a missional youth ministry rant

it’s not brand new (because the link has been sitting in my overwhelming email inbox forever), but this post by joe troyer about his frustration over the need to bring change in his youth ministry is fantastic: honest and pointed.

a selection:

I don’t know what to do. This is so frustrating. What do you do when what you always did doesn’t do it anymore? Youth culture and maybe culture in general has turned a corner. We talk about being “missional” and how attractional just isn’t cutting it anymore. Yet traditional youth ministry is nothing but attractional. We have events and tell kids to bring their friends to us. We feel like youth ministry has to have some sense of “attractiveness”. At the same time, across of much of my county youth ministries are in a lull and are bogging down. I hear it from youth pastors all the time. We think maybe we need to teach better. Or maybe we need to get some games in there to make it more exciting. Maybe we need a catchy name with words like XTREME or FIRE or XTREME FIRE! I mean it’s got to be better than Hartville Mennonite Church MYF (Mennonite Youth Fellowship) right? How can we make one event more exciting than the next. I am so tired of it.

I am tired of doing the same old stuff. Why? IT ISN’T WORKING!! Now to be intellectually honest, it is possible that maybe I am not that great of a youth pastor. Possible. There is always something I could be working on. But at the same time I know God has called me here for a purpose and a reason. That reason is to love kids and point them towards the Kingdom. But how? We have Sunday School. We have Bible Study. We have activities and fundraisers. I visit some kids at school. Sound familiar? Sure it does. This is how youth ministry has been done since it’s inception. It’s broken. And I don’t know how to fix it. What do we do in a postmodern, post-Christendom world? Is it unsettling to any one else?

30 thoughts on “a missional youth ministry rant”

  1. i discovered this about 12-18 months ago and over the past 6 months we have been re:thinking our youth ministry and its leadership.

    we have brought all our adult youth workers and all our students leaders in on this discussion. i’m thinking that by september we should be back on track and heading in the right direction.

  2. Thanks Marc for posting this. Honest and pointed indeed. From my vantage point, I think Joe’s comment’s are spot-on and reflect reality in the small to mid-size church. The mega-church is not immune from this either, but generally has greater overall momentum in which to compensate.

    I haven’t figured it out yet either. Youth culture has changed and our methods have to reflect the change with the timeless Gospel. Did anyone see the PBS Frontline documentary “Growing up online” a couple of weeke ago? Talk about a paradigm shift. As was depicted in the program, when kids resort to fighting online instead of face-to-face after school, you realize we are in a new reality of youth culture.

    BTW, the documentary can be viewed in it’s entirety at: http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/kidsonline/

    The last 2 chapters are the most compelling.

  3. Thanks for asking, scott. I didn’t get it done over the holidays as I’d hoped (it’s somewhat more writing than I’d originally assumed). But I have three full writing days set aside the first week of march, and hope to finish the draft then. If I do, we’ll get it out this fall.

  4. Little “traditional” American youth ministry is either missional or even allows for truly missional youth ministry. So we know we want to go and be with kids and help them see the Christ we love so much. Then stop doing what you know to be innefective and start doing what you feel called to do — and be willing to take the consequences whatever they may be.

    A new way of doing youth ministry is needed, Lord. Let it begin with me.

    Today’s youth are being lulled to death spiritually by a culture that doesn’t care about them, so we need to create betters ways to communicate with them. Let it begin with me.

    Our church leaders need to catch this vision and allow those of us called to youth ministry to do it a better way. Let it begin with me.

    Our teaching needs to be more real, challenging, and biblical. Let it begin with me.

    Our Christian youth need to be challenged more to have a passion for their unchurched friends. Let it begin with me.

    Our churches need to catch the vision that social change and environmental stewardship is part of the Kingdom work we are called to. Let it begin with me.

    Our fellow youth workers are discouraged and frustrated and need support and encouragement and prayer. Let it begin with me.

    “The way we’ve always done it” isn’t working now and maybe never did, so we need to agree together that a new way of thinking is needed. Let it begin with me.

    As kids have flocked to megachurches to be with their frinds in the fancy new buildings, many are missing an intimate relationship with their Lord and other significant adults, so the rest of us need to be focused on relationships rather than programs. Let it begin with me.

    Negativism, cynacism, and ministry nihilism only serve to break spirits and make us feel worse, so we need a new and positive outlook that sees possibilities and works for change. Let it begin with me.

    Youth ministry is a very difficult but vital aspect of today’s church, so we need a commitment to do whatever it takes to reach this generation of young people with the Great News of the Gospel. Let it begin with me.

    If it is time for change, Lord, let it begin with me.

  5. It’s a challenge to let change begin with me – but even more so, to spark change that rolls through the church as a whole.

    Is this about youth ministry today adopting newer practicesto be missional? Or is this a church-wide issue that we’re dealing with? And if that’s the case, how do we initiate the kind of change that’s needed?

    We’re in the early days of a re-discovery kind of time and I’m wrestling with how to honestly be a “missional” student ministry without becoming further isolated from the “traditional” church we’re in.

  6. I believe that this shift has been coming. I came from a youth ministry that was far from program based. It was relationship based. The adult leaders did not have job descriptions. They needed to love God and love other people. In a world that has shifted to MySpace and texting and wireless everything. There is something absolutely drawing about know that when you go somewhere, you are going to be valued and treated with dignity and respect. Huge worship events can do so much, but being one on one with a teenager in the midst of who they are will have for more impact in their lives and keep them and their friends coming than having a Jell-O Olympics and a great acronym for a name.

    Hebrews 12:14.

  7. i am glad and sad to know that there are so many voices of people who resonate with this. i hope we can all journey together towards a youth ministry that makes sense and is christ-centered. thanks for all your input.

  8. wow! can’t believe that i read this today. this whole thread hits me right where i’m at. it’s encouraging to know i’m not alone in my feelings, somewhat energizing, too.

  9. I’ve been at this for over 25 years, which means I remember when “cut and paste” meant scissors and clue. It also means I have learned lessons, forgot them and had to learn them again. The one that always seems to get in my way is when I measure success in ministry by worldly standards, large groups and big budgets.

    Jesus had several big events, but mostly he had a small group of 12. Beyond that it appears He mentored 3. He knew he had to get the word out to large groups, but he knew that real success was done by being very invovlved with a few.

    We work really hard to get our students to be like Jesus. Maybe we need to learn to be like Jesus.

  10. thanks for the post. im wrestling with these things as well. thanks too for all you others that have posted with good feedback.

  11. I’ve been leading youth ministry for almost 20 years, and the last two have been the hardest, most frustrating times. I know that the combination of technology and changes in adolescent development DO mean changes are required for how and what we do to share the gospel. I know that many (if not most) of the parents don’t yet get it. I know that many of those who are in charge of my performance reviews expect to be able to see a good return on their investment (aka larger “numbers” of youth.) I know what “missional” is (against being “missional minded”! YIKES!) Most importantly, as I approach my 40th birthday, I can honestly say that I’m just beginning to learn what Jesus did. I fully agree with the prayer that Dan posted (“Let it begin with me”) but, am I truly willing to live this out? And what does this look like?

    Somehow we need to create the balance between the larger group “attraction” events (Jesus did “entertain” huge groups of people – albeit with his amazing words of wisdom) and the consistent times of meeting with just a few people who we feel God is calling to be true disciples (such a Peter, James and John) and the regular times of retreat for personal prayer and reflection. If we can live out this balance, and set it as an example from Jesus for the kids, then I believe these kids will eventually grow into mature adults with a mature faith.

    I think it was Chap Clark who defined these mid-adolescents as those who know they make a difference, but don’t care. I have to trust that the seeds I’m planting now, will become the foundation for their faith, once they do care! My role has changed. I grew up on a farm, and I live in the Midwest – we have a certain length to the growing season for all crops. As the years of adolescence have lengthened, so has the “growing season” for their faith. I no longer look for fruit that is growing in their spiritual lives. (if I find some, I celebrate, but I don’t look for it.) Rather, my role is to make sure the soil of their heart stays moist, the temperature of their spiritual lives doesn’t get too hot or too cold, and most of all, I make sure they get enough fresh air and plenty of SONlight!

    I believe the biggest change needed in youth ministry is the expectations we have put on ourselves, and therefore on the kids.

  12. I am so glad that you shared this – I think about it all the time. One thought about why these thoughts are shared by so many in the mid-range, mainline church youth ministries – unless your pastor, church boards, students and parents are willing to sit down, read, listen, watch and change together, patiently waiting for results that may take some years to be noticed, then youth pastors and leaders will continue to feel frustration and anxiety. Change in churches does not come easily and most of us have experienced the feeling of being slammed against that brick wall when we try to express a new direction. Sometimes we’re viewed as prophetic, other times we’re called heretics and blasphemers, but rarely have I known youth workers who have tried to go towards a major directional change to be embraced by their churches while the youth ministry waits. I see why the hopelessness sometimes can creep into our souls and why those lovely numbers go down, because the longer we are truly involved in the lives of families the more we learn what is really and truly significant..and that does NOT always translate into traditional youth ministry expected by a church. May we all pray to be strong and courageous as we love our students.

  13. I read this post a couple of days ago. It hit home very deeply and after a couple of days mulling it over I realised that those of us in Youth ministry love to use words like ‘missional’ and ‘relational’, we love to talk about new ways to ‘do youth ministry’ and we love to deconstruct (the post modern WWJD – What Would Jesus Deconstruct?) re-construct, re-think and re-imagine, we rail against ‘event driven’ ministry and number counting, We are passionate and excited , we have big ideas and big visions. But if I’m really honest with myself most of the time i have no idea what I’m doing. I can see that something is broken and i know things have to change but beyond the intellectual I have no idea what my job is supposed to look like. Insecurities and uncertainties are my constant companions, I question what I’m doing and I question whether I’m even the best person to be doing it. would my church and , more importantly, the Youth of my church be better served by someone else? Am I hiding my own inadequacies behind the challenges of a changing world? I was going agree with the comment by emily that it’s encouraging to know that I’m not alone in these struggles, but in all honesty I’m not encouraged. I’m tired, frustrated, numb and lonely. The Psalmist speaks for me when he says
    “God, God…my God! Why did you dump me miles from nowhere? Doubled up with pain, I call to God all the day long. No answer. Nothing. I keep at it all night, tossing and turning.”
    (psalm 22:1-2)

    The enormity of the responsibility we are given in Youth Ministry is very real to me and right now I’m seriously questioning if i have the strength to carry this burden for much longer. I don’t know how long I can keep going but the thought of giving up and walking away terrifies me even more.

  14. Tom, I agree with you. After a recent performance evaluation, I, too, have been struggling with my fit for this position. While I feel the need to equip parents, others want a more traditional youth ministry with regular meetings. When do youth have the time to meet regularly? With a small potential youth group, when one or two miss, there is not a whole lot a person can do for activities. Yes, I can visit with them and give them my undivided time (much like Jesus did with the 3). How does this meet the expectation of having a well structured youth program?
    Tom, your last paragraph hits it on the head for me. Thanks for sharing your struggles!

  15. Not saying that this is the answer by any means, but it has helped me as I have worked through these questions myself.

    I think part of the problem with big events and large program ideas is that they scream that if you bring your friends to church, we as ministers can do the rest. When in reality, the only way to grow a group (spiritually, not talking numerically) is to get the kids we have to understand that they are Gods ands and feet, they are the reason that people will be saved.

    We have made our kids lazy because they don’t have to share their faith in a big event, they just have to come and we hope they engage.

    I’m so tired of seeing them scatter when the leave High School. Since we’ve changed our focus, at least I know when they leave my “care” they can function on their own and can study the word of God on their own, and they can share their faith well. They might not, but I don’t think its a fluke that the percentages of active Christians graduating from are group continues to rise.

    May God give us all they way to be more effective, and find out what works best for each student.

    Questions like the original are the best things that could happen for us in ministry.

  16. Your right mark. In fact, attractional youth ministry has never worked. You know the statistics. An overwhelming percentage of our students are leaving the church and faith after high school. This isn’t a new thing. It’s not just about a shift in youth culture. It’s about following the biblical model of ministry, which has its foundation in prayer. This has been on my mind for a few months now. We’re so dependent on innovation to do ministry. We take ourselves way to seriously. I’m convicted deeply that I must preach the gospel clearly to my students and teach them to think “missionally” and take the gospel into there world. As far as culture is concerned, it has always existed and always changed. It is the opposing world views that we Must learn to confront with the truth.(Acts 17) The way we do this is given in Eph. 6:19

  17. This sounds great Brian, but what does it really mean? You say; ‘it’s about following a biblical model of ministry which has it’s foundation in prayer’ but what does that look like in the real world? I would think (or hope) that very few would disagree that our Youth Ministries should be Biblically based and prayer should be at the foundation of all we do. But what does that actually mean? Where’s the biblical ministry model for impacting teenagers in 21st century New York City? I agree that prayer is the foundation,sometimes Prayer is pretty much all that keeps me going. Words like ‘missional’ are thrown around a lot but what do they look like in the real messed up, fragmented, painfully confusing world of today’s urban teens? You talk about preaching the Gospel and ‘teaching them to think missionally and take the Gospel into their world’ but I feel that I’d rather live the Gospel, model missional living, and invite my students to walk with me in Christian community. Problem is my student’s lives are so crazy and fragmented I have no idea how to build community. I have 15+ High schools in the area, not to mention 5/6 jr High and a few students in their 1st couple of years at a couple of local colleges. is community (another buzz word we love to use) even possible in these circumstances? too many questions. not very many answers.

  18. WOW! This whole conversation is fantastic! I am so grateful I came across this today. I have wrestled with this question for several years, and I still don’t have it figured out. Thank you for your post, Joe. I am glad I am not alone in my struggles, questions, and frustrations! Tom, thank you for your honesty!

    Some thoughts I keep pondering are from the talks at last fall’s NYWC – Andy Stanley, Phyllis Tickle, and Marko. From Andy – how do I use the power that has been given to me to benefit others. How can I help the church become who she was meant to be? From Phyllis – there IS a revolution going on. The church needs this “rummage sale” and we need to never leave our knees in prayer as we humbly lead this revolutionary change in the church. From Marko – youth ministry was program driven, but now students seek to not be driven. All these talks resonate deeply for me. I have been in my church for 11 years, and all the programs I have built up are falling down. It does make me ask, is it me? Or is it something bigger? But I am tired of what it was and long for something more real and transformational.

    In the last few years, I have also been studying the house church movement (Wolfgang Simson), missional church (Mike Frost), the revolution of people leaving the church in search of Jesus (George Barna), and the postmodern church (Bill Easum). It all makes me see how far short the church falls from God’s design. That is what I am seeking – God’s blueprint for His church, and to become that. Really being on mission. Truly being the community and Body of Christ. I think these guys are on the right track. I’m just trying to understand how I can change from what I’ve always known, to this new movement of God. And I’m not sure what it means for youth ministry. Maybe it will end. Don’t know yet…but I am pressing on!

  19. I’ve been doing Youth Ministry fulltime for 10 years and I’ve seen many shifts in how I need to be more effective. What works in one church doesn’t always work in every church. I did accidently uncover a new problem that has driven a wage between me/church and my students. And that is the rise of cults. Cults are groups that look like Christians, talk like Christians, and appear to have it “all together” but have a evil agenda. A wolf in sheep’s clothing. These groups have started to infiltrate the local church spreading negative propaganda and mistrust that is undermining the effectiveness of the local church. They make statements like “aren’t you tired of all the hypocrisy in the church?” You don’t need a church building to worship God” and my favorite “the church leadership is only there to control and bind you.” (i.e. this means all of you that are paid staff for a local church) I don’t know about the rest of you, but I didn’t go into youth ministry to “bind and control” anyone. They say that they just worship Jesus, but it doesn’t’ sound like it’s the same Jesus in the Bible. They see themselves as the only true worshipers of God and if you worship in a church building then you’re NOT a “true believer.” The concept of Grace doesn’t exist and its heart and soul is connected to the “House Church Movement.” (Just because you don’t have to worship in a church building doesn’t mean it’s wrong if you do!!!!!!). If you don’t believe me Google” house church” or “Organic church” and you will get the house church movement website. Click on “cult busters” and you will find 18 + web pages where they’re “desperately” trying to make the case that they’re not a cult. It’s like those multilevel marking scams that say they’re not a pyramid scam when in reality they are. They use a very loose definition of cults as a defense. My opinion is that any group that doesn’t allow for accountability is open to be lead astray. I have nothing against house churches, but the movement is based on ½ truths about the local church to lead others astray. Check out the rest of the site, it’s 80-90% anti local church and they set themselves up to be the only logical choice.
    If you start to see your kids moving away from you, and your numbers decreasing, then you need to see if a cult is trying to undermine your ministry. This happened to my youth group and it’s taking almost 2 years to get my kid back to the REAL Jesus and the TRUTH that the local church IS NOT trying to control and bind them. (The cult statements above are quotes from the book called “The Organic Church” and was read with out my knowledge to my kids as a devotional on a float trip.)

  20. This whole discussion also resonates with me and where I’ve been for the last 2 years, after 25 years in youth ministry. I forwarded the link to all my leaders to show them that we’re not alone in this struggle! I too have been trying to discern what’s really changed, and more importantly, what we do about it. A portion of what we are seeing is a very strong and widespread shift toward universalism, and highly individualized ‘pick and choose’ eclectic spirituality, even amongst ‘church kids’ and their parents. Paired with that, of course, is a very low concept of the authority of scripture as truth. Issues like the existence of hell, the possibility that homosexuality is a sin, and the uniqueness of Jesus as the way for salvation are huge to some of our kids as reasons they walk away or aren’t interested in what we’re saying, particularly with high school students. We also see deeply hurting kids regularly, rather than as exception, who are living with layers of brokenness and parents who are checked out, on drugs, etc. Whatever the reasons, gone are the days when congregations can simply hire a youth director to run a program, and expect large flocks of students with nothing else to do on Sundays or Wednesdays to show up, embrace the gospel and become committed disciples. We need to engage our whole church in the discussion of being missional, and all the hard questions of “what does that really mean?” as stated by Tom C and others above. We need visionaries and prophets and prayer warriors and wise disciples to help us find our way forward.

  21. Thanks for that link Melanie. I read this interview with one resounding thought running through my head; what about the Youth who don’t have fathers? While I’m totally in agreement with the idea that youth ministry should include ministry to parents and I doubt anyone would disagree with the idea of ministering to families i can’t help think that this doesn’t need to be an either/or situation. We need to train and equip families, we also need to be a family to those that don’t have one. we need to help teens and their parents communicate and we also need to create space for them to discover their identities within the church. We need to empower and support parents to be the spiritual leaders in their homes but we’re on thin ice if we sacrifice direct ministry to teenagers. I can’t help wondering if this pastor has any fatherless teens in his church. his vision seems to assume a strong healthy family structure which simply isn’t reality to many teens.

  22. I’m a senior Christian Educational Ministry major @ Taylor University. Y’all have just given me more insight, authenticity, and passion than I have seen in my 4 years at Taylor.

    May y’all continue to display this humility, frustration, and honesty. And may that authentic display lead to encouragement, clarity, and inspiration.

    God Bless.

  23. Hello, I’m new here. I have been in youth and family ministry for 17 years. What I have seen over the past 2-3 years is the fact that our teens come out in droves for serving and hands-on-ministry. They have no time for the fluff of fellowship on a regular basis. They will do the fellowship events if they are geared toward learning (i.e. a lock in with a theme that helps them grow.) I think teens now days are so stretched and overloaded that they no longer need the face-to-face fellowship….they have the fellowship outreach with text message, face book and so on. They need to feel important, needed, useful. They need to have those mystical moments of worship and devotion that reaches them where they are. I no longer do the Pied Piper method like used 10 years ago. Now it is relationship and fascilitator.
    I think it is actually an exciting time……..I see kids getting missional….touching Civil Society in a real way. (Sorry, I’m at Seminary this week sitting through classes in my DMin course in Missional Leadership so the language is stuck in my head.) I also think people are throwing around the “Missional” language without really knowing what it is pertaining to. It doesn’t mean Mission, like doing a mission trip. It is a whole new way of “being” church, rather than “doing” church.

  24. I’ve gone back and read Phil and Phylis postings and I agree as well. We do have the greatest challenge ahead of us. I also agree that churches can not simply hire a person to lead traditional ministry like last decades have. I’m taking an advanced degree because I want to be sharpened in the tools for helping to create change in how we do things. I will actually be trying to focus my thesis on how we move youth and family programs to become more missionally minded. How we discover what God is up to and how we get in step with what He is already doing. And, how we can engage and meet the needs of a hurting world and hurting teens/families. Exciting yet very, very challenging and draining times.

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