the future of youth ministry, episode 8

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.
episode 1 (searching for the right way)
episode 2 (discipleship, barriers)
episode 3 (intergenerational ministry)
episode 4 (parents)
episode 5 (re-weird-ifying christianity)
episode 6 (the system is broken)
episode 7 (a little bit o’ sunshine)


i’ve only known terrace crawford for a year or two, and we’ve never actually met face-to-face. but i’ve enjoyed terrace’s positivity and good thinking. and i keep hearing his name from other sharp youth workers who have met him, and how much they enjoy him. about a year ago, i helped terrace land a part-time role as the youth ministry editor for, a role he’s done really well with. here’s what terrace had to say:

Terrace Crawford

I think we are beginning to see less paid staff in youth ministry than ever before… and this is just the beginning. I believe churches will recruit more volunteers in the days ahead. Additionally, I think we’ll see less silos in youth ministry and more integration of students into “big church.” As a result, students will begin assuming more leadership roles. Finally, I think churches & ministries are having to “strip down” to the basics because of the economy & budget cuts — and it just might be what the Lord has ordered. I believe what we often see in the physical realm is mirrored in the spiritual. God may be salvaging the remnants and stripping away what doesn’t need to remain in our ministries & we are better for it. Because of this, I am very hopeful about the future of youth ministry.

there is much i resonate with in terrace’s comments. and i agree that some of it is cause for being hopeful; but some of it will also be extremely difficult, even threatening. let’s parse it a bit:

less paid staff. yes, i’ve been saying for a while (as have others — mark riddle most notably) that the next 20 years will see a decline in the number of paid youth workers. the impact of the recession on church expedited this, and we might even see a little reprieve in the next few years (assuming things rebound a bit, as they likely will). but that will be a false indication that “the money is back”. giving to churches continues to decline — it was declining before the recession, and will continue to decline after the recession. churches will be forced to rethink farming out youth ministry to a hired gun. in many ways, i think this is a good thing. the hired gun mentality has hurt us in many ways that we didn’t see when we started down that road, because there are all sorts of systemic implications that flow out of that, not the least of which are both the abdication of the care of youth ministry to someone “more qualified”, and the wholesale isolation of teenagers to the fringes of our churches. in many ways, this is bad news for paid youth workers. there hasn’t been this much lack of job security in youth ministry in 40 years. heck, it’s even going to be a challenge for people like me who resource churches and youth workers.

the potential upside is this: congregations will be forced to re-engage teenagers, hopefully as an integral part of the body. all the research (sticky faith, national study of youth and religion) is telling us that this kind of congregrational engagement and integration is one of the necessary aspects for sustainable faith in teenagers moving to adulthood. but it just might be this financial reality that forces the issue.

less silos and more integration. connected to the last bit, this move away from isolation (the primary approach to youth ministry in america over the last 40 years) and toward re-integration is a move some churches are already wrestling with. this will require some boldness, some patience, and some experimentation. my hope is: enough churches will lead the way in this for missional/theological reasons that when thousands of other churches are forced to consider other options for youth ministry because of budget cut-backs, there will be loads of wonderful examples of how to do this well. in one sense it’s not rocket science; but most of our churches are so deeply steeped in a mindset of isolating teenagers, the pathways out of that thinking and practice won’t be obvious (and certainly won’t be easy).

students assuming leadership roles. this is another wonderful shift that needs to happen, and directly connects with what we’re learning from research about adolescent and young adult faith. meaningful responsibility and expectation are necessary for the transition to adulthood (the lack of these is one of the primary reasons for extended adolescence). an opportunity for teenagers and young adults to play a meaningful role in their churches (not just their youth ministries) is just what the doctor ordered.

terrace might be assuming that people will choose these shifts because they are more-than-necessary course corrections. i think a few churches will. but more will forced to strip down and get lean, which will put them in a place to consider new (and old) approaches that are more integrated, and mo’ better.

here’s hopin’.

10 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, episode 8”

  1. i totally agree. i think this will be a painful transition. we were trained to do youth ministry one way and if we move in this direction we will lead ourselves out of a job, but it is the right way to go.

    loved marko that you mentioned what this does to people like you. I have felt for a while the biggest supporters of the way we have always done things in youth ministry are not the people on the ground but the people who make money off of those people.

  2. (sorry in advance for the long post!)
    This is exactly what has happened/is happening in our church. Due to major financial difficulties, our church has completely changed for the better. My husband and I used to each be full time paid youth workers, but due to a number of God ordained changes, I’m a full time stay at home mom and a full time volunteer. My husband works full time outside of the church, and gets paid a small stipend (not even part time pay) by the church to allow him to take one afternoon off a week for prayer and planning. We absolutely know this is what God wants, in fact we’ve NEVER BEEN HAPPIER or more blessed!
    The youth ministry looks so different now. We’re drastically smaller (from hundreds to about 25) because we lost all of the kids who were coming only to hang out in our cool youth building, play rock band, and worship with lights and smoke–we no longer have a youth building or even a room! Once again, we KNOW this was God-ordained. Hear this fellow youth workers: it’s okay to grow smaller! I think, however, that the only reason that our congregation and pastor understood this was because they were experiencing the same thing (from thousands to hundreds) and also knew it was God-ordained. We now have a youth ministry filled with all of the kids who wouldn’t come before because they and their parents didn’t want consumer-oriented, silo programs. We have students who are seeking a growing relationship with Christ and view themselves a part of the church as a whole. Another interesting thing happened as well: Gone are the parents who gripe about stupid things. We have parents that are fully supportive, highly involved (and not in an annoying way! haha!), and see us as partners in leading their kids in their faith, not babysitters of teenagers. Honestly, I’ve never seen a youth ministry that is like this in its entirety.
    I think a big, but not the main, aid to our re-integration was no longer having a youth room. We meet only in homes now and worship with the congregation on Sunday mornings. We naturally don’t sit together during worship anymore. There is no longer a “youth spot” We are spread throughout the sanctuary. Family and friends sit together. As far as participating in other ministries of the church, our students do that on their own without prodding from us. Often, I show up at other church ministry events and find students already there volunteering. I usually have no idea they were even involved! (They amaze me!)
    Marko–you were right when you said this will be a challenge for people like you who resource paid youth workers. Perhaps God is calling for a change in the way we view and train volunteers and the general church population. The paid youth ministry culture (which, remember I was also a part of) has often tended to view our volunteers as less ministry-educated, less experienced, and more likely to make mistakes or be less effective as ministers. While we highly value our volunteers, we tend to view them as “less than”. I’ve sat in on many volunteer training programs that were basically dumbed down versions of what they could be. Books written for volunteers tend to be the same way. Why should we dumb them down? Why do we only say “thank you for giving your time” and “just be yourself and hang out with the kids”? Both of those things are great and true, but they are capable of so much more. Churches have “hired guns” because they feel ignorant and ill-equipped compared to the trained experts. We’ve created that mentality by marketing ourselves as trained experts and telling churches that they NEED us because “we can do it better”. Let’s create churches that are trained experts in ministering to everyone, including those of the younger age bracket.

  3. Its a shame it takes a financial crisis to re-imagine church as it should body worshiping and serving together no matter your ethnicity or age. i am longing for this in my own church context.

  4. I love this conversation you are having here on the blog. I’m also honored you asked me to share my thoughts with you. I am very hopeful about the future of youth ministry.

    I’ve enjoyed getting to know you the last couple years, Marko. Look forward to more interaction with you. By the way, we did actually meet in 2007 at the YS convention in Atlanta (not that you should remember that encounter). I got your ear during one of the gen sessions for a few moments. That was, of course, before you probably even knew my name. You’ll be happy to know that my ‘first impression’ of you was a good one though. ;)

    Thanks for building into youth workers. Keep it comin!

  5. About ‘less paid staff’ – what about the implications of the National Study of Youth and Religion that point to the value of having a professional, full-time youth director? In terms of youth turnout, there is no substantial difference between having a part-time youth director and a volunteer youth director… but there is a big bump when you pay someone to work full-time.

    I’m on my way out of youth ministry, so I don’t really have a dog in this fight anymore… but I think that not hiring a full-time youth director is a huge mistake.

  6. great comments, people.

    @mike, quick response: i’m not suggesting that i WANT churches to employ less youth pastors. i just think it’s a predictable future reality; and the silver lining is that it will force (hopefully) churches to face some misconceptions they’ve been living with about the faith formation of teenagers for a very long time.

  7. Thanks for the reply, Marko. In my mind, the misconception is that youth staff is an expense that you can afford to cut.

    It’s like if a factory sold off all of its capital in order to gain revenue. It works in the short run, but in the long run it leads to serious trouble.

    If kids need one thing, it is committed adults – and the reality is that you will never get the same kind of time commitment from a volunteer or a part time worker that you get from a full-time youth director. If churches are having financial trouble that leads to them cutting staff, I say cut everywhere else before you cut the youth guy…

  8. I think you are right on and yet fear that some youth ministries will be completely abandoned because of these changes.

    At the same time, the Church needs to own the youth. They are not some “sub-church” but the future. Without recognizing this, Christianity in America will be watered down or vanish.

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