The Solid Rock, The Sinking Sand

What do I see happening in youth ministry? I think this song sums up the conversations I’ve had with youth workers of the last 2-3 years.

On Christ the Solid Rock, I Stand
All other ground is sinking sand
All other ground is sinking sand

 Things that have always worked, successes that we could always predict, and stability we could always enjoy are all gone. Kaput. Poof. Vanished.

And so I meet wonderful, wounded, hopeful people and all they can say is, “I’m holding on to Christ, my Rock. But I’m standing in sinking sand. What is going on?

Conversely— redemptively and mercifully— I run into ministries/individuals/organizations figuring it out and moving forward.

Here’s four common threads I see gaining traction, whether articulated or unarticulated amongst these organizations finding success today.

From transactional relationships to transformative community

I don’t know how else to say it. But I think full-time, paid youth workers are at a disadvantage to their volunteering peers in many ways. Students are sophisticated, savvy, and motive-sensitive. It used to be that being a paid church staff member created instant trust. Now, for a multitude of reasons, being a pastor can be (though not always) a block for students. This was revealed to me in a conversation I had with a recent grad. She said, “There comes a point when you realize that outside of your parents every adult who ‘cares’ about me is paid to care about me.”

People today are looking for long-term, transformative community. In a world where everything changes all the time we instinctively desire stability that is found in long-term community.

From competitive to collaborative

Individuals, organizations, and local ministries who are gaining traction are rejecting the competitive/high-power business-driven models and seeking collaborative relationships. This means anything from churches combining forces to create a community-wide youth ministry to youth ministry organizations putting aside their long-term differences for the sake of working together.

There simply no place (or resources) for a competitive spirit when we are reaching so few people.

From experts to innovators

I don’t foresee us going back to a time when 1000s of people drooled over every word from an expert, writing notes furiously, and trying to wholesale implement their teachings.

It seems almost silly to mention that this is the way it used to be. But this used to be the way it was! 

Instead, I see people/organizations/ministries seeking inspiration from experts and contextualizing their learnings to innovate local solutions. Just like the Real Food Movement has people looking from national to local sources of food, youth workers are looking less at national experts and more towards local innovators.

From sound bytes to application

Isn’t it interesting that we have access to every bit of information we could ever want and yet we are reaching fewer people than ever in youth ministry?

I’m not alone in this observation. People who are figuring it out and finding success are walking away from teaching styles which delivered “aha moments” and are focusing their attention on application. That’s not devaluing teaching the Bible. In fact, it’s refusing to just glance over the Bible without holding their ministries accountable for applying what God is teaching them.

It’s no longer about pushing out the Gospel to whomever will listen. It’s about pulling people into the storyline of what God is doing and inviting them to accept their role.

These are ways I’m seeing people find bedrock. What are ways you are seeing this? 






8 responses to “The Solid Rock, The Sinking Sand”

  1. Bill Britton Avatar
    Bill Britton

    Been looking at this myself lately and having similar conversations with other pastors about this subject Adam. I think teens are looking for authenticity and genuine caring because it is so lacking in modern culture. Folks who are there for the long haul fair well in the YM arena. I still am in touch with students that were in my YM 15 years ago (a lot thanks to social media) but continue to be able to speak into their lives because I became someone they could trust a long time ago by simply spending time with them and caring about what happened to them. It’s labor intensive to be sure to have to deal with students one on one but a network of caring adults who mentor students can have a huge impact on a community. That could be the future of YM. I’m not sure I agree with your Innovator comment but really think we need to get back to basics and worry about being the body of Christ, caring for one another and not worrying about the “next big thing.” Hope this makes sense…

  2. kolby milton Avatar


    Great post!  I think Youth Ministry has always been a grassroots movement, and will eventually be back there.  I also think it will take years for people to find bedrock because we resist change.  We want proven methods.  Lots to think about! 

  3. Kurt J. Avatar
    Kurt J.

    Adam, this is good stuff to keep us thinking and moving forward! As I wrestle through what you wrote, here are some of the things I wonder about:

    “from transactional to transformative”: any paid youth pastor worth his/her salt knows that they don’t get paid to REPLACE volunteers, transformative community, etc. But simply to cultivate it. Is it your observation that most full time youth pastors in a local church are NOT developing volunteers and cultivating authentic community? Certainly, there may be a handful of massive ministries that do nothing other than big, transactional type events, but that isn’tthe norm for most youth groups, is it? I have fairly deep conversations with hundreds of youth pastors a year, and most of them seem to already be engaged in the type of ministry you describe. So maybe collectively we are doing okay.

    “from experts to innovators” Agree….to some extent. I see an increase in grassroots influence, and peer-to-peer learning, etc. BUT we are a culture that loves our experts…so much so that we demand the innovators to share with us and thus quickly become experts.

    “from sound bytes to application”: this may just be my experience, burt I have never met a youth pastor who doesn’t value, and try to teach toward application.

    “from competitive to collaborative” agree….I think! Although I tend to think youth ministry has ALWAYS led the way in this area. Youth groups have been working together, joining forces, and pooling their resources for years….often to the chagrin of their senior pastors!

    Finally, can you please point me to the research that shows us that we truly are reaching less people? My “gut” tends to agree, but would love to have access to the research to confirm that.

    Finally….and sorry for such a long comment….But I wonder (as I have stated lots of times) if the need for sweeping change even exists? I ask only because it seems like over and over again the change being called for is ALREADY happening in the vast majority of settings.

    Maybe instead of calling for change, the influencers, the publishers, the experts etc.should just do a better job of saying, “keep up the good work…hang in there…what you are doing matters!”

    1. Adam McLane Avatar

      “Maybe instead of calling for change, the influencers, the publishers, the experts etc.should just do a better job of saying, “keep up the good work…hang in there…what you are doing matters!”

      I feel like we all (if I can include myself in this lot) do a pretty good job of that. If posts like this are discouraging, I need to get that feedback. That’s not the general feedback I get.. but I’m certainly open to it. 

      My primary response to your comment is about the % thing. Has there been a study backing up my repeated statement that a very small percentage of people are actively attending/engaged in the local church? Not that I know of… at least not an academic one. I’ve written about the methodology of that statement several times because it just comes from simple arithmetic I’ve done. (and a few others who have copied it) 

      It started in our church in Michigan with calling all of the churches in our community’s zip codes, getting their actual butt-in-seat attendance, and dividing it by the population. (4%) I thought that was ridiculous so I did a few more communities in the Detroit area and found number roughly in the same ball park. 

      I’ve mentioned, challenged, and prodded people to do similar simple studies in their zip codes and heard similar responses. It’s not scientific but even if it is off by… 25% or something like that that is far too many people not going to church. (A church of any variety…) 

      In my logic, even rounding way up to 10-15% of the population actively engaged with/attending a local church… I think that is still a call for a multi-faceted “sweeping change” in how we do things. Why? Because the Gospel of Jesus Christ isn’t just for the minority it’s for the majority. 

      Think about it like this: In San Diego County the largest church is The Rock at about 12,000 in weekly attendance. That seems big and significant. (And it’s crazy big IMO) But the population of SD county is a little over 3 million. 

      According to my theology… who is the Gospel intended for? Let’s round WAY up and say 300,000 people in SD county attend a church. That still leaves 2.7 million people in my county unconnected to the bride of Christ…. and for me that’s a call for change. 

      Do we need to keep doing what we are doing? Absolutely. But that can’t be ALL that we do if we want to reach say… 35% of the population. (Which is still an F in my books, but an improvement nonetheless.) My hypothesis is that “what we are doing now” is a part of the long term solution. But when 90% or more of the population has opted out… we need to think about different ways/forms/modes of church to reach more people. 

      Er, a long comment back. I hope you see where I’m coming from a bit better… does that help or did I make it worse? 

      1. Kurt J. Avatar
        Kurt J.

        I certainly don’t think the tone of this post was negative, and I didn’t mean to imply that. But it falls into the category of discussion that is discouraging to many youth workers simply because we love students, love lost people AND love the local church. I think it can become discouraging when we are continuously told we are doing it wrong. Again, not the tone of this post, but it has been the tone of much of the conversation around this topic. A topic, by the way, that is mostly being addressed by “experts” that according to your post don’t carry the sway they once did.

        I actually think there are probably only a few degrees of separation between you and I on the subject. I venture to guess that much of it lies in semantics and a little bit of methodology…but not much.

        An example might be found in my first comment. I mention that I believe much of what you are calling for already exists….so we agree on what is needed, just degrees of difference on to what extent it is, or isn’t happening already.

        As for the % of folks in church, and to what extent the church is at fault: That, my friend, is frankly above my theological pay grade! It seems to me that even though the gospel is for the majority ( in fact, I would say it is for the WHOLE), Jesus seemed to indicate that it would be a minority of folks who accept it….he at least hints at that when he talks about the narrow road, etc.

        There are so many factors working in our society that cripple the advancement of the good news, which is why there have to be so many varieties of churches, organizations, strategies, methodologies etc. There is no “one size fits all”….there simply can’t be!

        And maybe at the end of the day, that is what frustrates me about aspects of this conversation. I (and many youth workers i have talked to) hear it as “everything is broken…what you folks are doing doesn’t work…do it the way we think it should be
        done…”, which I don’t believe is the intent. But it feels as though we are being asked to throw out the baby with the bath water.

        So change, change, change, change, change! We all need to change and adapt to keep the kingdom advancing and showing up in dark places. How we do that, and to what degree is going to look very different from place to place.

        Thanks for keeping me thinking, and helping me work through this in my setting!

        1. Adam McLane Avatar

          You’re comments have me thinking all day. Love it. And really… this would make a fascinating panel discussion or article or something like that. (And one of the books I’m proposing really dives into this.)

          As a takeaway I know I need to spend more time looking for success stories to highlight to emphasize stuff. That’s a lot harder task than me just sitting on the trolley and writing, “what about ____?” I’ll take that as a challenge.I understand that some folks are discouraged by the picking and noodling. I’m trying hard to shift my tone from deconstruction to reconstruction, which is why I took the angle of “this is what I see happening” instead of “here’s things we’re doing wrong. I think some of what I’m thinking and wanting to explore is looking at the current forms of youth ministry (and maybe by proxy church ministry) as a piece of the puzzle in reaching students. But maybe the way we do it now is say… 1/5 of what youth ministry could become if we cast a broader vision? 

          Yeah, the joys of blogging. 🙂 Just one incomplete thought after another. 

          1. Kurt J. Avatar
            Kurt J.

            I hear ya! The VAST majority of my blog posts fall into the “thinking out loud” variety.

  4. Andy Gill Avatar

    adam good stuff, also it was good being able to meet and hang with you al ittle bit this weekend at ys. Love the idea of collaborating, I’m praying we begin to see this more and more, but moreso that the head pastors or whomever the youth pastors boss is, would be more open to this and all that it would entail to join on with other churches and work alongside them.

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