7 Youth Ministry Traps every Church should Avoid

Youth ministry is a complicated thing.

Churches love to have a youth ministry, or at least the idea of one. The presence of a youth program is a rarely challenged mark of church vitality. We simply feel better when we are able to support a youth ministry. It is a tangible investment in the future, right?

But churches struggle to do youth ministry well. After all, good youth ministry involves more seed planting and cultivating than harvesting. The anxious churches that proliferate today need to see fruit within a single program cycle or the value of the labor is challenged.

Like any real ministry, youth work can be difficult; if it is too easy it probably isn’t being done right.

Over the past 15 years of working in the field, I’ve seen churches and youth workers get ensnared in each of these traps, sometimes repeatedly, while cutting corners to get to that fruit early. In all honesty, I’ve done some of these things as well. Without further ado:

1. The one-earred Mickey

It would be difficult to read much about youth ministry without encountering the idea of the one-earred Mickey Mouse. In researching for this post, I discovered that the idea was first published in 1989 in YouthWorker Journal #6 by a former practitioner named Stuart Cummings-Bond.

The basic concept is that, unchecked, the program model of youth ministry leads to an isolated entity with the thinnest of connections to its mother church; a ministry silo if you will. A healthier approach would find more overlap of the circles with intentional interaction and sharing of spiritual practices like worship.

This space sharing allows more opportunities for young people to grow in understanding and appreciation for the traditions of previous generations. Additionally their presence can serve as an agent of change as practices are no longer insulated from the questions (and clearly apparent boredom) of younger people.

Despite the fact that this idea has been in circulation for over 25 years, we still encounter this problem today with it being accentuated in churches with more resources. Smaller churches often suffer from the expectations that they have failed in not providing this ideal. A few are now discovering, sometimes by accident, the blessing of ministry together.

2. Young, attractive, and as deep as a puddle

It is well-known that age is a factor in ministry. When you are engaging with people with which you have a natural age affinity – typically 10 years in either direction of your own – you may indeed have a leg up as you have more in common in how you see the world. It is understandable then that churches see youthfulness as an asset in youth ministry.

But being a young youth worker offers its share of challenges as well. The younger one is, and the more things we share, the harder it can be to differentiate oneself from the people we are called to serve. And that can lead to a mess of problems, particularly if we are young and attractive (a problem I was never cursed with).

[pullquote type=”left”]Too often, the absence of spiritual maturity is overlooked as long as the numbers are good.[tweetthis]Too often, the absence of spiritual maturity is overlooked as long as the numbers are good.[/tweetthis][/pullquote]I doubt I would have written this when I was 22, but young people are often at a disadvantage in what they know as well. I don’t mean to suggest that they aren’t smart (many are smarter already in some areas than you and I will ever be) but wisdom comes along over time and via lessons we can’t (and wouldn’t want to) sign up for. And yes, of course there are exceptions to this; that Jesus fellow wasn’t an old man after all.

When we are younger we can do many great things for a youth ministry with our energy and affinity. But too often, the absence of spiritual maturity is overlooked as long as the numbers are good. Without the direction of a good pastor or the partnership of wise lay folks, our ministry may be a missed opportunity or a landmine of potential problems.

3. The Baptist in the basement

One of the most frustrating, and repeated, problems in youth ministry is the hiring of individuals with incompatible theology. While I’d love to believe it is caused by an overly optimistic sense of ecumenism, these hires are usually grounded in desperation or other misguided reasons (see young, attractive, and as deep as a puddle).

[pullquote type=”right”]Churches shouldn’t neglect to ask in-depth theological questions of potential youth workers.[tweetthis]Churches shouldn’t neglect to ask in-depth theological questions of potential youth workers.[/tweetthis][/pullquote]Now I don’t mean to pick on the Baptists; it could just as easily be Methodists or Presbyterians if not for the convenient alliteration. The point is that we tend to minimize significant theological differences within the Christian family. This leaves churches in danger of funding a youth ministry which is teaching and practicing the faith in ways that are in contention with what the adults are learning upstairs; conflict and confusion are natural byproducts.

Does this mean that churches should never hire from outside their tradition? Of course not. In fact, denominational membership is a less reliable indicator or an individual’s theology than ever before. What it does mean is that churches shouldn’t neglect to ask in-depth theological questions during interviews. You are trusting this person with significant pedagogical responsibilities. Honor the beliefs they do have by asking about them.

4. The merry-go-round

The tenure of the average youth worker is often claimed to be 18-months. While this number may resonate, the limited studies into the question suggest a better statistic. For example, Group Magazine researched the question in 2012 and came up with an average tenure of 3.9 years.

It's hard to build the trust necessary for good ministry when leadership changes rapidly.  "Too Fast" bt Flicke user, Kinzica e Alessandro, CC BY-NC 2.0
It’s hard to build the trust necessary for good ministry when leadership changes rapidly. “Too Fast” bt Flicke user, Kinzica e Alessandro, CC BY-NC 2.0

Part of the reason this particular meme is so believable is because some churches turn over youth workers quite efficiently. As I was considering the question, several churches came immediately to mind where 18-months would be marked progress.

In a dissertation on the topic of Youth Pastor turnover, Gregg Makin studied 400 protestant youth pastors finding them to be older, better educated, and that they stayed longer than we often imagine.

While salary played a role in increasing tenure, job satisfaction and organizational committment were huge. Healthy relationships with the senior pastor, proper recognition/appreciation, job satisfaction, and good communication within the church coupled with a sincere calling to youth ministry led to longevity.

Those churches that come to mind with high turnover rates? From my vantage point, very few if any of those positive traits were consistently in existence. Sometimes a good pastor was present but the church culture was toxic. Other times the reverse was true.

Tenure is so important because youth workers are tasked to work with a segment of the church that is experiencing so much change already. Stability, wherever it is found, can be a real lifesaver as adolescents navigate raging hormones, demanding schedules and changing relationships with all of their anchor points, including their parents.

5. The parent trap

Teenagers can have complicated and sometimes tenuous relationships with their parents. A cheap and easy way into the hearts of some youth is through the gap you might find between them and their parents. Don’t do it.

Teens are remarkably gifted at seeing the hypocrisy in their parents lifestyles yet lack the wisdom to know that very few lives could stand up to the scrutiny of a teenager with insider information. Youth workers are often called to counsel young people exactly at these moments of psychic trauma.

This is where it gets tricky folks. Don’t walk into the minefield of taking sides. You might be fully convinced that this young person is right, but it rarely helps to acknowledge this. Here’s why.

First, you should never forget that you are talking to the most biased person on the planet when it comes to their parents. They may use big words they learned in AP English class and state their case quite calmly but you should never forget that they are talking about the person who makes them do their homework and begrudgingly pick up their laundry. Except in cases where abuse of some type is alleged, always hold to a healthy level of doubt before you do anything.

Second, despite the hours of listening, group games, and spiritual talks you pour your heart into, this young person is being shaped more significantly (for better or worse) by the parent they may hate in the moment you shared.

In most cases, it is so much better to align forces with parents. Become the ally they need and work to equip, and humbly remind, parents of their responsibility for the spiritual development of their child.

6. Naive partnerships

As budgets tighten, churches are sometimes drawn to partnerships to support a youth ministry for the youth they may have (or hope to have). Working collaboratively isn’t a bad thing. Under the right conditions partnering can accomplish exactly what you hope for but I’ve seen it go side ways far too many times.

One type of partnership I’ve seen backfire for the local church is with parachurch organizations that had their own goals and (again) incompatible theology. In such scenarios the local church might pay a 1/2 time salary and get the promised reward of an influx of youth in their program. Problems arise when church members realize that the youth never seem to get much further than the program and the parachurch structure with its own camps, values, etc. When the leader inevitably leaves, most of the youth evaporate as well.

The other type of partnership is between local churches in close proximity. While it may be churches within a single denomination, it is often an ecumenical endeavor. These types of partnerships have real promise and make a lot of sense on paper. However, that promise can be undermined by idealism and the absence of real discernment by the leadership of the partnering churches.

Asking good questions before diving into a partnership of any sort is essential.

  • How will the leadership be shared?
  • What about the financial support?
  • How will theological differences be honored?
  • How will the collective process new youth as they consider membership?
  • Where will the group meet and will that rotate?
  • If the partnering churches are imbalanced in size, health, resources, how should the partnership account for that?

7.Age war engaged

The temptation of working with any particular age group is to elevate the concerns and viewpoints of that group over the others. To a degree this is fully appropriate as advocacy for the special needs and desires of a group is important to its participation in the whole. But the more adamantly one holds to the priorities of one age group, the less likely they will value doing ministry together across generations.

Healthy youth ministry recognizes the need to balance the interests of younger people with those of older generations. [tweetthis]Healthy youth ministry balances the interests of younger people with older generations.[/tweetthis] In this, youth workers have an important bridging role to play.

We started by discussing the problem of the one-earred Mickey Mouse. This programmatic shortcoming can also be a generational one when the ethereal connections between younger and older members fail as conduits of anything more than the semblance of relationship. The youth worker, and perhaps a handful of others, become the only real connection points robbing all of an intergenerational opportunity too rare in our lives.

In a church environmental anxious about resources and its future, the potential for advocacy to turn into warfare is even more problematic. The young are pitched as the future we should be investing in while older people are the past. When it works, this strategy leads to an investment in youth at the cost of an exacerbation of the divisions between young and old.

Getting to the real fruit

In the beginning, we acknowledged that youth ministry is a complicated thing. Like any other ministry area, it offers unique challenges and opportunities. The people who are called to work with youth are blessed by the ways young people question and provoke things we too often take for granted as we age.

As I ruminated on each of these stupid youth ministry tricks, it was hard to not see the common thread running through them. While all churches are capable of making mistakes, those churches who are overly anxious, or obsessed with a quick return on their investment, did so repeatedly.

51BvWNbkAeLIn her book, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church, Kenda Creasy Dean writes, “The essential mark of maturity in Christians—as in peach trees—is generativity. Mature faith bears fruit. Mature Christians are branches on which God’s love is multiplied and offered for the nourishment of others.”

The first step to good youth ministry then is grounding it in a healthy church culture where such maturity exists. Churches that are focused on the long-term development of disciples, not the short-term attraction of program consumers, are less likely to fall into these traps and more able to develop thoughtful ministry allowing youth to encounter Jesus.

And that it what it should really be all about. Church leaders can obsess about numbers, parents might desire that their children learn morals, youth might want to have fun, but good youth ministry holds that all in creative tension with God’s desire to call young people to change the world.

Youth ministry then, is not a program that can be added to church to make it vital. Instead, a healthy church culture is a prerequisite to ministry that is faithfully focused on the discipleship of young people.

Thanks for reading this rant on youth ministry. Consider leaving a comment if you have anything you’d like to share, add, or push back on.

And if you found this helpful or interesting, please share.

Image Credit: Composite image with source photos by Flickr users Stéfan & Chris, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

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