my (youth) ministry language pet peeves

everyone has pet peeves, right? i know i do. by their nature and name, ‘pet’ peeves are subjective and personal. so i fully admit that while there are four terms/phrases i’m quite confident we should do away with in ministry circles, i realize these are my issue. in other words, you are more than welcome to disagree and be wrong!


several years ago now, i was hosting a group of 20 junior high pastors for a few days of interaction and thinking. and christian smith, the noted sociologist responsible for the National Study of Youth and Religion was our guest for a half day. at the end of our time with him, i asked, “if you could get all youth workers to stop doing one thing, what would it be?” i expected his response to have something to do with how we talk about or lead teenagers in faith formation. but he surprised me with, “I wish all youth workers would stop using the word ‘students’ when referring to teenagers.” (or he may have said ‘young people,’ or some other term.) he went on, “‘student’ is a role, not an identity.”

Smith’s little statement had a big impact on my thinking, and i’ve come around to completely agree. when i’m speaking about teenagers these days, i usually use that word (teenagers); and when i’m speaking to them, i usually use something aspirational, like ‘young men’ and ‘young women,’ or something similar. i agree (i’m projecting that some of you are thinking this) that we don’t have a perfect term. but i try hard not to use ‘students’ unless i’m specifically talking about that role.


along the same lines, i try very hard not to use the term ‘kids’ when referring to (or even more so when talking to) teenagers. really, i feel MUCH more strongly about this one than i do ‘students.’ i think it’s demeaning and diminishing. i know it’s easy, and a natural part of our language. but language communicates all sorts of meaning. language teaches.


this one isn’t so much a ‘youth ministry’ term; but i see and hear it used all the time in youth ministry circles when referring to female youth workers, female volunteers, and teenage girls. the term ‘lady’ refers to behavior. a woman is (in the true sense of the word) considered to be a lady if she is ‘behaving’ properly, meeting the imposed expectations of ladylike behavior. in the same sense that ‘students’ refers to role, not identity, ‘ladies’ refers to behavior, not identity. you might think i’m overstating this, but the use of this word does harm to women, implying that their value and worth is based on their behavior.

‘love on’

and finally, a phrase. youth workers seem to think it’s great to say that they want to ‘love on students’ or ‘love on teenagers.’ i understand (and very support) the sentiment behind this. but it is simply creepy language usage. find another way to explain your good and worthy intentions. ‘show love’ or simply ‘love’ are both much better.

so: what ministry language pet peeves do you have?

25 thoughts on “my (youth) ministry language pet peeves”

  1. I never called then students or teenagers when I was a youth pastor. I spoke to them as Christians and future Christians. Spiritually some were probably more mature than me, so I spoke to them as fellow believers seeking to know Him more and chose not to patronize them with a term that made it seemed we came from two different places.

    Great post.

  2. I remember Christian’s words… “stop calling them kids” Then quickly thinking “Really!? Students is your big take away. PhD Boy, don’t go PC on us. We actually are in the trenches”. Then he explained it & I remembered I was the “dumbest” person in the room.

  3. Its funny that you posted this, I had a conversation with a group of youth the other day and asked them if they would rather be called youth or students. They hated students because it reminded them of school. We have resisted changing to “Student Ministry” and kept the old school term “youth ministry”

  4. I’m Methodist. Each year we have a church conference – we meet to vote over pastor salaries and to summarize all the ministry we’ve completed during the year. Our District Superintendent asked to the congregants present: “How has this church blessed you this year?” One lady stood up and said, “I just want to express how blessed our church is by our youth director.” I was blushing and all excited… until she continued talking… “She does such a great job with VBS, children’s summer camp, organizing acolytes, and even nursery. My grandchildren are so blessed.” … I looked at the children’s ministry director and whispered “You’re welcome.” And winked. Yeah, youth to most older adults means 1 year old – however old their oldest child is; this lady has grandchildren who are under 8 years old. I wish there was a better term all the way around.

  5. The word “Thug.” Close your eyes and paint a picture using that word. “Thug,” tends to be limited to a young black male who behaves and dresses in a way that is not mainstream America.

  6. Of your pet peeves, “love on” is the most odious. I agree with all of them (and have that conversation with Smith as well) but “love on” shows a fundamental misunderstanding of love. Love is not something that we can force on another; love is a relationship to enter into. God does not love on me. In Jesus, God enters into a loving relationship with me. I think that “love on” betrays that we think that we can control God, reducing the Creator, Reconciler, and Sustainer to a product that we peddle. Preach on brother.

  7. This one may be a bit dated but I still hear it in some churches. When referring to the young men and women people will say “the youth” or “youths”

  8. I can still hear the voice of one of our greatest home church saints calling, “young people!” to get our attention while I was in youth group so many years ago. I still love that term.

  9. I love these. My #1 YM language pet peeve is “talk” – as in the teaching component of a youth gathering. A wise boss of mine started using the word “message” instead. It helped to convey the intentionality, interactive nature, and depth of a teaching time much more than “talk” ever could. I’d much rather engage with a message than be talked at.

  10. Ed- to me, a thug is any teenage male, of any color, who hangs around the porch smoking weed or cigarettes and is disrespectful to the other people around them. Also, a criminal.

    And why do we have to talk about black or white? We’re all red and pink on the inside. We’re all people with different shades of melanin. That shouldn’t be how we describe ourselves. Why do we put people in categories, e.g., I’m an old man, volunteer youth minister, systems analyst, teacher, football referee, cafeteria worker, lawn cutter, Saints football fan, husband, father, brother, cousin, friend, and struggling Christian. Does it really matter what color I am?

    (BTW, have we all forgotten that Obama is half white?)

  11. “Kids” have bugged me for a long time, too; and not just in the context of youth ministry. How many coaches of college and professional sports teams, for instance, refer to their players as kids? And some of these “kids” have a spouse and actual kids of their own! It does make me wonder how old you need to be before society allows you to be a grown-up.

    Many of the expressions frequently used to describe salvation also give me pause. We may know what we mean by “inviting Jesus into one’s heart,” but the actual phrase hardly conveys that on its own. Are we asking…or submitting our will to His? Does Jesus (or the Holy Spirit, for that matter) take up residence in our blood pumping muscle? Many of the other phrases people use are not very much clearer.

  12. Tim Mauriello effectively removed “love on” from my language after one small slip of the tongue. He has banned from our ministry any use of that phrase.

  13. I’m gonna go with all the stuff we say to each other to sound smart, hip, etc.:


  14. I remember first hearing “love on” many years ago at a youth ministry conference in California. Coming from Canada that was a foreign – and very creepy – term to me. Still is!

  15. Mine is when teenagers are referred to as “my youth” or “my (insert any term referring to another person other than family”. It sounds like the person saying this owns them. “my volunteers”, “my church”, I could go on for a while… get the idea

  16. My pet peeves are #1) when people refer to teenagers as “children.” While this may be a legal fiction, anybody who has taken biology knows that it’s false. The term “my children” used by a parent is an exception, a relational fact unbounded by age. Pet peeve #2) doing ministry “to” young people. I always use the word “with” because, hopefully, it’s more faithful to what the Father is actually up to. Doing ministry “to” youth… hmm, perhaps you should consider substituting the phrase doing ministry “at” youth. It might be what some youth leaders are actually doing.

  17. So, since I commented early on, I’ve been getting all the little comment notifications. And I think what’s now rubbing me the wrong way now, is soon enough we’ll have no words to use. I mean, “love on” is a ridiculous phrase. But calling them “my youth” isn’t that harmful. “The youth in the ministry I work with” is so many words; but these youth call themselves MY youth. In fact, I’ve heard them say, we’re your kids basically. AND they call me mom sometimes. Because on trips sometimes that’s the role I take on, that they put me in. We all have pet peeves and things we don’t like. I hate the word “encourage” in Christian ministry: “I just encourage you to read God’s word.” It’s so weak. I also hate the word “just” in Christian ministry. “God, we come to you today, we just want to feel your presence. We just want to see you move.” Nah. I don’t just want to. I WANT want to. But I also realize that I’m being super picky. Is someone’s faith or ministry less because of the words they use? Or does God use them less? I agree, let’s THINK about what we say, but let’s also keep loving the sheep in our flock. Yeah, I don’t think I like that phrase either. I think I’m going to start saying you’s guys…. :)

  18. Man oh man. My big ministry pet peeve is that mere teenagers have already been brainwashed and have moved on to brainwashing others. Sad and disturbing.

Leave a Reply