Do we need the subculture of youth ministry?

I spend a lot of my time thinking about how to make youth ministry bigger.

I don’t just mean bigger youth groups. I mean, “How do we minister to more adolescents?

18 months ago I posted this infographic.



This weekend I started wondering about the current state of youth ministry — as in, “What’s the difference between the people who work at churches who oversee church-based youth ministry programs and the adults who minister to teenagers?” 

The simple reality is this: The vast majority of the adults who minister to the spiritual needs of adolescents are not people who self-identify as “youth workers.

There are lots of adults, millions of them, who minister to teenagers and young adults every single day. Many of them as parents. Many of them by proximity to their career. Some attached to a church and some are not.

Do we need the subculture of youth ministry?

What’s interesting to me is that the local church/parachurch youth workers really feel like they have a pulse on the status of youth ministry in their community but they likely have a pretty small view on what’s going on because they are so focused on running their ministry that they can’t possibly see things which happen outside of their ministry or local network of church/parachurch ministry friends.

The other day I jotted down this thought: Perhaps the problem with youth ministry is the insider need to be a subculture instead of a calling?

Yes, vocational youth ministry in the local church or a parachurch is a calling. I get that and I would never diminish that at all.

But yet, there are lots and lots more people called to minister to teenagers who don’t answer that calling by becoming a youth pastor or even volunteer in their churches youth group.

So that leads me to the question: Is the “subculture of youth ministry” a problem preventing the growth of ministering to adolescents? (Is it a sacred cow?)

Or is the subculture of youth ministry helping to gather, train, and encourage the tribe of youth workers who are called to minister to adolescents within the local church/parachurch ministries?

That’s certainly one of the things I want to know about Open. (Our series of training events.) And it’s certainly one of the things I want to know about my tribe, the subculture of youth ministry.

Do you get what I’m saying? 

What do you think? Does having a subculture of youth ministry– with all that comes along with that– help or hinder the much larger tribe of adults who minister to teenagers outside of the ministry of the local church?

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in Ahwahnee, California.


  1. I know I’ve had great conversations with young men and women I’ve mentored who felt “called” to be a youth worker, but in their minds that calling meant “be a paid youth pastor working at a local church.” But as that particular role may go the way of the dodo bird in the next 20 years, I’ve encouraged them to broaden their vocational horizons while still maintaining a strong hold on their love for shepherding teenagers.

    I think we need to dismantle some of those barriers and expand the concept of “youth worker,” which you’ve done on this blog by addressing the high school teachers, coaches, counselors, and other professions that involve ministering to young people. But I also think the particular tribe we’re a part of–the youth ministry subculture–has plenty to offer. Instead of getting rid of the tribe, we just need to broaden it and invite the non-subculture youth ministers to the table.

    1. I don’t know the answer! I really don’t. This was just a thought that popped into my head the other day and I wrote it down… “Yeah, come back to this. Chew on this. Get input from others.”

      I can argue both sides. I can see the value in church & youth ministry subculture. I can see the value in church & youth ministry “industry” subculture. But I can also see the dangers there, too. (Meaning, I wrestle with the dangers I see.)

      So I don’t have a clue if it’s good or bad or if it’s needed or maybe we just need to open it up more?

      I guess this is one of those raw posts, more just sharing what I’ve been thinking about without it being polished up.

      1. Well, I think we certainly need to “open it up more” (whatever that means) and realize that the kingdom is advancing all the time, through lots of avenues. But I’m just old fashioned enough to believe that the local church is still relevant, important and the best way to move the ball down the court. I also tend to think that much of the church’s problems are self-inflicted. I don’t think folks are as opposed to church as we think….but they are opposed to church as they perceive it based, at least partially, on reality.

  2. I would like to push back on this thought. Just because something isn’t reaching everyone in ways that we see, does that make it ineffective? Is the investment of a coach at school or a singular teacher less effective because they only reach a small population of youth? I don’t think so. I think that it is all of us working together. The teachers, the coaches, the mentors, parents, neighbors all working together and loving the kids we come in contact with that makes a difference. I am just one person. I can’t love all the youth in small town in NJ. But I can love the kids God puts across my path and make a difference in their life. And when I love my kids, that spreads to kids I will never meet, when they talk about going to church and being loved by adults here.

    So yes, youth ministry in needed. It is one facet. One puzzle piece. That connects with teens. Among many different facets and puzzle pieces.

    1. And I am one person. My question is never how can I minister to more adolescents. I am maxed out at the number I have now.

      It’s how can I encourage other people to minister to the adolescents they know.

  3. As a paid youth worker who started as a volunteer, I love this question. In my mind, there are two ways of looking at it.

    First, the “youth min” sub-culture is helping us reach students. The adolescent focused para-church that grabbed me as a teen is for sure part of the sub-culture. I’m thankful for the loving volunteers of the high-school ministry that helped me learn about Jesus.

    On the flip side, it could be said that the sub-culture is limiting the number of people who are ministering to adolescents by letting everyone else “off the hook”. What would a true multi-generational Christian culture look like and how could that impact our young people?

    Thanks for throwing a great question out there Adam, keep up the great work!

  4. I get your point and it is a valid question. But we cannot diminish or overlook the fact that the Youth Ministry sub-culture (and I’m not sure I like that term,for accuracy at least) is specifically dedicated to connecting youth to Jesus. At least it is in my ministry. Yes there are scores of adults who also minister to youth but not all are dedicated to connecting youth to Jesus. And for that reason I do not think that all ministry should be lumped together. i work closely in my ministry with many of those other ‘ministers’ such as Scout leaders and teachers. In nearly every case we do so because our roles need to be complimentary to minister to all needs of youth. Putting different fruit (those who do different kinds of ministry) in the same basket does not make them all the same nor does it mean that the ways and means of their ministry becomes the same or has the same intention.

  5. I think it would be beneficial to define this “youth ministry sub culture.” What are its parameters? Athletics? Affection for goofy games? Polo shirts and khaki shorts? Or do you actually mean “youth min profession”, i.e. people who are paid in a church to work with youth? I think the answer to, “Is it beneficial?” will only be, “it depends,” until you nail down some specifics of what you are talking about.

    Also, a response for the previous commenters wrote that, “a potential problem [with youth min subculture] is that it “is letting everyone else ‘off the hook'” (magzbriggs) and that “youth ministry subculture is specifically dedicated to connecting youth to Jesus [while other youth professions are not]” (Deacon):

    Maybe you, and others who share your views, are approaching this from the wrong angle? Maybe it is youth min workers who are being limited by this label, and are having difficulty seeing how non-youth min workers “do ministry”? As believers, isn’t EVERYTHING we do dedicated to helping others know Jesus? I happen to do so in a high school classroom setting. You do so in a religious setting. True, some secular youth workers do not prioritize the gospel. This is because they do not understand the gospel, not because they do not embrace a vocation. But for believers, our purposes and “call” are the exact same; it is only the medium that differs.

  6. Adam, I agree with this completely and have often thought the same thing myself. To me, subcultures are dangerous because they create in-groups and out-groups. It creates the idea that anyone who does not self-identify as a “youth minister” actually is not a youth minister. This idea of course is ridiculous for all of the reasons you’ve mentioned.

    The tendency to create subcultures, in-groups, and out-groups is not restricted to youth ministry.

    I’m a volunteer youth worker but a software engineer by trade. In my profession, subcultures form based on which technology you’re working on. It’s so bad that sometimes, programmers who use one language look down on programmers who use a different language.

    Anyway, I guess my point is that forming in-groups and out-groups is a pretty deeply ingrained behavior in human psychology. But anything we can do to be proactive and at least aware of this tendency, will help.

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