25 Mar 2013

The Author

I am a youth worker, blogger, writer, and student at Yale Divinity School. I love helping others to ask and to answer difficult questions about faith for themselves and to shape a meaningful understanding of their own role in the world and their relationship to the communities and traditions that surround them.

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Relevance: The Youth Minister’s Questions (Part 1 of 2)
Concert Cropped

Youth ministry is a tough needle to thread.  It requires a lot of personal commitment and patience, an expectation that your target audience is going to show a general lack of interest and enthusiasm about most of the things you do for them, and a willingness to sacrifice sleep and earn your gray hairs early.

It’s also a tough needle to thread because it’s a field of ministry surrounded by towering questions and often conflicting answers.

In this article, I want to raise seven of what I think are the most pressing questions many  churches and youth ministers face when attempting to design and implement a ministry of their own.  Though I will share some of my own thoughts, the purpose of this article is less about what I think and more about provoking a conversation.  What I hope will develop here is a dialogue about creating reasonable and sustainable expectations for youth ministry that can work at any church, no matter its tradition, location, or size.  Then, in the second article of this series I hope to draw on some of those thoughts and ideas as well as my own experience observing, participating in, assisting with, and leading youth ministries to present the basic framework for a model that attempts to address these issues.

1) To Be Relevant, or Not to be Relevant?

This has been a buzz-word in youth ministry for a while now, and everyone has an opinion.  Some think youth ministry should be all about replicating contemporary youth culture with a Christian spin.  Others think youth ministry should ignore the world outside the church and plunge ahead with the tradition that’s lasted two-thousand years.

While my own feeling is that any ministry led by leaders genuinely invested in the lives of their youth cannot help but become at least somewhat relevant through osmosis, this doesn’t answer some of the bigger questions surrounding this debate:  do we need a rock-band or should we make our kids learn 11th century chant?  Do we use Powerpoint, You-Tube videos, Facebook, etc., or do we stick to old-fashioned snail-mail announcements and the hymnals in the pews?  Do we caravan kids from the church to the state championship game to watch other kids in the youth group play or do we hold a prayer vigil with the kids too nerdy to go to the game on their own?

Lots of different, well-meaning youth leaders have answered these questions in starkly different ways, how would you?

Crowded Church

2)  Where Do We Put All These Kids?

At one of the first churches I worked for, I was told in no uncertain terms that the youth were expected to be in the pews for the service on Sunday morning.  And that was that.  Or so I thought.  That rule met with so much resistance from the youth it just about drove me crazy.  Finally one day I asked some of the kids, “why do you hate going to the service so much?”  “Its boring,” came the all-too-predictable reply.  While I still dragged them upstairs after Sunday School every week, secretly I agreed.

There is a wonderful analogy that I was just told recently by Roland Martinson about a swimming club.  While the adults swim, the youngsters are taken to a back room and told stories about people swimming. Then they gradually move up to coloring pictures of people swimming.  Then they start watching videos and having discussions about swimming.  By the time they finally get to swim for themselves, it turns out to be incredibly anti-climactic.

These two stories illustrate opposite poles in a serious debate about youth ministry.  On the one hand, it sometimes feels like we will lose our youth if we keep making them sit through services they care nothing about.  Better to keep the youth ministry an entity all its own, separate from the “big church,” to keep the kids entertained.  On the other hand, what happens when youth leave that self-contained “age-appropriate ministry” and move out into the real world?  How many will decide that church isn’t for them after they transition from high school to college if they haven’t developed a relationship with what worship looks like on a Sunday morning while growing up?

So where do we put the youth on Sunday morning?  In the youth room or in the pews?  Are there ways to get the youth involved in the service?  Is there another solution?

3) Whose Gonna Lead It?

The stereotypical youth leader is between 23 and 28, has a goatee, and can’t sit still for more than a second and a half.  The youth flock to them and their charismatic presence builds a solid program that becomes the pride of a local church.

But of course, such a program can crash and burn the second this young, boundless leader runs out of steam.  Or makes a dangerous mistake with boundaries.  Or has a falling out with a significant member of the congregation or a parent on the youth committee.

So maybe its better to rely on a team of volunteers to run the youth ministry?  A group of committed members of the congregation who are willing to teach Sunday school, lead a time of youth fellowship after the service every week, and take the kids on a trip every once in a while.

Which works great until the stories of infighting start making their way through the church corridors.  Or the senior pastor discovers that the name “Jesus” hasn’t been mentioned in youth fellowship in about six weeks because they are too busy playing dodgeball and eating pizza.  Or basketball season rolls around and 4 of the 6 parent volunteers can’t help anymore because their kids all have games on Sundays.

So who you gonna call?

Safe Racoon

4) To Evangelize or to Create a Safe Space?

This question has to do with the goal of a youth ministry.

Youth ministry can be the core of a seeker-friendly church growth plan.  Create a fun, laid back environment where tons of kids show up to hang out on a Thursday night, then get them emotionally charged up with some powerful music, then share the gospel and get them “saved.”  When they keep coming back week after week, eventually their parents will wonder what’s up, check the church out themselves, and now you’ve added a few dozen families of 8 to your member roles.  Church growth dreams accomplished!

On the other hand, you might say, youth today are squeezed like lemons everywhere they go.  Between the demands of school, being a star on the soccer team, needing to get a 34 on the ACT and a 2100 on the SAT, applying for college, keeping up a social life, and having to plan their careers by the time they are 16, the last thing these kids need is to come to church and feel pressured into making a lifetime decision about eternity.  What they really need is a safe space to relax, let their guard down, and instead of feeling pressured feel loved and accepted for who they are.

So whose right and whose wrong?  Which priorities are more important?

5) Theology or Ethics?

This question has to do with the content of what we teach our youth.

There has been a movement lately, especially among Reformed evangelicals, to emphasize the teaching of doctrine.  And not just in “big church,” in the youth ministry, too.  Youth ministry is seen as an opportunity to shape young minds into vessels for the perfect understanding of God.  If we make sure they know all the right answers to all the big questions of theology, we can be sure they will know what is important when they grow up, move away from home, and have to find a church of their own.

Some youth ministers scowl at this kind of thinking, however.  Theology seems too heady for most youth, many will simply not understand, give up, and stop coming to church.  Or, even worse, join the big, fluffy youth ministry across town.  Better to keep things concrete than abstract, better to talk about practical ways kids can live better lives than to give lectures on the atonement.

Is this just a matter of preference or style?  Can both be done with integrity or do we have to make a choice?

Questioning Monkey

6) Certainty or Room for Doubt?

This question has to do with the tenor of a youth ministry’s teaching.

Something that terrifies a good many Christian leaders and parents is the rate at which Christian young people leave home and “lose their faith.”  Two competing strategies have developed for dealing with this phenomenon in youth ministry:

Option 1: Equip students to be absolutely certain of their faith, ready to fend off the dreaded atheist hordes, and have the solid foundation of a Christian worldview from which to assess every new bit of information they learn in life.

Option 2:  Step back, give students the space to ask questions and doubt, and let them make faith decisions for themselves.  When their faith is actually their faith, not their parents’ or youth pastor’s faith imposed on them, students are much more likely to stick with it later on.

Which do we choose?  And why?  Will it work?  What are the risks?

7) How Do We Do That at Our Church?

The first thing I ever did in youth ministry was lead worship with the youth band at the church I grew up attending.  I learned a lot about what I thought musicianship and worship leading was about by visiting a huge youth ministry at another church in town.  When we tried to replicate that at our smaller church, it just never seemed to work out as well…

The last couple of summers, I have worked with the Episcopal Diocese of Massachussetts’ youth ministry planning worship for their summer camp and doing leadership development with high school students.  One of the things we talked about there a lot was reproduceability.  How do we make what we do at camp– with all the advantages of abundant natural resources, a packed out worship space, and a full-sized rock-band– something that small parishes in the diocese can use at home?

Embedded in this question is an assumption which has emerged from the last few decades of mega-church dominated youth ministry: to do youth ministry well you need a big staff and an even bigger budget.  But do you really?  How do you do youth ministry without these things?


In part two of this series I will try to sketch out a model that addresses these questions based on my own experience and the thoughts of others.

Let me know what you think.  How should youth ministry address these concerns?  What does your ideal picture of a youth ministry look like?


Alexander Marshall is an experienced youth worker, blogger, writer, and student at Yale Divinity School.  You can connect with him on FacebookTwitter, or by visiting his blog.

6 Comments
6 Comments
  1. Good meaty stuf here! On the relevance issue; the US context is different to the UK context, however, it is a truth universally acknowledged that kids can spot fakes a mile off. So, if you like classical music and read detective fiction, don’t pretend to be a fan of Green Day and the Twilight series, but make sure you keep enough tabs on contemporary culture that you at least know what they’re talking about. OR go completely the other way, deny all knowledge but ask what it is that attracts them to that music/book/tv show/ computer game and build links for parallel things in your life.
    Even in a UK setting, I found Mark Yaconelli’s book ‘Contemplative Youth Ministry’ really challenged me about how I did my work. Contemplation really does not seem very cool or relevant, but every group I tried it with found ways to engage with silent reflection. It may also, if those running the adult programme get them to engage with it, help with the transition into regularly worshipping with the rest of the congregation…
    Might come back to add more on other subjects when I’m not up to my eyeballs researching for an essay on the imprecatory prayers of Jeremiah!

    • Thanks for your comment, Sarah! Appreciate you taking time out of paper writing to read this and respond! I’m wading into researching Paul’s theology of the Lord’s Supper for a paper myself, understand the academic time crunch well (and its Holy Week on top of it all!).

      You are definitely right to point out that our answers to the “relevance” question will be, in some sense, dependent on our context. Which is part of what relevance is about! I like the idea of turning the issue around, asking youth to explain what they find meaningful about the things that interest them.

      Your second thought is also really interesting. I think challenging youth to engage with a practice that is “out of the ordinary” for them can be really helpful to their spiritual development. Thanks for a great example of that! And good luck on the Jeremiah paper! Look forward to hearing more of your thoughts when you get the chance/need another study break!

  2. The opening description of the blatant apathy youth ministry faces was great to read. It made me feel less alone.

    On the question of relevance, many religious people with a conservative bent confuse the medium with the message. Christian theology has been successful for nearly 2000 years; it doesn’t need to be updated. However, there is a long history of updating the delivery method. Jesus did not speak in English, yet we do not require Christians to learn Greek and Hebrew and Aramaic. We have no record of His singing hymns and the organ had not been invented yet, but these are considered part of the “traditional” worship service. Most of the hymns we sing were written more than 1000 years after His ministry.

    Given this, why do we balk at using email, twitter, or YouTube? If there are objections to the content, that is a valid concern. Some media will affect the content detrimentally. Composing a theologically sound tweet is very difficult. However, if we resist newfangled styles and art forms, we risk losing the next Sistine Chapel or Bach mass or Guttenberg Bible. Just being able to search the BIble electronically is a huge improvement and one students get behind.

    • Thanks for commenting, Adam! I’m glad the article spoke to you. Youth ministry can be lonely work, but you aren’t alone.

      I think you are spot on about the inevitability of the “medium” being updated with time. Great point made there! Of course we have to be mindful of the way changing the medium can and does change the message, but we also have to communicate the message in a way that is accessible to our society in the present world. Its an interesting balance that has to be struck. Thanks for your thoughts, look forward to hearing more!

  3. Alexander,

    As I was reading your post, all I could think was, “it would be so much fun to sit down with this guy over a cup of coffee and dialog about youth ministry!”

    A little bit about myself, and my views: I am new to youth ministry, 18 months to be exact. Not only am I new at this, but I am also doing children’s ministry as well in our church. I love each of these ministries, and so honored to have the opportunity to do both (I think that is a completely different conversation to be had!). In the past 18 months, I have decided to simply lead with Christ!

    I could write a paper probably on each of your proposed questions…so many thoughts, but just a few I will mention.
    1) relevance vs. non-relevant: depending on your kids, I think it is completely fine to do both. Kids need to have nonsensical fun, as well as guidance and shepherding. Whats wrong with doing both? Technology can be used – especially if people have done the work already for you, i.e. you tube videos, created lesson plans, games, etc. But this doesn’t exempt you from still preparing and making it fit your kids. Its when these technologies take over in your ministry, that it becomes a problem.
    2) Where do we put the kids? IN THE SERVICE!!! Yes, lets all face it, every Sunday’s service isn’t a home run – the adults are even board some time, but that doesn’t stop us from sending them to their own room? If you are worried about kids becoming disengaged during the service, then look to how to engage them – show a video, have them help with projections, include them – they have two hand, two feet and a brain – they can help too!
    3) Who’s going to lead it? How did you know exactly what I am going through? I am an organized being, who knows how she likes things done, and so usually does it on her own. But I have found, this doesn’t work! I have a youth committee that is awesome. I am working to be transparent with them, letting them know all that is going on. I have also been challenged by my senior pastor to change my language with them to get them to do more things. I will get back to you on this one.
    4) Evangelize vs safe place/ friends? I like to look at this in a different light – try looking at it as creating disciples or shepherding youth. There is definitely a time for lounging and chilling, but there is also time for instruction. Jesus didn’t just sip wine with his disciples all of the time. In a previous job, the catch phrase was, “teachable moments”. We are called to live in community.
    5) Theology vs. Ethics? How about Jesus? I grew up Baptist, and now work at a Lutheran church – two sides of the spectrum theologically. It has been a challenge, but I believe during this time, God has stretched me in my own faith. I think there is a time and place for theology, but to intensively focus on it, I would disagree with….I have read a couple blogs about this question as well. There many organizations out there teaching kids good ethics and morals, which is all good. But if we don’t teach Jesus, then our kids aren’t going to know Jesus.
    6) Certainty vs doubt? I come back to shepherding and walking with our youth. Educate them, but also challenge them.
    7) How do we do that at our church? I think it is the hardest question to answer. What works at one church, maynot work at another. SO FRUSTRATING!!! All I can say to this is, Go with God, let him lead the way. Take small steps, lay out a plan of attack, don’t be afraid to fail, its not about the program you are doing, but building relationships with the people involved. Pray!

    Sorry I was so long winded!! Peace to you!

    • Thanks so much for your comment, Polly! Would love to talk more about youth ministry, if you are ever in Connecticut let me know!

      I think you are exactly right in your call for a balance to be struck on most of these questions. I think you are also exactly right to say that churches should be looking for ways to engage with youth in their worship service and thereby invite them to take part in worship with the community rather than separating them out from it.

      I also think you are onto something about the necessity and challenge of working with a team. If you come up with any great insights on how to deal with that, please let the rest of us know!

      Finally, your last point is great! “Take small steps, lay out a plan of attack, don’t be afraid to fail, its not about the program you are doing, but building relationships with the people involved. Pray!” Amazing advice! Thanks for that.

      Peace to you and Happy Easter!

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