Category Archives: blogs

top 25 youth ministry blogs

in case you missed it on The Youth Cartel blog, my partner in crime adam mclane has once again crunched the numbers and produced his annual list of the top youth ministry blogs (this year going to 25).

since people often ask how the list was formed, let me have adam speak for himself:

How is the list created?
The list is based on a composite score of 66% publicly available statistics, such as Alexa and Google Page Rank, and 33% an influence rank voted based on a vote by the previous year’s top bloggers. The first step is to research the publicly available statistics for the 150+ blogs on the index. Next, I rank the statistical strength of each blog. Then, I ask those currently on the list to rate each of the Top 50 blogs for influence. Finally, the human ranking is added in with the statistical rankings to create the composite ranking published here.

whyismarko dropped a position this year, due to doug fields entering the world of blogging (good on ya’, doug). but i’m thrilled to still be at #3, and am glad to see adam at #4 and the still-new Youth Cartel blog come in at #14.

other observations:

  • like many of you, i wish there were more female bloggers on the list. there are 3 (since the FYI blog is 1/2 kara powell), including newcomer rachel blom. but i wish there were more.
  • i wish there were more non-evangelicals on the list. heck, i’m an evangelical — but i would prefer more diversity, as i like to be stretched by thinking that’s not always similar to my own.
  • i’m thrilled to see SEVEN blogs make the list that weren’t on it last year! that’s fantastic.
  • there are a handful of blogs that i so strongly wish had made the cut. i have to believe it’s just because not enough people know about them. some of those (off the top of my head) include: brian berry, paul martin, joel mayward, rj grunewald, brooklyn lindsey, youthHOPE, and scott milller (all excellent youth ministry blogs that i follow).

ok, enough of that. here’s the 2012 list of the top 25 youth ministry blogs:

2012 Rank Name URL 2011 Rank
1 Josh Griffin 1
2 Doug Fields 7
3 Mark Oestreicher 2
4 Adam McLane 4
5 Jonathan McKee 10
6 Tim Schmoyer 3
7 Fuller Youth Institute 8
8 Adam Walker Cleaveland 6
9 Kurt Johnston 19
10 Youth Specialties 5
11 Brian Kirk, Jacob Thorne 13
12 youthministry360 NR
13 Jeremy Zach 9
14 Greg Stier 16
14 The Youth Cartel NR
16 Ian MacDonald 12
17 Walt Mueller 18
18 Youth Leader Stash NR
19 Chuck Bomar NR
20 Rachel Blom NR
21 Mike King 17
21 Jake Bouma NR
23 Kenda Creasy Dean 20
24 Matt McGill NR
25 Terrace Crawford 19



Calvin Park reviews A Beautiful Mess

calvin park, on his thoughtful blog, random bloggings, reviews A Beautiful Mess: What’s Right With Youth Ministry.

Youth Ministry in the United States isn’t an abject failure, or so reasons Mark Oestreicher in his new book from Simply Youth Ministry. In A Beautiful Mess, Marko lays out what he sees as many of the successes and positive aspects of youth ministry. I grabbed the book not long ago, and sat down the other night to read it. What follows are my own random thoughts on this tiny book.

First things first, A Beautiful Mess really is tiny. I finished it in about an hour and a half. That’s not to say it isn’t a good read. It is. In fact, I found it extremely encouraging. You’ll notice that I talk extensively on this blog about how we need to think of new ways to do youth ministry. I haven’t changed my mind on that (aside: neither has Marko). The data are just too clear: the youth ministry status quo isn’t working. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t good things about the youth ministry status quo, and no one has been talking about them–until now.

The most helpful bit of the book, from my perspective, is actually the third chapter (of four, total). In this chapter, Marko shares some positive trends in youth ministry that he has observed from in-the-trenches youth workers. This was encouraging to me for two reasons. First, I haven’t observed these trends when I’ve interacted with local youth workers. That tends to leave me feeling isolated. Not fun. Second, each of the trends he mentions are, I think, extremely positive and exactly the kind of things we need to be experimenting with in youth ministry right now. They are some of the things we’re currently trying and experimenting with in the youth ministry at my church (things like more theological reflection, integrating students into the larger body rather than isolating them, and working with and involving parents).

So, this little book was encouraging and helped me to feel slightly less isolated in the youth ministry world. It’s also challenged me to continue mucking about in this beautiful mess we call youth ministry.

Worth the read.

marv nelson’s reflections on A Beautiful Mess and being well resourced

i really enjoyed marv nelson’s review of my book, A Beautiful Mess, because he didn’t just summarize the book, but reflected on how it resonated with his own journey. really thoughtful stuff:

Youth Ministry is a Beautiful Mess. Mark Oestreicher (Marko) puts this elegantly in his new book, which I was blessed to get for free. Simply put, this book is a beautiful, authentic, transparent and gut-checking look into what’s right with Youth Ministry. Several things that Marko writes resonate with me and several of the mistakes Marko lists he’s done, I know I am or was guilty of as well.

Marko used to be the President of Youth Specialties, where resources poured down into the hands of Youth Ministers/leaders every where, so when he says: “In fact, I’m becoming more and more convinced that one of the worst things that can happen to a youth ministry is to become well resourced” (page 20, iBooks), one should sit up and listen.

When I started as a full-time youth pastor at the ripe old age of 21, I was in a small church with a youth budget of $3,000. Compared to some of my friends, that was a lot of money but to me, it was frustratingly small because I believed the lie that resources would make my ministry grow. I soon realized the best thing to do would be to write my own youth talks instead of buying other people’s youth talks (no offense Marko). I’m not talking about writing the fuzzy wuzzy stuff I was somewhat trained to teach but digging deeper and going deeper with the teens, writing “real” sermons. Once I gave God the control of what to speak at Youth Group, rather than Youth Specialties or Group or whoever else, I saw a dramatic shift in the kids lives. Now, I’m not all against resources, I think they can helpful at guiding and leading in the right direction for youth ministry practices or even youth talks. The issue comes when we believe the only way to do it is the way it’s shown to be done with these resources. I write books and read veraciously so resources that are for the pastor or ideas that are for him can be very effective and useful, again it’s full reliance to the lack of reliance on God.

Then, as things shift in the church, I was put down to part time because of financial troubles within the church and my budget was cut further. Soon my wife and now new baby realized we had to move. I changed jobs into a mega-church with tons of resourcing. Where I used my meager budget before to buy food and take kids out to eat I now had a huge budget to do greater and bigger events. I soon realized I fell prey to the trappings of “resources” again and needed God to slap me upside the head and remind me of the lessons of the past.

I share that bit of detail because Marko’s words resonated with me about resourcing and I couldn’t put the book down. Although this book is short (34 pages in iBooks), it packs a huge punch. Marko soon shares why he believes resourcing can be a bad thing: it takes our reliance off of the Spirit and places it in the hands of man.

Marko states his 2 bottom lines: “Bottom line No. 1: Without a sens of the Holy Spirit’s role in your life, you will always be limited in your own spiritual growth and practice and, therefore, in your youth ministry efforts *OUCH*. Bottom line No. 2: A youth ministry that’s not informed by active and intentional listening to the Holy Spirit will miss out on who God is calling it to be *DOUBLE OUCH*” (page 25, iBooks, Ouches were my own).

This has been a hard lesson to learn for me personally but Marko is dead on correct. I fear too often in Youth Ministry we rely on the programs, the resources and what the “pro’s” are doing that we neglect to listen to God for our own current context. We stop praying about ministry and simply “do” ministry. This does not create long-lasting disciples to Jesus but may create dedicated followers to a person, namely the youth pastor. Our jobs are not to create cult-followings for ourselves but to point them to Jesus.

Marko says some other very profound things about youth ministry, his own walk and his own “re-thinking” that he’s undergone as it comes to youth ministry. It’s a packed 34 pages that I feel every youth worker needs to read and re-read to remind us of what’s important. I know it’s a book I will refer back to so I can remember the most important thing: allowing God to lead, nothing and no one else.

new leadership at 30 hour famine

i’ve been a fan of world vision’s 30 hour famine for a long, long time. in fact, i participated in what was then called the “planned famine” when i was a teenager myself. every year, 30 hour famine engages thousands of youth groups around the world in activism and education to provide food and other basic necessities to the millions of people around the world who suffer from hunger. 30 hour famine is one of those very tangible youth ministry experiences that doesn’t involve putting teenagers on planes and taking them on costly trips. and yet, it provides a great combination of expanded world view, understanding god’s heart for the poor (a pretty good place for us to meet god ourselves!), and developmentally helpful “getting my attention off of myself” that’s so rare in the everyday lives of teenagers.

in the years that YS had a partnership with world vision around a very cool program called One Life Revolution, i had regular contact with the famine team. and i was always impressed by their passion, their expertise, their desire to serve youth workers, and their hearts to see teenagers moved.

and — this is just one guy’s opinion — but i felt like famine went through a little slump in recent years. i have no interest in trying to guess why, other than that all efforts like this (just like all organizations) have natural life-cycles, and significant renewal is needed if the effort (or organization) is going to continue to experience vibrancy and truly serve and engage their “customers” (in this case, youth workers).

but i’m feeling downright bullish about the next chapter of the 30 hour famine, due to a couple conversations i’ve had in the last few months with the new leadership. in particular, leah swindon has come on board as the new national director. i’ve had two lengthy conversations and multiple email exchanges with leah (and michele tvedt, famine’s “youth leader advisor”), and i leave every conversation and email exchange with more energy then when i entered. they’re passionate about what they do, passionate about teenagers and youth leaders, and (this is probably the part that encourages me the most) open to ideas and change. any organization that stops saying “this is how we do things” and starts saying “we want to change” puts itself in a place where great things can happen.

30 hour famine is partnering with The Youth Cartel on The Summit, and maybe some other stuff. and i’m pleased about that. but, honestly, hand to heart, i would choose no partnership but a vibrant season of fresh development and hopeful growth for 30 hour famine over the opposite (partnership, but with a 30 hour famine that is anemic and same ‘ol, same ‘ol).

i read leah’s 30 hour famine blog post about her new start after these conversations; and i can confirm that it’s not spin, not fake promises. she’s the real deal, and i’m truly pumped to both be partnering with them, and to see what will develop in famine-land over the next year or two.

i’d encourage you to follow the 30 hour famine blog.
like‘ them on FB.
follow them on twitter.
and, if you’ve never engaged with the 30 hour famine program (it’s free!), click here to learn more.

How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

this week’s question asked: How, when, and why do you split middle school and high school?

i’ll admit, i didn’t answer it straight on. but i riffed on it a bit, as did josh griffin and jeremy zach (click here to read their responses). here’s what i wrote:

My answer to this question has continued to evolve over my 30 years in middle school ministry. Some of that shifting (in my thinking) is a response to dramatic shifts in both the onset of puberty (younger and younger!) and youth culture. And some of that shifting is a response to being a parent of two teenagers: my daughter graduated from high school yesterday (as I write this) and my son from middle school. But at least some portion of the shifts in my response to this question come from a change in my thinking about youth ministry in general.

So let’s focus on that. If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the past four years, you might know that I’ve harped quite a bit on the need to move away from an over-reliance on priority of youth ministry programming. Programs aren’t evil; but the subtle thinking that great programs transform lives or grow faith is – and has been, for many of us – a false-positive measurement of youth ministry success.

If the goal of youth ministry is momentum, combining middle school and high school makes lots of sense, because it’s tough to have momentum without a good chunk o’ teenagers.

If the goal of youth ministry is energy, combining – or keeping MS and HS combined – is perfectly logical.

If the goal of youth ministry is hype, then – by all means – keep ‘em combined.

In fact, for years I’ve suggested that it seems to make sense to consider separating MS and HS into two groups when both of them have something around 20 regular participants each. I’ve suggested that there are great reasons to consider separating small groups prior to those numbers, and combining for some things (worship, for example) even beyond those numbers.

But I’m just not sure I buy that anymore – for two big reasons:

First, with the continued extension of adolescence (about 20 years long now, on average, from 10 or 11 through the 20s), the difference between 12 year-olds and 17 year-olds just seems more markedly pronounced than ever. And I’m no longer convinced that the benefit of momentum and energy and hype is worth the trade-off of providing a developmentally and culturally inappropriate ministry for either group. In some ways (and, sure, this is slightly hyperbolic), you have two choices:

• Combine MS and HS, enjoy a bit of momentum and streamlining, but forfeit being developmentally on-target, while expediting the headlong rush into adolescence for young teens who could really use another year or two of being an apprentice teenager.
• Or, separate MS and HS, focusing more intentionally on both, while losing out on some of the fun and energy that can come from having critical mass. Oh, and this option is more work.

But, if the primary value of my youth ministry efforts are no longer to create hype or momentum… if my belief isn’t that big cool programs change lives… then I’m going to have to side with the second of those options every time.

The other big reason I don’t buy into my old advice on this question is this: I don’t know what you should do! And the reason I don’t know what you should do is a very simple and straightforward set of facts:
• I’m not God
• I have not called you into youth ministry, or gifted you
• I do not know your context
• And, I hate blanket answers

My leaning these days is that it’s best to separate middle school and high school as soon as you can, as often as you can, as early as you can. But what do I know, really? Ultimately, this is a question of discernment: what kind of ministry is God calling you to in your context?

patience and youth ministry

recently, i was one of three respondents to a question on kara powell and brooklyn lindsey wrote absolutely brilliant (and very different) responses to the question — i’d encourage you to click through and read their posts.

here’s the question, and my response:

Patience is difficult for youth workers. What do you find just unavoidably takes time?

Confession: I wrote this question. And it reveals a bit of my age-bias, I think. I’m turning 49 the week I’m writing this, and have passed the 30-year mark in youth ministry. In other words: I’m old.

And, while I tend to normally be a bit averse to age group stereotypes (I sure don’t want to be stereotyped with other 49-year olds!), I think there’s an age generalization I can fairly make as a precursor to responding to this question.

Older youth workers don’t (usually) struggle with patience. There’s mostly only one reason for this: even though many of us (myself included) were once quite impatient, we couldn’t still be in youth ministry if we didn’t pick a bit of it up along the journey. In other words, youth workers who stay impatient usually move on to other ministries, ones that have a more reliable return on investment, a quicker feedback loop, and something to chalk up as “results” other than “well, no one intentionally farted during prayer tonight” (which, I think we can all agree, doesn’t play to well in your monthly report to your church board).

I’m showing my skirt here; you can already tell how I’m going to answer this question, right?

EVERYTHING in youth ministry unavoidably takes time.

Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. There are a few things that don’t have to take time:

  • Ruining your reputation
  • Destroying trust with a student
  • Making an enemy out of a parent

But most things in youth ministry – at least the really good things – take time and patience. Maybe that’s because God is maddenly patient. I mean, I’m really glad God is patient when it comes to my stuff, my sin, my brokenness, my growth. But if I’m honest, I sometimes wish God cared a bit more about speediness when it comes to transforming teenagers. Sure, there are the occasional overnight 180 change stories we pass around (why does it so often seem that evangelists have these as their own stories, and assume everyone else’s will/should be the same?).

But most change takes time. Most transformation – at least the good God-stuff – takes place as a journey of subtle shifts. Most passion develops gradually. Most insight isn’t acquired in a flash. Most commitment, while they may appear to happen all at once the last night of camp, are a long series of fits and starts that gradually settle into resolve and a deeper knowing.

No question about it: pretty much all the really, deeply good stuff of youth ministry requires patience, because God doesn’t care much about speed. One of my primary prayers for youth workers is “God, give us patience.” God, give me patience.

stuff you can use (dot org)

youth workers, you should know about stuff you can use ( it’s a nicely designed and easy to navigate site that’s sole purpose is the free sharing of resources.

i don’t know kenny and elle. and this is not a paid post or anything like that at all. but i particularly like a couple things about what they’re doing:

first, there’s no angle on this. they really are about creating a free clearinghouse, where you can use their stuff, where you can get other peoples’ stuff, and where you can share your own stuff. whatever the quality of the stuff, that’s a good impulse, and i loudly applaud it (in fact, i’m starting a slow clap at this moment, if you’d like to join me).

second, kenny and elle are my people. by that i mean: they lead a middle school ministry. i might not know them, but i get them, and i know they get me.

austin mccann’s review of A Beautiful Mess

youth ministry blogger austin mccann wrote a nice review on his blog of my last book, A Beautiful Mess: What’s Right About Youth Ministry. here’s most of it:

It seems like every time you turn around there is a new youth ministry book that is promoting a new “model” or “philosophy” of youth ministry. Don’t get me wrong, I am not against these types of books and many of them have been instrumental in shaping my own philosophy of youth ministry. But far too often as youth pastors and youth workers, we look to the next “big thing” and quickly abandon what we are doing for the sake of doing youth ministry differently. This is not always bad because in a changing youth culture, we must be changing the way we minister to students in that culture. But we must not get caught up in what’s wrong with our youth ministry and quickly jump to trying something new. We need to realize a lot of what we are doing is working and actually making a different in the life’s of students for the sake of the Gospel!

This is why Mark Oestreicher’s book, A Beautiful Mess, was such a breathe of fresh air for me! Finally, a youth ministry book that didn’t talk about what is wrong with youth ministry, but actually explained what is right with youth ministry! Mark explains some of the current things in youth ministry that are working and bringing fruit in the life’s of our students. He helps us see that the glass is half full, not half empty. This book allows youth pastors and youth workers to be encouraged and walk away feeling like they are making a difference, because they really are making a difference! Mark admits that we must not resist change because we always need to be changing the way we do student ministry, but we must not change for the sake of change. We are doing some things right in youth ministry and let’s see the glass half full and continue serving students with the love of Christ.

I would recommend this book for anyone involved in youth ministry. This book will help you identity some of the things we are doing right in student ministry and encourage by reminding us we are making a difference!

thanks, austin!

zack weingartner reviews ‘understanding your young teen’

a wonderfully thorough review of my latest book, understanding your young teen, on zack weingartner’s blog. a bit from the beginning:

The first time a parent came to me as the youth group leader to ask for parenting advice was crazy. It was crazy for a lot of reasons, but the primary reason was that I was only 19 years old and the student in question was 14. I had nothing to say, mostly because I had nothing to offer – I was trying to figure out how to respond to the Elders’ request that I take my lip ring out and stop dyeing my hair green.

The reason that Marko’s new book “Understanding Your Young Teen” is so important is because it goes a long way towards closing the gap in the kinds of conversations that parents and people who work with young teens have to have, both with the teens themselves and with one another. The content of the book is a training for parents (the subtitle after all is “Practical Wisdom for Parents”) but applies so wonderfully to my everyday world working with middle school students and their families that I must rave about it. Here goes:

and from the end:

This book isn’t just a quick read and put on the shelf book. It is a field guide and handbook for anyone that has the best in mind for a young teen, or a group of young teens. My kids are little, but this book will come back into play for me in a whole new way in just a few years. If you are a parent of a young teen, or a soon to be young teen this will profoundly impact your parenting, your home – your entire life. If you teach this age or pastor this age of teen – you will learn more that you can imagine and have to underline and re-read to grasp it. Marko is a voice for a change in understanding and changing the way we do everything in ministry – and now in parenting – that none of us can afford to ignore or miss.

you’ll have to click through for all the rest!

the weird experience of my weird nativities post

last post on the craziness of my “27 worst nativities” post. a little round up. in the month of december, that post got:
– 68 trackbacks
– 48,108 shares on facebook
– 69,000 likes on facebook
– 530 tweets
– 457,000 visits (just to that post)

holy cow — a half million visitors to one post.

facebook was the machine that spread the thing. but a handful of the others: was first with the simple one-line question: Why not mix it up this Christmas with a shotgun shell Mother Mary, a penguin Joseph, and a s’more baby Jesus?

the multi-blogger religion site patheos had a handful of bloggers who provided a steady stream of incoming traffic (in descending order of traffic):
the anchoress, with the blog title “why does god love us?”
the crescat, “according to my nativity set, jesus was irish, so there…”
the deacon’s bench, who just called it “the world’s worst nativity sets”

london’s daily mail newspaper posted an entire article on their website with a bunch of the images.

It’s not so much baby Jesus in a manger as baby sausage on a bed of sauerkraut in one unorthodox – and fully edible – nativity scene.

In another, it’s a stretch to sense Mary and Joseph when faced with two white marshmallows – and as for a group of cupcakes posing as three kings, artistic imagination is key.

But these holiday scenes are all made in good cheer and, from the especially inappropriate gunshell Jesus to the oddly rustic clay ‘frozen burrito’ baby, all will surely give any Christmas celebrations a welcome talking point.
Celebrating the beginning of advent, blogger Mark Oestreicher has put together a fast-growing list of the worst nativity scenes ever.

Having last year created a list of 20 bad-taste holiday features, this year the list expanded to 27. Since being read by over 120,000 people, however, the list has swelled to 37 – with some hilarious, disturbing and downright off-subject inclusions.
The list, at, includes everything from china kittens to butter figures and even a Godzilla holy birth place.

then, i got contacted by a writer for the ‘weird news’ section of the huffington post. he interviewed me, and wrote this article, which appeared in the ‘weird news’ section and the ‘religion’ section, and was on the front page of huffpo for a while. an excerpt:

“I find the ones that depict the nativity with cats or dogs to be hideously laughable,” Oestreicher said. “Same with the kitchen timer that features Jesus, Mary and Joseph.”

But Oestreicher’s comments regarding the nuttier nativity scenes have made some people cross.

“I’ve had a few sour comments about how the blog post displeases God,” he admitted. “But I point out that this is the same God who created laughter.”

Though Oestreicher used to think that depicting the birth of Jesus with rubber duckies “sucked,” but had an epiphany that helped change his tune.

“These are peoples’ whimsical attempts to engage in a profound mystery,” he said.

He’s even found inspiration from some nativity scenes that helped him explain the concept of God and Jesus to a group of junior high school students.

“I told them, ‘Imagine a giant Lego set and you decide to go into the Lego scene,’ ” Oestreicher said. “That’s what God did when he sent his only son down to Earth.”

south florida’s sun-sentinal newspaper contacted me, and ran this piece first: Bizarre Nativity scenes: Dogs, butter, bacon, Godzilla. Christian blogger puts out tongue-in-cheek Yuletide list. i’m glad they included this:

Oestreicher, who lives in La Mesa, Calif., offers some droll comments but not the condemnation that some readers have reacted with. For them, he has a standard answer: “My feeling is that the creative God who invented fun and laughter smiles with us at these.”

of course, dozens of blogs linked in. but my favorite was when i noticed incoming traffic from author/humor-columnist dave barry’s blog. i have been a fan of dave barry’s writing since i was in high school, when i would wait eagerly for the supplement in the detroit news sunday edition that has his column in it. i’ve read dozens of his books. early in our marriage, jeannie would get frustrated with me when i would read dave barry books in bed, because i would wiggle the bed with my suppressed laughter. she would wake up and say, “you’re reading dave barry again, aren’t you?” so, yeah, i didn’t know that getting an incoming link to my blog from “my friend dave barry’s” blog was on my bucket list. but it sure felt like i checked it off when i saw the incoming traffic from dave (we’re hanging out later, yeah).

even my local la mesa patch did a little piece on it, with a bit more of a “he’s a local!” vibe to it.

as the traffic started to slowly back down to “above normal but not insane”, i got an email from a catholic tv show based in nyc, asking if they could interview me on air and show some of the nativities. they asked me to create my top 10, and the host and i went through that list (i was limited to the ones i had permission to use, but it’s still a good list).

right at the end of the month (just prior to new year’s eve), a surprising link from the national review (an otherwise political magazine and website) brought in another 7000 or so.

all in all, it was simply nuts. and — being fully honest — i’m glad it’s now in the past!