The mess we’re in and the culpability of youth specialties

not too long ago, a blog commenter emailed me and wrote that he noticed i regularly hint at or outright rant about the state of youth ministry: particularly, our wrong-minded obsession with field-of-dreams attractional ministry (“if you build it, they will come.”). he politely asked if youth specialties senses any culpability in this, and, if so, if that has ever been said. i responded that i think i’ve regularly said on this blog that ys shares part of the responsibility for this, and i’ve said it in seminars at the national youth workers convention also.

but i’ve been stewing on this for a couple months. and I think it deserves to be said more clearly.

while youth specialties certainly isn’t solely responsible, i think it’s very fair to say we should bear the brunt of the blame. yes, youth specialties is primarily responsible for promoting – for decades – a model of youth ministry, built on a set of assumptions (mostly unstated), that elevated programming as the best path to successful youth ministry. and for this – i will speak for us, organizationally – we are sorry.

we may have said that other things – like relationships and service and the Bible and Jesus – are more important than programming. but i think we modeled something different. we did this naively and unknowingly, and – this may be the biggest admission – we did this without realizing the implications of the values were promoting. or, maybe we didn’t want to think about the implications.

some might say i have no reason to make this admission, or accept culpability, since i wasn’t around ys in those days. but that would be a cop out on my part. and, if i’m honest, i would have done the same thing if i’d been in leadership of ys in those days. saying i’m not responsible is like white people saying we never owned slaves – it doesn’t change what was or is, it only gives us the impression we’re off the hook.

the entire world of youth ministry (and church ministry in general) has changed, of course, in the past 30+ years. in some ways, i think we’ve grown up (in a good way). and in some ways, i think the church is in a deeper pile o’ mess than we’ve been in throughout the past 100 years. 30+ years ago we were merely blissfully wrong about some things. now, i think much of the church, and much of the youth ministry world, lives in active denial. i’ll take blissfully unaware over active denial any day.

youth specialties is trying to change. and i think we have – dramatically – in the past dozen years. but it would be a wimpy, spineless move to realize change (at least in our message) and, simultaneously, revise history to pretend that we’ve always been about the things we’re about these days (things like valuing small and slow and quiet, caring deeply about the soul-condition of youth workers because we believe good youth ministry flows out of our soul-condition, embracing humility and passion as more important than power or size).

i’m hopeful, however. it’s oddly paradoxical, i realize, for me to say i’m hopeful a few paragraphs after i say i think the church is in active denial. i guess i’m hopeful because i see such great stirrings of change, such wonderful experimentation, and such massive shifts in values. i’m thinking that maybe the ‘active denial’ is – maybe? – an essential piece of the change process, just as it is in the cycle of grieving.

this admission said, i’m heading forward, and i know so many youth workers who are in the same place, facing the same way, with the same hopeful posture. and our numbers are growing by the day (ha! Is that the numbers monster re-surfacing again?). i can’t wait to see what youth ministry looks like in 30+ more years. i wonder what we’ll be apologizing for then.

64 thoughts on “The mess we’re in and the culpability of youth specialties”

  1. Marko, Hey first off I just want to affirm you and your ministry and Youth Specialities. No need to apologize because in so many ways YS has moved youth ministry into forefront in ministry and paved the way for many of us to serve along with bearing much fruit even if it has been through a season of program focused ministry. Let’s not forget to remember the good as we move forward into a new era.

    In Pursuit,

    My thoughts on this new move in youth ministry….

    I feel like we again are just beginning to develop another approach and model to youth ministry that is dangerously close to what were are used to…..that is we dream big, get people to follow us (a “collective” if you will) and then roll out the next model of ministry that may work and be used by God. This ultimately loses its effect because of the rapidly changing nature of our world and youth culture. You see we always swing to extremes in the church, throwing the good of one approach due the bad we see within it. The pendulum continues to swig and yet we live in an era of discontinuous change that calls for leadership (youth and adult) that looks more like this

    Future leaders that:
    o recognize what it means to discern the activity of God in and around His people (Divinity Detectives if you will)
    o live in a state of prayerful discernment amidst change looking for God’s leading in their context
    o think and live like a missionary seeking to speak the language God’s love in the language of the day
    o leads in the time and place that they serve, and continue to be focused on people not programs.

    Can our programs be used by God? Absolutely, and they will continue to be used by God, but we also need to develop a posture that understands that they are just a means to an end which is helping people grow in their love for God and love for others. My question would be how can any group, at any time, that is connected only virtually ever really come up with a “preferred future” for youth ministry? Youth ministry and ministry in general needs instead to have a collective vision for missional activity in our world….what that looks like will be different in each and every context and possibly even day by day. My prayer is that we realize that we our all missionaries and in this together for people, and specifically for youth, let’s join in sharing the mission and pool our prayers, ideas, insights, etc. A “missional learning community” if you will.

    On ward, upward, and outward!

  2. I want to thank all of you.

    Until this post (thanks Scot McKnight), I really thought I was alone in my disillusionment regarding Youth Ministry. I now realize it is God moving us.

    I received my BA in Youth Ministry in 2001. I haven’t done anything since.

    Why? All I saw was more and more kids leaving with no change whatsoever. And all we could do was talk about how to do it better next time. Meanwhile, the kids lived another week between meetings… while we planned. I took it personally. It turned me off. Completely.

    At the age of 14, I became a Christian and for the next 4 years no one took the time to ask me how it was going. I didn’t see much difference in the way we were doing it either. Oh, I tried. But I failed. (Four years to start discipleship?)

    In those four years, the thorns had done their work… I had gone through more bottles of rum and unhealthy relationships than I ever imagined and no one knew… no one asked. This continued for the next seven years.

    Mr. Oestreicher, you’re right: it isn’t about the programming. It isn’t about how shiny our new gym floor is or the fact that we don’t even have a youth room. It isn’t about how dynamic we are or aren’t. It’s about asking people how they are doing… and waiting around for the answer.

    The one thing God used in my life was not a huge Christian concert, youth rally or a Spirit-filled small group, it was one man putting his hand on my shoulder and asking, “How’s it going?” when he knew how it was going.

    He didn’t preach or dance or juggle hamsters. He loved me. And I knew it.

    I appreciate your post; what you wrote is true for all of us. It isn’t the fault of YS by any stretch of imagination, you have been used by God for his glory during your best efforts (and despite them)… as have we all.

    “Our Lord calls to no special work: He calls to Himself.” -October 16, My Utmost For His Highest

  3. It is good to think about what we are doing in youth ministry in the church. We like the church as a whole go through cycles. But we must also realize that youth ministry is not that old, at least compared to the church. There really was no adolescence before the 50’s so to speak. Now the church on the other hand has been around since the book of Acts and it still does not have its act together.

    So what should we do? First understand that the latest craze is just that, the latest craze. Second, befriend parents, they are the ones given the charge of bringing up their kids in a godly fashion. Third, keep the main thing the main thing, that is discipleship making and training our students to do the work of the ministry.

    What we want of the other side of adolescence is a mature thinking young person who believes in the Jesus of the Bible and allows him to be Lord over that young persons life.

    Rick H

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  5. As an outsider what I see is that the message is getting lost in the methods. Kids especially those in jr and sr high can detect horsepucky a mile away and then simply tune it out. Going through this thread that’s the theme I see. Now my path is going to be a bit different as I’ve gone back to school to become an English teacher, but the goal is the same as yours, to help mold kids into adults.
    One of the problems that I face is making sure that Christianity gets a fair shake in my classroom. Obviously I can’t favor it but I won’t ignore or disparage it either.

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  7. I have been involved in Youth Ministry for almost 14 years. I have used some YS materials but I recognized the “programming” or activity-based focus that you mentioned above. Unfortunately I now no longer use or recommend YS materials of ANY kind. In my estimation YS has veered (rightly so) from its activity based programs and plunged headlong into the murky waters of the emergent village.

    The focus of my ministry has been the supremacy of Christ in all things and the sufficiency of His Word. When I point our teens toward embracing the Christ of the Bible… to genuinely follow Him and to align their lives to His Word then we see real growth, real Christlikeness, real outreach, and real community among our teens.

    Its certainly not because I’m much of a teacher, and our church isn’t “cutting edge”, BUT God is Good and He is faithful and when we offer our meager attempts to be faithful to His Word then He is abundantly gracious to us.

    In my humble opinion if you really want to impact youth for Christ and you really want to help youth workers do the same, then encourage them to go deeper in their pursuit of Christ and deeper in their knowledge and application of His Word. To send them off toward the emergent philosophy is to abandon the power of the Gospel, to abandon the penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross, to abandon truth, and essentially every major doctrine Gods people have held dear.

    If you truly desire to “repent”, and I believe you are sincere, then repent of not just of promoting activities of Christ but of promoting anything over Christ and in seeking a correction seek a new commitment to the in inerrancy and sufficiency of His Word.

  8. Hey Mark,
    Thanks for your honesty, and humility. I have been wrestling in the tension of performance/program driven ministry, and striving for spiritual submission.
    Great reminder.

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