The Youth Ministry Gap

mind_the_gapAfter 18 months of working at Youth Specialties and interacting with youth workers around the United States (and everywhere else) it’s finally sunken in: There are two different things called “youth ministry” with a major gap in the middle.

Professional vocational youth ministry: When I talk about youth ministry this is often my default. These are youth ministries and youth ministry leaders who have formal education, continued training, experience, and live their whole lives thinking about youth ministry. When you talk to them about youth ministry they think of models, books, authors, speakers, ministry ideas, successful programs, historical viewpoints, on and on.

This youth ministry is pretty sophisticated. Like any profession people fall into schools of thought. They have models for doing youth ministry. They have personally written and can defend philosophies of youth ministry. They run programs which implement their well thought out and defended philosophy of ministry. They train volunteers to be proteges for their school of thought. They have opinions about whether a certain models is getting stronger or dying.

For the 20% or so of youth workers in America in this category those nuances matter to them. They are on the leading edge of thinking about Youth Ministry 3.0.

My Church Youth Ministry: They just want to know how to minister to the kids in their church. When they e-mail me or call our customer service line they don’t want to talk philosophy or are even aware that there are different ways of doing youth ministry. They are calling because they have 15 seventh graders in their Sunday School class and they need a curriculum that will work for them. When you ask them about what they are trying to do with the group… you’ll hear the dead air or the exhale and then they’ll say, “We’re Methodist, what works for Methodists seventh graders?

They don’t know or care about philosophies of ministry. They don’t know or care about ministry models. They haven’t heard of Saddleback or Willow Creek. They go to First United Methodist Church of Middletown– that’s it. They may know that some churches have full-time youth workers but they don’t really care. They have a full-time job outside the church. They have a kid in high school. And the pastor thought they were pretty loving towards teens and asked them to minister to their kids friends. They give of themselves to invest in the kids in their church and that’s amazingly awesome.

ChasmFor the 80% or so of youth workers in America who fit this category, youth ministry is pretty matter-of-fact. There are kids who show up on Sunday morning or Wednesday night and they do what they can to minister to them.

Minding the gap: There are not big steps in between the two groups of youth workers. It’s a gap with a chasm, not a ladder to the next or even a bridge.

It is literally two different things we call youth ministry in America. They all care about the kids in their church. One group is purely interested in the kids in their church. While the other also cares a lot about the greater profession of youth ministry.






12 responses to “The Youth Ministry Gap”

  1. Nick Arnold Avatar

    — This is certainly a sobering realization. What are the implications?
    — Do the “professionals” assume superiority?
    — Who does YS try to cater to?
    — Is one better than the other?
    — Is the gap bridgeable? (to the point that both groups can mutually benefit one another)

  2. Richard Avatar


    That makes so much sense it’s blowing my mind.

    Follow up thought:
    Occasionally these two groups will meet in the same church and there can be real tensions between the two groups.

  3. Adam McLane Avatar
    Adam McLane

    Nick- I think the vocational people probably think they are superior. But it’s important to remember that the others don’t even know or care about the vocational side.

    I don’t think one is better than the other. They are two different groups.

    Who does YS cater to? Both actually. Ask a vocational guy if he uses out of te box talksheets. But meet a church only person and ask the same question.

    Is the bridge gapable? Remember one side doesn’t know the other exists. I’d say it’s gapable in local communities if the vocational person sees themselves as a resource and not the expert.

    I dunno, I just observe and share. You tell me what it means!

  4. Ashley Smith Avatar

    @Richard… so true. I have experienced that tension…

    There has to be a way to bridge the gap… I fall into the “20% category” and have often been ostracized for reading books, going to conferences, and so on… I do believe that every Christ follower is empowered to minister, not just “professionals” but do you think that the 20% seem intimidating to the 80% who are giving their time to serve? Do you think that sometimes the 80% get discounted because they are just concentrating on their church?
    Are there different means to achieving the same goal? Is it a matter of relevance?

  5. mark riddle Avatar

    great stuff Adam. I’ll toss in a few other thoughts.

    I like the gap here. I think it’s pretty intuitive to see that there is a gap between those who think about they WHY rather than simply the How?
    If we go with your thesis here that the two groups are those who either are struggling to get by and those who are looking from the 30,000 foot view of youth ministry (and one could argue, the whole church) then I’d add a bit of nuance.

    I’d suggest that there are more than 20% of youth leaders who are asking the WHY question and I think the number is growing.

    But I’d suggest that the churches these folks serve within are the second group who only want to know HOW?. and I’d suggest that the crossroads for youth ministry over the next 10 years lies in the fact that:
    -Youth workers in the first group stink at leading people into owning the ministry. Sure they build teams and some of the teams outlive them. but most of the folks serving in these professional youth pastor’s ministries are only cogs in the professional’s highly nuanced machine. waiting to be told what to do by the person really in charge.
    – Some people aren’t wired for nuance. they are only wired for tasks.
    – youth leaders who actually want to empower a congregation for “youth ministry” are often undermined by a church system that doesn’t allow for such things. This both hinders nuanced yth min but also reinforces the yth pastor as the focal point. Plus, it subtly reinforces a feeling of both victimhood and entitlement in the mind of the professional youth worker that hardens hearts and taints the ministry they lead.

    There are very few churches who creating ownership within their community where people of the church see themselves responsible for the well being of the whole, without control, or manipulation and move in collaborative ways toward a common mission.

    sorry, for the nuance. 🙂
    great thoughts man!

  6. Jeff Richards Avatar
    Jeff Richards

    Mark : I think I’ve been living that nuance for the last year.

  7. mark riddle Avatar

    Jeff: you are not alone.

  8. adam mclane Avatar

    all- please excuse the 80/20 generalization. The numbers were simply to point out that there is a majority and a minority.

    mark- thanks for adding to the discussion. I don’t really claim to know if this is really a big deal, more just an observation that there are two groups of people calling two different things “youth ministry.” In the end, it is the same. Both groups reach out to, engage with, and minister to teens. And I love both groups. I’ve just been starting to recognize that I need to reply/mini

  9. Tim Young Avatar

    Adam, your assessment here is right on. I’ve been in both groups. I was a volunteer youth leader at my last church and left there to become a “professional” at another church. Boy was I naive. I thought the “pro” position would be just like the volunteer one. But I quickly discovered if I was going to do my job well, I had to delve into the world of youth ministry philosophy, models, strategic planning, etc. This isn’t to say that I was negligent as a volunteer leader; it’s just that as a full-time staffer, the church expects a higher level of “production”, for lack of a better term.

  10. mark riddle Avatar

    right on adam! no critique from here, only random thoughts.
    thanks for bringing it up!

  11. Jeff Lutz Avatar

    Having been a volunteer from both sides of the fence, there is a gap. I think that YS has done what they can to help both out with the curriculm issues. What I see as the need, is being able to help the volunteer who may not know what they are doing with a professional in the community. Bridging the gap, to me, means being able to link the professional “down the street,” with the volunteer at another church so that all of the students are spiritually fed.

  12. Ken Rawson Avatar

    Great stuff here Adam! looking forward to seeing you next week.

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