Monday, November 10, 2008

What I'm Doing Now

Today I received an anonymous comment from a blog reader. I'm completely OK with a good amount of disagreement about youth ministry. I believe that constant questioning of our practices make us better ministers. It keeps us sharp. It helps us think through why we do what we do.

But in reading this reader's comment I realized that the message and purpose of this blog might be completely ignored because of people's perceptions about me. Here's the comment:

"I just read through a lot of your posts, but I think it would've been more meaninful if you were still in ministry. It's easy to sit on the sidelines, even if it's on a court you once played, and yell at those who are still participating. Roll up your sleeves and see some of these things happen."

I guess the perception is that youth ministry became "too hard" and has "too many flaws" so I just quit. Or that I'm no longer involved or interested in fixing the problems. That I'm just content to complain or criticize about what's broken.

I hope this isn't the common reaction.

My concern isn't about my credibility as much as readers rejecting the issues raised in this blog because of perceptions about the writer. Maybe a bit of context will help.

I've never shared my reason for leaving youth ministry other than "God simply led me to something different." Maybe knowing what that "something" is will help clarify my departure from youth pastordom. It's a long story, but I'll make it short.

Our family (not just me) has felt a clear call to those Jesus called "the least of these" - the outcasts, forgotten, oppressed, poor, unlovable - and especially widows and orphans. This call led us all the way to Ethiopia where whe adopted two little orphan girls. My wife increased her hours at the hospital to support our family so I can rehab houses for seniors (especially widows) living in one of the poorest areas of Toledo. This winter we hope to insulate several attics free of charge. This is what we've been doing for the last year.

As per the "getting involved" comment... Unless youth ministry is narrowly defined as "youth pastor" I don't feel like I'm "sitting on the sidelines". I just feel like I'm playing on a different court. Or maybe I'm just playing a different position than before. I've found a way to maintain my involvement with students at the local high school. I invite young people into directly serving the seniors I've met over the past year (hopefully even moreso in the future). And just today I trained and equipped a group of parents to become the primary spiritual investors in their kids lives.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


I wrote these questions about three years ago when I started rethinking things. They changed the way I view youth ministry:
  1. When was the last time we saw teens and their parents inside the walls of the church discussing spiritual things together?
  2. Do we equip and support parents of teens even a fraction as much as the teens that walk through their doors?
  3. How much time does our church/youth ministry invest in parents?
  4. What percentage of our youth ministry programs involves parents as participants, not just chaperones or leaders?
  5. Which of our ministries communicate that parents are the most important part of a teen’s faith formation?

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

More Gardening

I see the purpose of my posts as providing a springboard for discussion of youth ministry. Generally, I just post and then read your comments. I've never yet joined the discussion and commented.

There seems to be need for clarification on my last post. My "gardening" story was excerpted from a training piece I produced for my youth volunteers a few years ago. I failed to realize that removing it from it's original context changed the reaction that some had to it.

Several comments on this blog centered around the idea that the farmer with a big field should go hire more help. If you're going to have a big garden, you're going to need lots of helpers (i.e. if you've got more kids in youth group than you know what to do with, get more people to disciple them). I agree. And as one commenter implied, it's really not all that radical of an idea. Good stuff.

However, that wasn't why I originally used the story in my training piece. The comments caught me off guard. I had originally used this story smack dab in the middle of a discussion of fruit (see Measuring Real Success). Basically, the story was designed to spark discussion about the QUALITY of fruit we see in our kids in relation to how thin we youth workers seem to spread ourselves. In the context of my string of posts, the discussion understandably went the QUANTITY route (an equally good discussion).

But I'm curious about the discussion this will generate. Assume:
  • YOUR FARM IS TOO BIG (i.e. You've got more teens than you can feasibly disciple).
  • THERE ARE NO HELPERS (i.e. You've tried to recruit adult disciplers but are unsuccessful - for whatever reason).

Choose one:

A) Put priority/energy in only the plants that will be most fruitful, knowing some plants will die.
B) Put equal priority in all plants, knowing that the quality of fruit will likely be lower for all the plants.

This is real. It's something we all struggle with. In youth ministry there's always more good to be done than time to do it!

Wednesday, April 23, 2008


About 10 years ago while living in Iowa we received a Gurney’s Seed and Nursery catalog in the mail. The pages were filled with colorful, delicious fruit that could be grown in your own garden. All you had to do is order it, plant it, and harvest it. I set aside two full acres (we lived on a 70-acre farm) for my first-ever independent garden. I ordered strawberries, red raspberries, black raspberries, dewberries, blackberries, gold raspberries, pumpkins, and several varieties of watermelons. My dream was to grow as much great fruit as I could.

The summer started dry. No rain. Since you can’t have watermelons without water I spent countless hours carrying five-gallon buckets of water to the scores of watermelon plants. As the early-summer drought continued the berry bushes began shriveling. More water was needed – so much more that I pumped the well completely dry.

Sometime in mid-June the skies decided to open and release their moisture. And with the rains came weeds – 2 acres of them. Instead of watering plants I was now spending countless hours pulling weeds. The rain wouldn’t stop. As the entire strawberry patch was now flooded I faced a new problem. How do you get water out of a garden?

You can imagine the summer I had. My garden was a mess by the end of the summer. Weeds were growing everywhere. Every plant in the garden had evidence of varying degrees of neglect. Even so, nature did its part (have you ever seen how many watermelons can be grown on two acres?) I began giving watermelons to the neighbors. I’d take them to work and give them out. I loaded up my truck and handed them out after church services– more than once.

The foolishness of my gardening endeavor didn’t completely sink in until the weeds died in the fall. The whole hillside was covered in melon carcasses. Literally thousands of pumpkin and watermelons littered the landscape. What an embarrassing revelation for the entire countryside to see! I wonder what the neighbors thought!?!?

Even with my best efforts I was able to only rescue maybe 10% of the harvest. And the 10% of the fruit that was rescued wasn’t very good. Acceptable at best, but not good. I learned a valuable lesson that year. Just because you have a thousand melons on your hill doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re all rotten.

We often operate our youth ministries like I did my garden. Just because you have hundreds of kids in your youth room doesn’t mean it’s a good thing – especially if they’re not producing good fruit! Fruit production takes patience. And a fruit farmer can only handle so much fruit in his garden before he becomes ineffective and inefficient.

Friday, April 18, 2008

A Diversion

Jesus and I have at least one thing in common. Our father's were both carpenters. We know that Jesus himself was a carpenter because thousands of Christian bumper stickers can't be wrong and the "really tall table" scene with Mary from "The Passion of the Christ."

After an unfortunate meeting with a hammer about a month ago (I hit the wrong nail), here's what I wanna know. Did Jesus ever do this to his thumb?

And if so, do you suppose he healed it on the spot? All God and all human. But just how human was he?

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Is a Youth Pastor Necessary?

Granted, the 21st century model of youth ministry seems to demand excellent programming (sometimes at the cost of real fruit - we've talked about that).

And granted, those who call the shots in most of our churches (i.e. boards, senior pastors, etc.) have expecations that often push us in unhealthy directions (such as a fixation on numbers, big shows, and raised hands).

Because of these things, a youth pastor seems necessary. The demands of the job are way too great for the "average" layperson (a term that, by the way, is not found in scripture).

I've seen lots of great youth workers doing great ministry with teens come to the conclusion that they a youth pastor because they can't keep up with the demands of the youth ministry job that's expected of them.

The verdict's still out on this. I'm not lobbying, just facilitating. Several questions:
  • Is a youth pastor necessary? When? Why?
  • Is there scriptural support for the position? If so, why did it take 1950 years for us to discover it?
  • Can youth ministry exist without a youth pastor? Can it exist without a youth pastor WHILE the people participating in the youth ministry are thinking "We don't need a youth pastor."?
  • Is it healthy to build a structure that rises or falls on the back of one person?
  • If this structure is unhealthy, what kinds of changes are necessary? Is there a way youth ministry can continue to exist even when it's "head" is chopped off?

Not sure this was one of my most thought-out posts, but hopefully it'll generate discussion.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

A Revealing Conversation

About a year ago I ran into a 23-year-old former student from our youth ministry on my way to visit one of our youth cell groups. This young man was a 9th grader when I was hired as youth pastor. The conversation went like this:

Him: “So, how many you got coming now?”

Me: “There’ll be between 10-15 guys there tonight.”

Him: “No girls?” Me: “No, it’s a guys-only cell group.”

Him: “Oh, I was talking about your big meeting. You still meet on Sundays, right? How many do you have there?”

Me: “Usually between 30-40.”

Him: “Oh (pause) Must be pretty hard to get them to come, huh?”

It was obvious what this young man viewed as success – more bodies at a meeting. He was a part of the youth program when we were operating under the “pack them in at all costs” mentality.

At this point in the conversation I felt it was time to challenge his thinking. I wanted him to begin seeing that numbers were not necessarily an indicator of success. I threw what I thought was a thought-provoking statement at him. The conversation continued:

Me: “I’m convinced we could double our discipleship crowd if we’d start a dodgeball league.”

I had hoped he would see the irony in my statement. I had hoped something in his mind would have said, “Yeah, you’re right. It’s not necessarily all about how many people you have in a meeting or how much fun you have.” Instead, here’s what I got:

Him: “That’s a great idea! You should do that. The YMCA does that and they pack them in every week. That’s a good idea!”

Unfortunately, this is what we’ll find in many of our churches – an inaccurate measurement of what successful ministry looks like. And in many churches there's an extreme amount of pressure to pull this kind of numbers-based ministry off. It becomes a real problem when our leaders – especially youth leaders – view success only in terms of numbers.

I can’t ever remember anyone ever asking me any “fruit questions” about youth ministry. I don’t think anyone has ever requested, “Tell me about a kid in your group that has had a complete life-change.”

That's a conversation I’d love to have!

Friday, April 11, 2008

Measuring Real Success

Quantity (i.e. attendance numbers) isn’t a bad thing, as long as the quality is good. But quantity is useless when the quality is bad. Who wants to eat a whole truckload of rotten apples? One good apple is more valuable.

In his letter to the Galatians the Apostle Paul gives us a list of the good fruits followers of Jesus should be looking for in their lives.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22-23

These are the indicators of success. Does a kid love better? Is he joyful? Does she exhibit self-control? If you think filling out your denominational reports is hard now, try measuring fruit in a report!

Measuring Our Fruit

Jesus suggests our trees should be producing quality, not quantity. He doesn't say, "if a tree only produces six apples, cut it down". Instead he says, "if it doesn’t bear good fruit, cut it down." There are four kinds of trees.

1. Lots of apples. Good apples.
2. Not many apples. Good apples.
3. Lots of apples. Bad apples.
4. Not many apples. Bad apples.

Jesus would celebrate good apple trees regardless of the number of apples. I fear that many of us burn (or at least have in the past) the two trees with the least apples and keep the ones with the most apples, even if they were bad.

Saturday, April 5, 2008


How many times have you been asked the following question:

"How many kids do you have in your youth group?"

The implication is that bigger is better (or more successful).

Admit it or not, the fact remains thatyouth ministry (and for that matter, churches) use all kinds of scorecards to measure success.

Nearly every denomination sends out some sort of "local church scorecard" at the end of the year. With it you can quickly pick out the successful churches from those who are – well, success-challenged. These scorecards measure things like number of first-time commitments to Christ, numbers of recommitments to Christ, numbers in Sunday School, number in worship, and, of course, number in youth ministry programming. Our denomination lets us throw out our two lowest scores for the year and still count our high scores at Christmas and Easter.

Then there's the financial scorecard. We measure how much we give to missions, how much we raised in tithes, and how much was raised for the new building project. And some churches get special recognition if they pay a certain percentage of their annual income to featured denominational projects! Our denomination even keeps track of how many missionary books are read by church members each year.

Youth ministry uses scorecards too.

But Jesus' indicator of success is fruit.

By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.
Matthew 7:16-20

Good fruit comes from good trees. Bad fruit from bad trees. Sounds simple, right? We should be measuring fruit. But how do you measure good fruit? What makes an apple good? Is it good simply because there aren't rotten spots? Is a shiny apple a good apple? Does goodness have to do with texture? Taste? A lack of worms?

See how hard this is? We should be asking what kind of apples we're producing. But that's way too hard to measure. So the default measure of success is to count how many apples there are on our trees.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

What to Do?

A few weeks ago a reader left this comment:

"What I feel Jesus leading me to do in youth ministry and what my church expects me to do in youth ministry are often quite different. My church expects the T-shirts and the hundreds of kids laughing and playing and having a good time. Oh yeah, and then they want those same kids to show up for "real" church. My team and I feel Jesus calling us to a much quieter, more "insignificant" (as far as numbers) existence that allows students to question, struggle, doubt and grow in their faith at their own pace - something much more lasting than the emotional high of a bait-and-switch event.”
I have a young youth pastor friend who faced a similar dilemma. He recently resigned from his first youth ministry position because his pastor (a former youth pastor himself) wanted the high-profile, event-driven, bells-and-whistles youth ministry mentioned above.
Walking away is an option. But is it the best (or only) option?

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Using Words Correctly

I've got a fairly recent pet peeve. I think it's justified.

I hate it when people who should know better use biblical words in the wrong way. Take, for example, a flyer I recently received in the mail. It reads:

"Living generously extends to the way we worship. When we use our gifts of preaching, teaching, music, drama, and hospitality, we provide an atmosphere that is attractive to others and conducive to true worship. Studies show that most second-time guests return because of the quality of the worship service on their first visit. This places a lot of responsibility on those who use their gifts in support of the worship service."

Where to start?
  • The assumption that worship is a service, not a way of life.
  • That "quality" of a worship service is based on excellence in performance instead of humbly seeking God.
  • The assumption that worship for visitors (at least partially), not Jesus.
  • The extreme pressure this puts on pastors.
  • The commercialization of the Christian faith (the rest of the piece says, "buy our DVD").
  • The idea that a move of God is dependent on our efforts.

I could go on regarding that flyer, but I won't.

Am I being overly sensitive, or does saying things like, "We have such awesome worship at our church" (using TWO words wrong) contribute to some of the problems we've discussed in this blog regarding the faith of our teens?

Monday, March 17, 2008


*(The names in this post have been changed…because I don’t like their real names.)

Mark’s a kid who beat the odds. His parents don’t attend church. He should have been one of the 90% of non-church kids who leave their faith immediately after high school. Mark’s now 20 and still has a vital, growing faith in Jesus.

Not long ago I asked him point blank: “Mark, you beat the odds. Why are you still following Jesus?”

After 10 seconds of deep thought, staring at the floor with a furrowed brow the answer came: “Jim Barker.”

“Jim Barker? How in the world do you know Jim Barker?”

Jim Barker was a fifty-something man who has attended worship services for 10 years or so. I didn’t really know Jim. He was a likeable man but didn’t seem like the type to pursue a spiritual mentoring relationship with a teen.

The relationship between Mark and Jim started naturally. No mentor programs. No shared “Sunday church jobs.” Mark and Jim happened to be assigned to the same work team in our effort to restore elderly people’s homes in the inner city. Jim simply took Mark under his wing and showed him the “fixin’-an-old-house” ropes. He later asked Mark to breakfast. They began to make it a point to seek each other out on Sundays. Now the relationship has grown to the point to where Mark now attributed his spiritual longevity to Jim.

The first time I told Jim of his spiritual influence on Mark, he was stunned. “I had no idea. I would've guessed you (the youth pastor) were a bigger reason Mark is committed to Jesus. I'm speechless. I just like Mark. He’s a great kid!”

Unfortunately, this kind of relationship is more of the exception than the rule. Rarely do adults (other than youth workers) forge such faith-shaping relationships with teens. We've tried formal mentoring programs, but no programmed relationship has held a candle to relationships like Mark's and Jim's. Theirs formed naturally.

Why are natural intergenerational relationships so rare in our churches?

Are "unnatural" intergenerational relationships worth the effort? In other words, should we try programmed relationships (i.e. mentoring programs) or just be satisfied with the natural ones (like Mark and Jim) that occasionally pop up?

What can we do to facilitate natural connections between generations?

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Anonymous Comments Welcome

A kind blog reader informed me that this blog didn't allow for anonymous comments. Sorry about that. It's fixed now. You don't need a blogger account to join the conversation.


Earlier this week jshay posted the following comment:
“I don’t think we can have real intergenerational connections in our current form of church.”

I tend to agree.

In my final two years as youth pastor we did everything we could to become a more intergenerational church because we recognized the spiritual longevity that it produces. We began educating the parents of teens, church board members, adults in the church, and the teenagers themselves (in that order) of the importance of intergenerational connections to faith formation. There were very few people who disagreed with the premise. Most not only agreed but said, “Yeah, we want this to happen!”

A ton of people (actually several tons) got involved in connecting with our teens. But nearly every attempt seemed unnatural, contrived, awkward and forced.

Our current forms of church seemed to get in the way of a natural connection. We're on a hamster wheel.

I believe that the church is capable of real intergenerational connections. BUT (and this is a big ol’ but) not in the current form. That’s why the solution is so hard.

So, let’s do this together. What are the factors (structures, practices, mindsets, systems, culture, beliefs, etc.) in the “current form of church” that prevent real intergenerational connections?

They Don’t Plan to Leave

Diana left the following comment just a few minutes ago:
“Tonight I'm meeting with a group of HS girls, and have been praying about talking to them about intimacy with God, and about the statistics of High Schoolers graduating from church.”

Made me think back... It was about 3 years ago when I realized that our “successful” youth ministry wasn’t producing the fruit it should be. I desperately looked for the reason(s). I began talking to and surveying our teens (current and former) about these issues. Overwhelmingly, teens involved in youth ministry don’t plan to (or want to) leave the church. Yet within a year, most do.

Maybe they’re just telling us what we want to hear (despite the fact that they could remain anonymous if they wished).

Related… I asked the parents with teens currently in the youth group what it would take for their kids to continue in their faith. Their standard answer was “a great college program”.

Then I talked with the parents of former teens who graduated yet stuck with their faith. Without exception they gave me the name of at least one adult who connected with their son or daughter.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Try, Try, Try...

Youth workers who have been around for any amount of time realize that most church-attending teens ditch Jesus shortly after high school. It took 3-4 years for those close to the youth ministry in our church to notice we weren’t producing long term disciples.

Our conclusion?

“We need more spiritual intensity and fervor. The programs we have are good…but they could be more engaging if we really worked at it. I need to spend more time on those youth talks so they’ll hit the mark with more power. It wouldn’t hurt if we emphasized scripture memorization more. And we need to pray more – and harder. And while we’re at it, let’s increase our expectations for those working with teens. We need to develop stronger student leaders. We’re following up, but it’s not good enough. Let's make follow-up assignments for every youth worker every week. We’re hanging out with teens – building relationships – but they’re not developing quite deeply enough. Let’s work on that. And let’s send our youth workers to more trainings. It’s about time for a youth group survey. Oh, and let’s ratchet up our college ministry. They'll stick around if there's somwhere to go...We need increase the quality of…of…of everything we do.”




Didn’t work.

It simply added to the sense of failure when the next class graduated high school.

Have you been there? Running with more intensity doesn’t get you anywhere if you’re on a hamster wheel. We’ve got to get off the wheel and change our assumptions about youth ministry. Maybe a lot of what we do in youth ministry isn’t essential after all. Maybe what we view as essential is just “fluff”.

And if you fluff harder…?!?!

Monday, March 10, 2008


From great blog readers come great questions. Before I pose his question, I want to remind people that the purpose of this blog is to ask questions that will IMPROVE our effectiveness in ministering to young people, not to destroy youth ministry.

So here’s the question.

“Would Jesus eliminate youth ministry? If so, what would we do?”

Quitting Youth Ministry?

One reader posed a question to me in a comment to a recent post: “Do you still think you have the youth ministry bug?”

If youth ministry means investing in the lives of young people for the good of God’s Kingdom - Yes! I’ve got the bug.

If youth ministry means a program-centered approach officially sanctioned by a local church - No! I don’t have that bug anymore. (and it has nothing to do with all-night lock-ins and being in my late-30s)

Love the Disagreement!

Somehow, “Once a Youth Pastor…” has been discovered. I figured this day would come.

I was a bit reluctant to even start this blog for fear of…well…lots of things.

I feared a place where passions would run so high that point-proving and proof-texting of scripture would take precedence over real discussion of important issues. I feared that heightened emotions would keep people from hearing each other. I feared that “the way we’ve always done it” would rule the discussion. I feared that legitimate questions about youth ministry wouldn’t be heard. I feared that practices with no scriptural roots – though not evil – would continue to characterize youth ministry without even a slight examination of their effectiveness.

On the flip side, I feared attracting a group of youth ministry/church/Christian bashers who had nothing to offer to the discussion other than a list of complaints and negativity.

I knew there’d be disagreement, but I hoped (and prayed) for a tone that would be beneficial to God’s Kingdom, not mine (my kingdom tends to be wrong most of the time).

So far so good.

We’ve had disagreement. Keep it coming. But you also seem to be unwilling to simply point out youth ministry weaknesses (that’s my job!), without striving toward solutions.

Which brings me to one last point. I have come across some practices in the last two years of being an “official” youth pastor that address some of the questions I’ve raised. In other words, there are solutions. But I’m reluctant to just throw them out there. We’re addicted to quick fixes.

For example, we tend to quickly jump to “How do we start a mentoring program in our church?” when we probably should be asking, “Why don’t our teens and adults connect?” The mentoring program may or may not be part of the answer.

Quick fixes morph into programs that don’t address the root problems. It's better to wrestle with these problems (pray, search scripture, discuss, take them back to your youth team, etc.) and come to a true Spirit-directed solution that fits the context and culture of your own youth ministry, church, and community.

It's not for the faint of heart. Many of the answers will stretch you to places you never thought you'd go before. (but it's worth it!)

You heard me right. No easy answers on this blogsite.


Monday, February 25, 2008

What is Intergenerational...Really?

One of the most powerful faith formation factors in a teen's life is having a mentor-type relationship with an older Christian. In fact, in my experience, only parents active in spiritual leadership in their homes are more productive.

In my last couple of years as youth pastor I encouraged the older generation to make connections with the younger (and vice versa) as outlined in Titus 2. Initially, most people pointed to the worship service as being intergenerational. However, it soon became evident that very little connecting was taking place in this setting. Sure, several generations were sitting in the same room, singing the same songs, and listening to the same sermon. Sometimes a teen and an adult would sing in the same worship team or share responsibility passing the plate. But even then, no connection would happen.

What followed was a constant unnatural struggle to make intergenerational connections happen. What we discovered is that the structures most churches operate under prevent these from happening. For starters, we're simply not used to having different generations come together in significant ways, let alone share space together on equal footing. Our programs isolate us from each other. Scripturally, though, spiritual wisdom is to be imparted from the older, wiser generation to the younger, inexperienced.

So is this possible to happen in a significant way in the today's current form of church?

Sunday, February 17, 2008

The Downside of Big Events (part 3)

I know there are people who read my last two posts that are yelling at their screens, "There's nothing wrong with big events. They're found all over in scripture. Read the book of Acts!"

I know. I read my bible too. :)

But for a minute let's look at the approach the apostles took. I think they did it differently than we tend to do it.

We tend to plan. I think they simply prepared. There's a difference.

Let's start with the ultimate big event found in scripture - Pentecost. No doubt it was big. 3000 salvations in one sermon - all without a sound system.

The apostles didn't plan the event. They were prepared for it.

They weren't in the upper room day after day coaching Peter on what points to cover in the sermon. They didn't put Pentecost on the calendar. They didn't print out an order of service or announce a big gathering. They didn't even have to come up with a "sermon hook". God did all that for them. But, realize it or not at the time, they were preparing for Pentecost by praying together constantly.

But Pentecost is just one example. Sure, there are examples in Acts where they planned to go to such and such a city. In most cases, the plan consisted of going to the synagogue and reasoning with the Jews there. Nothing much beyond that. Never once do we read where Paul says, "Hey, Silas. Let's go to Philippi and get thrown into prison." Yet there was a jailer who needed Jesus and they were prepared to share.

I submit that we probably overplan. If we're always planning the next big thing, we can miss the thing God drops right into our laps.

In Acts 8 God tells Philip to travel the road that leads from Jerusalem to Gaza. Philip had experienced Pentecost and a number of other great "big events". Most of us would assume that the next big thing is going to happen in Gaza because God said to go there. Not so. Philip seems to have been put on the road to find an Ethiopian who was reading scripture. He was prepared to talk with the guy, and baptized him on the spot.

I wonder if I would have walked right past him in my hurry to get to Gaza???

TIf forced to choose, the best thing we can do for our teens is to teach them to be prepared, not to plan. Events tend emphasize the latter.

The Downside of Big Events (part 2)

If you're just joining this discussion, read my previous entry first.

I just want to wrestle with a few questions. Let's assume for this discussion that big events are about evangelism - proclaiming the good news about Jesus and helping teens find salvation through faith in Him. I've planned and participated in tons of these events.

Let's also assume that there are teens who find Jesus through these events.

And let's assume that most of these teens who find Jesus are likely not to continue in relationship with Him. Please resist the temptation to discuss the doctrinal differences we might have in this (i.e. "he was never really saved to begin with" vs. "he lost his salvation"). Let's just acknowledge that a large number of teens who say "I'll follow Jesus" at these events don't.

Now let's assume that big events take a ton of time (and many times, a ton of money) to pull off.

Here are the questions to consider:
  • Are big events worth it, especially considering what they do to condition our teens? (see my last post)
  • Could the time, money, and energy spent on big events be better spent elsewhere?
  • In the long run, is it better to teach teens to minister in the context of their everyday lives? (this is something that every good youth ministry does, some more successfully than others)
  • How are our big Christian events viewed by those who aren't Christian?

Remember, I acknowledge that there are times when taking the bus is better than taking the skateboard. These questions are just designed to help us think through the implications of driving the bus next door to borrow an egg from the neighbor.

The Downside of Big Events

This post will likely generate some emotional responses. The purpose is not to attack or criticise big youth events or those who plan them. I have no doubts that we could generate an exhaustive list of positive things associated with them. Some who read this can attribute their salvation to a big youth event. That's a good thing. A very good thing.

However, I do want to point out some of the weaknesses of big events. These are often overlooked. They're subtle. They often go unnoticed for months, if not years.

Let's start with an analogy. Big events are a vehicle to a destination. At least they should be. If you're doing big events simply for big events sake (or to keep kids out of trouble), the YMCA might be a better fit. I would hope that there's a purpose behind each event we plan (evangelism, service, etc.).

There are lots of ways to get somewhere. Lots of vehicles will work. Some are more appropriate than others. A skateboard works to go to the neighbor's around the corner, but isn't a solid choice if you want to take someone with you. A car is unnecessary for a trip next door, but works well if you're going across town with your family. A bus doesn't work if you're wanting to become intimate with everyone on the trip, but it gets a lot of people to the same destination.

Big events as a bus. Lots of people. Minimal connections.

Are you starting to see the weakness of big events? Nothing necessarily wrong with a bus UNLESS that's the only vehicle your ministry ever chooses to use.

Here's the major weakness I see in big-events based ministry. It trains teens that ________ can only happen on the bus. Fill in the blank with whatever word you like: evangelism, service to others, compassion, discipleship, etc.

Just a week ago I received a call from a former teen who is now attending a state university. He excitedly told of how he was on a "spiritual high" that came from reading his bible in his dorm room. Then he said, "I just want to do something for God. I mean, there's so many of my friends who don't want anything to do with Christianity. I was thinking, man, we really need to do something big for God. I don't know... Something HUGE! Something on campus. Like we need to bring in Chris Tomlin...and, and, and Hillsong United, and some big athlete speaker like Reggie White - except he's dead - but someone like him that they'd really look up to. And it needs to be more than just one should be like every day for a week. But it needs to be bigger than just our campus. And it needs to be bigger than Ohio. I'm thinking it should be, like, HUGE. Like nationwide..."

He went on for at least ten minutes, dropping names of nationally known speakers and artists and talking about filling stadiums and arenas all across the United States. It took everything within me to keep from saying "cha-ching" every time.

Despite my best efforts as a youth pastor to teach him otherwise, he saw big events as the only solution to his friends' "lack of Jesus".

Big events - busses - condition teens to wait to do the things they're supposed to do every day as followers of Jesus. It leads teens to think, "My friend needs Jesus! We need to plan (or wait around for) the next big event." rather than, "My friend needs Jesus! I need to tell him."

More to come...

Sunday, February 3, 2008

The Failure of Youth Ministry

I was reminded today of a great article called "The Failure of Youth Ministry" that I first read several years ago. I think it gets to the heart of this blog's purpose. It's written by Mike Yaconelli, a pioneer in youth ministry and founder of Youth Specialties, the most trusted name in youth ministry.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Indicators of Spiritual Longevity

I've hinted around this in past posts. This will give some context to some of the conclusions I've come to.

Those of you who have had the privilege of ministering in the same church for several years can do this. You'll probably see the same patterns develop.

A year ago I wrote down the name of every student who had been an ACTIVE part of our youth ministry from the past seven graduating classes. It didn't take too much research to divide them into two piles: those who were still active in thier faith, and those who weren't.

2/3 of the students active in our youth ministry walk away from their faith within a year of graduating high school.

OUCH! Those of you familiar with youth ministry know this to be a problem across the country. In fact, our numbers would be viewed in many circles as pretty exceptional.

So I looked for commonalities in the piles. Initially, I thought the kids who were most involved in youth group, church activities, leadership development efforts, or discipleship programs would be more likely to end up in the "Still Active" pile. I found this not to be the case. Those kids were just as likely to be in the "Walked Away" pile. Those things seemed not to be indicators of a teen's long-term spiritual commitment.

What became evident really quickly was the effect of parents on the faith-development process. I realize that this entire process is a bit subjective and nonscientific, but what I discovered was enough to indicate a real pattern.

We lose 25% of kids who have 2 Christian parents and Dad takes the spiritual lead.
We lose 50% of kids who have 2 Christian parents and Mom takes the spiritual lead.
We lose 66% of kids who have a Christian Dad only
We lose 75% of kids who have a Christian Mom only
We lose 90% of kids who have no Christian parents

So 10% of the kids who have no Christian parents - the "outreach" kids - stick with it. I contacted those kids and asked them all the same question, looking for patterns. Without exception theire was one common factor with the 10% who stuck around. They all had a spiritual mentor - a surrogate spiritual Mom or Dad. A spiritual mentor.

And here's another discovery. Youth workers don't seem to count. (That didn't sound right. Of course youth workers count - let me explain further). The 10% of outreach kids who stuck around all had mentors OUTSIDE the youth group.

Here's what's sad (and what caused me to begin questioning many of the ways we do youth ministry). I realized that parents and mentors were not only underserved in our local youth ministry, they were being completely ignored.

The biggest spiritual assets for youth ministry are largely untapped.

I'm In My Way

Time to open up a can of worms. Got your thinking cap on?

Let's review.

Personal experience in youth ministry shows me that the #1 indicator of a teen's spiritual longevity and commitment is the degree to which parents are involved in their kid's spiritual development. The #2 indicator is the degree in which a teen connects with an older spiritual mentor outside the youth group.

Got it? #1 is parents. #2 is mentors. That's the starting point for the reasoning that follows. (By the way, this concept falls completely in line with scripture...see Deut. 6:6-9, Ephesians 6:4, and Titus 2:1-8 for some examples)

Now, what do most churches with "effective" youth ministries do? They hire a youth pastor.

I've come to believe that this is one of the biggest barriers to #1 and #2 happening! That's right. In most places, the presence of a youth pastor is the biggest barrier to overcome.

Several of you are about to stop reading. A few have already labeled me a heretic. But before you delete me from your "favorites", hear me out. If you've been in youth ministry (paid or not) in a church big enough to have a formal youth program, you've probably seen this happen.

Parents are busy. They "don't have time" for the spiritual stuff. Or maybe they feel unqualified. Or maybe the church programs have conditioned them not to do it. Whatever the case, most parents look for someone they trust to farm out their role of spiritual leader. They're more than happy to trust the youth leader with the spiritual development of their kids (see my last two posts on the Piano Teacher). As I mentioned in a previous post, I've had a parent tell their kid point blank, "It's not my job to teach you to serve others. That's Tracy's job." While most parents won't be this forward about it, their attitudes (and behaviors) reveal they're OK with you taking over their God-given role of spiritual leader.

I received this in an email from a prominent youth leader from a national ministry: "Over the last 12 years, I too have been asked to do EVERYTHING for the kids by some parents."

So the very presence of a youth pastor eliminates indicator #1 (parent spiritual leadership) from ever happening (OK, I admit, there are exceptions).

And we're not much better off with indicator #2 (spiritual mentors). Unfortunately, the minute a youth pastor is hired is the very minute that most church people withdraw from connecting with teens in a real way. At best, they put it on cruise control. At their worst, they completely withdraw.

It's very subtle, yet powerful. It comes in a statement as seemingly benign as, "We're so glad your here to do all you do for those teens. Keep up the good work. We appreciate you."

So, ironically, here's where I (and other youth pastors) found myself. My very presence as a youth pastor causes those who should be engaging with our teens - the very people who will give our teens the most spiritual "staying power" - to step back.

So, as youth pastor I get in my own way of making long-term committed disciples.

This has nothing to do with lack of passion. In fact, the most passionate youth pastors probably face this problem in a bigger way. The more effective you are as a youth pastor, the less likely parents and mentors are to engage. Why should they? You're paid to do it, right? That's the expectation. And expectations often dictate reality.

Are you rubbed the wrong way yet? I sense some of you already arguing with the screen. My intent is not to question the existence of a youth pastor (we'll do that later - HA!). I just want to point this subtle force inherent in this youth ministry system we inherited. Acknowledging a weakness (especially one this big) is a good starting point.

Do you see this happening? If so, how do you address it? How do you push parents and mentors into the role when the expectation is that you (as youth pastor/leader) do it for them?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

The Piano Teacher (part 2)

Who bears the primary responsibility for the faith development of children? In other words, whose responsibility is it to teach piano? Who is the piano teacher?

Get this answer wrong and you'll always come up short of God's design for youth ministry!

About a year ago our youth ministry was trying to plug teens into various ministries throughout the church (something I'm sure will be the subject of a future post). One church teen from a good church family was having a hard time with buy in. This teen served...begrudgingly.

Several weeks later I found myself in conversation with one of this teen's parents who brought up the subject. "I told (my teen), 'hey, it's not my job to teach you how to serve others. It's Tracy's.'"

Wrong answer.

Parents. Parents are God's primary design for faith transfer to the next generation.

But most parents don't take on that role. In our youth ministry less than 10% of churchgoing parents of teens did. They drop their kids off to the spiritual piano teacher once or twice per week, thinking they're doing their job. Yet nearly every one of them admit that they couldn't carry on a spiritual conversation with their teen if they were forced to. That's a problem.

It would be easy to point the finger at parents, but let's take a look at youth ministry for a minute. One simple question will suffice:

When does youth ministry ever give parents the idea that they're the most important part of their own kid's spiritual formation?

For every answer we come up with, I'm guessing we could come up with 5 times more that communicate "Hey, youth ministry is the piano teacher."

That's a problem too.

The Piano Teacher (part 1)

When I was young I took piano lessons from my Aunt Carolyn. I hated it! I could think of a truckload of things better to than practice for a half hour per day.

There were weeks when I had barely practiced. I’d sit down at the ivories in Aunt Carolyn’s den and struggle to sound better than I did last week. She knew immediately that the last time I sat down in front of the piano was a week before. No piano was practiced for an entire week!

This happens all the time in youth ministry. I’ve been in the piano teacher role many times. On Sundays we teach the teens who show up the things of God and how they can live them out in their lives every day. It doesn’t take long before we discover that the last time they’ve practiced them was a week ago – last Sunday. No faith was practiced for an entire week!

It's easy to blame the kids for this. Adolescence is the culprit. And after all, kids nowadays are lazier because of video games. Right?

But what if we took a look at the system? What if it's partially to blame? Has the system itself caused teens to have a passive faith?

Think about the role most youth workers and youth pastors fill. Whether they're paid or not their job is to come up with something spiritually engaging week in and week out. I read an article recently that said youth pastors should spend a minimum of 4 hours on every talk they deliver and 2 hours for every bible study. Nothing wrong with that. I believe in preparation. But have we become so effective at delivering our spiritual service that we've created a group of spiritual consumers incapable of functioning on their own?

For years my goal as youth pastor was to equip a group of young people to serve Jesus. I didn't want to be in the high priestly role dispensing a weekly dose of spiritual food. But like it or not, that's what I became anyway. Teens would ask, "When can we have an outreach event so my friend can hear about Jesus?" or inform me that "I'm trying to get my friend to come to church so you can explain things to them." Could it be that teens allow the professional paid youth pastor to do most of the spiritual stuff for them?

Dissecting Youth Ministry

Have you ever wondered if you were the biggest barrier to your own success?

I have.

I came to realize that some of the things that made me a "good" youth pastor were the very things that kept teenagers from becoming fully committed followers of Christ.

It's going to take several posts to unpack that last statement. Some of you have no idea what on earth I'm talking about.

There's a whole list of things expected of a good youth pastor. Creating engaging programs. Planning outreach events. Developing discipling programs. Delivering relevant talks and teachings. Spending relational time with teens. Organizing serving opportunities. Etc. etc. etc.

But what if some of these expectations kept teens from actually growing in Christ? What if it kept them in the "baby Christian" mode?

Very few who are involved in youth ministry will argue that we've got a great track record of successfully producing long-term disciples. National statistics tell us that most teens leave their faith shortly after graduation from high school (and the church's local youth ministry). By the way, in my personal conversations with scores of pastors and youth pastors from several denominations, none of them reported holding on to more than 40% of their active youth ministry students after high school.

So in the next several posts we'll be taking a look at the system of youth ministry and the position of youth pastor. Realize it or not, this youth ministry system we've inherited doesn't date back to Jesus. To be generous, youth ministry as a program dates back only a hundred years or so. The youth ministry we're most familiar with (complete with youth pastor) can be traced back only about 50 years at best.

Does the youth ministry system we inherited play a role in our lack of "success"? Does it ever get in the way? If so, what should our response be?

Hang on. We're in for a wild ride!


Let's start at the beginning. I'm not a youth pastor, but I once was.

I didn't leave the profession because of hurt or burnout. God simply led me to something different. I need to be very clear. I don't hate youth ministry, youth pastors, youth workers, or teenagers. Nor have I given up on Jesus. I still maintain very close friendships with the teens, youth workers, and pastors of the church in which I once served as youth minister. There's no bad blood between any of us!

This blog is a reflection of the effectiveness of youth ministry. That's right, we're going to put youth ministry under the microscope. The thoughts posted on this website are birthed out of years of experiences (mine and others) on the front lines without forgetting to look at it all against standard of scripture.

I believe youth ministry is in need of a reformation.

Some who will read this blog don't.

My conclusions may not sit right with some of you. In fact, they may anger you. They angered me at one time. But be assured - your anger is not my goal, nor is the demise of youth ministry. Many who read this blog found Jesus through youth ministry. That's a good thing.

But it would be a mistake to only look at the good while pretending the bad doesn't exist. If it's OK with you, let's keep the good stuff and throw of the bad (not bad as in "evil" but bad as in "ineffective" or "detrimental"). Or better yet, let's keep the scriptural stuff and throw off the rest.

Here's a statement we can all agree on: Reformation implies change. Consequently, a large part of our discussion might focus on the things that aren't working in youth ministry. The nature of this blog will require discussing the things that might need to change.

And while we're at it: The current form of youth ministry wasn't around when Jesus walked the earth. That in itself doesn't make youth ministry bad - or wrong. But it does imply that we can talk about its faults without feeling irreligious.

I'll likely have my share of critics. That's OK. It's something I expect. But I also expect that those who read will be civil, kind, loving (etc.) in any discussion that this blog might spur. Neglecting the fruits of the Spirit while making a point will not further either your argument or the Kingdom of God. Remember, we're all on the same team.

And I also expect openmindedness and honesty. Let's admit any shortcomings youth ministry might have and allow God to transform them.

It might be a messy journey, but it'll be worth it!