That’s the problem. Granted, it’s not a problem with you in particular. Rather, it’s a problem of the theology itself. The problem is with this idea that the -point- of youth ministry is to bring teenage sheep to believe in a particular set of cosmological propositions that have no more or less evidence than any other religion’s beliefs. It’s ridiculous and it is serves as a disservice to teens. You hurt teens when you value their opinions on what exactly happened to a man who lived and died twenty centuries ago over the countless other serious problems in their lives.

    That’s why your ministry fails. Focus on the REAL needs of your youth and you’ll find that you’ve made a real difference.

  13. Mike said, “If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.

    What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But my hunch is that if we want to see young people have a faith that lasts, then we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry….”

    Adam said, “Focus on the REAL needs of your youth and you’ll find that you’ve made a real difference.”

    Hamo said, “I’m not sure who you are talking to Adam, but i’d suggest you are preaching to the converted heremate.”

    All God’s people said…………

  14. Pingback: Catholic Youth Ministry Blog » February, 2008

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