innovations i’m convinced are needed in youth ministry

here are a handful of innovative movements I long to see in youth ministry, and am committing myself to.

go organic, buy local
youth ministry simply must become more organic and local. of course, your practice of youth ministry is local. but i’m addressing the whole engorged body of thinking and resourcing and modeling in the world of youth ministry. sure, national events can be great (heck, the youth cartel hosts some of them!). but remember that model church isn’t in your neighborhood, and isn’t populated by your teenagers and parents, and doesn’t necessarily share your values.

do not listen to me (or any other youth ministry “expert”) when we tell you what you should do. we might stir your thinking or imagination (and that’s a good thing); but you and i simply must cultivate an active life of spiritual discernment and organic contextualization when it comes to our approaches, models and methods.

i don’t know how we’re going to do this. and i’m certainly not the only one saying it. but we have to work against the isolation of teenagers, particularly in our churches. this, alone, is the single biggest failure of youth ministry over the past four or five decades.

models and practices for non-professional youth workers
sorry to be the doomsday guy, but the era of professional youth workers is going away, eventually. it might linger longer in certain denominations (like, southern baptist) or geographies (like, the south); but it’s on the decline, and it’s not going to return.

small churches, of course, have long done youth ministry without paid staff. but mid-sized to large white, suburban churches (where the majority of paid youth workers exist) have no idea how to even think about youth ministry without paid staff; and very soon, the money is just not going to be there.

what other innovations do you think are needed in youth ministry?

21 thoughts on “innovations i’m convinced are needed in youth ministry”

  1. This is great, Marko! I would add that we need to truly embrace the truth that it takes a village to raise a child. Parents can’t do it alone. Youth leaders can’t do it alone. Teachers & coaches can’t do it alone. We need to embrace that fact and facilitate ways for our local villages to raise teens in the way they should go.

  2. Obviously the things listed above, all excellent are not new innovations but a return to what was and needs to be youth ministry, so my comment all though simplistic and old-school may just fit?
    The next “new” innovation that is needed is— Verse-by-verse, text in hand (*even if it on a device) curriculum-free teaching of God’s Word.

    “After the the bright fire of technology, the impressive earthquake of events, the storm of illustrations and funny stories. Came the still small voice of God.” – I Kings 19 (remix)

  3. Along these same lines, part of the transition will need to be to disciple those who are in our congregations on what it means to follow Christ. When you lose paid staff members, no one will reach out to other people (i.e. youth), except those who show up on Sundays. I’m in a small church, and I realize that since we can’t afford staff people, our own people have to do it. The problem is, most people don’t want to do it and it seems they are so consumed with everything going on in their own lives (family, work, etc.) that they feel they can’t afford to commit to reaching out to other people. Not only that, but they feel they can’t do it as “well” as a professional minister. They have little motivation to even try.

    IMO, this is what we get for relying too heavily on paid staff. We are trying in our church to change this, but I must say it can be very frustrating. It often feels like it would be a lot easier if we could hire someone who knows what they are doing and could run with it. This is going to be a slow, long process.

  4. I love the genuineness and the honesty that you bring Marko.

    After doing youth ministry for about 14 years now, I must say that I couldn’t agree more.
    The current economic downturn in our economy is just pulling the sheets back on the need for change that has been brewing for some time, not just in youth ministry, but in the church as a whole.

    The sad truth: the change that’s needed will not come through voluntary, healthy transitions within the current framework of our churches with current leadership. The urgent need for re-casting of a different kind of leadership which Marko talks about in his blog about ‘leading without power’ is too tall of a task for current leaders to undertake who are simply trying to maintain and survive.

    I am reading through this series of blogs (which I have implored Marko to make into a book) regularly to challenge myself on how to recast my leadership, Our ministry cannot change if we as leaders do not change how we view and carry out leadership.
    Do yourself a favor, read this entire blog series and ask yourself some tough questions today.

  5. Excellent post. You and Adam are both on it today.

    2 things:
    1) not only do we need to fight the isolation of youth within the church, but the trend of isolation in culture. When I heard Kinnaman articulate “alienation” as one of his three descriptors of mosaics, it really resonated with me. Add it to another one of the many things about spiritual development/discipleship that run counter to culture.

    2) I’m so intrigued by your last point. Of course I agree with your summation, but I do wonder when if the money will dry up, or if that is even the right variable to point to as the future extinguisher of staff youth workers. This is where I am not smart enough to answer the question, or to even think about it in the right way. But isn’t it a values thing? If a church values the role of a youth pastor, won’t they find the money? (Naive? Hopeful? Maybe . . .) And is there a leveling effect? Is there a mean that will be regressed to? A sort of bottom? Or do you think it’s a slow decline to zero paid youth workers?

    Thanks for making me think.

  6. not sure the paid youth pastor will go away completely (unless the whole church has to go underground and then ALL bets are off)

    but I do believe the Youth Pastor should be more Pastor than Youth…connected to the church, hospital visits, preaching in the pulpit, etc…To be honest, this is how it always should be unless your church staff has more than 3-5 Pastors

  7. I am also curious about the suggestion that there will be a decline (or end) to paid youth workers. Could you expand some more on why you think this will happen? Besides money what other factors will lead to the end of professional youth workers. My own experience points towards many people willing to help in youth ministry, but none who (except the pastor) who are willing to engage the time and effort into doing much more than sustaining what is happening.

  8. nathan — i think economic reasons are, by far, the big issue here (on that point). churches just can’t (or won’t be able to, in the near future) afford a paid youth worker anymore. this is both because of declining attendance in many churches, and because of declining giving trends. but a secondary reason is that we’ve learned a lot about the damage of isolating teenagers in the church: so, there will also be an increased pressure (some good, some misguided) to trim back on the kind of highly programmed youth groups we’ve so commonly had in the past four decades.

  9. On your last point, it certainly feels that way to me – which feels kinda gloomy to me. I would love to see what a couple friends of mine who are professors in youth ministry think of this. I know I do more than just youth ministry in my church – more of an associates role, which might be something we’ll see more and more of. I wonder though if we may have a different opinion on this if and when we see a resurgence in our economy.

  10. Unfortunately I agree. In a time when especially the UMC denomination is struggling and doing things like sharing pastors among 5-6 small churches, closing churches, and decreasing districts within the conference, additional cuts are going to take place at the local levels. I see the areas of importance being preaching pastors and children/family directors, not necessarily youth staff. The trend right now seems to be that our kids are too busy and families/parents don’t want one more thing to go to. Unfortunately that means church events and parents are looking for more ways the entire family can be present at the same time. My hope is that as the economy declines we will see more and more people turning to church and wanting more opportunity available to engage their children and their families.

  11. I’m not so sure is going away as much as it is evolving. Many youth pastors are being given much larger responsibilities and youth ministry is an encompassing piece of that larger responsibility. I just look forward to the day when a church is honest and gives the title of “Pastor of everything the Senior Pastor Doesn’t want to Do”. Its more like the role of Youth Pastor is becoming the job for the Jack of All Trades type ministry leader who can still focus on youth and family.

  12. Maybe your next post should be “future career opportunities for ex professional youth ministers.” On a related note, does anyone have the number fir ITT Tech?

  13. Just like many comments already, for me the one point that jumps out is about less professional youth workers. I agree that it is definitely changing, and it needs to, but I also don’t believe youth positions will disappear completely. I do hope that we become a bit more serious about what those positions are for. I have very similar responsibilities as every other pastor on staff at my church; I do hospital visits, I do funerals, I do weddings, I do counseling (and not just teenagers). This is how it will change, and because of this the median age will go up as well. All of this will contribute to the body of Christ actually being one body, which also needs to happen as well.

  14. Good grief, am I behind or what? As always, even if I’m reading it late, I am challenged by your thoughts. If what you say is true, then how are churches looking ahead, especially if they have strong denominational directional ties? A new church plant has every capability to create intergenerational church living, but the established church with history of bang up youth programs, strong women’s groups, senior breakfasts, etc. could be left with very little to connect people to the body. How are universities with degrees in youth ministry helping students called to this kind of ministry to plan for the future of the field? (those current 20 somethings are products of all of our youth ministries and that is probably a piece of what called them to it in the first place. I have had more than one student tell me how much they wanted a job like mine that was “fun”.) Not looking for a perfect formula or answer here, but I really wonder if it is possible to guide an established congregation to the next phase of whatever while still maintaining a financial base strong enough to keep the lights on? Are there examples of churches who have taken such a risk and made it through?

  15. Karen – great questions, all of them. I do think some collegiate youth ministry programs are addressing these issues. Many are not, yet. But there’s movement in these directions. From an established church perspective, yes change is possible. But there’s no question it’s difficult. And I hear stories every week like the one I heard yesterday: a friend (a sharp youth worker, trying to engage these issues and others in a thoughtful and gracious way) has raised the ire of many in his church who want the youth ministry to return to what it was with the previous youth pastor – fun and games. The leadership of his church isn’t defending him, and I don’t see how he’ll be able to stay, or how that church will ever change. But I could also tell stories of established churches that are really going after change. It’s usually not possible if it’s only the vision of the youth pastor.

  16. Maybe I’m just a dreamer, but I believe economics aren’t really the problem. In Acts we see the church take care of each other as a family unit. After 8 years in a church that fizzled out I had adapted to this truth you express, but God placed me in a few churches back to back to back where the extraordinary happens on a weekly basis and they are growing not just in numbers but in depth, and the Holy Spirit began to beckon me to dream dangerously (New Testament church dangerously). I think that I have begun to believe that the economic ability of the church isn’t defined by our monetary intake as much as our community outpouring. “I have never seen the righteous forsaken or their children begging for bread.” Those who are righteous in word AND deed seek the lost. They don’t seek to grow their church. When this happens, from the smallest redneck country church to the inner city minority church (which I say in response to the suburban white church statement) we grow that family unit that we see in Acts, and cause each other to dream more dangerously and live with a willingness to see the kingdom advanced no matter the cost. I love a lot of the things that you say in your articles, but the danger here isn’t the issue of paid youth staff falling by the wayside, it is accepting this fate as a permanent reality.

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