Click the photo to download a pdf handout of the slides from the “Help. I’m a new youth minister” seminar Caren Miles and I led last night at the Pneuma conference.
Does your ministry lose steam at the end of the year? We all know that finishing well is important, but like a fatigued runner, we often lose our stride a bit at the end of the program calendar.
Now we have a fabulous group of youth workers. They love God, one another, and they really care for our students, most of whom are the entry point to the church for their families. But it is the end of the year and…
This happens every year in youth groups all across the country.
For us, this came to a head at our end of the year badminton tournament last week. The kid across the street, a young man we have been inviting to youth group for three years, showed up. O, he joins us occasionally for games and food, but he skips out when students go inside for worship through song and scripture…after eating, of course. Last week he handed me a badminton racquet and asked if I would be his partner for the tournament. I am not a youth leader and had a bunch of stuff to do, but one look at his insistent face and I heard myself saying, “I would love to. But if I do, you stay for Bible study.”
“Deal!” He said, sticking his hand out to shake.
Two leaders were standing behind me. The older one had missed the planning meeting. He whispered to the younger one, “What is the Bible study?”
“We are just having fun tonight.” She said.
His reply, “Hey, our core values include ‘don’t waste kid’s time’ and ‘have fun with a purpose.’ A kid we have been inviting for three years just said he would stay for Bible study. You get a song. I’ll do a message.”
In a highly unlikely turn of events, the neighbor and I won the tournament. As the mob tromped from backyard to living room, the neighbor kid proudly paraded the trophy inside over his head.
When the song finished we passed out Bibles and students read the story of Jesus preaching in the synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:14-30). The older leader retold the story of Jesus angering his home town to the point that they took him to the edge of a cliff to toss him off when he turned around and walked away through the silenced mob. He concluded with Jesus, the God of the universe in human form, whose life, death, and resurrection offering us the opportunity to be a Kingdom bringer (a Luke 4:18 life of bringing good news to the poor, proclaiming release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and letting the oppressed go free“). He asked if anyone who hadn’t yet was ready to have “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:19) by allowing the Lord, Jesus, to become their savior (John 1:12). Three hands shot up. One of them was the neighbor kid’s. He was waving and pointing to himself. The same young man who ignored three dozen invitations…who snuck home early another two dozen times…who had told us repeatedly, “I’m not into God.” That kid, with tears in his eyes, was smiling ear to ear, waving, and saying, “Me! I’m ready.”
And by letting our core values slip in end of the year fatigue we almost missed it.
“how can they believe in him if they have never heard about him? And how can they hear about him unless someone tells them?” -Romans 10:14, NLT
In track and field finishing well is called having a strong “kick.” Races are won or lost on the final straightaway. Most runners fade. Champions find another gear and shift into it, pulling away from the pack.
The baton we pass is nothing less than the Gospel of Jesus. So end strong friends. Find your kick. Because this race really does matter.
Do you have kids in those really enjoyable third through sixth grade years? If so, you are probably a bit nervous about the teen years you know are looming around the corner.
I am the parent of two teens…at least until my daughter turns twenty next month. For the most part, our kids thrived through high school. And without arresting beauty, stellar brains, or athletic prowess, our kids were both voted president of their classes all through their high school years and were pursued by quality universities…including my son being invited to the Naval Academy’s summer program. Our parenting secret? While my friends pushed their kids to learn second languages, play on club teams, and take etiquette courses, we charted another parenting course. We involved our kids in an innovative program for youth. A program that data told us is linked to:
What is the activity that gives parents these outcomes we want for our kids?
The answer may surprise you. It is active participation in a local church. No, I’m not kidding. The data comes from sources such as the Center from Disease Control, Indiana, Michigan and Duke Universities, and the Barna Research Group. The caveat, the student has to be “deeply involved” in the church. According to the National Survey of Youth and Religion, “occasional attendees” have virtually no behavioral difference from non-attenders. Research indicates that regular church participation is associated with a decrease in every risky behavior that parents want their children to avoid and an increase in the behaviors that parents want to encourage.
Sometimes it is an issue of not seeing the forest for the trees. What we really want for our kids isn’t to be a great soccer player or to have a specific friend group. What we really want for our children is to have a great life. We see those other things as means to the end of becoming great human beings; self-sufficient and making a contribution to the world we leave them. The church is your number one support in your deepest yearnings for your kids.
Which brings us back to my kids: Although I am a picky parent, I genuinely like and respect the people my kids have become. I am proud of the decisions they make and the motives behind them. I am proud of how they carry themselves, a strong young woman and young man who stick up for underdogs, refuse to push others around or allow others to push them around. They are kind. They work hard. They serve others. They have stuck to their sexual purity guns. They are deep and fun. They, especially my daughter, are admirably resilient. They are viewed as leaders by their peers.
Why does it work?
To a great degree the people they have become is the result of a deeply committed walk with God. And a deeply committed faith is almost always the fruit of deep commitment to a local faith community. Regardless of what you personally think of Christian commitment, a deeply committed faith is a gift that, unlike participation in a club team, will keep giving to your child over the arc of their life.
What is the secret sauce?
Deep immersion in a church almost always includes a relationship with an older Christian mentor, aka, a youth worker. Youth workers reinforce parent’s messages from home. They do this as an influential voice a step or two older and wiser than their peers. Youth workers are role models and visible pictures of what positive choices gain one in life. They are a gift to parents that cannot be under-estimated.
As a parent, you and I have more to do with our teen’s success than anything or anyone in their lives. One of the best things we did to leverage that parental influence was to involve them in the church. At church, great young adults who love God, loved my kids. These young people, both church workers and Young Life leaders, helped my kids have a bigger vision for their lives. They helped my kids see their gifts, gave them opportunities for leadership and encouraged them to develop those gifts. Malcolm Gladwell in his book “Outliers” tells us that highly successful people are the first ones to 10,000 hours in an activity. In a good church, leaders will spend a great amount of time teaching your child to serve others, speak in public, develop and articulate deeply held beliefs, discover musical gifts they didn’t know they have, and develop social skills that will bless them the rest of their lives. They will be busier, without a doubt, but they will develop new capacities, and the life skills that they need most for future life-success. And our kids are not unique in this. The kids in our small mission church’s youth program are a virtual Who’s Who of the student leaders in the four neighborhood high schools they attend.
So parents, take your kids to church. Get involved. Get your kids involved. In the end, it will do far more for them than the soccer league you miss on Sunday mornings. I promise.
An open letter to Lead Pastors.
Do you hear that sucking sound? It’s the sound of young adults walking out the back door so fast that you can feel the breeze from the pulpit way down at the front of the sanctuary.
Young adults have always been a bit shaky in their church attendance during college. But then a new trend emerged: They stopped coming back. No one worried much about it at first. But as the return rate continued to plummet, the Millennial abandonment of the church became the stuff that keeps pastors up late at night. Millennials are, after all, the ones whose attractive fresh young faces make people say, “Oh, this place is doing really well!”
A few churches are still doing really well with young adults, of course. But multiple studies, such as this one from Pew Research, show that young adults now attend church at 1/2 the rate of their parents at their age. One in three young adults now characterize themselves as “nones” – religiously unaffiliated. If you haven’t noticed your church greying yet: fear not, you will.
What is going on with those Millennials?
According to the narrative, the church is full of narrow, nasty, fearful, bigots. If you are smart, hip, or have a pulse, you should drop the church like a hot rock for something more helpful to your life…like spending Sunday morning playing games on your iPhone at Starbucks, or puttering in your garden, or just pulling your covers up over your head and grabbing another hour of shuteye.
David Kinnaman, in his interesting book, “You Lost Me,” provides a stark articulation of this meme. His team conducted research with more than 1200 young adults. According to the compelling stories he recounts, young adults dropped out because they found the Church to be:
-Shallow, with easy platitudes, proof texting, and formulaic slogans.
-Overprotective and repressive: Sexual mores feel stifling to young adults.
-Exclusive. Christian claims to exclusivity are a hard sell in a pluralistic culture.
-Doubtless. The church is fearful and dare not risk allowing them to express doubts.
In other words, the church is mean.
If you talk to folks between the age of 20 and 35 about the church you have probably heard all of the above statements. However, these don’t necessarily paint a complete picture as to why Millennials left. They tell us why they SAY they left – how they have interpreted their experience. So, although Kinnaman’s book has become the “Bible” on Millennials, there is…
Another piece of the puzzle…
It appeared in last April’s edition of Atlantic Monthly: “Listening to Young Atheists.” Alex Taunton interviewed college students who self-identify as atheists and asked them to “tell the story of your journey into atheism.” What he heard was not what he expected – which always makes my ears perk up. To his surprise, young atheists did not wax eloquent about their intellectual difficulties with Christianity – the anti-science, anti-gay, theologically rigid, “easy believe-ism” stuff we all hear about (apologies to my more progressive friends). Neither did they talk about a desire to engage in sinful, frowned upon by the church, lifestyles (apologies to my more conservative friends). Here is what young atheists told Taunton…
1. They had attended church - The number one source of college atheists is, wait for it, Christianity…as it was modeled to them.
2. The mission and message of their churches was vague - rather than too much catechesis, they received too little. They were not given an intellectual frame for their faith.
3. They felt their churches offered superficial answers to life’s difficult questions.
4. They expressed their respect for those ministers who took the Bible seriously.
5. Ages 14-17 were decisive - In the middle of forty years of enormous investment in youth ministry, high school is when atheist millennials embraced their unbelief!
6. The decision to embrace unbelief was often an emotional one – usually involving the loss of a trusted youth leader
Did you notice the seedbed that hatched young atheists? It was specifically a reaction AGAINST their experience of the church. Second, they didn’t become atheists in those evil, conspiratorially faith-stealing secular universities. We lost the Millennials when they were in high school – In our youth groups!
One student said, “Christianity is something that if you really believed it, it would change your life and you would want to change [the lives] of others. I haven’t seen too much of that.”
Our big fail?
“Meanness” is style. And apparently a style fail is the least of our issues. According to atheist millennials, we also have a theology fail, a program fail, and a leader fail. The atheists who grew up in our churches tell us that we didn’t:
1) Model love and authenticity during their critical adolescent years.
2) Disciple them. Not downloading information, but the time-intensive task of walking with them, life on life…teaching them Christian practices in a context of friendship.
3) Catechize: Provide historic answers to the historic questions.
4) Allow them to engage their doubts. Talking through doubts is how one gets through them.
5) Integrate them thoroughly into the life of the church. We gave them a soteriology without an ecclesiology: A personal Jesus without a Body of Christ. We professionalized student ministry and segregated kids away in youth rooms. We let parents, the older generation, and anyone in the church staff not titled, “youth pastor” off the hook.
Students needed a web of relationships and an affiliation bond with the larger church.
But we shuttled them off into “youth services,” creating in-effect parachurch student ministries on church campuses with trendy grow-out-of-it-when-you-graduate names. And, often, by the time they get back from college, their pastor, the student pastor, is gone as well. In a “youth service” model, Millennials have never been in the sanctuary and don’t know those leading in there either. Add in the fact that the sanctuary reflects a ministry model developed for their parent’s generation and, for many, you have strike three, and the Millennials are walking off the field and hanging up their bats.
6. Give them a mission in the world. The doctrine of creation tells us that we were made on purpose for a high and holy purpose. When they were in high school did we give them something epic to do? Something unreachably heroic that they could only see and do with eyes of faith?
Will we listen to them?
Young adult atheists are telling us that we failed to give them a robust faith in the triune God…a faith they were asking us for. And this isn’t just a problem facing “liberal” or “conservative” churches. While the Left gave them Social Justice Jesus, the Right gave them a truncated, topical Jesus who promises, “Your Best Life Now.” A Fuller seminary friend told me that in a recent survey of graduating youth group seniors the most common thing students, across denominations, wished they had been given more of in youth group wasn’t games, skits, or worship. It was “Bible Study.”
Lead pastors, you have served your mission field of busy 35-55 year olds nervous about cultural change by giving them practical content from fewer, trusted voices on video-venues. What might missionally engaging students in there changing context look like? After all, like you once said to your senior pastor when you were working with youth, “We cannot expect today’s youth ministry to use the models we designed for a previous generation.”
When you and I started in ministry, students came to the church hungry to be entertained. Today they come expecting a sense of the transcendent. Study after study tells us that Millennials long for spiritual practices, meaningful service in the church, and a mission to the world. They seek peer groups to support their faith. They desire older Christian mentors and multi-generational relationships. They come for Scriptural knowledge and, gasp, theology. They come to learn about the God who made them, redeems them, and has a purpose for the world. They come seeking God’s plan and calling on their lives to do something of true and lasting significance.
Yes, the world changed. But while that change occurred we kept giving them a simple Gospel message with fog machines, light shows, and games in which they stuffed their faces with marshmallows.
So they left. But not when we thought. Not why we thought. And not how we thought.
A way forward?
It should be obvious that what I am pointing toward is not less youth ministry but a redirecting of it toward a more robust form. A form more tied to the greater church. The solution to all of this will involve Lead Pastors – You are the source of vision, direction, permission and covering. Nothing changes without your endorsement. Will you allow your Student Ministry leaders to change your student ministry today so that tomorrow’s students don’t bail too? You were an innovator in reaching your mission field. Will you free your student ministers to innovate to a new generation? We all want Christians for life, not just for high school. Will you unravel programs when the data demonstrates that filling youth services today leads to empty sanctuaries tomorrow?
The truth is staring us in the face. The stakes are too high to throw away another generation with sincere but ultimately unhelpful youth ministry.
It is values driven and data supported. It is life-changing and both church-sustained and church-sustaining.
Click the link then tell me what you think…
A response to Kate Murphy and Episcopal Café.
The average Episcopal Church has a Sunday worship attendance of 64 people. With congregations that tiny, money is certainly a challenge. How can we maximize our meager resources for mission? Well, the most expensive line item in most church budgets is clergy. Our normative form of worship since the 1979 prayer book is the Eucharist, and that necessitates a priest. A bargain basement full-time priest, with medical, retirement, office expenses & mission share, costs a church in the neighborhood of $80,000 per year. Think about the opportunity that presents: We can solve our financial limitations today! All we have to do is fire those expensive clergy. We could generate more than half a billion dollars per year for the work of the kingdom with this one simple solution! And besides being expensive, paid clergy are unscriptural. And let’s be honest, many clergy follow outdated ministry models that have been statistically proven to harm future attendance. What we need is to dump all of these clergy – they are millstones sinking our church’s future. It is time to ask the hard question: “Are priests killing the church?”
Ridiculous? Obviously. We would never leave adults without a dedicated leader except in dire circumstance. And when that does happen expectations are lowered in a hurry. Not that a church cannot do better without clergy than with an ineffective clergy, we all know those exceptions. We also know that unled things don’t do well. Why then would we make that case for youth ministry?
Yet, this is precisely the theory making the rounds: that “youth ministry is killing the church.” According to the argument, youth ministry is expensive, unscriptural and unhelpful. This reappeared recently on Episcopal Café (goo.gl/TN9Q1A) in the form of a three-year old Christian Century post by Kate Murphy (goo.gl/9sJP0l). In defense of pastor Murphy’s article, I agree with the substance of it: segregating youth is a bad idea. I even have made the case that there might be data that seems to indicate that Rev. Murphy is right (goo.gl/gzXI5g). What I do not agree with the title of the article and the direction that conversation inevitably leads: “If age appropriate ghettoizing is bad, then ALL age appropriate grouping is bad, therefore we do not need to budget sacrificially for staff expertise to pass on the faith to young people.”
Lets take a look at the three common objections to youth ministry:
First, “a youth minister is expensive.” Yes. A youth minister is expensive. The issue, though, isn’t how much a youth minister costs, but do they present a good return on the church’s investment? Here is a case: I have a friend who made $85,000 a year as a youth pastor. Does that seem shockingly large? It might help to know that he built a program in his new church plant that started with him knocking on several thousand doors before their first service to 425 students per week. His big salary equated to $200 per year, per student. Compare that to a clergy salary of $60,000 per annum as the staff person for 150 parishioners (I am told the common church staffing pattern is a staff person for every 150-200 people in attendance). That means the average clergy person in the upper limit/most financially efficient scenario still has annual cost of $400 per parishioner. My friend cost 1/2 as much as an effective clergy. He was a bargain! Is your youth director giving a good return for the investment? Over time is the youth director growing the number of youth and the spiritual depth of the youth involved? That may sound mercenary, but it is a question that every organization, including the church, has to ask about every staff person.
The second argument is making the rounds in conservative circles: “youth ministry is unscriptural” (goo.gl/zgQVR5). This one is a bit of a face-palm. What Jesus did with the disciples was exactly what good youth ministry is supposed to do: A group of teen-agers with a mentor doing life together…hanging out around the fire discussing God, asking dumb questions, and being stirred with the ridiculous idea that God wants to use them to change the world. The twelve got three years of life-on-life youth ministry, also known as “discipleship.” The argument that a ministry involving large groups, small groups, and leadership development is without biblical precedence is, well, goofy.
The third argument is that youth ministry is “unhelpful” because segregating students from the adults drives them outside the church as grown ups. I make that argument myself in more than one blog post (see below). Segregation does not just fail to help students build an affiliation with the church, it also fails to give them a sense of being a member of Christ’s body engaged in God’s mission. But why stop with segregation, the status quo in youth ministry has many other issues: It is often alarmingly aligned with our culture. It often appears as if students are numbers to validate the leader’s ministry. Too often we truncate the Scriptures. Too often we are weak in our modeling of prayer, service to the world and evangelism. But none of that means that we should leave our young people unled. The answer to doing the wrong thing in the church is not to do nothing. It is to do the right thing. The idea that ineffective youth ministry models and ineffective youth ministers are a reason to eliminate youth ministry is akin to suggesting that because some priests are ineffective and follow ineffective ministry models we should eliminate priests.
The answer to doing ‘bad’ ministry with a group is not to do NO ministry with that group.
It is the idea that youth ministry should be “dumped” that is “unhelpful.” What might actually be helpful would be to note that none of the 100 fastest growing churches are contemplating getting rid of paid youth ministers or age-appropriate youth ministry (goo.gl/XPkH55). I understand financial realities in small churches. I lead a church plant. But to say that our children are not a staffing priority at the time in life when 8 out of 10 who make a decision to follow Christ are doing so is to hand them an invitation to the church down the street that will prioritize evangelism and discipleship to them (goo.gl/Tmofjt). Is it time to dump youth ministry? No way. Is it time to re-envision it? Absolutely. I may be a loud critic of the youth ministry status quo. But I really, with all that is within me, want people equipping parents, evangelizing the young, discipling students, and building the next generation of Christian leaders.
The Rev. Matt Marino, Canon for Youth and Young Adults, Diocese of Arizona
Posts exploring a better way to do youth ministry…
-Tickled! (An article in The Living Church Magazine, Sept. 2013)
 Assuming the 6667 parishes and missions who filed 2012 parochial reports at $80,000 per church = $533,360,000
Part of “You don’t seriously think…” a format for answering reader’s questions.
Brian commented with a critique of youth ministry made popular by Philip LeClerc and his movie “Divided.” I should say from the outset that Brian is not a reactionary. He is a thoughtful and articulate man in training for the pastorate who is passionate about creating lifelong Christians. I chose his critique specifically because it is a good example of the questions youth ministers increasingly have to answer about our purpose and practices…
Brian writes, “I appreciated your article, (“Cool Church“) but the big elephant in the room has not been addressed. Can we find anything in SCRIPTURE that supports YOUTH MINISTRY and YOUTH PASTORS? I know it is a big money-making business (Youth Curriculum etc), but when did this age segregation start? How did the puritans and reformers “do” church? It may surprise many of your readers that G. Stanley Hall and Darwin were the apostles of youth ministry. What ever happened to following the apostle Peter and the apostle Paul? Youth ministry? Maybe we should look at it again through the lens of Scripture.”
Yes, I have heard the argument that it is time to dump youth ministry. I would like to start with the financial motive critique: You do realize that someone is making a pretty good living pitching the idea that youth ministry is unbiblical, don’t you? I have never met a youth minister who can afford to make a movie, but I have known more than a few who became senior pastors as much to feed their families as out of a sense of divine call. No youth pastors are featured on “The Preachers of L.A.”
Regular readers of The Gospel Side know that I am a vocal (some say rabid) critic of many common youth ministry practices. Often youth ministers have been trained in and uncritically embrace ministry models that create significant long-term problems when their students reach adulthood. That being said, what Jesus and the disciples were doing is exactly what youth ministry should do: A grouping of teen-agers with their mentor doing life together…hanging out around the fire discussing God, asking dumb questions, and being stirred with the ridiculous idea that God wants to use them to change the world. The twelve got three years of life-on-life youth ministry, also known as “discipleship.”
“what Jesus and the disciples were doing is exactly what youth ministry should do: A grouping of teen-agers with their mentor doing life together…hanging out around the fire discussing God, asking dumb questions, and being stirred with the ridiculous idea that God wants to use them to change the world.”
LeClerc’s assertion that the “G. Stanley Hall and Charles Darwin were the apostles of youth ministry” is just plain wrong. They weren’t. Jesus Christ himself hand-picked twelve young men to turn his work over to when he was gone. That model was imitated by Barnabas with Paul. And then by Paul with Timothy. They did have a higher bar than much of today’s youth ministry: Jesus’ idea of youth ministry was youth who DO ministry. He entered their world, then brought them along with him into his. He took them along on his significant moments – the transfiguration comes to mind. He taught them how to pray and expected them to stay awake and pray with him while he prayed. He sent them out on preaching and healing tours.
None of this is to say that youth ministry is without its problems. Much youth ministry is alarmingly aligned with our culture. Too many youth leaders seem overly concerned with being “cool.” Too many come across as fearful of rejection and terrified of growing up. And when we are driven by fears, we avoid inconvenient truth and fail to challenge students, producing malformed disciples. Youth ministry faces other problems as well: lack of integration with the larger church, truncated teaching of the Scriptures, weak modeling of prayer and serving and evangelism. Often we see students having very little sense of being part of the community – of being a member of Christ’s body engaged in God’s mission. All to often appear to view students as discrete receivers of individual salvation: A number to be counted, not for their benefit but to self-validate the leader’s ministries. But none of that means that we should leave young people unled.
So is youth ministry Scriptural? It is true we don’t have a job titled “youth minister.” But we don’t have one titled “music minister” either. No one is advocating we get rid of them. We don’t find “custodian” either, but none of us wants our church’s potties a mess. For that matter, they didn’t have toilets in the NT. Maybe we should save a few bucks on plumbing? Sorry to be snarky, but when we only do what Scripture explicitly states, we run into some real limitations.
In summary, the idea that youth ministry is unbiblical just does not hold water. Is it time to dump youth ministry? No way. Is it time to re-envision it? Absolutely. I am an irritating critic of the youth ministry status quo. But I really, with all that is within me, want people equipping parents, evangelizing the young, discipling students, and building the next generation of Christian leaders.
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