Lies of Youth Ministry, Part One

Boys and girls in youth ministry we’ve got some problems. We in youth ministry, as a tribe, believe some lies about who we are, what we’re about, and how we should be reaching students. Let’s address these and move forward to fix them, OK?

#1 Your ministry is “successful” if you have 10% of Sunday morning attendance. My entire youth ministry career has been wrapped up in the local church so I can state this from experience. But let’s bear in mind historical perspective to understand this lie before we can look at a solution. The current version of Youth Ministry is really a reaction to the success of early parachurch ministries. Back in the late 1940s modern youth ministry was born when Youth for Christ hired Billy Graham to lead crusades to reach teenagers… and boy did that work! YFC’s crusades scratched a cultural itch since teens had been left out of the local church with the emergence of adolescence. (Adolescence is only about 120 years old!) As a strong middle class was born out of post-WWII days adolescent teen culture blossomed and the church was seen as irrelevant to teens. Gradually, in the early 1960s the American church responded in a big way to numerical victories of parachurch ministries. Churches were tired of seeing all of the students go to YoungLife and Youth for Christ… so they started hiring those organization’s staff to run programs in local churches.

It was a great concept, but from the very beginning youth ministry was seen by church leadership as a way to hold onto church kids and maybe, just maybe, reach new families. This fixed a problem parachurches had without truly addressing the church issue that created the parachurch need in the first place… no place for non-believers to be ministered to.

The truth is that local churches royally ruined what the parachurches were doing. To even call what most churches do “youth ministry” is demeaning to its evangelistic heritage. Instead of youth pastors being hired to reach a high school they were hired to grow/maintain a local church. (In fact, I’ve talked to countless youth pastors who were fired for trying to reach lost students!) The lie is that a good youth ministry is about growing a church. In most cases, a youth pastor’s job is so limited and focused on the church that it’s really not about reaching lost kids at all. (Appropriate lip service is always about evangelism!) I’ve actually sat in youth ministry networks and listened to youth pastors sound satisfied that they are reaching 50-60 students with their ministry. The target isn’t a percentage of butts in seats on Sunday morning! Reaching 50 students while 1950 have never heard the gospel is a gross failure.

True success comes when you reach and disciple brand new people for Jesus Christ! The first lie points to the fact that church-based youth ministry largely lies to itself and calls itself a success when it reaches less than 1% of students in a community. Is it the individual youth pastor’s fault? Absolutely not. It’s a design flaw worth addressing. The truly successful youth ministries in this country focus on the lost in their schools and could care less what percentage of saved church kids come to their programs.

Questions for youth workers: Do you agree with my use of the term “lie?” If so, what are some ideas for fixing this in your context? If you don’t agree, I still love you. But I’d like to hear your push back.

Lie #2 It’s about discipleship

Lie #3 You have to have a youth pastor


10 responses to “Lies of Youth Ministry, Part One”

  1. Mykel Avatar

    I like what you have to say here. In fact I’ve been saying something similar for many years now.
    Right now I am studying Max Weber’s rationalization theory and how it pertains to the church. I am finding that a lot of churches have become a glorified assembly line institution. We hand out God on Sundays in a very impersonal way in the name of efficiency.

  2. joe troyer Avatar

    i agree adam. so tell me this, how do i reach lost students? i know it sounds like a stupid question for a youth pastor to ask. but so much of my time is with “my kids”, that i dont get to spend too much time with others. any thoughts?

  3. adam mclane Avatar

    joe– I think you do two things. If you’re serious about reaching kids in your community you need to block out the time. Get your boss online with 1-2 days per week where you’re “out of the office” doing face-to-face ministry.

    Then you go to the school you want to reach and say… “Hi, my name is Joe. I’d like to volunteer a lot of my time doing something you need done. I can help tutor, grade papers, monitor halls, asst coach a sports team, or whatever you need. But our church loves this community and we want to give back in a big way.”

    Seriously, schools are hurting to have volunteers come agenda free. If a principal says “no” to that… consider another school.

    But just being at the school and serving their practical needs is the biggest open door to meeting kids and opening doors with the school.

    In Romeo, I was NEVER told no to volunteering my time. Prove that your only agenda is loving/investing in the school to make it better and administrators should love you.

    The “rub” is that it may not be direct enough to satisfy your boss. Just trust me… consistently investing in your school for THEIR agenda will get you a long way.

    Hopefully, some folks from Romeo schools who still read this will pipe in too.

  4. joe troyer Avatar

    great idea adam. i have a “free pass” in my school anyways. i am in there once or twice a week. but while i am there, i am hanging out with “my kids”. tutoring or something like that might be a great choice for me. thanks for that.

  5. Debi Avatar

    OK, here’s a Romeo person who’s answering your call to “pipe in” on this issue! Some background – my son was on the high school golf team and Adam had volunteered to help coach. To this day my son still talks about Billy (the nickname they gave Adam, don’t ask me why!) and how he would drive the team to events in the Beast (his 15-seat church van). I think the relationship worked because Adam was not there in an official pastor capacity, but rather as an adult who just wanted to be with kids. Not that ministering to kids isn’t important – it is. But sometimes I think it’s all about the way it’s done. Make yourself available to kids, get them to trust you, talk about the issues that matter to them, and before you know it your are ministering to them! Approaching kids with a “pastor agenda” will quicly turn most of them away. Sad, but true.
    To this day my son’s face still lights up at the mention of “Billy”! He found a friend in Adam, not a preacher, and whether he realizes it or not, he was ministered to!
    It’s all about the approach!

  6. Jon Avatar

    I would go further and say that many of those kids in the church are trully not even in a personal relationship with Christ themselves. The challenge is reaching those Youth before they leave the Church when they come to an age where they are able to make a decision outside of Mom and Dad’s faith. I speak to this at

  7. adam mclane Avatar

    Jon, with all due respect to those kids… if they are apathetic in their faith as they’ve been exposed to the gospel all their lives, we should probably focus on those who have NEVER experienced or heard the Gospel.

  8. scott Avatar

    i find it hard for a church to get online with being gone from the office that much. i’d love to be in the schools more, but i’d say a lot of other youth workers are like me and aren’t necessarily in a place that would be alright with that.

  9. Casey Avatar

    I’m on board with what you’re saying. I agree, it’s great to be where the kids are and to be involved in their world instead of in the “hideout” of the office. However, though coaching and driving the bus is great and the kids get to liking you, isn’t your time better spent discipling your teens, multiplying yourself, teaching them your truths, and having them take the gospel to their friends, having them receive it from their peers? I’ve got 4 young me in three different schools gaining more ground that I could ever do alone.

  10. Christopher Moghtaderi Avatar

    Nice post. Totally agree but I would definitely like to see you elaborate on lie #2 and #3.

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