The Sky is (not) Falling!

I don’t know about you. But I’ve just about had it with people telling me that youth ministry is over.

It’s not over.

But it is changing.

A brief look back at the history of youth ministry

Examining youth ministry with a historical lens will allow you to see more clearly where we are and where things seem to be headed. For those who didn’t read Marko’s Youth Ministry 3.0, this is covered there pretty well.

Era 0: Early ministries (1870s – 1940s) Before we really had adolescence we had ministries working with children and young adults. They have a legitimate claim to saying they started youth ministry. But their practices were dramatically different than we commonly see today. Some of these organizations still exist today… Christian Endeavor, Boy Scouts, Boys Brigade, YMCA, to name a few.

Era 1: Parachurch dominance (1940s – 1960s) Younglife, Youth for Christ, and a few other ministries essentially invented the youth ministry practices we use today. The 3-fold youth group night of worship, games, and teaching came out of this. It’s important to point out that the catalyst for these ministries was first that adolescence as we know it today was born. And second that the church was horrible at responding to the needs of this emerging subculture.

Era 2: Church dominance (1960s-2000s) The success of the parachurches eventually trickled into the church. In the mid-to-late 1960s churches began to hire Younglife/YFC staff to serve at the church and basically copycat what they were doing for the church without actually integrating with the church in a wholesale way. But as time has gone on youth ministry has trickled into the adult church. (Casual worship music, teaching styles, skits, media use… these are all inventions of church-based youth ministry that graduated into “big church.”) In fact, it’s the “big church” vs. youth group mentality that created the tension we are in now. Some places describe church-based youth group as an organizational island while others coined the phrase, the One-Eared Mickey Mouse. Either way… that tone and some recent research has lead to a lot of church-based youth workers in vocational trouble.

Era 3: Missional dominance (2000s – ???) As I wrote about in January 2011, we are continuing to see a trend that big churches are getting bigger, little churches are getting missional, and medium-sized churches are feeling the pinch in the middle. But if you think about it all three are just getting missional and being more true to who they are. As churches (and parachurches) realize that the One-Eared Mickey Mouse isn’t helping young adults make the transition from adolescent faith to adult faith they are wrestling to discover how to best minister to the adolescents in their communities. This is leading to big churches getting better at what they do and growing numerically. Smaller ministries have realized that they can’t copy the methods of the big churches and have started to adapt adolescent faith development and evangelism into new ministries which meet the needs of the communities students.

The sky isn’t falling on youth ministry

I don’t want to minimize what many people are going through. It certainly feels like their sky is falling. One result of this transition is that a huge amount of long-term professional youth ministry staff people are losing their jobs.

As the church dominance era is coming to an end there are lots and lots of people who vocationally left in the cold. So the sky feels like it is falling on them as churches (and parachurches) wrestle through the reality that they might need to do youth ministry differently. Unfortunately, when many church boards look at their one-eared Mickey Mouse, they see old Pastor Adam and his youth ministry department and decide that in order to shake things up… they are going to need new leadership.

But you need to know that there is no less interest in youth ministry. In fact– there is much, much more church-wide.

The exciting flip side of all of the tension/drama/pain is that we are in an incredible period of innovation, invention, soul-searching, research, and discovery in youth ministry as we all try to figure out, “What’s next?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.


  1. Adam – Just wondering if you’re seeing any of what we are seeing in the mid-west…youth minstries that are not affiliated with a church or para-churches. Just a burn-out or fired youth person leading bible studies at coffeeshops, in their homes, in the park, etc. Youth minsitry, but in a more organic way.

    I am seeing more of this and while I LOVE that lack of “box” I also see an inherent danger of lack of accountability.

    1. I see this, too, Chris, and it’s essentially what I’m doing now, except I’m doing it through the church I volunteer at. To me it feels like good accountability, but yet I’m free to do what I love. It’s still through the church, though.

    2. I agree with Tim. With this change, it’s rattling people to their core. Now they know the answer to the age old question. Yes, they are youth ministry people… even if they aren’t employed by a church. I’ve not worked at a church since 08 and I’m still investing in the lives of high schoolers!

      1. I actually felt guilty for a while about loving “volunteerhood” so much (which I blogged about a while ago). I’m hoping the Lord provides an income for us that allows me to continue to volunteer part-time hours or more each week. Of course, working with a solid paid youth pastor makes a big difference in this experience for me, as well.

  2. Thanks Adam for your insight. I certainly don’t think Youth Ministry will ever disappear, students still are just as thirsty for authenticity and truth. I was sharing in my last youth leaders meeting, youth ministry is no more complex than living out christ in front of students and investing the time to stick around for a long time. I wonder if the challenge is the longevity in leadership more than the style of the program?

    1. I don’t know if longevity is as much an issue as it was say… 10 years ago when it seemed like people moved around on a whim. Instead, it feels like leadership is decentralizing. That’s a good thing IMO.

  3. I have heard this youth ministry doom and gloom rant a few times. When I hear it I ask “Who then will be connecting with and investing in this generation?” (Sound of crickets).

  4. Yea, but….
    Duncan, just to clarify….
    Youth ministry is no more complex than GETTING THE FAITH COMMUNITY, THEIR PARENTS, AND THEIR ADULTS to live out Christ in front of the next generations and invest the time to stick around them for a long time.
    And that challenge actually is gonna be complex, and for those unwilling to change their approach or the expanse of their responsibilities as well as for those hiring/ supervising/ firing out of previous models and mindsets… Well, then, the sky might very well be falling.
    The whole “One Eared Mickey” challenges us to take the mission of youth ministry out of the segregated youth room and into the integrate church community.
    Moving the metaphor from fairy tales to REM lyrics… It’s the end of the world as we know it and I feel fine.

  5. Can it either go ahead and die or just evolve? Please!!! Tired of waiting for the IC to catch up with the world.

  6. Good stuff guys. Thanks for posting Adam. I think the shift we are seeing in youth ministry is huge. While I believe youth ministry will continue, I do wonder sometimes whether “paid positions” in youth ministry will one day cease. That doesn’t mean we won’t continue to do what we are called to do. Personally I feel a lot more comfortable in the organic ministry model that seems to be popping up in communities. But maybe that’s just cause I’m a young “postmodern” hipster.

  7. One of the challenges of this more organic youth ministry expression will be to support the youth worker who doesn’t work within a “system”. It’s already lonely enough in youth ministry as it is but to be more removed can seem utterly disconnected.

    One of the guys I know doing this echoes this sentiment regularly. I think organizations like NNYM will be essential in getting them connected and helping them feel supported.

    Also, this allows for greater collaboration as there are not so many denominational walls separating youth workers. I’ve seen this happen in our small community. There is essentially one youth group for the entire town but many youth workers from many different places of worship. In the end it’s the kids who win and God who’s glorified when the whole body unites to build relationships with the kids.

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