Opinion: What Youth Ministry in America SHOULD Look Like

Youth ministry needs to be fixed.

Too many kids aren’t experiencing life transformation and too many youth leaders are simply wasting time as glorified babysitters.

Below are some characteristics that should be part of a youth ministry. They are idealistic, yes, I know. But this is how I would change youth ministry in America.

Simple: Get kids to fall in love with Jesus

wishingNo gimmicks, no tricks, no games. Youth ministry should be truly centered on inviting kids to kneel at the foot of the Cross. Sure, we can do camps, programs, retreats, and game nights involving duct tape and marshmallows, but whatever happened to the simplicity of inviting kids into a loving relationship with Jesus?

Commitment: It’s about lifelong relationships

I want to be in one youth ministry position for decades. I want to start when a kid enters into 6th grade, see him grow up through high school, graduate, go off to college, find a job, get married, have kids, and when his kids are old enough, have them be in my youth ministry. That’s the kind of longevity I want to have. That’s the kind of longevity I think youth ministry needs.

Youth ministry is all about relationships. We need to see relational ministry in the scope of entire lifetimes, not just one or two years.

Organic: Focused on people, not programs

Programs are excuses to build relationships. Then relationships produce “programs,” though you might never call it a program.

For example, a youth group meeting may have a Bible study, a song or two, and a goofy game, but the goal is the relationship-building aspect. As kids and leaders begin to connect, they can hang out anytime, not just on Wednesday nights. Like at school for lunch, or on a Friday night for video games, or on Monday nights for football. Then they’re having “youth group” whenever they hang out.

The same goes for mission trips. Mission trips could turn into year long commitments of leaders and students serving those in the community, like at school or at a homeless shelter. In this way, leaders are serving Christ on their own and simply inviting students along for the ride. Our concept of justice needs to be more complete than simply going to Mexico for one week out of the year.

Organic ministry is intentional about discipleship. Programmatic ministry is intentional about perpetuating the institution.

Intergenerational: Tear down the walls of the youth room

Students need relationships with old people, too!

This means more than just having a Bible study together. Or equipping parents to do ministry at home. This is an attitude change where the entire church body is empowered to do youth ministry and to be youth ministers. Youth ministry should be an expression of the entire church body, not just a few specialists (Chap Clark said this in a lecture he gave in one of my classes).

This also means inviting students to join the congregation. Youth ministry should balance age-specific ministry and ministry that involves non-youth. This could be as simple as an empty nest couple inviting a few girls over for dinner once a week. Students need to be connected to other church members.

Holistic: Care for the whole student

Youth ministry should be concerned for the whole kid, not just his or her spiritual life.

Youth ministry should be concerned for a child’s physical, mental, social, and educational development. Possibly even to the point of helping a kid apply for college and find a job. This ties back in with the idea of lifelong relationships.

Urban ministry tends to do this well: caring for the whole person by meeting physical needs, providing social and academic development, and connecting them to God. Suburban ministries need to learn from urban ministries.

Kingdom: Doing youth ministry together

More youth ministers and churches in general, need a kingdom mindset.

This kind of ministry involves other churches, schools, police departments, juvenile correction facilities, probation officers, and local businesses who care for kids. John Lewis is doing great stuff in Alhambra, CA where he is teaming up with the schools there to provide faith-based mentors to students. He’s getting calls from the police department for mentors for first time offenders. What a great opportunity to serve the community!

Wouldn’t it be great if the youth minister’s job description included, “Make another church’s youth ministry better?”

The church in America needs to reclaim this kind of selfless ethos.

Further Reading

  • Check out the book Simple Student Ministry by Eric Geiger and Jeff Borton for more help on creating an effective discipleship process.
  • Read more posts on a long term commitment to youth ministry (5-part series) over on lilkup’s Reflections blog.
  • Check out the future of youth ministry in Marko’s book Youth Ministry 3.0.
  • Pick up a copy of Deep Justice in a Broken World by Chap Clark and Kara Powell. This book takes an in depth look at how to do justice in today’s world in a way that actually makes an impact, both on students and on communities.

Your Turn

As I began to write this post, I realized how quickly it grew, and how I could write much more on these ideas. But I’m not the only youth leader out there. What sort of changes would you like to see in youth ministry?

For youth leaders in other parts of the world: I chose to comment on youth ministry in America because that is my context. Feel free to chime in with your comments or thoughts if you’re serving in youth ministry in another part of the world. Share your perspective on the state of things in your country.

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5 Responses to “Opinion: What Youth Ministry in America SHOULD Look Like”

  1. Great stuff Nick!

  2. The only thing I would add to that list is parents. Student ministry is this country for too long has had a “drop off your kid and we'll do the rest” mentality (or at least practice). Student ministries need to have deeper connections and equiping of parents to be the minister in the homes. This begins with a deeper partnership between the adult education Pastor (most likely Senior Pastor) and the youth pastor. Other than that it is a very well written and thought provoking article. Thanks Nick!

  3. Thanks Bobby! You're right, the “parent factor” is extremely important. I would plug that in under the “intergenerational” section of the article, and throw this question back at you: What if the parents aren't Christians or don't want to be ministers in the home?