The State of Youth Ministry

I strongly feel that no one really sits down and discussed the state that the youth ministry is in. Take a moment and think about the youth who graduated in the past 5 to 10 years. How many of them have returned to church after their stint in youth group? How many of them go to church period? Now ask yourself, how much has the youth group grown since the year 2000? Would you say that your youth ministry is a growing ministry or that this is a slowly dying ministry?

Here is my assessment: This ministry is in a very critical stage, and I feel like it has been in a long time, and it simply has been overlooked. It is like the tooth ache that we ignore, because it does not bother us too much yet. And/or we would rather deal with this ‘once in a while’ pain rather than go to the dentist. When we actually go to the dentist, we are told that the tooth is in serious decay and needs to be pulled out. I feel like that is where this ministry is at. I feel like no one really sat and dissected and analyzed the state of the ministry. Many saw that on the surface, everything was okay, and assumed it was so.

The youth’s spiritual state is all but dead. Maybe many adults will feel that this has nothing to do with them. But it does. This is the next generation and most of them are not coming back to the church. And let’s be honest here. The church is not getting much younger. The late twenties-early thirties are almost non-existent in many churches. This should be a concern for everyone at the church.

Not only is the spiritual state of the youth worrisome, but so is the entire ministry in itself. It is what Andy Stanley like to call a “dead-end program” meaning that this program leads to nowhere. We are just happy to have a program for youth. In baseball, a hit does not count unless the batter reaches the base safely. Just because the batter makes contact with the ball does not mean it is a hit (the ball can be caught out, it can be a foul ball, etc). But many churches are happy to just make contact with the ball. As long as the bat hits the ball, they are happy with it. I honestly feel that this is what we feel with our youth program. As long as we’re doing something, that is good! As long as the ball touched the bat, we are doing well. But the youth ministry is not reaching first base. And if we are not reaching first base, we are never going home, or going to “score.”

We need to start thinking of youth programs (and all programs) as a step, a step that leads to the next level. We need to gear this youth ministry that leads to the next step, to reach first base, then second and eventually head to home plate. In the time of they spend in youth ministry, they need to be equipped with the word and have a foundation of faith instilled in them. When they graduate from high school, they need to graduate from youth group as well. I find it humorous when kids hang out at their high schools five years after they graduated. Yet, in churches, this is common. Kids will graduate from youth ministry, but will hang out there and never really go into worship, or leave the church altogether.

The biggest mistake that this church and many Anglo-churches have made is this: focus on games and entertainment. (Whereas majority of Korean churches view youth ministry as an actual church. For instance, there’s a Korean UMC in Fullerton, CA where their Friday night ‘program’ is a 5 hour worship time. Yea, 5 hours! I couldn’t believe that the kids could worship that long. It’s an extreme, but it was so awesome and great to see kids worship God the way they did for 5 hours.) I went around and asked some kids (from my church, from other places like Starbucks) what they expect from a youth ministry and almost all their answers were “to have fun and to play games.” This is probably why they do not return to church after youth group. They realize that they have outgrown the games that they played in youth. And when it comes to fun, the church cannot compete with the world. They go off to college and they have enormous amount of fun and they look at the church, and it is no longer going to be fun for them. As was repeated at the National Youth Workers Convention I just attended, the entertainment model of youth ministry needs to die out. One of the speakers said, “If you entertain the youth into the kingdom of God, you have to entertain them to keep them there.”

At Starbucks recently, I met a pastor from Harbor Rock, which has about 5000-7000 young people at their church. I asked him what spurred on this growth. He told me he has no idea, but the growth started happening when they quit focusing on games and started to focus on theology, faith and learning the Bible. He was surprised that when they offered a Bible study on theology, 400 young people came out.

We have done a disservice to the youth. We have done them wrong thinking that they may not be able to handle deep discussions and God. Someone asked me how did my church in Hawaii grow the way it did. Like the pastor of Harbor Rock, I have no idea. But my ministry there was this: Worship first, bible study second. We had “mystery nights” (night for fun and games) once every two-three months. The kids got excited about God (not games!). They got excited about worship. They got excited about praise (Music really speaks [loudly] to the younger generations). They got excited about bible study and small groups. So they started telling their friends about the opportunity to actually worship God. And the kids just started to come.

I am not an entertainer. I am not here to entertain. I am a pastor and a preacher. I am here to preach and to equip. And this is what I desperately want to do with the kids here, and this is what I feel the church desperately needs. We cannot keep them entertained forever, especially with the diminishing attention spans. We cannot give into the consumer mentality in the church. They will just leave when something better and shinier comes. We need to stop building their foundation of church on sand. Shane Claiborne at the conference said to all the youth workers, “if we lose this generation from the kingdom of God, it’s not because they weren’t entertained. It’ll be because they were not dared.” It is time that we as a church stop entertaining our youth and start daring them to be workers of God.

3 thoughts on “The State of Youth Ministry

  1. absolutely correct, but I have a slightly different opinion.

    i don’t think that the problem is the “entertainment model” in and of itself. i think that the core problem is that today’s youth groups are not HELPFUL. it does not make God REAL, and it does not make the bible TRUE in their real lives. if the “entertainment model” were to be able to do that, i would not have any problems in using it, and that would be in conjunction with other models, of course.

    this is because today’s youth grow up in the “post-Christian, post-modern culture,” and the obviously unhelpful thing that many youth groups are doing is that they are attempting to indoctrinate youths with the modern worldview of universal moral principles and exclusivist religious beliefs. many youth workers seem to not be able to see that modernist religious thought no longer works in the post-Christian, post-modern culture.

    what i think youth groups need to be able to do is what jr. high is supposed to do for high school, and what high school is supposed to do for college: it’s supposed to get people ready for the next step. youth groups need to be able to get high school students ready for spirituality in college, and to partner with college groups in creating the right path up.

    lastly, i want to reinforce my suggestion by highlighting the fact that today’s jr. high kids are really more like yesterday’s high school kids, and today’s high school kids are rapidly becoming more like yesterday’s college kids. it’s time to face the facts and do theology from the ground.

  2. Preach on Joe!
    I would also like to add to the last comment because if Jr. High is like high school and Sr. High is like college, then the place that we will really need to fight for our kids hearts is sadly not gonna be at youth group, but at the Elementary or younger level.

  3. Thanks for this. I completely agree and was very encouraged to find someone who feels the same way. The emphasis in our youth group is always Jesus and the bible. Many think that taking high schoolers through a book like Romans will never take off but I believe this is seriousley underestimating them and the power and change in brings in their lives. I have seen great fruit since we began this approach. Sure we make time for fun and hang out. But honestly…lets see less game show, and more Jesus in our youth ministry.

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