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The online journal of Luke Dockery

What’s Wrong with Youth Ministers? Some Common (and often Legitimate) Criticisms

Youth Ministry–What's Wrong

Note: This is an updated version of a series of posts that I wrote a few year ago. 

Introduction

I have been involved in youth ministry in some fashion for about 15 years now, so the statements below are based on observations I have made during that time. That being said, I am in no way claiming to be an expert on youth ministry, and I am certainly not suggesting that I am a perfect (or even particularly good) youth minister. What I have written below is simply a collection of opinions and suggestions based on personal experience.

Typically, youth ministers don’t get a lot of respect. Many members of the congregation largely consider them to be glorified baby-sitters who come for a couple of years as hired hands, hang out with teenagers and then move on, unworthy of the salary they receive (“What do you do all day, anyway?”).

I think that’s unfortunate, because I believe that (good) youth ministry is an important part of a healthy church. However, if I’m honest with myself, I have to admit that we (youth ministers as a whole) have done a lot to warrant the criticisms and generalizations that are often directed at us. Let’s look at some of those criticisms.

(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.

In a very good article on ministry, Lynn Anderson suggests that it’s hard to be really effective as a minister until you’ve been at a congregation for at least seven years.[1] This might seem shocking since a lot of ministers don’t stay in place for that long, but it makes sense when you think about it: it takes time to build deep, genuine relationships with people, and most people aren’t really going to trust you with their spiritual well-being until they know you well. The problem is, as often as ministers tend to move from one congregation to another, youth ministers seem to do so with even greater frequency. I’ve been working with the teens at Farmington continuously since May 2006 (since then my title has changed and my responsibilities have evolved and expanded somewhat, but still, my foremost priority has been working with the young people). That’s a time period of about ten years, and of the 12-15 Churches of Christ that I am aware of in Northwest Arkansas, only one has employed the same youth minister for that entire time. Many have gone through 3-4 youth ministers over that period.

Now that’s just one person’s anecdotal evidence, but it certainly seems to support the generalization. So why do youth ministers leave congregations so quickly?

Of course, there are a lot of reasons, and youth ministers shouldn’t be blamed for some of them. Sometimes clashes with an eldership or an “important” family will lead to a job transition that is entirely out of the youth minister’s hands. Sometimes a youth minister will transition into a different ministry role at the same congregation because it is what the church needs most. Sometimes youth ministers just get completely burned out and need a career change.[2]

But often, reasons for leaving aren’t as good. A lot of times youth ministers show up on the job with big plans and new ideas, and then get frustrated when things don’t quickly turn out exactly as they planned. Rather than stay, put down roots, and work to gradually make things better, they are enticed by the greener pastures of a higher salary or a larger congregation.

I don’t claim to know what the answer is, and I don’t know if Anderson’s figure of seven years is appropriate for youth ministers or not. I do know it is difficult for those teens who have to adjust to 2-3 youth ministers in their 6-7 years in the youth group, and that they feel somewhat abandoned each time they have to deal with a youth minister leaving. I also know that remaining at the same congregation for as long as I have has reaped rewards for me, as I am more trusted by the congregation now than I was when I first came, and as a result, am more able to implement new programs and ideas.

(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.

I know this is an idea that a lot of church members have, but really, I hear this said (or more often, implied) most commonly by other ministers. A lot of preachers who spend hours and hours in the church office each week studying for Bible classes and sermons get frustrated when the youth ministers they work with are never around.

Certainly, I think it’s true that youth ministers spend less time in the office than pulpit ministers do, and I know from personal experience that if I call a church office trying to get in touch with a youth minister, it is more likely that I’ll end up speaking to a secretary who has no clue of the youth minister’s whereabouts than to the youth minister himself. But like a lot of areas in life, I think it’s important to avoid extremes when thinking about how often a youth minister should be in the office.

On one hand, if youth ministers are supposed to focus largely on mentoring, teaching, and working with teenagers, it doesn’t make too much sense for them to spend 40 hours a week in an office where no teenagers are present. Besides, it’s not like work can only happen in an office: just because youth events can be enjoyable doesn’t mean that they don’t also require a lot of work, and it doesn’t seem fair to require a youth minister to be in the office for 40 hours if you also expect him to spend a lot of nights and weekends at youth events.[3]

Fortunately, most churches (including, thankfully, my own) realize this and allow their youth minister to have a relatively flexible office schedule. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this, gradually spending less and less time in the office until they reach a point where you never know when to expect them.

I think it’s important for a youth minister to work out a regular office schedule where, barring some unusual occurrence, other people can expect to find him in the office if they stop by. The number of hours may vary from church to church, but it’s important for people to be able to get a hold of you, and since, as a minister, you are a visible part of the leadership of the congregation, it’s important for people who stop by to at least occasionally be able to see you.

(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.

In recent years, this has become a vocal criticism of youth ministry as a whole, and I think it is a valid one, so I want to spend some time addressing it. Multiple studies have shown that evangelical teens leave the church at an alarming rate after they graduate high school,[4] and it seems likely that at least part of this phenomenon can be attributed to problems with the way we do youth ministry.

Consider the following, hypothetical example:

On a regular Sunday at ___________ Church, the youth group meets for class in their special, isolated, youth room in the Family Life Center. After class they head out to the auditorium for worship where they sit with the other teens on the special youth group rows, and after services are over, they either stay where they are, visiting with friends, or rush back to the youth room to play ping pong/foosball/PS4.

On regular Sunday evenings, instead of meeting at the church building with “old people”, the youth group has a special Life Group where they meet in each other’s homes to have a devotional, sing a few songs, and then have a meal.

These are just on regular Sundays though, which don’t actually occur all that regularly, because the Youth Minister has made it a priority for the youth group to be gone to as many trips and youth rallies as possible on weekends, in addition to regular monthly Sunday night gatherings with teens from other youth groups (after all, it’s hard to keep teens excited about just going to “regular” church).

On Wednesday nights, of course there is a special teen class in the youth room in the Family Life Center, and because this is such an important time during the week for the teens to fellowship with one another, they don’t come out after the Bible class period to spend time singing or having a devotional with the rest of the church family, but instead just stay in their room to have more time with one another.

Each week there will be a devotional at one of the teen’s homes.

In addition to youth rallies and weekend retreats, special activities include a ski trip over Christmas Break, a couple of church camps in the summer, and a short-term summer mission trip. All of these are primarily for teens, but there will be a few parents and maybe a youth deacon or two thrown in as chaperones.

Obviously this is just a hypothetical example, and to be clear, I’m not saying that there’s anything wrong with any of these specific activities, but when added together, what you get is a group of teens who spend a lot of time with each other doing “church activities”, but have very little meaningful interaction with anyone else in the church. They likely don’t even know the names of the majority of adults who aren’t their Bible class teachers or youth deacons or parents of their friends. The careful and diligent work of the Youth Minister has made them very dedicated to the youth group, but has also (unintentionally) isolated them from the church family as a whole.[5]

What happens when they graduate? Is it particularly reasonable, after spending years cultivating in them an allegiance to the youth group (which has been largely separated from the church as a whole), to kick them out of the youth group once they graduate and expect them to eagerly switch allegiances to the church as a whole (largely made up of parents and “old people”)? I think it’s increasingly becoming clear that the answer is, “no.”

Does that mean that mean that youth rallies, youth trips, youth rooms, and even youth groups should be done away with? Well, judging by the fact that I am a Youth Minister, I obviously don’t think so, but I do think that it means that youth ministry needs to be rethought somewhat.

I think it is important that we provide opportunities for our students to build relationships with other Christians their own age, and I also think it is appropriate to offer teaching that is customized and directed at teens, dealing with the issues they face in a way that is interesting to them. Taken together, these goals provide justification for a lot of the things I mentioned in the hypothetical example above, but these goals must be balanced with the intentional effort to make teens disciples of Jesus, which of course, involves a lifetime of service to His church (not just 6-7 years of involvement with a youth group).

Instead of being isolated from the church, teens are an integral part of it, with their involvement including, but not being limited to, youth group activities. Of course, that’s easier said than done—how do we make teens active and functioning parts of the Body instead of merely loyal members of a youth group? Well, I don’t claim to have all the answers, but here are a few suggestions:

Limit how often the youth group is absent from the corporate worship of your congregation. From personal experience, I can say that it is really tempting for youth ministers to have their groups miss a lot of the worship services of the church, opting instead for special events where the worship is different, fresh, and exciting. But is there any doubt that the more your kids are absent from worship with the local body, the less they feel like they are a part of that body?

If high school graduates want to hang around for a while, let them. I’ve known some youth ministers who are adamant about getting kids out of the youth group as soon as the summer after their senior year is over. Considering what I mentioned above about students leaving the church at an alarming rate after graduating high school, I’m not sure this is a great idea. Transitioning from high school to college is a difficult time for a lot of students, and especially if you don’t have an active college group at your church, some might not know where they fit in. I’ve always encouraged those who have already graduated but who are still interested in coming to youth events to come—they provide good, older role models for the younger students, and it also helps to keep them involved with the church.

Provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor students one on one or in small groups. We have used mentors to work with our Lads to Leaders students for several years, and good relationships have developed from this. Furthermore, we are planning to implement a church-wide mentoring program to provide our students with additional contacts and meaningful relationships with mature Christians. Having students work with adult mentors provides another positive Christian role model in their lives (and they can never have too many), and also gives them another connection to the church outside of the youth group and their own family.

Allow teens to be involved in the life of the church, and encourage them to do so. Let your young men serve in the worship assembly. When high school teens reach a certain level of maturity, encourage them to teach (or help teach) a children’s Bible class for a quarter. If there is a work day at the church building, let your young people know that they are needed as well. Look for ways in which your congregation can serve the community and make sure that your teens work hand in hand with older members to accomplish those projects.

(4) Youth Ministers are shallow.

I had a hard time coming up with the title for this area of criticism, but really it’s just an umbrella description for specific criticisms of youth ministers that I’ve heard voiced or implied several times like, “All he does is plan fun events! There’s never any spiritual emphasis!” or “His Bible classes are pure entertainment! There’s no Bible to them!” or “He doesn’t even know the Bible! Why is he teaching our kids?”

Fun Eventsin a time when a lot of teenagers are having fun in some decidedly unholy ways, I think there’s nothing wrong with having certain events that are for the express purpose of having good, clean fun. Of course, these fun events should be balanced with other types of events, but I honestly don’t know of any youth ministers who do nothing more than play basketball with their teens. Most organize regular devotionals to provide a time outside of worship to study the Bible, and many travel to a variety of youth rallies, retreats, and summer camps to provide an opportunity for worship and spiritual growth.

If there is one area in which I think youth ministers as a whole could be more intentional about planning activities it would be service. Fundamentally, Christians are supposed to be servants, but that’s a hard message to get across in our self-centered, consumer culture. One thing I’ve always tried to do as a youth minister (sometimes more successfully than others) is to provide a variety of opportunities for service to remind my students that following Jesus means adopting His model of servanthood.

Entertainment vs. BibleI don’t know if you’ve noticed, but teenagers in today’s world don’t exactly have stellar attention spans. This isn’t particularly surprising since most of them have been watching television since birth and spend most of the day plugged in through a smart phone, iPod, or laptop.

Because of this, there is undoubtedly a need for capturing the attention of our students in order to teach them effectively. That being said, if you’re not careful, you can spend so much time engaging the students that you don’t have time to engage Scripture. I’ve seen Bible lessons for teens that were so focused on grabbing their attention and making the Bible relevant that the Bible was barely mentioned at all!

Fundamentally, I believe that the Bible is relevant to the life of every person, and because of that, it is interesting. I don’t claim to be a great teacher, but the Bible is a great book, and since I make it a priority to teach Scripture in my classes, it’s usually fairly effective.

Bible KnowledgeI have become personally convinced that Christians, on the whole, are woefully ignorant of the teachings of the Bible. That’s a scary thing to me, but even worse, a lot of Bible teachers (including some youth ministers) aren’t much better.

I don’t want to over-generalize here, because everyone is different: I’ve known youth ministers with little formalized training who are outstanding Bible students, and others with college degrees in Bible who seemed completely unaware of basic biblical teachings. Regardless of that, on the whole, we as a people don’t know our Bibles well enough, and I’ve never known anyone who spent too much time reading and studying Scripture.

And, related to the point above about Entertainment vs. Bible, the better you know and understand the Bible, the easier it is to teach it. Being able to describe the historical and cultural background of a specific story or passage is more interesting than just having your students take turns reading it out loud. Better understanding leads to better teaching.

(5) Youth Ministers are “liberal”.

I really dislike the labels “liberal” and “conservative” when it comes to church discussion, because everyone defines those terms so differently that they become largely useless.[6] I dislike the labels so much that I almost left this one off the list entirely, but it is a common criticism, so I thought I would address it briefly.[7]

In this last criticism, I am not referring to the idea held by some people that having a youth minister is inherently liberal,[8] but rather the notion that youth ministers individually tend to be more liberal than the congregations that employ them, and thus, cause problems at those congregations.

Like I said above, this is a common criticism, and I’m sure it’s valid to a degree, but I think it tends to exaggerated a lot. Let me explain.

It makes a lot of sense for youth ministers to be a somewhat liberal group as a whole when you remember that, as a general rule, youth ministers tend to be young, and they also tend to be only a few years removed from an education at a Christian university (typically, people are more liberal when they are younger, and usually Christian universities are somewhat more liberal than are a lot of the congregations whose young people choose to attend them).

Nevertheless, if a congregation has done a good job in the interview process to find a youth minister that is a good fit for them, then really it shouldn’t be an issue—more liberal churches will have no problem accepting youth ministers with more liberal views, while more conservative congregations will avoid those candidates and instead hire someone whose views are more in line with their own.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that if there is a huge problem of youth ministers being too liberal for the churches they work with[9], at least part of the blame should fall on the congregations who hired them in the first place when they obviously weren’t a very good fit.

Summary and Conclusion

In this post I discussed five different criticisms which I think have varying degrees of validity:

(1) Youth Ministers don’t stay very long.

Is this criticism valid? Generally, yes. It will always be difficult for youth ministers to get respect if they are viewed more as hired hands than as good shepherds (cf. John 10), and people can’t help but view youth ministers as hired hands when they don’t stick around long enough to put down roots and build meaningful, lasting relationships with the congregation. There are certainly some valid reasons to leave a congregation (even after a short period of time), but in general, I think youth ministers as a group are guilty of leaving a little too quickly when things get difficult.

Suggestion for improvement: Congregations are made up of people, which means that any church and therefore any church-related job is going to come with problems and headaches. Realizing from the outset that no ministry position is perfect helps to temper unrealistic expectations. Furthermore, working on developing the biblical virtues of perseverance and patience helps a minister weather the bad times while working diligently to help bring about better ones.

(2) Youth Ministers are never in the office working.

Is this criticism valid? To a degree, yes. It is not valid when based on the assumption that being in the office is the single most important thing that a youth minister can do, because much of youth ministry cannot be done in an office where no young people are present. Thankfully, most congregations realize this today, and adjust office hour requirements accordingly. Unfortunately, some youth ministers take advantage of this arrangement and are never found in the office at all, and that is a problem. Youth ministers hold a visible position of leadership and, therefore, need to be accessible to members of the congregation at certain times.

Suggestion for improvement: If you have office hours posted (or even if they are not posted, but were agreed upon when you were hired), be a person of integrity and make it a priority to be in your office at those times. Make the hours you spend in the office as productive as possible by focusing on those aspects of youth ministry that can be done without your youth group being present: studying and preparing Bible class lessons, answering phone calls and emails, planning and publicizing events through social media, or reading books on ministry and Christian living.

(3) Youth Ministers build allegiance to a group, not to the Church.

Is this criticism valid? Yes. I spent a lot of time covering this one, because of all the criticisms people make about youth ministers/ministry, I think this is the most significant. A lot of the activities and strategies that youth ministers typically employ serve to isolate young people from the rest of the congregation, leaving them without any meaningful relationships with other, older members. Once the teenager graduates from high school (and the youth group) he/she can feel out of place at church and not surprisingly, a lot of teenagers leave the church during this time of life.

Suggestion for improvement: Limit how often you remove your youth group from the corporate worship of the congregation; the more often you are gone (regardless of how important the reason seems), the more you underscore that, on some level, the youth group is not a part of the larger congregation. Allow high school graduates to still hang out at youth group activities, and invest some level of responsibility and leadership in them. Encourage your teens to be actively involved in the life of the church in worship, in service, and in church-wide events. Finally, provide opportunities for adult Christians to mentor teens one-on-one or in small groups—the more relationships a teen develops outside the youth group the better.

(4) Youth Ministers are shallow.

Is this criticism valid? At times it is, but on the whole, I don’t think youth ministers should be roundly criticized for this. As I mentioned before, I honestly don’t know of any youth ministers who do nothing more than plan fun events and play games with their teens. I do think that youth ministers sometimes lean too far toward entertainment when trying to teach their students, but even that generally comes from a desire to instill biblical principles in a way the student will remember rather than an unwillingness on the part of the youth minister to teach the Bible. Youth ministers are sometimes unacceptably ignorant in their Bible knowledge, but as I argued before, so are most Christians. That’s not to say that it isn’t a problem (it’s a huge problem), it just isn’t a problem that youth ministers should be singled out for.

Suggestion for improvement: Youth activities which are fun should be balanced with activities that focus on other important aspects of the Christian life. There’s nothing wrong with taking your teens bowling or visiting Six Flags, but you should also take them to spiritually-focused events like retreats and youth rallies and also provide them with abundant opportunities for service. With regard to Bible class, teaching the Bible should always take precedence over entertaining the students, and that is made easier when the youth minister has made a personal commitment to Bible study.

(5) Youth Ministers are “liberal”.

Is this criticism valid? Mostly, I don’t think so. Generally speaking, because of their age and educational background, I do think that youth ministers tend to be more “liberal” than the average church member, however, I don’t think it’s particularly common for youth ministers to swoop into a new ministry position, determined to make the church more liberal at all costs, causing irreparable damage along the way. Actually, I think it is much more common for youth ministers to forget about some of their own personal preferences, realizing that they are out of place in their current congregation and not worth causing grief over.

Suggestion for improvement: Congregations can go a long way toward alleviating this problem (to whatever degree it exists) in the interview process. Since terms like “liberal” and “conservative” are relative and generally used in relation to certain beliefs or practices, it should be easy enough for churches to ask specific questions during the interview process which determine if the candidate would be a good fit for their particular congregation.

I’m sure there are other criticisms that I could have covered in this discussion, but I tried to hit the ones I hear most often. As you can see, to some extent I think that youth ministers are criticized unfairly, but because of the questionable actions of a lot of youth ministers over the years, I also think that we deserve a lot of what we get.

As I have tried to make clear in this posts, I am by no means the perfect youth minister, and I am sure that at times I have done some of the very things that I have criticized here. Nevertheless, as I move forward, my goal is to exemplify the positive aspects of youth ministry rather than the problems often associated with it.


[1]Lynn Anderson, “Why I’ve Stayed,” Leadership 7, no. 3 (June 1986): 76-82. Anderson goes on to talk about good and bad reasons for leaving a particular ministry but maintains that, as a general rule, ministers do their best work after they have been working with the same church for at least seven years.

[2]Youth ministry is difficult for a lot of reasons, but in particular, seeing teens in whom you’ve invested years of time and love make bad decisions and sometimes even abandon their faith is tough.

[3]For example, going to church camp each summer is hardly a vacation. Instead of working from 8AM-5PM, I get up at 6 in the morning and am responsible for the boys in my cabin all day (and all night) in addition to teaching class, preaching, coaching, coordinating recreational activities, etc.  I always have a good time because I love working with young people, but if you’re comparing the level of stress involved, I’d take 40 hours in the church office any day. Same goes for for special trips that I am in charge of.

[4]Statistics from different studies range on what percentage of teens leave the church after high school. A good estimate is probably something around 40-50%. See Kara E. Powell and Chap Clark, Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011): 15. Other sources suggest different percentages. Kendra Creasy Dean, “Proclaiming Salvation: Youth Ministry for the Twenty-First Century Church,” Theology Today 56, no. 4 (January 2000): 525, states that “more than half of those confirmed as adolescents leave the church by age seventeen.”

[5]For what it’s worth, I do think teenagers actually enjoy this type of youth group—taking lots of special trips, being isolated from adults and the elderly, having their own special worship and Bible study gatherings—I’m just not convinced that, when taken to an extreme, it’s conducive to healthy spiritual formation.

[6]For example, some people use the term “liberal” to refer to the idea that Jesus wasn’t actually define and wasn’t physically raised from the dead, while other people use it to refer to the practice of clapping hands while singing in worship. The fact that the same term is used to describe such widely varying theological beliefs and practices renders the term almost meaningless. It becomes just a relative term—anyone to the left of me is “liberal”, while anyone to his right is “conservative”.

[7]I won’t put the terms in quotation marks from here on out because that would be annoying to read; just realize that I am making no attempt to actually define the terms, but am just using them in a general and relative sense.

[8]Some Christians/congregations believe that, since the New Testament doesn’t specifically speak about the use of youth ministers, congregations that have them are using a “liberal” innovation. Obviously, I disagree. Not wanting to go into great detail on this point, I would suggest that the New Testament comes much closer to supporting a congregation having a youth minister than having a multi-million dollar building to worship in, and a lot of people seem okay with that practice!

[9]There is no doubt in my mind that there are multiple examples of guys who have come in with more liberal views, tried to bring change to the congregation they were working with and caused a great deal of damage in the process. Nevertheless, I don’t really think this is a common occurrence; it is certainly not true of the vast majority of the many youth ministers I have known and worked with.

3 Comments

  1. Hey Luke, I really liked this article. I’ve only been a youth minister since June so all of this is new to me. While reading this I’ve noticed some of these tendencies already in myself that I’m not proud of, mainly all the entertainment and not as much getting into the word. I always enjoy your posts. Blessings on that sweet family of yours.

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