What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers? Some Common (and often Legitimate) Criticisms, Part 2

Disclaimer: I have been involved in youth ministry in some fashion for almost ten years now, so the statements below are based on observations I have made during that time. That being said, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on youth ministry, and I am certainly not suggesting that I am a perfect (or even particularly good) youth minister. Below are a collection of humble opinions and suggestions based on personal experience. See Part 1 of this series here.

(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.

In recent years, this has become a vocal criticism of youth ministry as a whole, and I think it is a valid one, so I want to spend some time addressing it.

Multiple studies have shown that evangelical teens leave the church at an alarming rate after they graduate high school,and it seems likely that at least part of this phenomenon can be attributed to problems with the way we do youth ministry.

Consider the following, hypothetical example:
On a regular Sunday at ___________ Church, the youth group meets for class in their special, isolated, youth room in the Family Life Center. After class they head out to the auditorium for worship where they sit with the other teens on the special youth group rows, and after services are over, they either stay where they are, visiting with friends, or rush back to the youth room to play ping pong/foosball/PS3. 
On regular Sunday evenings, instead of meeting at the church building with ‘old people’, the youth group has a special Life Group where they meet in each other’s homes to have a devotional, sing a few songs, and then have a meal. 
These are just on regular Sundays though, which don’t actually occur all that regularly, because the Youth Minister has made it a priority for the youth group to be gone to as many trips and youth rallies as possible on weekends, in addition to regular monthly Sunday night gatherings with teens from other youth groups (after all, it’s hard to keep teens excited about just going to ‘regular’ church). 
On Wednesday nights, of course there is a special teen class in the youth room in the Family Life Center, and because this is such an important time during the week for the teens to fellowship with one another, they don’t come out after the Bible class period to spend time singing or having a devotional with the rest of the church family, but instead just stay in their room to have more time with one another. 
Each week there will be a devotional at one of the teen’s homes. 
In addition to youth rallies and weekend retreats, special activities include a ski trip over Christmas Break, a couple of church camps in the summer, and a short-term summer mission trip. All of these are primarily for teens, but there will be a few parents and maybe a youth deacon or two thrown in as chaperones.
Obviously this is just a hypothetical example, and to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of these specific activities, but when added together, what you get is a group of teens who spend a lot of time with each other, but have very little meaningful interaction with anyone else in the church. They likely don’t even know the names of the majority of adults who aren’t their Bible class teachers or youth deacons or parents of their friends. The careful and diligent work of the Youth Minister has made them very dedicated to the youth group, but has also (unintentionally) isolated them from the church family as a whole.2

What happens when they graduate? Is it particularly reasonable, after cultivating an allegiance to the youth group (which has been largely separated from the church as a whole) in them for years, to kick them out of the youth group once they graduate and expect them to eagerly ‘switch allegiances’ to the church as a whole (largely made up of parents and ‘old people’)? I think it’s increasingly becoming clear that the answer is, ‘no.’

Does that mean that mean that youth rallies, youth trips, youth rooms, and even youth groups should be done away with? Well, judging by the fact that I am a Youth Minister, I obviously don’t think so, but I do think that it means that youth ministry needs to be rethought somewhat.

I think it is important that we provide opportunities for our students to build relationships with other Christians their own age, and I also think it is appropriate to offer teaching that is customized and directed at teens, dealing with the issues they face in a way that is interesting to them. Taken together, these goals provide justification for a lot of the things I mentioned in the hypothetical example above, but these goals must be balanced with the intentional effort to make teens disciples of Jesus, which of course, involves a lifetime of service to His church (not just 6-7 years of involvement with a youth group).

Instead of being isolated from the church, teens are an integral part of it, with their involvement including, but not being limited to, youth group activities. Of course, that’s easier said than done—how do we make teens active and functioning parts of the Body instead of merely loyal members of a youth group? Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:

Limit how often the youth group is absent from the corporate worship of your congregation. From personal experience, I can say that it is really tempting for youth ministers to have their groups miss a lot of the worship services of the church, opting instead for special events where the worship is different, fresh, and exciting. But is there any doubt that the more your kids are absent from worship with the local body, the less they feel like they are a part of that body?

If high school graduates want to hang around for a while, let them. I’ve known some youth ministers who are adamant about getting kids out of the youth group as soon as the summer after their senior year is over. Considering what I mentioned above about students leaving the church at an alarming rate after graduating high school, I’m not sure this is a great idea. Transitioning from high school to college is a difficult time for a lot of students, and especially if you don’t have an active college group at your church, some might not know where they fit in. I’ve always encouraged those who have already graduated but who are still interested in coming to youth events to come—they provide good, older role models for the younger students, and it also helps to keep them involved with the church.

Provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor students one on one or in small groups. This is something we started doing this year as part of our Lads to Leaders program, and with work, I think it could develop into something very positive for our church. Having students work with adult mentors provides another positive Christian role model in their lives (and they can never have too many), and also gives them another connection to the church outside of the youth group and their own family.

Allow teens to be involved in the life of the church, and encourage them to do so. Let your young men serve in the worship assembly. When high school teens reach a certain level of maturity, encourage them to teach (or help teach) a children’s Bible class for a quarter. If there is a work day at the church building, let your young people know that they are needed as well. Look for ways in which your congregation can serve the community and make sure that your teens work hand in hand with older members to accomplish those projects.

These are just a few ideas; what other things can churches and/or youth ministers do to make teens an active part of larger congregation?

I know this post was long, but as I mentioned above, I think this is an important and valid criticism. Next time I’ll focus on two more that I have heard a lot.

• • •

1Statistics from different studies range on what percentage of teens leave the church after high school. CrossExamined.org places the number at 75%.

2For what it’s worth, I do think teenagers actually enjoy this type of youth group—taking lots of special trips, being isolated from adults and the elderly, having their own special worship and Bible study gatherings—I’m just not convinced that, when taken to an extreme, it’s conducive to healthy spiritual development.


Tad 2/17/12, 1:40 PM  

I agree that these are the effects of age cohorting. All through primary and secondary school we're age-cohorted, and then we're tossed into a world that otherwise doesn't use it. It's hard to get used to most people not being the same age as you; and it's easy to get into the habit of thinking things that aren't aimed at your age group aren't worth your time.

I like the dispersal of teens during classes especially; and not just in helping adults with younger children, but in mixing them in with adults, and maybe in mixing adults in with them.

Luke Dockery 2/20/12, 11:27 AM  


I do think it's a good thing to have age focused classes for teens, largely because so much happens developmentally between the ages of 12-18 (and really, beyond that as well), that it is important to be able to target specific age groups when you teach.

For example, sometimes we combine Jr. and Sr. High, because I do think it's a healthy thing to do, but it's also difficult (teaching-wise) because the kids aren't all on the same level. Even a really smart 13 year old who might read better than a senior in high school will still struggle to grasp certain concepts and teachings that the older student will have no problem with.

And furthermore, younger children, but teens as well, should need some more basic teaching than adults, who should be at a more mature level (cf. Hebrews 5.12).

All that being said, I do agree with you about age "cohorting" overall, I just don't necessarily think that dispersing teens in adult classes is a good idea. Mixing adults in teen classes…that, on the other hand, sounds like a great idea.

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