are youth ministries killing our churches?

Are youth ministries killing our churches?  

image courtesy of games4youthgroups

From time to time I’ve hinted at my thoughts on youth ministry as it is being done today, but I’ve never come out and said plainly what I believe.  I did link once to this article once — Youth Groups Destroy Children’s Lives (which is a great read, by the way) — but I’ve never written a blog post on the subject. While I don’t believe youth groups are necessarily destroying the lives of our children or singlehandedly killing our churches, I do believe they provide a tremendous obstacle to be overcome if teens are ever to become mature Christians.

Here are a few of my thoughts on the subject (I worked hard to narrow it down):

  1. Children must learn how to be responsible Christian adults by spending time around responsible Christian adults who are acting as responsible Christian adults.  This means that youth group volunteers and chaperones generally do not count, as they’re only acting as chaperones at the time — and not adults.  Somehow our children have to witness adults actually being adults and doing what Christian adults do in the world.  [I remember going to work with my dad when I was little….]
  2. Kids are spending increasing amounts of time only with other kids, and youth groups often exacerbate this problem.  Sports, school functions, going to the mall and the movies, youth group, camp, etc.  We allow this because we want our children to be happy (or because we’re too busy), but I believe (even Christianity aside), this is causing a prolonged adolescence in American youth.  Maturity cannot be modeled by peers, and the adults who could model it are not present.  [This is also why I believe teens in rural areas are often more mature at earlier ages, because their social communities and get-togethers extend beyond age-group friends to entire families.  Also, churches in these areas (almost by necessity) have more church-wide events than do larger, urban churches.]
  3. Children are not the center of the universe, yet we often treat them as such.  I’m afraid the youth in many churches are being prepared for a huge letdown when they graduate high school, because every event and activity up until that time has been designed specifically for them — for their enjoyment, for their education, for their well-being, etc.  But that’s not real life.  Nor is it real church.  The church exists largely for those outside it.
  4. Youth ministers are routinely expected to do parents’ jobs for them.  The Bible is clear that spiritual development is first and foremost the parents’ responsibility.  If you haven’t read Deuteronomy 6 lately, please do.  [And here’s a blog post on the subject: raising children according to deuteronomy 6.]
  5. We’re also teaching our children that church involvement (and Christianity in general) is great for kids but not that important for adults.  This might explain why so many youth give church up for their college, young adult, and young married lives, but then begin attending again once they have children.  We’ve programmed them to believe church is important for kids — but not so much for everyone else.

“All this complaining, Brett… I hope you’re going to offer some practical solutions, because I’m tired of your constant moaning and griping.  All you do is criticize, criticize, criticize….”

Well, I will indeed offer just a couple of ideas (and I may revisit more practical solutions later):

  • Let’s stop with all the age-group specific stuff.  Let the church be the church together.  If we are the body of Christ, should the elbows always be eating pizza and worshiping without the rest of the body?  [Okay, I don’t mean stop with ALL the age-group stuff, but with much of it.]
  • If our churches truly want to provide a service to the children of Christian families, let’s spend more time encouraging and enabling parents to be Christian parents.  If parents aren’t taking responsibility for their kids’ spiritual well-being, my guess is it’s usually because they feel inadequate or don’t know how — and not because they just don’t want to.  Let’s support them in their roles.  I’m convinced much greater good would be done by parents taking seriously their God-given positions in the kingdom (as parents) than by our youth ministers and volunteers entertaining children and teaching them what’s not being modeled at home.

This subject very well may find its way back onto my blog in the next week or two, but for now I’ll leave you with this article by Jay Guin.  He (and his fellow elders) say it quite nicely.  I’m glad to see a church moving this direction:

A Vision For Doing Ministry Together

What do you think about youth ministry?



Filed under family, woe to us

24 responses to “are youth ministries killing our churches?

  1. I agree very strongly. I take huge issue with some particular mega churches that absolutely refuse to allow children in Sunday morning worship services. I’m a little “tweaked” about the fact that “children’s ministry” is claiming mine own kids two out of the three times that we go to church each week – it’s a well intentioned effort but it goes against my personal preferences even though it’s more “fun” for the kids.

    Part of the bigger problem is that churches “feel” a lot of pressure – and it’s not imagined pressure, it’s genuine pressure – to have a “strong youth group” in order to be attractive to families. We’ve had people just outright say “we’re going to another church because they’ve got a strong youth group” or “we’re looking for a church with a good youth program because we’ve got two teenagers” or whatever. People make their church decisions – and this is an incredibly unfortunate and shallow-thinking tendency – based on which church has the most fun for their kids. They don’t want their kids complaining that their friends go to a church with a cool youth group while they make them sit through boring adult sermons about justification and sanctification and hermeneutics and theophanies and so forth. They want marshmallows and yucky-food-eating contests.

    Most parents love their kids but really don’t want them around because they’re a lot of work. Rural areas have less of that mentality, in general. Kids may rebel some but still respect Mom and Dad because Mom and Dad respect them and involve them in their lives. Urban area culture is incredibly different. .Kids are always bored (mine included, touche) and this fosters a babysitter attitude.

    Great thoughts.

    • i did attend a church in the states which didn’t have a big youth group. and lots of families left when their kids got old enough to know the difference. lots of families in that town shifted to one particular church whenever their kids got old enough to want to be with all the other kids at youth group.

      and lots of other families stayed at their home churches, but allowed their kids to go to the big once-a-week youth worship at the large church with the big youth group.

      not sure what i think about that. other than the fact that i wish families didn’t leave because of a small youth group.

  2. Ted

    Interesting discussion. But how many teenagers with no church background want to come and get involved with a multigenerational group?

    • You’d be surprised how many teenagers are looking for exactly that; many youth end up in gangs because they are trying to seek a family dynamic that simply does not exist in their own paradigm.

      Just because we have done youth ministry in this way for the past number of decades does not necessarily mean it works.

      I wrote a similar post I think about a year ago regarding what youth groups are like in ethnic churches and the problem is 10X exacerbated than in a traditional N.American church.

      The late Robert E. Webber in “Ancient-Future Evangelism” also encourages churches to leave the paradigm of having separate generational programs and try to accommodate a family dynamic within the life of the church and in order to encourage proper wholistic discipleship within the lives of young people from an early age.

    • not very many, i suppose. but since i don’t see most of these church “activities” as being evangelistic in nature, i don’t figure it matters much. when evangelism is our purpose for coming together, then i have to ask why we came together, if that makes any sense…

  3. Changing this situation will require “bottom-up” transitions rather than “top down.” As Bernard’s comments reflect, there is pressure upon churches to conform in this area. Tragically, we have failed to ask whether or not separating people based on age/grades is spiritually desirable. This may be the worst thing people of faith could have uncritically have accepted from modern education.

    This practice is actually relatively modern and has gained almost universal acceptance because it is the secular education model most of the world’s population has experienced. Its roots tie to the development of the factory and the demise of crafts that were learned through apprenticeships to master craftsmen.

    Families will have to drive any real change in this realm. When fathers and mothers resume their responsibilities of discipling their children, then youth ministry can and will transition to healthier practices. Without such change, competition will continue to drive the demand.

    Families doing Discovery Bible Studies is the answer. Young children learning from their parents how to share what they are hearing from a passage and how they will live it and then being held accountable to what they said they will do is the answer. While I was in Sierra Leone I witnessed this very thing happening within a family where the children ranged from three to eighteen. The children each took a verse and shared the meaning they gained. Then they took a verse and shared what obedience to it would look like.

    • john, very interesting. i’d never realized this all came about because of our education programs. and i love the idea of families doing discovery bible studies together. i’d also really like to see groups of several families doing those together — and i think that could be really good for all involved.

  4. I’m not sure that “bottom up” alone can fix this, to be honest. I know I fail my kids a lot in the area of Bible study, but even if we were to be doing a perfect job, the church situation would not automatically be fixed. How does the church minister to kids whose parents DON’T do a good job without, to some extent, doing the parents’ job for them? I don’t want to isolate my kids from the other kids in the church by forcing a separation, neither do I wish to “chase” a church who does it exactly my way.

    There is much need for parenting oriented group study, but the very existence of these kinds of things tends to create the very separation that we claim to be trying to avoid. As well, it often puts the pastor / leader in the situation of being under a microscope as to his own parenting success failure. I mean, who’s going to respect a pastor whose kids are the worst players in the church?

    IMO, much of the problem lies with publishing companies and convention driven “programs” that continually push material for “youth pastors”, “youth programs”, “youth retreats”, “youth concerts”, etc. etc. etc. I’m not of the opinion that such material shouldn’t exist, but so much of it is directed at the presumption that there SHOULD be completely separate ministries that a type of social engineering has resulted. Entire website ministries that push people with a heart for youth into “youth ministry” on a path for child / parent seapartion exist.

    It easily becomes a situation where “you and I” feel the need to “legislate morality” – we want to “force” churches to not do so much youth ministry, because in our opinion that would result in more “spiritual churches”, better adjusted youth and college kids, etc. But that’s not effective either, I think we would agree. Supply and demand rules our churches just like it does Walmart.

    Parents demand youth programs, and churches conform to avoid loss of attendance.

    “Successful” churches have big, successful youth programs. A huge percentage of “people”, especially those with some money, have kids.

    Vicious circles.

    I, personally, see youth programs as a problem.

    However, it all depends on your definition of “problem”. 🙂

  5. Great thoughts Brett!

    One of the things that I have seen both in N. America and overseas has been with smaller churches, children and youth become strongly involved in the family life of the church just because of the lack of programs and people to run a youth ministry. I would suggest, the larger a church gets, the more segregated each demographic becomes…

    • yep. that’s exactly what i’ve seen as well. where i grew up, small rural churches often are “looked down on” because of what is a more legalistic form of theology — and i don’t agree with it. but no one mentions how great a job they’re doing of demonstrating to their children how christian adults act. and they do it by living christianity together, everyone involved.

      [on a sidenote, i’ve also noticed these kids often do the best job of carrying on conversations with adults. they understand how to speak with people older than themselves. and when they get to college, a lot of times it’s these kids that can work a job and study and pay their bills, all at the same time. they’re just more mature many times.]

  6. randy burtis

    Beyond youth groups killing the church, kids ministry is right up there at times also. It is worth, imo, every church adopting a Family Ministries approach to ministry. This looks more holistically at how we ‘do church” and stressed multi- generational, NON-siloed approaches to ministry. It doesn’t eliminate all segregated aspects, I believe there is room for that also, but it seeks to bring balance to it.

    • i like the balance idea. i don’t think it’s always bad to sort out by age groups. i’m curious to know how churches who focus more on family ministry are striking that balance. do you know, randy?

  7. Tom

    I would not say that youth ministries are killing churches, I would say that youth ministers are killing churches, and for the most part it is not really the fault of the youth minister. It is the fault of the system. I was a full-time youth minister for 10 years, at one church for 6 years, and you have struck a cord with me here.

    Here is the scenario I see playing out over and over. Elders realize they need a youth minister because the young families are leaving, or are just aging out and no one is replacing them. They hire a youth minister believing he (I almost said or she, but I caught myself) will help bring in some young faces. They hire a young guy, asking almost none of the right questions when they interview him. They assume that since he went to a Christian college, he is probably on the same general page as them doctinally, , ect… This youth minister is doing well, getting some things going, getting some excitment going, and then one of two things usually happen. 1. He realizes that the preaching minister is getting retirement benefits and health insurance paid for by the church. He realizes that all of his friends who found jobs after college are also getting those things. If he is lucky he married a nice young lady who found a job and is providing those things for their family. This will work until they start having children, and then the pressure will be on. He will last on average 18 months as a youth minister. He will either go back to school, look for a larger church that can pay multiple staff with benefits (there are only handfull of these in every southern state with the exception of TN and Texas), or he will become an insurance agent (I cannot tell you how many do this). How does this kill a church. No kid or youth group can survive having a new youth minister to bond with in their formative years every 18 months. It could also will also kill a church because he is not ready to become a preacher. He has only sung new songs, used power point with crazy videos, his poor un-suspecting church will not know what hit them. 2. Here is the second thing that happens. The elders start to notice the teens are clapping during songs, the church is singing new songs because the youth minister is probably leading the worship on a regular basis, and the older members do not like it at all. The teens are going to Christian concerts, the teen guys are praying out loud with the teen girls. Well most of these elders have not been around a Christian college since the 60’s or 70’s (or even further back). They realize they are not at all on the same page with their young youth minister, or they realize he is a, “false teacher.” They find a nice way to get rid of him, or they just get rid of him. Either way the youth are hurt, and sad. Many will walk away from church and never go back. The youth minister is devestated because he owes 50,000 for his youth ministry degree, and he just wanted to do something for teens, like the awesome youth minister he had.

    So in short I would say actual youth ministries are great. When edlers find a youth minister who fits with their theology, who they take care of their family, when they stay for a long time (4 years before they can call the ministry theirs, and 7-10 years before they really get going). When this happens the results are incredible. I could point you to some churches that would change your mind about this with a visit. They are aware of the issues you are bringing up, they get teens together with older members, they don’t baby the teens. They talk about all the issues you are bringing up in youth ministry confrences,classes all the time. They are not dumb.

    This situation will not get better, but worse. There are a ton more youth ministry majors than preaching majors. There are very few churches out there that have any business hiring a youth minister. I live in a southern city with one million people in the area. There are two or three here that are capable of supporting and understanding the role of a youth minister. So in short we need more articles like yours so we will stop having so many would be youth ministers set up for failure.

    Elders, please don’t hire a young man if 1. He does not have a supportive wife, 2. He is not on the same page theologically, 3. If you think he will be your ticket to growth. 4. If you really want a worship leader. 5. If you cannot afford to pay his retirement and insurance. I would say it is immoral for you to do this. Would you work at a place that did not offer these things. 6. If you are expecting his wife to be the girls youth minister with so support or help.


    • good thoughts, tom. and thanks for sharing from experience. i, too, went to a christian college (a CofC one at that) and took some youth ministry classes. actually, when i first arrived as a transfer junior, my major was youth ministry. and I chose lipscomb simply because i was offered (what was my second) youth ministry internship as a year-round intern there in nashville, and that would help me pay for school.

      at the time lipscomb, as now i’m sure, had tons of youth ministry majors. and we all read a book about family ministry, that contained a lot of ideas like some of those i’ve stated in this post. but it was odd, because then everyone just went on with their youth ministry plans and classes as usual, studying about how to segregate the teens from the rest of the church and how to plan a summer calendar. it was really odd to me.

      anyway, i only lasted a couple of months as a youth ministry major. i actually bought into some of that family ministry stuff. and i’ve only become more convinced over time that it’s a better way to go.

  8. And here I am trying to develop “youth ministry” in Tanzania… but nothing at all along the lines of what goes on in North America as described by these comments. My goodness.

  9. Have done youth ministry for 12 years and I want to SCREAM these same things from the roof top!

    out with age-ism.
    it’s down there with raceism for me.

  10. I actually wrote about this two weeks ago, and referenced that same article that’s sensationally titled. I definitely think there are some problems with that model, and I’m definitely think your “solutions” are a solid step in the right direction. I understand why we separate the ages, but in the greater scheme of things it does more harm.

    • there you hear it, people. from a counselor / psychotherapist / youth psychologist.

      actually, charlie, what exactly are you trained in? and congrats again on the new job.

  11. my husband has said for a long time that youth groups hurt our churches — we separate the kids from the rest of the church, cater to them, etc. and then when they turn 18 or 19 we expect them to magically integrate into the “adult” church, and that is typically where we lose them. they should be included and active in the “main” church from the beginning. it’s okay to have youth activities, but they need to be part of the church all the time.

    • your husband sounds like a very smart man, maggie.

      and related to what you’ve written here… it seems like some people think the answer is simply to have the youth attend the adult worship hour instead of having their own. and i think that’s fine.

      the problem is, though, they’re still not seeing how adult christians behave in the world. they’re seeing how adult christians behave in a church pew. and it’s very different, it seems.

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