youth ministry

5 Common Misreads on Teenagers in Youth Group

One of the things you learn as you go in youth ministry is that teenagers are experts at sending off false signals that can be difficult to pick-up on.

Here are five common ones I see newbies miss all the time.

  • “I’m just hanging out” or “I just thought I’d drop by because I was bored.” If you have a student that stays late or is just hanging around or lingers longer than usual or drops by the office for no real reason– it isn’t an accident. There is always a reason. They want to talk and are waiting for you to take the initiative. And sometimes when they do this you’re going to have to build a little repoire before they share what’s really going on.
  • That student in the back isn’t paying attention. This is a frustration that comes out of youth workers all the time. Stop it. It doesn’t mean what you think it means at all! It’s easy to think that a student who is sitting in the back, looking at the wall, or just looks like they aren’t paying attention isn’t paying attention or is being disrespectful. My experience is that they are usually paying attention and soaking in more than the kids who being compliant, smiling, responsive teenagers in the front row. If they weren’t there for an encounter with God they wouldn’t be there. Period.
  • The student who wants to be a up front is a leader. Nope. Up front skills and spiritual leadership are two different things. When I was in youth group I was up front, leading games, and even leading a small group before I even gave my life to Jesus. Some people are born leaders and lead wherever they go. Students who like to be part of your leadership teams might be just as lost and trying to figure it out as the dude in the back who stares at his iPod the whole time.
  • Spiritual maturity and physical maturity are two different things. This is really hard for adults to grasp. But if you do youth ministry for any length of time you will meet students who are just as spiritually mature, or who are MORE mature, than most of the adults in your church. You don’t have to be 50 and have kids in college to be mature in Christ. How do you judge spiritual maturity? Fruit. Stop looking down on students because they are young. Bottom line on that one.
  • They aren’t ready for theology. Ugh. Any time a youth worker says this I want to punch them in the face. I actually had a methodist youth worker say this recently via a Facebook message. My response: “How old were the founders of Methodism when they got started? Look it up.” Yeah, don’t underestimate what the teenage brain can handle. You can’t tell me that an 11th grader who just wrote a 5 page paper on Whitman’s use of symbolism isn’t ready for some theology. Just because you’d rather play video games than study doesn’t mean that every student is like you. A big reason they eventually bail is because they are bored and the faith that you are exhibiting is boring compared to what they read in the Bible.

These are the misreads I see all of the time. What am I missing? 

Good News youth ministry

Is anybody out there?

Yesterday Walt Mueller posted this video on his blog, it’s a lot to chew on. I hadn’t seen it but I’m glad I have. As youth workers, it’s both heart-breaking and knowledge we share that too many teenagers feel this way.

My reflections

  • It looked like a mature town… so lots and lots of churches. The church wasn’t part of the question of the video nor the answer.
  • What would be Good News to the characters in the video?
  • What if students in my neighborhood saw me as someone who could help in that situation?

What are your thoughts? 

Church Leadership

The Problem with the Cause of the Week

“Oh, I’m so going to use that with my students.”

This week it was the Kony 2012 video. (And the backlash) Next week it’ll be something else because our cycle of interest is now about 96 hours.

As the video went viral all of my youth ministry groups on Facebook were littered with questions from youth pastors asking, “How can we best use this video for our youth group?”

I think that we are too fast to want to use everything as a resource or teachable moment.

In fact, I think we often hide behind our role as a leader to become plastic. We don’t allow things to impact us because we look at everything from a lens of, “How can I use this?

And that’s a very cheap way to engage our life on earth. It denies our own human experience to go from one thing we can promote to another. And we get excited about getting people excited about stuff more than we get excited about getting ourselves to really understand stuff.

I don’t know all that is behind this leadership instinct to rush to resource instead of allowing ourselves to be impacted. But, for me, I think it’s built around my insecurity. I want to be seen as compassionate to child slavery [or whatever the cause of the week is] more than I actually want to personally do something about it. I am quick to give a few dollars but slow to understand how my daily actions may be funding child slavery.

No more distractions

Perhaps the bigger thing, speaking purely for myself, is that I know I need to walk away from the cause of the week sometimes because it becomes a distraction from my cause of every week.

I cannot escape these priorities in my life.

  1. My own relationship with Jesus is more important than the cause of the week.
  2. Jesus has called me to invest in my family. 
  3. Jesus has called me to love my neighbors as myself. Not a metaphorical neighbor, the people who live on my block.
  4. Jesus has called me to dig in at my church. 
  5. Jesus has called me to my work. 

In light of this, the cause of the week really isn’t all that important.

Investing in my relationship with Jesus is more important than leading a discussion about Kony 2012. Having a great conversation with my kids is more important than telling them about Kony 2012. Leaning on the fence and listening to my neighbor is more important than telling them about Kony 2012. Leaning in and engaging with my small group is more important than plugging Kony 2012. Working hard and pushing through my work is more important than caring about Kony 2012.

See, I don’t think the cause of the week is bad. Not at all. But I do think things like this are a big distraction, for me, from my priorities. And if things like that do impact me, I need to allow them to really and truly matter to me before I think about involving other people.

youth ministry

How has suffering shaped your ministry?

How has suffering shaped your ministry?

That’s the topic for this week’s Slant 33 article. Here’s my answer to this question. My question for you is, “How has suffering shaped YOUR ministry?

Like a lot of fellow youth workers, I traded a business cubicle for a youth ministry office. Wide-eyed and overly optimistic Kristen and I longed for a career revolving around our faith and family while impacting the lives of teenagers. 

And in ten years of working in the local church, our lives certainly revolved around our faith, family, and impacting the lives of teenagers. Some of our proudest moments have come in seeing that growth through the long haul. There have been so many times when I’ve grabbed Kristen and said, “This is so worth it!” 

Conversely, I can’t tell you how many times I wished I could have traded in my pastoral role for my old corporate job. Yes, that career was unfulfilling. Yes, the longer I did it, the more bored I was. But at least it didn’t hurt so bad. When I was betrayed, I could speak up. When I was wronged, I could relay my issue to a human resources professional. And when I failed, I could deal with being passed over for a promotion or a raise. Sitting in a small group of my peers, I could talk about my job sucking or my boss being a jerk and get empathy from people in similar situations. 

But in ministry the stakes are so much more personal. And it’s a very private struggle. The isolation and lack of camaraderie are ultimately what hurt the most. All too often when you reach out with a struggle, you are rebuked or even belittled. At least for me, this meant I carried a lot of burdens. Suffering became part of my ministry. 

In truth, this personal suffering was enough. I understood it as part of the calling. But what caused unnecessary suffering was the impact of my vocation on my family. My wife couldn’t just be a wife and new mother. She had to carry the mantle of pastor’s wifeand receive unlimited and unwanted advice from the hens of the church. When our kids misbehaved, we felt the judgment from fellow congregants. 

Early in my ministry, I allowed the weight of suffering to shape my attitude and self-image. If I were made of Play-Doh, my body would have been flattened. But, as I’ve gotten stronger, more used to the weight and its impact, I’ve learned that there is a healthy suffering that just comes with being a follower of Christ, which I can deal with. 

But, there is also abuse that comes my way that I no longer permit to have the impact it once did. I’ve become like a junkyard dog in protecting my family and the families of my ministry friends. That’s the weight of ministry I no longer allow to shape them.

youth ministry

Why youth ministry can’t just become family ministry

There’s a growing movement within the American church that puts youth ministry under the umbrella of family ministry. There are youth ministry organizations, publishers, conferences, and lots and lots of people highly interested in this model.

To over-simplify: The idea is that youth ministry should be an extension of the over all family ministry of the church. So, youth ministry is really just another part of the organizational chart which fits nicely between kids ministry and young adult ministry.

I think we need to push back from this organizational simplification. There’s a very good reason why youth ministry is the way it is. Namely, modern youth ministry emerged in the 1940’s to reach lost students the church didn’t care about. (The church, as a whole, was late to minister to adolescents. This gave birth to parachurch movements like YoungLife and Youth for Christ.)

Youth ministry sprang up to meet the need of teenagers who wouldn’t naturally go to church. Or who didn’t fit in because their parents don’t go to church. Or those who will never fit into the stiff collars of a traditional church. Youth ministry has always been the organizational oddity that helps those students experience Christ.

Any attempt to fold youth ministry into a church that isn’t currently reaching those kinds of kids and adults… is destined to make youth ministry sterile. 

Putting youth ministry into the box of family ministry is misunderstanding that it’s historical place in the church is missiological. Historically, we are more tied to evangelism than we are discipleship.

Don’t Misunderstand the 1-eared Mickey Mouse

Chap Clark, very poignantly and famously pointed out that youth ministry too easily becomes an organizational island, what he called “the 1-eared Mickey Mouse” in the church. In other words, many youth groups have their own mini-culture, their own goals, values, and norms.

I love Chap’s observation. It’s true. But I would argue that it’s not altogether bad. Further, I would argue that maybe the church needs a few more 1-eared Mickey’s to start reaching some more types of people. (But that’s another rant for another day.) The problem is that when you let the business people run your church– having a 1-eared Mickey Mouse is a bad thing. And so some of these emerging models of family ministry have at their core a desire to kill the 1-eared Mickey, folding youth ministry in.

But don’t forget– if that 1-eared Mickey Mouse is reaching people the rest of the church organization fails to minister to, that’s a very good thing. And some of what you get when you fold it in is backfiring.

Sanitizing Youth Ministry is a Bad Idea

As I read the books, listen to the speakers, and read between a few lines… I think that the motivation for some people is to make youth ministry tidy. Some of these folks who say that youth ministry is really just a step in the family ministry food chain attend/work/consult with churches who reach a very sterile, homogeneous group of people. It looks like they are reaching a lot of people but they are really good at reaching a certain kind of person while excluding large, growing portions of the population.

Bottom line: If you make youth ministry revolve around the family you automatically exclude students who don’t have families who go to church. Sure, you don’t exclude them by name or even intentionally. But when you start having father/son trips and retreats for the whole family– if you lived in a home with your grandma who didn’t come to church, how welcome would you feel?

If you make youth ministry fit around the vibe and rhythm of your church instead of the local school system you’re automatically limiting who you reach.

On and on. Youth ministry can be very powerful as an organizational island.

Moreover, youth ministry was created to take some risks. To do things that got the Jones Memorial Carpet ruined. To reach the lost kids instead of the right ones. To connect the unconnected to the most important family they could ever have.

The answer isn’t a sanitized family ministry. The answer is a realistic integration strategy that gets people of all ages and backgrounds out of programs and into community.

This rant has exceptions: Let me point out, and cut off some of the negative feedback I get when I post things like this, that while I’m making generalities there are exceptions. The church we attend is one of them. They head this off because top to bottom they are reaching “the wrong people.”

youth ministry

You need to get out more

“Leaders are learners.”

We’ve all heard this. And most people I know in youth ministry are very well read. They read a lot of books and attend a lot of training stuff.

But I also think one reason people can’t think outside of the box to solve problems is that their context is so tiny. They only really know how to “do youth ministry” one way. Sometimes I’ll sit down at a conference or spend an hour on the phone with a friend and we’ll agree… their current strategy isn’t working. But they’d rather get fired than change.

Why is that? 

  • Is it that they are stubborn? (No)
  • Is it that they are uneducated? (No)
  • Is it that they are dispassionate? (No)
  • Is it that they lack creativity? (No)
  • Is it that they lack the power to change things in their ministry? (No)

It’s usually because they’ve only ever seen youth ministry done the way they do it. They grew up exposed to a style. They went to college or seminary and were fostered in that methodology. Then they got hired by churches who want them to run a program that same way. And they hang out with people who do ministry like them. And when they go to conferences, they go to conferences who do ministry just like them.

You know the mantras— We do Sunday school and small groups. Or we do a midweek program. Or something like that.

These are all viable methods. But there are TONS of other methods available in youth ministry. Chances are good that you never even took the time before you started the job to figure out, “Does the method I know even work in this context?” Oh no, we usually come at it the other way. “This method worked for me in another context, it’ll work here.

It’s not a lack of learning holding them back. It’s the lack of contextualization, study, observation, and experimentation that’s killing you.

You need to get out more

If you want to consider this a profession, you need to expose yourself to a wide variety of methods. It’s like going to a doctor who only wants to cut people open. He might know there are other types of surgery out there, and he might have heard about some pills that you can take, but he’s really into cutting people open because that’s what he knows how to treat your problem.

You wouldn’t go to that guy would you? He’s a 1-trick pony.

But that’s how we roll in youth ministry. We have tribes of people who are 1-trick ponies. It’s not that they don’t know there are other methods out there. They just do what they do. We hide behind terminology like “primary giftedness” and other ways of self-convincing ourselves that we can only do ministry the way we grew up doing it.

Learning that isn’t diverse in its approach isn’t really learning, it’s reinforcing what you already know.

You need to get out more.

If learning is a value and all you’re doing is reading books or going to conferences reinforcing what you already know, you’re not a learner. Spend some time observing other methods. Go visit other churches who aren’t like yours. Go see youth ministry in another culture. Make the time to do so. Set up some experiments. Create some brand new theories and test them out.

Whatever you do. Don’t keep working on something you’ve proven doesn’t work in your context.

That’s not professionalism, that’s insanity. 

youth ministry

Teenagers are Desperate for Good News

One reason youth ministry is flatlining is crappy theology.

Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, was recently interviewed by Relevant Magazine about the present reality that youth ministry presents a faith students easily walk away from in college. She was asked, “Do you think there are any misunderstandings or misconceptions that contribute to young adults leaving the church?”

Her response:

The students involved in our research definitely tended to view the Gospel as a list of dos and do-nots, a list of behaviors. We asked our students when they were college juniors, “How would you define what it really means to be a Christian?” and one out of three—and these were all youth group students—didn’t mention Jesus Christ in their answer; they mentioned behaviors.


Allow me to translate that. Students are learning really crappy theology from their culture, their parents, and their churches.

Is your Gospel even Good News?

Here’s what I encounter when I talk to students in our ministry and even random students I talk to out on the street. They are desperate for Good News. They are looking for Good News. In their honest moments they are desperately searching for Good News. (From Jesus, Buddha, or Katy Perry)

Their lives need Good News. Somewhere. Somehow. In some fashion… they are hard-wired for and looking for Good News. Why? Because their lives are surrounded by bad news. They need a Jesus who is real, who can help them, or their life isn’t going to get any better.

If God doesn’t show up they are in trouble.

And what do they get at a church? Not much. A 30 minute pep talk, some laughs, and some songs. Or, at best– a Christian version of Dr. Phil with an invitation to talk to someone after church.

But a God who meets them where they are at? Or people who are willing to intervene? Nope. And forget about delivering anything that is actual Good News in their lives.

I meet students who are struggling with stuff like this:

  • Have hurts I can’t talk to my mom about.
  • Hurts caused by a mom and dad who love themselves more than they love me.
  • Does anyone love me? Am I even worth loving?
  • Why isn’t my dad around?
  • Who the heck am I? What am I going to do with my life?
  • Sex is like a big rock rolling me over. I am so confused and hurt about sex.
  • I’m stuck in the same problems my parents are, can I break the cycle?
  • My family is late on the rent again. We can’t pay our bills and I feel like a big burdon on my parents.
  • I have big dreams but no one can help me get there.
  • I’m stuck in drug and alcohol abuse and I can’t talk  to an adult about it.
  • I’ve been molested by someone in my family and I can’t talk to anyone about it.

These aren’t rarities. These are just below the surface for a majority of students I interact with. And the churches answer? Come to church. Listen to a message. Attend a Bible study.

Is there any doubt why 95% of teenagers opt-out of that? They are saying, “I need Good News. I need Jesus to be real because I have no other options.” And the churches solution for everything is prayer, Bible study, and attending worship services?


That’s not Good News. That’s Good Behavior. 

It’s inadequate. It’s a failure. And it’s certainly not the Jesus they encounter when they read the Bible. You know–  the Jesus who was so desperate to help them that He gave His life for them. They want that Jesus and when He doesn’t show up at their church…

They are leaving and I can’t blame them. 

Teenagers desperately need a roaring lion Jesus who will come into their lives, protect them, and help them figure stuff out. They will give anything to a God big enough to do that. Instead they are presented with a smiling, carefree, half-empty suburban-friendly Jesus like substance which cares more about their surfacey behavior than the condition of their heart.

It’s crappy theology. No pastor would admit to teaching it. But that’s what students are learning.

And we arrogantly say we don’t need radical change? Hmph.

Flatliners logic.

Students are trying everything they can to find Good News! They need Jesus to help them with their real, physical problems. 

Will your ministry be the one who steps up, gets messy, and points them to the messy, grimmy, grace-covered Good News of Jesus Christ that touches not just their soul but the sole of their feet?

You want to flip the world upside down? Become Good News to a teenager.

I spit this game 7 days per week. The easiest way you can support my blog is to subscribe via RSS or sign up for my email updatesIt’s real easy. Thanks for your support. 

youth ministry

Stay Crazy

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched this video over the years. Maybe hundreds. It inspires me every time. 

In youth ministry, Mike Yaconelli is our Steve Jobs.

As I wrote earlier this week, we live at a time when youth ministry has flat-lined. The way we do youth ministry has failed to increase it’s impact either in the church or in our society. And that flat-lining has created a crossroads.

  • Why do I do what I do? 
  • Why do I invest so much time into these students? 
  • Am I investing in students the right way?
  • Am I making an impact at all? 

These are the questions we ask ourselves at the crossroads. It’s natural. It’s good. You’re aren’t wrong for thinking these thoughts.

My hope is that when we get to these crossroads we don’t double down on strategies we know don’t work. My hope is that we don’t quit and suddenly feel called to church planting or selling life insurance. My hope is that we don’t give up on the church for she is the bride of Christ.

Instead, my hope is that we look at the reality we are in, look both ways at the crossroads… and say “Woohoo! Let’s figure out how some new ways to keep loving on God’s kids!

Stay crazy, my friends. 

Let’s be blog friends. Subscribing via RSS or getting my daily email updates.

youth ministry

Youth Ministry is Flatlining

If I were to plot out the average youth ministry attendance in a local church this is probably what it would look like.

So when I say, “The way you are doing ministry is failing to reach students. It’s not you, it’s your strategy.” Youth workers look at me and say, “No, that’s not true. We are actually reaching more students than we were 10 years ago with less budget.

And from their vantage point, looking at that one view of the population of adolescents in their community, they could be right. They are reaching 10-15% more students than they were 10 years ago.

Flatlined growth

However, when you compare students engaged in youth ministry to the overall student population in your school district it looks a lot like this.

This is what I mean by “you are failing to reach students with the programs you currently offer.

Statistically speaking you are flatlined. (As in– no heart beat!) You’re reaching just about the same percentage of people you’ve always reached. That may be OK from a church politics situation but I’m not sure I’m OK with that from a theological position.

And I’m positive that this flatlining has lead to the following problems in youth ministry over the last decade:

  • A general cynicism about youth ministry internally and externally.
  • A decrease in youth ministry staff and general budget funding.
  • An increase in expectations that new youth ministry staff grow the program immediately.
  • Lots of great youth workers moving on to other ministries or careers.
  • The rise of family ministry models designed to circle the wagons. (Historically, youth ministry existed for evangelism. Popular models today are primarily interested in keeping church families engaged.)

Students are involved… just not in youth ministry

According to this 1995 study, 79.9% of all high school students were involved in an after school activity. I know that this study is 17 years old– but we would all agree that that percentage likely hasn’t changed much in 20 years, correct? (Maybe +/- 10%)

Every youth ministry strategy I know of is trying to wedge their way into this pie graph. They are looking for students, ultimately, to forego involvement in one of the programs at the school and invest in their program.

After nearly 40 years of youth ministry we know that this isn’t going to happen. Even the best youth ministry program model might only wedge their way in there by 2-3% of total student involvement.

A theologically appropriate number of students are not going to stop involvement in other things to get “fully engaged” in a local youth ministry program. And even if they did this it wouldn’t be a good strategy for continued growth, would it?

It’s 2012. You have flatlined for the past decade. Are you ready to try a new strategy?

This is why it is said: “Wake up, sleeper, rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.”

Ephesians 5:14

Stay tuned, subscribe via RSS or get my daily email. This year we are going to look at new youth ministry strategies that are breaking this model and reshaping the way students engage with Jesus. 

youth ministry

Love is an Orientation DVD

I’m proud to be a part of the youth ministry session of this project with Ginny Olson. Together we talk about ministering to LGBT students in your youth group, creating a safe environment, and bullying.

You can pre-order the DVD curriculum from Amazon here.