The Doc File

The online journal of Luke Dockery

Category: Youth Ministry (page 1 of 15)

One Piece of Advice from a Youth Minister

I have been in youth ministry for about half of my life (I was 18 when I began my first youth ministry internship, and I just turned 36 a few weeks ago). Truly, it was not a profession that I sought out—through various means and circumstances, I believe that it sought me out, or, more accurately, God called me to it.

I spend a lot of time doing youth ministry, I spend a lot of time reading about youth ministry, I spend a lot of time talking about youth ministry, and I spend a lot of time praying about youth ministry (but certainly not as much as I should). I am hesitant to describe myself as an “expert” on anything, because I am aware of how limited I am and how much I still have to learn, but outside of DuckTales trivia, I am probably closer to being an “expert” on youth ministry than anything else in life.

From my perspective, there are two really significant concerns in youth ministry today: (1) the large percentage of young people who walk away from their faith after high school and graduation from their youth groups, and (2) the phenomenon of extended adolescence.[1]

I have talked and written quite a bit about the former issue (“What’s Wrong With Youth Ministers?”, “Harding Lectures Audio Files”, “Revamping Our Youth Ministries”, “The Current Crisis in Youth Ministry”); it also features prominently in my book, Youth In Family Ministry. I have not written as much about extended adolescence, but it is a fascinating topic to me, and a number of friends and acquaintances have found themselves trapped in long conversations with me about it (sorry!).

Adolescence as a concept has not been around very long, maybe 100 years or so. A simple way to think of it is the gap between physical maturity and societal maturity: when is someone considered able to function in society as a mature adult, handling all the responsibilities that adulthood entails? This has cognitive, emotional, social, and spiritual implications.

A hundred years ago, the gap didn’t really exist, or if it did, it was very short: young men and ladies would go through puberty in their mid teens[2] and often begin courting shortly thereafter, to be followed by marriage and all the expectations of adulthood.

Things have changed a lot since then. Puberty is occurring earlier and earlier (especially in girls), and the entrance to adulthood gets pushed back further and further. In fact, there is no consensus in contemporary American society about what makes one an adult: a driver’s license? High school graduation? Sexual experience? Registering to vote? Marriage? Moving out of parents’ home? Furthermore, many of these milestones have less appeal than they used to: increasingly, many teens are waiting to get driver’s licenses, a lot of high school graduates are avoiding college (or at least taking a “gap year”), millennials are marrying later than ever, and we are all familar with the cliched image of the 30 year-old college graduate who lives in his parents’ basement playing video games all day.

Becoming an adult is now regarded as such a daunting task that the very word adult has been turned into a verb, and older adolescents (“emerging adults”) will verbally pat themselves on the back because they “adulted” today—accomplishing some task that previous generations would have done without thinking, because it was what was expected.

If all of this sounds like the cranky, get-off-my-lawn complaints of a grouchy youth minister, I want to be clear that this is not just a behavioral issue where young people are being intentionally immature—this phenomenon is happening at a physiological level. While teenage bodies are developing earlier and earlier, their brain development has slowed. Higher level analytical thinking skills that were once manifest in 15 year-olds are now not evidenced until the upper teen years or even early 20s. This statement is backed up by research,[3] but it is also anecdotally true: talk to someone who has taught junior high, high school, or college students for an extended period of time and see if they have noticed a difference. I certainly have.

Extended adolescence is a complicated issue, and certainly, there are many factors that contribute to it, but recently, I was reading a brilliant essay that pointed out a major one:

I suggest that what we are experiencing in our classrooms and what our data demonstrates is the result of the cumulative effects of adolescents who have, essentially, been left along to journey through adolescence.…When kids are systematically left to their own devices to individuate into adulthood, their progression is slowed.[4]

When I read that, my mind was blown. It made so much sense and I couldn’t believe it had never occurred to me before. In my work to address the first main problem in youth ministry (teens leaving the church after high school), I have focused significantly on the importance of young people being around adults (both their parents, and also older, mature Christians) as a means of developing long-term faith and helping them become mature Christians themselves, but it didn’t occur to me that this exact same practice is also the best means we have of addressing the crisis of extended adolescence as well: the more that developing adults (i.e. adolescents) are around adults in meaningful ways, the better and earlier they will learn to “adult” on their own.

So, with all of that said, here is the firmest thing I know about the practice of youth ministry, the closest thing I have to a magic pill or a silver bullet: if you want your kids to grow to healthy adulthood and become lifelong disciples of Jesus, ensure that they spend a lot of time with adults who are serious about their faith (and make sure that you, the parent, fit that description as well). 

May God grant us both wisdom and mercy as we seek to raise His kids to His glory!


[1] Obviously, there are more than two, but I would argue that these are the most significant, and that many other concerns actually stem from these issues. The use of technology and the online behavior of teens might be equally significant.

The basic idea of extended adolescence is that it is taking young people longer and longer to “act like adults.” You can read more about this here.

[2] See Dominic Hernandez, “The Decreasing Age of Puberty” in Vital Record: News from Texas A&M University Health Science Center, January 10, 2018.

[3] See Chap Clark’s discussion of “middle adolescence” in Hurt 2.0: Inside the World of Today’s Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2011): 5-21.

[4] Steven Bonner, “Understanding the Changing Adolescent,” in Adoptive Youth Ministry: Integrating Emerging Generations into the Family of Faith, ed. Chap Clark (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2016): 37.

Self-Denial in a Self-Discovery World

One of the advantages of being a youth minister is that I have the opportunity to read and hear a lot of good teaching from a variety of different sources. Some of these are basically available to anyone (books, sermons, podcasts), while others I gain access to by traveling to different youth events and hearing gifted and thoughtful speakers.

A while back, I was blessed to listen to my friend Shannon Cooper, who made the point that we live in a society that is obsessed with self-discovery: for many, the central goal of life is to “find out who we are” so we can “be true to ourselves.” Self-help books constitute a lucrative industry. Discussions related to sexual and gender identity become issues of the utmost importance. We seek to define ourselves by our hobbies, or the music we listen to, or our peer groups.

There is a problem with this, though: self-discovery leaves us with no point of reference beyond ourselves. Fundamentally, it is limited, subjective, and, ultimately…selfish.

It is also not Christian. A more Christian way of thinking about identity is not based on self-discovery, but on self-denial and the imitation of Jesus.

And whoever does not take his cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it.

(Matthew 10.38-39)

Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me.”

(Matthew 16.24)

Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

(1 Corinthians 11.1)

 I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.

(Galatians 2.20)

As Christians, we cannot force our worldview on nonbelievers (nor should we try to), but we should certainly hold ourselves and one another to that worldview. And the way of Christ is not about finding purpose and meaning through discovering “who we really are,” which is another way of saying “doing what we want to do.” Rather, it is about denying the urge to do what we want to do and instead to prioritize what Jesus wants us to do in partnering in His work to reconcile the world to Himself. This is where purpose and meaning is found.

Unsettled (And Why That Is A Good Thing)

It has been just over three weeks ago that my family and I moved to begin a new youth ministry work at a different congregation in a new city. Everyone has been so friendly and welcoming, and we are so excited to be where we are. We were in a great place before, working with a great church, but ultimately, we decided to move because we became convinced that it was God’s will that we do so, and that decision has been affirmed and reaffirmed in so many ways since our move.

Having said all that, it has been challenging as well. One question I keep getting over and over is, “How are you settling in?”, and the best answer is probably that I am still very much unsettled. I knew this before, but I have come to realize just how much I am a product of routine, and virtually all of those routines have been interrupted. The familiar faces have changed, I am not sure which keys unlock which doors, and I have swapped a host of activities and trips that I could plan and lead in my sleep for others I have not experienced before and know little about.

For a person who likes to be in control, it’s all a little unsettling.

I suspect that I am not alone in this—either my desire to be in control, or my feelings of discomfort when I realize that I am not.

But what a valuable reminder this season of life is providing me! God does not ask me to construct a façade of control around myself seeking to find comfort in routine. Rather, He asks that I give up the notion of control itself, and place my trust, and indeed, my life, in His capable hands.

The heart of man plans his way,
but the LORD establishes his steps.
(Proverbs 16.9)
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”—yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”
(James 4.13-15)

It is unsettling…but I think the life that Jesus asks of His followers is supposed to be exactly that.

Preparing for Ministry in Small Churches

Several days ago, I had the opportunity to speak to a class of ministry students at Harding University who are near the completion of their degrees. While my primary task was to speak to them about youth ministry, I was also supposed to give them some practical tips for doing ministry in a congregational setting.

I offered several tips, some of which were likely more helpful than others, but some of my advice was focused on the reality that Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches.

Consider some of the following information from the 2015 edition of Churches of Christ in the United States, compiled by Carl H. Royster. Of 12,303 congregations of Churches of Christ in the United States:

  • 1,932, or 15.7%, are congregations of 0-24 people
  • 3,351, or 27.2%, are congregations of 25-49 people
  • 3,556, or 28.9%, are congregations of 50-99 people
  • 2,159, or 17.5%, are congregations of 100-199 people
  • Combined, this means that roughly 89% of congregations are less than 200 people in size

The congregation where I currently serve doesn’t seem overly large to me, but at 230, it is in the top ten percent of congregations in our fellowship by size.

Again, Churches of Christ represent a fellowship of small churches. With this reality in mind, I offered a couple of suggestions to the Harding students I talked to who were about to graduate and head into ministry roles in Churches of Christ.

First, it is important to develop a diversified skill set. If you want to work in a church of Christ, and what you really, really want to do is be an adult education minister and do only that, there just aren’t that many jobs like that out there. The reality is that in smaller churches (i.e., the vast majority of churches of Christ), you have to wear a lot of hats, and you need to have a diversified skill set to be able to do that.

In my current position (and remember, we are over 200 in size, so we are larger than 9/10 churches in our fellowship), in a given week I might find myself planning a youth retreat, writing adult Bible class lessons, designing our church website, preaching, and negotiating a new contract with our copier company—and that’s not an unusual week!

Out of necessity, you have to wear a lot of different hats. You might have a specialized skill or skills that you are really good at, and that’s great, but you need to develop general skills as well.

Second, it is important to develop humility about your role. I was speaking that day to Christian college-trained ministry students, which means that in many ways, they are the upper echelon, the elite. They have spent lots of money and countless hours receiving training in biblical languages, intensive Bible study, ministerial skills, etc. Simply put, there are things that they have been trained to do that a lot of people in the congregations where they serve won’t be able to do, and it’s important that they prioritize and do those things.

But at the same time, that doesn’t mean they are too good to do less glamorous, more menial things. I cannot begin to count the number of hours I have spent straightening up chairs, taking out the trash, or putting things away in storage closets while at work. I didn’t need an M.Div to do that work, but it was still a vital part of my job. A couple of years ago, we had a major problem with the sewage line at our church building. Toilets backed up, and foul water flooded the hallway. And our preaching minister got out the mop and went to work. Ultimately, ministers are servants, and they step up to serve where it is needed; they are not too good to do the “small” things.

I am sure there are many more ideas that could be added, and again, this is coming from a guy who isn’t really at a small church. But if these lessons are true for me, how much more they must apply to even smaller congregational contexts. There are some real blessings that come with working with small churches, but it requires a certain type of minister as well.

Judging by demographic realities, many of the ministry students I spoke to will find themselves (at least at some point) working in smaller congregations. I hope what I shared with them will prove to be helpful.

A New Chapter

Yesterday was one of the most challenging days of my life, as I announced that I would be leaving the Farmington Church of Christ, my home and family for the last 13 years, to beginning working with a new congregation at the end of May/beginning of June.

Here was the statement that I read:

In June, Caroline and the kids and I will be moving to Searcy, Arkansas, where I have accepted the role of Youth In Family Minister at the Cloverdale Church of Christ. This is not a decision that we have made lightly, but over the last 18 months and with a great deal of prayer, Caroline and I have become increasingly convinced that this is God’s will for our lives.

Working with the church at Cloverdale will also make it possible for me to teach some youth ministry courses at Harding on occasion, and will also give me the opportunity to work year-round in training college students who are interested in going into youth ministry. This position would also put us close to Kinsley’s neurologist in Little Rock, and would be a great financial blessing for our family as well.

As excited as we are about this opportunity, we are equally sad about the notion of leaving Northwest Arkansas, and especially, our Farmington family. That word—family—is frequently thrown around when discussing church, but I do not use it lightly. Over the last 13 years, you all really have become our family. You celebrated our marriage and the birth of our children; you have wept with us during difficult times, rejoiced with us during happy times, and have supported us throughout. Words fail me to describe the love we have for this family of God’s people, and the sadness we feel at moving.

I have been blessed to work with two preachers while I have been at Farmington, and they have both been great friends to me and have taught me much. Mike is one of the finest ministers I have ever known, the most generous person I have ever met, and I will greatly miss working side by side with him. I know that he will continue to be a wonderful blessing to the congregation here.

I have been blessed to work alongside great elders in my time here. They have always been supportive of me, and I have always felt valued and trusted. They have always valued the young people of our congregation, and have made hard decisions at times (like hiring me in the first place!) to make sure that our young people were taken care of. I know they will continue to do that moving forward.

There are so many others who I would like to mention by name, but I won’t, in fear of overlooking someone. The reality is that this room is filled with people who have blessed our lives, and I thank you for it.

Last, but certainly not least, I want to say how blessed I have been to work with dozens and dozens of teens of the Farmington church over the last 13 years. It is such an honor to be invited alongside our young people and develop close ties with them. One of the greatest joys of my life has been to watch them grow up, marry, have children, serve as deacons and Bible class teachers, and remain devoted to their faith in Jesus. To all of my former students and my current ones, I love you, I will always be cheering for you, and nothing will make me prouder than your continued faithfulness in God’s kingdom.

I spend my life trying to teach teenagers that the most important thing in life is to figure out God’s will for your life and then to do that thing. For Caroline and I, that’s what this is about. If we aren’t willing to step out in faith to do God’s will in our own lives, then I have no business telling others what they need to do.

Of course, we’re not moving just yet, and the next three months will be busy as we seek to make healthy transitions for the future of the church here at Farmington. And even after we’re gone, you won’t really be rid of us, because you visit your family—and that’s what you are to us.

Thank you.

Everyone was very loving and supportive, but it was a very challenging and emotional day.

Over the next couple of months, one of my primary tasks is being involved in the process of finding the man who will replace me as the Associate Minister at Farmington. Toward that end, if you (or someone you know) might be interested in the role, you can find a full job description (with contact information) here.

Amidst all the sadness, Caroline and I look forward to the next chapter in our lives with a lot of excitement, and trust that God will be with us on this adventure, as He always has been in the past.

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