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A crisis in youth ministry

What I say in this blog is controversial, so I put it to one of the top experts in the field and said, “what do you think?” His response came this morning: He agrees and senses that many others do as well. We have a big problem – an elephant in the living room. So, here it is: There’s a c…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes

What I say in this blog is controversial, so I put it to one of the top experts in the field and said, “what do you think?” His response came this morning: He agrees and senses that many others do as well. We have a big problem – an elephant in the living room. So, here it is:

There’s a crisis afoot in youth ministry. I’ve got 20 years experience and have a pretty good bird’s eye view on this. The problem is given context when you understand that youth ministers should be heading up the research and development departments of the Church. They are responsible for the next generation of Jesus followers. But, as you look at the big picture, the cupboards are for the most part bare. The laboratory is empty. We should be raising up young people prepared to overthrow the existing order and instead our best idea seems to be to try and co-opt postmodernism.

The root of the crisis can be found in the way youth ministries are structured. In the last 30 years, the Church in America has produced a generation of professional youth pastors. They care about youth and want to impact them for Jesus, but at the end of the day, most are as concerned about their job as they are about the fruit they are producing. To do their job, they’ve got to schedule regular youth group meetings. They need to meet with parents. They have to go to staff meetings. They have to attend conferences. And many of them stay at one church less than two years. At the end of the day, it is a rare youth pastor who is able to spend the time needed discipling individual students.

The average youth worker got into the field because he wanted to disciple young people. But something happened along the way. He embraced a flawed model of discipleship, and so, charted a course to ineffectual ministry and ultimate burnout. That doesn’t mean that many youth pastors aren’t successful, it’s just that the most prevalent model of youth ministry sets youth pastors up for failure. They are trapped by expectations, calendars, and a risk-averse evangelical culture which embraces a theologically sanitized, politically correct version of Jesus that would never take on religious authorities, much less try to cast out a demon or raise somebody from the dead.

More on the subject here: “Youth ministry.”

Comments (21)

  • we have to accept and be awareness about everything ,
    why too worry about the new generation , what the ancient people had done that will be the after effect seen in the next generation , early days to school ,we walked ,some on private or public transportation reached , should i say to youngesters don’t sit at home and study by online in this pantamic crisis , me and my father walked to school to study so you go to school by walking.
    Don’t you think same issues where there in ancient period ,
    every batch in the institution says on the last pass out day ‘ we where the best batch of the institution’ do think all scientist and doctors are of same age in this world .

    some put some blunder questions and make others anxiety ,curisity and tension ,

    Live as a good human to the ,society , community ,home and for Self . How much Years are not Counted But How You Lived in World is Better .

    God is greater for all generation

  • I agree with your premise – youth pastors as a whole are not set up for success. I believe youth pastors burn out because (and I’m sure you agree) they are not discipled! Many of these youth pastors are young guys with a passion to change the world (read my recent blog post about “reality checks”). They love teenagers and this attracts kids to their ministry. What I’ve seen is youth pastors who try to disciple too many kids at once and don’t know the fundamentals of delegation and empowering other leaders to disciple teenagers. They emotionally give and give and no one (least of all senior church leadership) is willing or able to pour back into them. Big events, fun nights, meetings with parents, etc. are all things that just have to be done (and are good elements to include). But a youth pastor who does not or cannot manage his/her time well will most definitely experience burnout.

  • i’m reading your post and thinking YES YES YES! but there’s no suggestion for other ways around this. as a youth pastor i’m concerned that the model doesn’t work, and i’m working against this model with moderate success, but the programme, the damned programme always looms large. why can’t we just hang out with each other? can anyone answer that for me? why can’t we just hang out and chew the fat…why does this have to be highly structured with goals and plans?

  • I agree…it seems that everyone is very good at being a critic, which is needed, but I very seldom hear of of good input to change the current course. This not only applys for YM but the church and all other aspects of ministry. Everyone thinks the system is not working, fine…give solutions not more problems that we are aware of already.

  • I must agree that I am very frustrated with the low standards of youth ministry across the nation. I have been at the same church leading our youth ministry for 5 years. This is my first pastorate. Here are some things helping me:

    I found a Youth Ministry Coach who spent 20+ years doing Youth Ministry and meet with him weekly. He gives great advice and is helping me build a more effective Youth Ministry (with a very small annual budget) that is both relational and has good programming.

    I am investing time and energy in growing myself as a leader. With my head pastor, I’m identifying my growth areas and focusing on one or two of them for growth (such as: learning to lead from a vision, learning to prepare for a message and deliver it more effectively, learning to manage 20+ volunteers and train them well, learning to delegate what I don’t necessarily need to do myself, learning to raise up students as leaders within the youth ministry, etc.)

    I’m keeping my life balanced with monthly prayer days, trying to maintain under 50 hours of work each week. Protecting my off days with the support of the church staff, and focusing on longevity. I don’t know how effective the best Youth Pastor can be if he only sticks around for 2 years.

    I’m building the Youth Ministry around my strengths, not my weakness. So that means knowing my strengths and using them and celebrating them.

    I’m not wasting my time complaining about the youth, my youth workers, my church staff, my church, the parents, or other youth pastors.

    I love my job. I love what I’m doing and I grieve for the teens who come to our church because of the instability in their own youth ministries.


  • I just found this article and was hit in the face with, duh! (me not you) This has been my soap bax for the past year. I had a meeting where I was speaking and asked all the teens in the group if they were Christians. I then asked them how many had disciples. The response was underwhelming. So we are in the process of training every teen that is willing to make disciples. I told them they should just go out, actually, but they wanted the training and I couldn’t fault them for it.

    Love the blog, keep it up.

  • Its true, Youth groups haven’t been really becoming what they should…

    Untill now. This generation, I believe has young people, all across america inspired by teen mania’s Aquire the Fire…BattleCry, and its all about taking back this generation for Jesus. And saying enough is enough…


    I am 22 years old, but I see in the spirit, that the youth of today ,who are following Jesus, see the reality of this world, and are taking steps to be Jesus Freaks again, and step out of the norm, and be an active follower of Jesus

    God bless.

  • You do speak the truth. And the question does loom as to so what is next? I am not sure that “taking this generation back” is the answer either. Take them back to what? To a church that don’t understand them, do want the culture in the church, wants them sanitized, christianized and just like the rest of those in the church? We have to either change the culture inside the church or be willing to keep engaging students in their culture and trusing to God to find a structure that ministry to and with them will fit.

    Most churches they I know are just giving lip service to youth ministry. If they are here and “participating” then we must be doing something right.

  • What do you do if it’s already too late? When you just don’t care anymore even though you try. When at the end of a Friday night you just want the kids to go home and hope that none of them need lifts because all you want to do is sleep… What do you do when you’re afraid you’ve become a liability?

  • excellent post

    a lot of people have been bashing the current trends in youth ministry, but your critique was one of the few that actually addressed the issues youth ministers face (ie) meetings with parents, a bajillion events, staff meetings, etc…

    Keith offers very good advice in his comment.

    Too often we as youth ministers are young (I am 27) and on fire, yet we do not fuel that fire with adequate prayer, study, fasting, and discipline and the fire fizzles and we end up running nothing more than a fun factory stamped Christian. Let it not be so.

    Tere, your comment saddens me, find someone you trust, and speak to them in person, this is not something to solve in an internet forum.

  • Thanks for the honest assessment…

    I encourage you all to rediscover what the American churches rejected many years ago, namely the protestant catechisms. In order for youth to be obedient to God they must first find rest, hope, comfort in Christ’s finished work on their behalf. Since their minds have been filled with pop psychology and have been trained to think that the Christian faith is supposed to be just another therapy for their troubled minds and lives, they need to be taught sound Biblical doctrine. The Heidelberg Catechism and Belgic confession are wonderful tools for parents and teachers to use to boil down the essential truths of the Christian faith. They are not hard to understand and immensely comforting for those who are burdened by sin and seek comfort and rest in Christ. They need to be taught that they are indeed sinners who have offended God, that Christ died for their sin and our belonging to him is “our only comfort in life and in death.” as Heidelberg question one puts it.

    In short, the answer to this problem is to teach our youth the Law and the Gospel that they might understand their predicament, repent and receive the forgiveness of sins. They need to be trained to look to Christ as their only hope of salvation, not their “decision to ask Jesus into their heart.” There is no comfort there for the poor of spirit. The Heidelberg and Belgic teach children these essential truths, pointing them to Christ.

    Take courage in this: The gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church.

  • Thanks for raising these questions. I’ve spent the last 2 years experiencing a faith revolution with a Minneapolis ministry that grew out of Hillsong. I believe Pentecost, not evangelicalism, is an answer to the sanitized gospel and denial of the supernatural that unmasks the modernist heresy afoot in cessationist theology. I’ve worked with teens in YouthAlpha in a Catholic church (non-cessationist) and have now spent 2 years experiencing teens hearing the gospel, reaching out to evangelize, to heal the sick, the cast out demons and even faith for raising the dead. We regularly pray for and expect miracles to attend the preaching of the gospel amongst all ages. This is New Testament Christianity. Cessationist evangelicalism is rooted in a Reformation anti-Catholicism that simply ignores the history of Christianity = it is a self serving explanation for why the ministry of the Reformers was not attended by miracles. Compare the ministries of Francis of Assissi or St. Augustine or John Wimber! – miracles should attend kingdom life. Bethel Church in Redding, CA understands this and teen lives are being transformed there and in Alpha courses, at IHOP, in 24/7 prayer rooms, etc. A new Pentecost is moving. Teens needs ministries that proceed from this – I believe that is the answer for the anemic evangelicalism you have experienced. Hope this helps.

  • Hmmm? Youth Pastor? Leader? Discipleship?

    Is that in the Bible?

    Is it possible the reason “Burnout” is such
    a problem for **today’s** “Pastor/Leader” is
    they have found themselves with a
    “Title” and “Position” NOT found in the Bible?

    Did anyone have the “Title” “pastor” in the Bible?
    Was anyone ordained a “pastor” in the Bible?
    Any congregations “led” by a “pastor” in the Bible?

    And every “pastor” I’ve met also had
    the “Title” “Reverend.”

    Does anyone have the “Title” Reverend in the Bible?

    In my experience…

    Titles become Idols.
    Pastors become Masters.

    Heavy weights on shoulders NOT easy to lay down.

    Jesus taught “His Disciples”
    NOT to be called “Master/Leader”
    For you have “ONE” “Master/Leader” The Christ.
    Mat 23:8-10 KJV

    Ezekiel 14:1-7, speaks about “Idols of the Heart,”
    and now God will speak to us according to
    the “Idols of our Heart.”

    And other sheep I have,
    which are not of this fold:
    them also I must bring,
    and they shall “hear my voice;”
    and there shall be “ONE” fold,
    and “ONE” shepherd.
    John 10:16

    One Fold – One Shepherd – One Voice.
    If Not Now, When?

    Be blessed in your search for Truth… Jesus.

  • Sigh… Discipleship, programming, revival, criticism of the church, catechisms, confessions, miracles, theological basis against youth pastors. For what?

    Out of 17 posts there is one brother who is willing to be honest about himself and his ministry. Yet nobody offered any real help. I think this is the perfect place to deal with Tere’s issue, because at some point in ministry you have felt like Tere in the past or you’re going to feel like Tere in the future. Or maybe you are fooling yourself and you feel like Tere right now.

    I myself have only been in youth ministry for nearly 15 years and at various points in serving I have felt exactly like Tere. When this happens you have to check yourself. Are you absolutely sure you are called into ministry? It’s between you and God, but was your calling ordained in some way. Are you struggling with sin? Just because people call you pastor doesn’t mean you aren’t human and capable of sin. Confront it, ask God’s forgiveness about it, quit it, and get some accountability. Are you a fit for your church or is your church a fit for you? This is a broad question, but you have to be honest with yourself. For example, do you find yourself complaining about any aspect of your church? Does your personal theology match up with the church theology? Does your church require more of you than you can give? Do you require from the church more than they can give? I am not talking about money here, but things such as spiritual guidance or opportunities to be challenged in other areas of ministry.

    This is the shortlist for self examination when I felt burnt out and not useful to God. Once you figure some of these things out you have to act on them.

    “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” John 13:34-35

  • Im so baffled. You guys all want to say well its the youth pastor thats not grounded, or they dont have the mind set of what it means to be a youth pastor. Im a youth pastor and let me tell you what my hours are. Im off on Mondays but that is my day for me to spend in worship and prayer for me. I pick the youth band at 5 to practice for Wednesday im usually home around 10. Im at the church at 8 on Tuesdays i come home around 7. Wednesday we have youth i pick up kids and take kids home again i get home around 10 or later depends on if i have meetings with parents or if there is a teen that needs counseling. Thursday we have prayer. Friday nights 2 a month prayer. Tuesday bible study for the adults. Saturday we usually hang with teens to deal with issues they have. We have more youth in single parent homes they need a male role model. Sunday of course is church i get plenty of calls because the church needs water or paper towels. Etc. And now more adults are like can you find time to talk/ pray. Instead of going to the sr pastor. Of course i do but that is the life if many youth pastors. They are made to feel quilty if they dont go to all the adult services. And wanna know what the majority of youth pastors make? 50.00 a week im not even on a salary. So instead of bashing youth pastors who really do a little of everything. Why not offer a little encouraging, how about you pray for them, or even take them out to dinner. Because you dont see everything, and for every problem they see they have to follow up with a parent and the sr pastor

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Seth Barnes

I'm motivated to join God in his global reclamation project. He's on the move, setting his sons and daughters free from their places of captivity. And he's partnering with those of us who have been freed to go and free others.

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