the future of youth ministry, episode 6

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m posting them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.
part 1 (searching for the right way)
part 2 (discipleship, barriers)
part 3 (intergenerational ministry)
part 4 (parents)
part 5 (re-weird-ifying christianity)

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holy cow, steve argue comes out swingin’ and gets in three or four punches before anyone even realized the bell rung. dude.

but if we all dodge to the left for a brief second, we can see that steve – another of the most brilliant minds in youth ministry; a guy who could out-intelligent me with his eyes closed and one arm tied behind his back – offers up some significant fodder for consideration.

steve has a serious youth min pedigree, with a buncha cool roles. currently, he’s on staff at mars hill bible church in grand rapids (where rob bell is the teaching pastor), where he oversees birth through emerging adults; he’s an adjunct professor of youth ministry at grand rapids theological seminary, and a phd student at michigan state. he writes regularly for slant 33 and other publications. and he might just have the coolest hair of any middle-aged youth worker out there.

i’m choosing to leave the swear word in his quote, hoping your church email filter will let it slip through. after all, it kinda seems the appropriate word, and is close to one used by the good ol’ apostle paul:

Steve Argue
Hey church, adolescents are NOT leaving you. You are perpetually leaving them. Stop using statistical bullshit to project blame. Repent.
Unless you’re willing to let adolescents mess with your own life, you have no business messing with their lives.
Most churches are not worthy of youth pastors. Youth pastors, stop giving yourself to organizations that use you to better “market” their church to families; that expect you to “produce” programs; and that exploit you because they know it’s hard to leave the kids you love. Walk away. Don’t take the job, because if you do, you’re wrecking it for all of us. Raise the bar. Boycott churches unworthy of youth pastors. Amen.

let’s unpack this a bit.

first, steve addresses churches. he pokes, in a very un-zuckerburgian manner, at the raft of studies we all quote these days about the high percentage of post-high school teenagers leaving the church. he suggests we rethink who’s leaving whom, with the inference that the church has “left” teenagers long before the physical absence of those emerging adults. church embody this “leaving”, according to steve, by viewing youth ministry primarily in utilitarian terms — as a means of attracting families (with a between-the-lines inference to donors).

just when we think steve is leading the charge for all of us youth workers, he spins around and stares us down: stop perpetuating this messed-up system by finding job security in churches with this mindset.

oof. that one stings a little. and i think it stings because there’s at least some truth in it.

this all feels very yaconelli-esque to me: it finds harmonic resonance with “getting fired for the glory of god” and “run for your soul.” it gets me excited and pumping my fist in the air.

but.

i know so many youth workers for whom this is so complex. i like (really, i do!) steve’s black-and-white battle cry. and i’ve often found that it’s in that kind of hyperbole that we find the courage to take the baby steps we need. after all, jesus didn’t literally mean we should pluck out our eye or chop off our hand. so what’s the deeper meaning — the implied meaning, for your context — of what steve is yelping for us to see?

23 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, episode 6”

  1. and a Happy Valentine’s Day to you as well, Marko!

    Can we truly be accused of “leaving” young people when we have yet to fully commit to them? In this season of “Be Mine,” if we really want young people around, we should be offering more than letting “adolescents mess with our lives.” We need to change our systems to assure that our ministry fully embraces their lives:
    > by serving their parents in their ministry to their young people;
    > by recruiting and training a critical mass of adults to be present and involved in their lives; and
    > by “ushering” their involvement within the rich hospitality of our adult communities as they seek to address the mission of the church.

    And, that might be our biggest challenge. We got into this ministry “for the kids” but now we find ourselves redefining what “for the kids” means for our job descriptions and “to do” lists.

  2. Steve nailed it. Many churches followed suite with society and have systematically abandoned teenagers. Yes they still have programs, budgets and youth pastors but at the core many churches are more concerned with power and leadership wants to preserve it. Yes there are some amazing churches and leaders who get it but there are also too many revolving doors of churches who create caustic environments for youth workers and only care about keeping things from unraveling. I’ve seen too many youth workers get ruined by bad systems. I echo Steve. Run away.

  3. I think in between run away and deny your services.. and join up and toe the line, there is a third option that is more like infiltrate.

    If youth ministers go where the youth are, and there are youth in those churches that might not yet fully “get it”.. it seems to me that there are people that will be called into service in those locations.

    But it dangerous and difficult work. It is easy to get trapped in the numbers game, and forget to focus on students as people with souls. It is easy to start counting that additional salary as yours, and act out of self perseverance instead of calling and understanding of your mission and message.

  4. Much of the paranoia that seems to circulate around youth ministry failing eventually leads to product. The best way to sell product is to pitch it on fear or exclusion. The product that is being pimped right now actually exacerbates the problems facing youth ministry. I agree with Steve and find that key leaders in churches seem to have no desire to actually reach the second largest generation next to boomers because they don’t pay bills and they require a whole lot more thinking and effort to be reached. Going after students and college aged young people right now is just not profitable to them.

    But make sure we have environment for them so our conscience can be eased and we can continue to marginalize obedience to the Gospel.

  5. i read and re-read steve’s writings several times. i resonate with “repent.” churches have left them, i agree and we should repent. steve is right on.

    so many churches don’t really are about students at all. i believe real . . . authentic . . . student ministry scares churches and church leaders because it messes with the machine. how can we ask students to be biblical when adults are challenged to be biblical at all? don’t mess with the donors!

    i have incredible hope in the future of youth ministry because i believe their is a movement — although small and a bit underground — of youth leaders that have learned from the past mistakes and are doing things different. they are standing up to the establishment. they are calling fake leaders out. they are teaching students to ask the right kind of questions and they are being leaders themselves. they are serving jesus with the best of their abilities and its producing fruit.

    my question to steve is . . . what kind of churches are worthy of youth ministries? give us some examples. i want to know which ones he can point us to that we can learn from. i’m one that has been burned by bad systems and i’ve made plenty of mistakes myself. i still feel a call to make a difference in this world of student ministry and i don’t want to waste any more time.

    thx marko for the discussion!

  6. I will mainly agree with Steve because he has a patch on his sleeve that says he is a sergeant or something. I think we need more cool patches like that and then the church would be able to minister better to the youth of today.

    In all seriousness, it’s true. I find myself (as an Exec Pastor who is a recent former youth pastor and a current HS small group leader) wanting to have a revolutionary youth ministry while also wanting to reach young families or families with teenagers. I don’t think it’s wrong to want to reach those people too. That’s why we need to blend some of these “future of youth ministry” thoughts together to form something that infiltrates where youth are at, that gets messy with them on a daily basis, that cares for their parents and that isn’t doing any of it for the purpose of enlarging a donor base, but is happy to have a larger donor base to work with and give away.

  7. I love this… and hate it. It reveals what we all struggle with in youth ministry. We want to form teens in the image of Christ, but we feel the pressure of churches and their programs. Steve is right in challenging us to reject those paradigms, but how then shall we do youth ministry?

    There is so much more to say in response to this. Maybe a future blog post.

  8. mmmm….I like some of what he is saying here…he is right to decry churches for abandoning teens, and failing to help them engage with a culture that is now light years away from even what mid-20’s experienced 10 years ago. But as you say, it’s just not always that simple. I would argue that the church needs to stop measuring statistics by how many come TO them, but how many places we are able to connect WITH them. That’s where the real laziness kicks in.

  9. I know Steve as a friend and I’m with him on this one. (and the word he uses is totally appropriate btw) Churches want students to conform to their world, but generally aren’t willing to do anything to change to receive students into their world. In my 20 years of youth ministry, churches I know of and worked for are guilty of wanting ‘intergenerational’ ministry to happen, but aren’t willing to pay the price of pain and messiness to get there.

    Kudos Argue, and to you too Marko for throwing this out there!

  10. 2 thoughts. [and just a warning, I love run on sentences and excessive uses of commas, brackets, dashes, and the like]

    1st. In confronting the system, the challenge by Steve, in essence, to leave or not take jobs at churches that use the youth program as nothing more than a marketing ploy is some thing I struggle with, and I’m sure you are the same, because we believe in the youth. And even if we are at, have been, or considering working at a toxic church that take more out of our souls than pour in, we still believe in the youth. Rarely do we hear cases of the students causing burn out in a leader.

    Recently, the church I serve at did a rather extensive remodel. From what I have been able to gather, it started with the need to re-carpet much of the building but then expanded to a full fledge face-lift and addressing other issues with the facility. To most the building seemed fine, we knew we needed new carpet but the building ‘worked’. We were fortunate enough to have this all fit into our budget but at the same time it was a hefty expense that many didn’t see as 100% necessary – especially given the economics of area. Fortunately, the leadership was able to have the foresight and knowledge to articulate to the congregation that if we didn’t address all of these now, we would simply be putting a band-aid over many facility issues that in the end would cost us drastically more if we waited and would need to be done anyways.

    I tell this story to say – yes, there are times when we need to let go and not feed the system but at the same time, do we not believe in the restoration of all things? How else do we help to bring change to a broken system than to be in it? Do we let it burn down and build on the ashes? Or help renovate, adapt, and restore ‘the building’ when we see areas in need?

    2nd. I think Eric hinted at this… we must foster an understanding that the youth are not the future of the church, but THE church of today. Yes have all heard this before, we all agree. We might have to rethink church in a sense, since how many churches are set-up only feed this mindset. How can the Kids and Student ministries realistically be separate from Family Ministries? Or Community Life/Small Group ministries separate from any of those? There are endless connections and overlap – but for some reason, as soon as a child hits 7th grade they are no longer involved with Kids but now with Students. Yes, we specialize but we are part of a body, a leg doesn’t go very far by itself.

  11. Perhaps the very phrase “Youth Ministry” is partially to blame for all of this. In churches when we think of “women’s ministry”, “men’s ministry”, “senior ministry”, etc., we would never consider these groups of people to be segregated and isolated from the church body. We recognize that they are vital parts of the body who may find growth in specialized ministry of the church. We would never create a “senior ministry” in order to separate them from the church body so that the rest of the church doesn’t have to deal with them.

    In smaller churches, it seems that expansion beyond a senior pastor starts with either Music or Youth ministry. I think we (the church) have better intentions than “marketing” to families through youth ministries, but is does easily slide into that mindset. But we are to blame as well when we perpetuate this by getting into the “competition” game among ourselves to be the biggest and coolest group in town.

  12. “let’s unpack this a bit.”

    ROFL. Understatement of the new millennium.

    P.S. Please tell Steve that his shirt is a little tight.

  13. Maybe Steve is using hyperbole, but that’s not how I think it should be taken. I think it takes guts to be a leader, and that means taking a risk to do the right thing. It’s hard when you have a family to support, and you don’t want to just walk away from a church that is pimping you out, so of course these things need to be a matter of prayer, and not just a matter of personal convictions.

    Now that I’m a “pastor” I feel more freedom to publicly raise a voice over these kinds of issues. When I was a youth pastor and would bring these kinds of things up in private, pastors would tell me, “You try to run a church and see if you still feel this way!” Well, now I am in charge, and my feelings haven’t changed. Now I feel I have an opportunity to shout from the rooftops! (The problem is, my building isn’t all that tall, so standing on the roof doesn’t carry too far…)

    On the flip side of the coin, I think it’s important to remember that just because teenagers walk away doesn’t mean that the church walked away from them. All of us have walked away from God, and He didn’t walk away from us–He has always genuinely loved us. We are dealing with fallen teenagers, and even in spite of genuine love, reality is that many will continue to leave regardless.

  14. This statement is either brilliant or inane. I’ll have to trust your introduction and admit that I don’t understand what he’s saying. I was under the impression from Soul Searching and Almost Christian that in regard to faith practices, our students are in lockstep with the church and their parents. The only difference is that they don’t perpetuate our ritual church attendance when they graduate. While I agree on the critique of youth ministry as a means to market church to families, I don’t think pitting youth ministers against the church with the strange ‘unworthy’ language is helpful. In whatever church a youth minister finds him/herself, I think there is a call to be the youth minister the church didn’t know it needed or wanted. Boycotting language will perpetuate arrogance in a profession that could use more humility and respect.

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