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Youth pastors must disciple!

For the last couple of decades, I’ve been calling youth ministers to focus on their central calling – discipling young people as Jesus did his disciples. The problem they face is that churches, pastors and parents don’t share this view. Yes, they’ll say they do, but when the rubber meets the road…
By Seth Barnes
By Seth Barnes
For the last couple of decades, I’ve been calling youth ministers to focus on their central calling – discipling young people as Jesus did his disciples. The problem they face is that churches, pastors and parents don’t share this view. Yes, they’ll say they do, but when the rubber meets the road, they won’t back youth ministers to make the hard choices that allow them to do it.
Five years ago I wrote the following post on the subject. And since then, I’m afraid the issue has become worse. I’m interested in any ideas you may have about how we fix the problem.
The Church in America has
produced a generation of professional youth pastors. They care about youth and want to impact them
for Jesus, but they’ve also got to run a program:
  • 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.
  • They
    are expected to fill their calendars with “youth activities.”

Ultimately, many of them stay at one church less than two
years. So, it is a rare youth pastor who
is able to spend the time needed discipling individual students.

If you’re an average youth worker you got into the field because you
wanted to disciple young people. But
something happened along the way. Your
church gave you a flawed model of discipleship, one that involves little
long-term ministry and results in meager fruit.

Expectations, calendars, and a risk-averse evangelical
culture all make your life complicated.

Our culture wants you to work as guns-for-hire, babysitting a
generation sitting back with arms folded and a smirk that says, “Go ahead and
try to hold my attention. I’ve got
satellite TV, an X-box, wireless internet, a cell phone, and a schedule that
won’t quit. See where you fit in that

Jesus said, “Let the dead bury the dead.” His terms were uncompromising; ours should be

If you’re a youth worker reading this, I don’t want to leave
you in the lurch. Let me recommend a few
practical steps you can take:

First, if your heart is telling you, “disciple young people”
and your program won’t let you do it, then decide to get out of your program
and into something that allows you to disciple young people. Don’t let
salary be a major consideration.

Second, consider going to your senior pastor and asking for
permission to apply Jesus’ model of discipleship. Here’s one way – do what a nearby Atlanta
church does, begin by taking those who really want to be discipled on a two-month
summer mission trip. That’s right, I
said two months! How else are you going
to change their habits? Get adult
volunteers to take everyone else to water parks.

Third, consider finding a team who will encourage you to
disciple young people in the same way Jesus did. If you’re consistently discouraged where you
are, you may need to consider the possibility that God wants you to quit your
current job, but if He does, at least you can look for a place that lets you
disciple the way that Jesus did.

Also, check out: A crisis in youth ministry

Comments (6)

  • Thanks Seth, I have wrestled with this one a ton!

    Being in youth ministry for 8 years. this is a heart wrenching battle every youth pastor will wrestle with! The problem often lies as a systemic problem of discipleship in church culture as a whole. If your church is not spending significant time investing in lives organically outside the lines of programmed ministry leading disciples by personally getting our hands dirty in caring and loving the poor and needy, it will be nearly impossible for a youth ministry to do the same. I held on to the hope that a youth ministry could change the culture of a church, this is an unreal expectation. often culture is established early and hard to change. The key is how do we start a culture that is different.

    We have recently launched a new church experience that is missional at its heart, we exist to bless and love our community and dream for the kingdom. The great thing is that we have no separate youth ministry. Students are fully engaged and active in the body life, parents and students are challenged with the same message to live as radical disciples. When we can minister to families collectively the impact is far greater. When a student sees their parents living out faith, they have a greater grasp of what this faith thing looks like in their own lives.

    But we have lost families that want a catered program to their felt needs, babysitting for teenagers. And that is OK! The truth is, who you are is who you attract! You have to live a life of radical discipleship to draw others of like mind. When we hold to this as a priority we will see our culture be shaped more towards a heart of discipleship.

    This is defiantly a conversation worth getting around!


  • Thanks, Tommy. Good thoughts and observations.

    I love it when I hear of examples of success, though I suggest that we need to look at fruit to assess success.

    Most of my conviction on the issue is derived from working with the fruit of youth ministry – that is, with 20-somethings. It’s an eye-opening experience to see what our current model of discipleship produces.

  • I know this post is a few days old, but I must let you know that I have wrestled with it for the last few days as I did when it was first posted in 2006; and as I did with a similar post on “Youth Ministry Crisis.” I printed and read the post to the 7 youth leaders I am mentoring, and I will be presenting it to the Youth Ministry students in my College class. It has stirred me up — in healthy ways, and provocative insights.

    I have been involved in youth ministry for almost 30 years, and involved with the training of youth leaders for the past 15. I don’t know if that gives me credibility, or speaks of my bias; but either way, I feel compelled to comment on this issue, which has become the prevailing sentiment of many who are pontificating on the field of youth ministry that is so dear to me, and an issue that is personal.

    Although there is much truth to what you say, and there is much debate amongst my colleagues about the issues raised, I am just a little concerned about the picture that is painted with rather broad strokes.

    For example, it is believed that the statistic that says that the average youth pastor stays in one ministry is under 2 years is widely disputed, and/or no longer accurate (if it ever was). Researchers within the field debunk this statistic, and see a growing trend towards long-term youth ministry investment. Most of the youth leaders I am currently work with have been at their present positions for 5-15 years!

    Whereas it has been commonly known (or assumed) that youth groups have for too long been more about “Chubby Bunnies,” Ski trips, pizza parties, and the next fun All-Nighter, I am delighted to say that this stereo-type of youth ministry is quickly fading (if it was indeed ever real). Both at the professional, academic level, and at the practitioner level, I am personally hearing … and seeing a dramatic diminishing of the “creative, Attraction-Level” aspects of programming. They are being substituted for, and/or supplemented with, a very strong focus on relationship-building, discipleship-oriented, transformational youth ministry models.

    With all due respect, Seth (and there is MUCH due respect): The sentiments shared in this post are outdated at best and paints with rather broad strokes, which I do not believe apply to the vast majority of hard-working, dedicated Youth Ministers across the country.

    I have dedicated myself not only to the work of youth ministry, but to the training, equipping, mentoring and coaching of youth leaders across the country. I have encountered some of the most amazing leaders who are doing incredible ministry with students.

    These are the leaders who are hanging out with students at coffee shops, street corners, and basketball courts, for hours and hours, often times into the wee hours of the morning as they build deep relationships, counsel hurting kids, and sacrifice their own emotional well-being, all for the sake of investing in the next generation of world changers.

    These are the leaders who are organizing missions trips to Haiti, Africa, and to inner-cities across America. They are teaching and modeling servant-leadership, missional evangelism, and transformational discipleship.

    They are living their lives missionally, and intentionally to ensure that they are exemplifying the discipleship model set out by Jesus, disregarding the former (and easier) lure of planning another pizza party. They sit with the “cutter” who has given up on just about everyone and everything, and often help facilitate the ultimate “intervention.” These Youth Leaders are sadly, often the only adult in a young person’s life they can trust and confide in.

    I have found that Pastors and parents have come a long way as well, and are seeing the vital need for drastic change in how we do ministry to the next generation, and they are more accommodating to the methodologies you and I would advocate for.

    Sure, youth ministry has a long way to go; and sure, there are those who have not embraced (or become familiar) with
    this new paradigm shift in youth ministry. But I just want to caution on painting with broad strokes, and potentially discouraging those who are fully invested in the field. Youth Ministry has been too long relegated (thought of) as “glorified babysitting, or “fun-and-games with no serious discipleship.” Many of these leaders are selfless, passionate, servant-leaders and disciple-makers, who go unrecognized, unappreciated, and taken for granted. I give honor and appreciation to these, whom I believe to be the “Unsung Heroes” of the church, who are helping to shape the lives of transformational leaders of tomorrow.

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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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