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Non-Essential Youth Ministry: How a Right View of Youth Ministry Makes All the Difference

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BY BEN LEE, Assistant Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

     Statistics are overwhelmingly clear. The typical model of youth ministry in evangelical churches in America has been a colossal failure. What most think of as youth ministry today came in large part out of the Seeker Sensitive Movement in the 1980s. The theory was if a church could attract teenagers to special gatherings with lots of food, games, and entertainment churches would have the opportunity to evangelize and disciple the next generation of Christians. There’s a reason why the stereotypical image most people have of a youth pastor is a young energetic goof ball with spikey hair and a soul patch who knows the rules to dodge ball better than the Shorter Catechism. As one writer has said, too many youth pastors came to think of themselves more as “the lead counselor of fun” than shepherds.

     And in spite of what have no doubt been the best of intentions, the old adage has proved true: you save people to what you attract them with. Youth ministry tried to attract kids to Jesus with entertainment, and evidence suggests we made disciples of fun and games, but not of Jesus. Lifeway Research has found that 70% of students will walk away from the church after high school, and only about 35% will even attend church after college. Those are staggering, gut-wrenching numbers. Moreover, since most youth pastors either view themselves as, or are expected to be, lead counselors of fun, youth pastors tend to burn out at extraordinary rates. Being the lead counselor of fun is so draining that most youth pastors leave their positions after only 18 months of ministry!

     These revelations aren’t exactly new. We’ve known for a while that the 1980s model of youth ministry isn’t working, and there have been attempts to change. Lots of attempts. Go into just about any Christian bookstore, or search “youth ministry” on Amazon and you’ll find literally thousands of books on youth ministry. My Amazon account lists over 4,000. In addition to these different takes on youth ministry we’re also hearing more and more calls these days to do away with youth ministry all together. If youth ministry has been such a massive failure, why keep pouring money into it?

     These are crucial questions. They are crucial questions that every church with teenagers in its pews needs to answer. How do we effectively disciple teenagers? How do we best form them so that, by grace, they will go into the world as committed followers of Jesus?

     In what follows, I want to attempt to answer those questions. I want to share with you my bare-bones, baseline operating procedures for how to minister to teenagers. It’s a philosophy grounded in Biblical principles and Reformed convictions that I believe leads to fruitful ministry.

     My philosophy of youth ministry is grounded in one overarching belief. It is a belief that, I think, is absolutely vital to successful youth ministry. But let me warn you, it might sound a little odd at first. It’s this: a successful youth ministry is built on the belief that youth ministry is not an essential ministry of the church. That’s a weird thing for a youth pastor to say, and no, I am not campaigning to end our youth program – especially after just having been installed as the youth pastor! But I do believe it. Youth ministry is not essential. Churches do not need youth ministries to disciple teenagers. Teenagers do not need to be part of a youth group in order to stay Christian in college and beyond. 

     It is just at this point that youth ministries to wrong. The more they see themselves as essential to discipleship, the more “gimmicky” they will be in order to get kids to show up. Then, of course, they’re going to have to be gimmicky to get kids to stay. You can locate the root cause of youth pastor burn out here as well. Youth pastors who view themselves as essential to the faithfulness of a student are going to feel the need to do and be everything to a teenager. You can’t last long ministering that way. In truth, no pastor can minister that way for long, no matter to whom he is ministering.

     It is not a youth group that students need more than anything. There are two things that are essential for discipling teenagers. The first need is parents. Parents are called to be the chief disciplers of their children (Duet. 6:7-9). Statistics easily prove the Bible to be true here. It is undeniable that children take up the faith of their parents. No youth pastor, however well-intentioned or educated, can provide what parents are called to provide. A youth pastor has, at best, a couple hours a week with a student, and almost never does he have one-on-one time with students. Your teenager is going to be formed in your home, parent. You are essential to your child’s discipleship.

     The second essential need is summarized well by Question and Answer 88 of the Shorter Catechism:

Q. 88. What are the outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption?

A. The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicateth to us the benefits of redemption, are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.

     Since their conception Reformed churches have held that the chief means of discipleship are the “outward and ordinary” means of grace (word, sacraments, and prayer) received together in corporate worship. Not games. Not food. Not even a youth pastor teaching in youth group. What our teenagers most essentially need is to receive word and sacrament alongside their brothers and sisters in Christ as the church gathers for worship. It is through those outward and ordinary means that Christ meets us and instructs us.

     So how does youth ministry fit in to that? What do we do with youth ministry if it’s not essential? We see it as a tool that undergirds and moves students toward their parents and toward corporate worship. My job is not to be the primary discipler of teenagers. My job is to come alongside parents as an aid to their discipleship efforts. I am called to help students understand that their parents aren’t the fools they sometimes imagine them to be – that what they have learned at home is in fact true. Yes parents, because of my education and experience I can perhaps add to what you have taught, not though as a “professional,” but as a companion. I am your fellow sojourner along this long and difficult road called parenting. We are co-laborers in task of discipling children; you as the parent, I as the pastor. Secondly, my job is to help students see their place in the body of Christ. I am to show students that they are not just observers on Sunday morning, nor even mere participants in worship. Instead, they are recipients of the benefits of redemption through faith in Jesus.

     It is my conviction that this non-essential view of youth ministry makes all the difference. It’s not that it’s a youth ministry silver bullet, or answers every question. But I do believe it prevents youth pastors jumping on the hamster wheel of being the lead counselor of fun, and roots them in the long game of walking alongside parents and pointing students toward word and sacrament in corporate worship. And, by grace, our teenagers will leave Oakwood as committed followers of Jesus.

[1] Root, Andrew. The End of Youth Ministry; Why Parents Don’t Really Care About Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do About It. Baker Academic, 2020.
Posted by Rev. Ben Lee with

Who Are You Owin’?

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 BY OWEN HUGHES, Associate Pastor, Oakwood Presbyterian Church

 Who Are You Owin’?

Gratitude, thankfulness, and appreciation do not come naturally to me, but there are so many people to whom I owe so much. People who invested in me, spent time with me, pursued me, and shaped me. Some were intentional, others were unintentional, and still others were just being themselves. So, my upcoming blog posts will be about people who have helped make me the person I am today. People I am “owin’” for making me, well…Owen. My hope is that you will consider the people in your life who have shaped and molded you. People you are owin' for making you who you are and that you will take some time to be thankful for them.

Disclaimer: I’m not a writer nor am I an aspiring writer. So, if my writing is “offensive” either because of structure or grammar or both, then please forgive me, and don’t feel like you have to read this blog. ☺

Mrs. Banning

I am an immigrant. You wouldn’t know that when you meet me. I don’t necessarily look like an immigrant or sound like an immigrant, but I don’t hold American citizenship. I am a “subject of the crown.” I am British, specifically Welsh, and I came to the United States when I was seven years old.

Here’s a fun fact: in the U.K. the date is written DAY/MONTH/YEAR, while in the U.S. the date is written MONTH/DAY/YEAR. This presented a minor problem when my parents registered me for school. Since I was born November 2, 1976, my parents wrote 2/11/1976 on my school paperwork. This put me a grade ahead of where I should have been.

Another fun fact: I had (perhaps still do have) a learning disability. I struggled with reading for most of my academic career and in elementary school, specifically, I took special classes for reading, writing, spelling, etc.

So, you can picture little Owen: corduroy pants, leather sandals, Ringo Starr hair, calling cookies “biscuits” and french fries “chips,” being put in second grade (when I should have been in first), not being able to read, not fitting in, and feeling very lonely.

For four weeks I was in the wrong grade, but those four weeks left a lasting impression on me. The other kids in the class made fun of me, I had no clue what was going on in my studies, I had some degree of culture shock, therefore I hated going to school. I cried most mornings and would do anything to get out of going.

I am not sure how they found out what had happened with the dates, but “the powers that be” eventually put me in the right grade. Unfortunately, by then the damage had been done. I remember the day I went to first grade. There was a piano angled in the corner of the classroom. I crawled behind it…and cried.

Mrs. Banning, the first-grade teacher, let me sit behind that piano for a few minutes at the start of the first couple of days in her class as I adjusted to the new kids, a new classroom, and new lessons. Every morning she would coax me out from behind that piano with a smile and a loving hand. She never scolded, lost her cool, or was impatient with me. The way she won me over, along with all the other kids, was with her love. She taught me an invaluable lesson that I heard articulated years later, “People rarely remember what you do, only a few will remember what you say, but everyone will remember the way you made them feel.”

I don’t remember what Mrs. Banning looked like or really much of what she said. She was a fixture at Whitinsville Christian School, loved by all, and her mission was to make every kid in first grade feel loved. She excelled at completing this mission.

Mrs. Banning shaped me by her love for me. That’s a powerful thing, isn’t it? That love, not might, not power, not force, but love is what has that kind of lasting effect. Mrs. Banning showed me what it means to love the “least of these.” I do remember one thing that Mrs. Banning said, not just how she made me feel. I remember Mrs. Banning telling us over and over in first grade that she loved us because she was first loved by God. In first grade, in a foreign land, I was met with God’s love for me through Mrs. Banning.

I am grateful that God put Mrs. Banning in that classroom for “such a time as this” and I am owin’ Mrs. Banning for teaching and showing me what it means to make people feel loved.

So, the question is…who are you owin’?

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