Youth Ministry Revisited

I have been in youth ministry now for over 20 years. It has been a great 2o years and I have seen many lives changed and have seen God do great things! As great as it has been, I see a need for change.

Over the last year God has been showing me that we need to re-think how we do ministry. I believe we have in many ways alienated students from what God desires of the church. We have in essence created a church within a church. A church in which we temporarily attract students, and then ask them to leave upon graduation. This is not right.

For many years we have used an entertainment model of ministry designed to keep students engaged and happy. This model of ministry inspired by parachurch youth ministries from the 1950's is the chief model in which most youth ministries are built on. Through this attractional model we have atttracted many students, but are they really following after Jesus and engaging with the church as God desires? Sadly many, dare I say most, are not. There is someting wrong when we see statistics like this:

  • According to Dr. Gary Railsback up to 50% of evangelical college freshman will forsake their Christian beliefs by their senior year of college.
  • According to George Barna (in Third Millenium Teens) 2 out of 3 Christian teens will evacuate the church after they graduate from high school. In addition 63% of our teens don’t believe Jesus is the Son of the one true God, 58% believe all faiths teach equally valid truths, 51% don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead and 70% don’t believe an absolute moral truth exists. (Taken from
I am also bothered when I read the honest thoughts of this high school student who wrote a post on her blog entitled, Why I've Given Up On Youth Group. I agree with her. Students want to go deeper with their faith; students deserve to go deeper. We must get away from the "entertain me" mentality that has defined youth ministry for so long and get back to what Jesus desires...sacrifice. He desires that we fully and completely seek after Him and serve Him with our lives (Romans 12:-2).

Mark Yaconelli puts it well in his book Contemplative Youth Ministry when he says, "While such ministries may keep youth entertained, they often keep youth distracted from the deeper rhythms and practices of the Christian faith. Programs and activities are chosen based on the level of excitement that's generated. No one wants to act like an adult for fear of scaring the kids. Leaders become hesitant to engage youth in any activity that is in contrast to the consumer culture. Prayer, spiritual exercises, theological conversation, and spiritual disciplines that challenge the status quo are dumped out of fear that youth may cry 'This is like school!' or 'You're just like our parents!' or (worst of all) 'This is boring.' So the ministry never addresses the deeper needs of youth, never challenges them to explore the alternative way of Jesus. Like children's television programming that seeks to keep kids attentive so they'll watch the commercials, our ministries of diversion respond to young people's most carnal appetites so we can slip in a five-minute Bible study or parade them through the church building." (p. 45)

Should youth ministry be fun? Absolutely! Should it attract others? Absolutely! The question is what are we attracting students to...entertainment or ministry? It is my prayer that the church begins to closely evaluate how we are ministering to students and thus begin to develop models that draw students into a lifelong love relationship with Jesus that is producing fruit for the Kingdom of God.


Tiber Jumper said...

I think that the only thing that will truly attracts young people is Truth. They smell a rat and phoniness very quickly. Sadly, I raised two children in evangelical churches with puppets, clowns, LCD projectors, live bands for Sunday worship, entertaining and charismatic pastors etc, and they were unfazed. As a matter of fact, the glitz and hoakiness turned them off.
GK Chesterton said "We need a church that changes the culture, not one that is changed by the culture."
I have converted to Catholicism, not much glitz and glamor, but ancient lifechanging truths(as I see it). The jury is still out on my teenagers but they will sit through Mass versus having to drag them to my previous entertaining evangelical church with props, back drops and skits for sermons. Who would have thought? it's a tough dilemma for Catholics and Protestants but I am not sure that the answer is to change our church to make it a hollywood/internet experience?
Your blog said you welcome thoughts so here were mine. God bless you

muzik316 said...

Man Brian, you really are making me contimplate this one. There are some very valid points. A lot of youth ministries are like that. So how can we effectivly keep them involved if they're no longer youth?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for keeping an open mind, and more importantly, an open spirit to God's desires.

Here's to hoping that the "answers" come soon.

May we have the time of our lives seeking out God's plan for the group!

-Aaron (there is a problem with beta users commenting on non beta users :) )

Jon Knapp said...

Hey Bri,
I am glad you posted your thoughts in this area . . . and I totally agree with you. It just doesn't stop at the youth level though. We need to rethink church as a whole . . . how we form disciples . . . how the church can change the culture rather than just to react to how it is changing.
Implications for services, small groups, missions, etc.
It is not that you have been doing it wrong for 20 years, you were following Jesus. It just means that following Jesus at this point might mean we do it differently.

Zack said...

I'm a bit scared here. It sounds like youre giving up, yet I'm likely wrong. Hear from a adolescent: without entertainment of some kind, church becomes a beyond boring place that nobody would want to go to because all they do is preach. I think, that no matter how good the messages are, kids my age will not want to go church without some form of entertainment (and jokes would not cut it).

All those statistics are because (I think) of the world we live in today. Like I've said in my blog, the world is rapidly (not gradually) become more and more "evil". I'm very sure you know what I mean by that. The faster the technological advancement, the more hooked we youth get and parents these days allow too much of it. Example: think of all the talk youth have about what they saw on TV, what songs they have on their ipod, what movies they've seen recently, how much they want a car, et cetera.

Technology seems to metaphorically crush the church and their values worse and worse every day. The best way to get good church teachings into people these days is to try your hardest to get it to them before they grow up. How they grow up is how they'll end up.

I personally dont see an answer to these problems that you listed Brian but don't give up. I dont believe you are but I can imagine how hard it seems to do your job.

Brian Eberly said...

No worries Zack. Giving up I am not.

I'm not saying that we can't be entertaining and have and offer a good time. I believe that is a necessary part of youth ministry as well as life in general. I just think we have been guilty of offering those things to the exclusion of what is most important, and that is seeking after God and living lives that make a difference now and in the future. There is a balance. When that balance is achieved I believe we will see a healthy church and a world more interested in the Kingdom of God.

I'm glad you are a part of the journey. Let's keep pursuing His desires.

Anonymous said...

Wow, Brian. Very well put together thoughts. I am happy to say a part of what we are doing in a couple weeks is a response to this. Action. Discussion. Relevance. All of us want to see the church strenghtened, even in the face of the diminishement of mainline churches. The tendency of youth toward the "moralistic deism" addressed by several current authors and studies is deeply troubling. I am very much looking forward to meeting with you and other youth leaders.

The Thief said...

Don't get discouraged if you were "doing it wrong" for all that time; everyone except Jesus Himself "did it wrong" at one time or another. But you're doing it right if you're willing to put yourself on the line to change the trend.

I'm with Jon Knapp here that the whole church has to change, not simply YM. Adults aren't putting up with the fake crap either, but (many of them) have a tradition of "going to church" that means they'll show up no matter what, even though they're not getting (or giving) anything.

Changing the whole face of the church takes time and individual effort; each Christian mentoring another, personal attention, people of all ages using their gifts, and the ministry not outgrowing the church's ability to care for its own and to reach out.

Mark Combs said...

Great post. Student ministry has 2 dangers with it:
1) Being all fun, which will draw a crowd but will not build disciples.
2) Giving students all moralism so that Christianity becomes simply don't have sex or listen to secular music, which in the end produces Pharisees, not Christians.

Students need truth which calls for student ministers who deeply love the God of truth, & have a deep desire to study it.

Mike King said...

good dialogue...

Anonymous said...

good stuff.
we would love to minister with you to your students...check us out!

Post a Comment