Confessions of (an Old) Youth Minister

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I’ve been leading youth groups in one way or another for over 30 years. Started when I was 17 helping out with the Jr. High group in my church.

For many years, I thought I knew what I was doing, –mostly because I was doing what most OTHER youth pastors were doing, …and what the hippy-dippy youth seminars told me to do. Had the great attendance, did cool stuff, taught the Bible studies, did the mission trips, took the long walks, had the long talks,  had a lot of fun.  Stoopid me.

One of the good things about getting older is you get to see “how things turn out.” I now have former youth group members RECONNECTING with me through the internet and the blessing of FACEBOOK.  ….It has been wonderful, …and a humbling eye-opener.

Down below I tell the stories of two kids from my former youth groups.

One of things that TIME has taught me is that FAR TOO MANY kids who came up through the church have grown away from the church. Those who have contacted me often bring it up. They apologize and make promises. And I’ve met many other “old” youth pastors who have similar stories.

If you are young and reading this, you’re probably thinking, “What did HE do wrong? He must have done something wrong!”

The problem with this kind of thinking is that it assumes that the youth minister is the difference maker in most of our kids’ lives.  Many young youth leaders and pastors believe that, “all I have to do is X, Y, Z and most of my youth group kids will grow up strong in faith and connected to the church.” Indeed, many young youth pastors believe that they can ‘save’ or ‘bind’ a kid to Christ and the church BY THE FORCE OF THEIR OWN CHARISMATIC PERSONALITY and awesome programming.    Sorry to say, it doesn’t work that way.

Back in the day….I was one of those young “somewhat charismatic”  youth pastors who could get the kids to turn out. Taught great lessons, told the compelling stories, challenged them with the Word, played all the games, did the mission trips, held the hands, dragged them to the soup kitchens, etc. etc, … the kids loved me and I loved them. But the years have taught me that, while that approach seemed to “work” at the time, makes YOU look good at your job, and certainly makes the church and parents and kids happy,  it’s wasn’t, and isn’t enough.

Long-term it’s only PART of what we should have been doing.  I have come to believe that the only measuring stick for “success” is WHERE those kids ARE 10 or 20 years later in their faith and church life.

I don’t have a program to sell you, but I do tell young youth pastors that the BEST thing they can do is not “youth programming” …but “family ministry.” The dynamics of family –the relationship between parent and child and siblings and the faith that can be nurtured there (or crushed)  is a FAR MORE POWERFUL FORCE than your Sunday meetings, game nights, awesome lesson talks, campfire sing-a-longs, soup-kitchen visits, and “walk & talks” in the woods.

Okay…it’s not either or. I’m just saying, “re-balance” and don’t make the same mistake most youth pastors have made over the past 40 years. ‘

Youth ministry which does not have as its goal LASTING faith and participation in the life of a congregation, is not only wrong, it’s an exercise in the leader’s VANITY.

Of course, the question is, “what makes for lasting faith and participation?” Over the years, several studies have come out which lean heavily towards family ministry, and personal individual mentorship/evangelism, —not Sunday night meetings. After a couple of stories, I’m going to parse this out a little more below. But I’ve also quoted the research and written about it elsewhere (beginning at

I want to share the stories of  three of my former youth group kids to illustrate the importance of what this “old” youth minister has figured out…

“Jean” reconnected with me last year over the internet. She had been active in a former youth group I had led for many years back in the early 90’s. I remembered Jean as a sweetie, –polite, quiet, smiling Jean. Her parents were active in the church. Indeed, I thought she had a great home life. But in fact, Jean says her youth was troubled, her father distant, her mother overbearing, and she wandered for 10-12 years after leaving home at the age of 18 (a year after I left that congregation).   I never knew ANY of this backstory until she told me this past year. She finally married a Christian man whom she says “saved her life.”  Her parents are still distant.

Jean told me I had a great impact on her young life –which was wonderful to hear and a bit surprising. She thanked me for the messages I shared with her, for my spirit. Problem was, I never knew her well enough to see the signs of trouble.  I was too busy doing all the hundred things youth ministers do –dealing with all the kids and events and leaders. I was too busy and distracted by other kids with more “obvious” need –to get close enough to Jean and discover what was going on behind her smiling face.   Yet in retrospect, I remember there was a sense of nervousness about her, which at the time I assumed was run-of-the-mill teenage angst. Stoopid me.

– – – – – – – –

Anne was a star student athlete, a state running champ, and regular Sunday morning worship attender. For years I tried to get her to come to Sunday School and Sunday night meetings.  She and I were always friendly with each other, but eventually I could see that  her AVOIDING me on Sunday mornings as she came in for worship with her folks. One Sunday afternoon I called her to invite her to attend that night’s meeting, and she got choked up, almost crying as she apologized for not being able to come. I got off the phone and realized what a jerk I had been.  From there on in, I decided never to “recruit” her again, but rather, to ask about her life, and take an interest in what she was doing.

She went off to college the next year, and came to worship at every break. A year after she graduated from college, her mother told me one Sunday, “Anne is getting married.”  Two years after that, Anne came to have her baby baptized and was back worshipping on a nearly weekly basis with her folks. A few years after I left for another position, I noticed Anne’s name in their newsletter as a newly elected Deacon.

– – – – – – – –

I had “Bob” in my Sunday School classes and children’s groups for several years. He was an awesome kid, well-liked, funny, and came to everything we did at the church.  He was a believer, and came of his own accord. By the time he was in the 10th grade, stories about Bob’s drinking and “recreational” drug use were becoming well known. He was open about it with me, and expressed tremendous regret. I had counseled kids with such problems before, and did so with Bob. The family received counseling, but I could see the anger Bob lived with underneath his joking extroverted exterior.  And so could most of his friends.

What I didn’t know, until it was too late, was that his parents were more messed up than Bob. A mess which ended in divorce and sent Bob over the edge the same year I left that congregation for another position. Bob’s sister and youth group friends tried to help him, and occasionally kept me informed.  But 4 years later I got the phonecall. Bob had overdosed, choked on his own vomit, and was dead.

I realize that nothing I did, or could have done, may have changed the outcome, but once again, I realize that my traditional “successful” style of youth ministry hadn’t left time to go deeper with a kid like Bob and Jean. It didn’t leave time to “seek and save the lost” in a way that might have made a difference. The hard part is that I will never know.  But I did change the way I did youth ministry in my next opportunity. Read on…

Eventually, the youth pastor/worker leaves, and if you were good, it’s really hard on the kids.  I was told by Bob’s sister and Jean herself, and many other kids in that church, that “my leaving” hit many of those kids hard. They missed me.  “It was never the same afterwards,” they said. It was like they went into mourning. I saw the other side of this in one church where I came in as “the new guy.” The older kids spent a year avoiding me.

That’s the dirty downside of great youth ministry… the inevitable “leaving”. You HOPE the church will find someone to fill your shoes, but that’s impossible, no matter how good “that” person is. With kids and youth, it takes years to build that trust and relationship. And by the time “the new person” is no longer “the new person” –many kids are lost to the youth group, moved on to other things, or graduated and gone off to college.

Read this previous paragraph again. This is why I believe the “best” youth ministry is family ministry. YOU the youth pastor won’t be there forever. You the awesome youth minister don’t spend a tenth of the time with your kids that their parents and siblings do. Traditional youth ministry tries to get peers to care for each other, and that’s good, but peers change, and come college-time, none of the peers you worked with are there for each other.  We need to teach kids and parents and siblings how to love and minister to each other (and in the case of Anne, celebrate it).

It’s the siblings and parents (for better or worse) who will “BE THERE” over the years. NOT US.

We also need to conduct a youth ministry that gets behind the fascades which kids and parents present…. to identify the family dynamics and danger signs and have the time to respond. As much as Jean and Bob loved me, hung around me, and liked my teaching, they needed more than great meetings, mission trips and walk & talks in the woods.

We also need to do a MUCH better job of preparing our youth for young-adult and adult life. We need to prepare them for “picking spouses” and “how their relationships can and will change with their parents and siblings” as they get older. I think we spend too much time in youth ministry on “being a teenager.”  We spend too much time worrying about premarital sex, and not enough on how to pick the right spouse, how to have a healthy relationship with a signficant other.

We also need to integrate youth  into the normal life of congregation, instead of separating them. Eventually we want them to join a congregation wherever they land after High School.  But many find the “adult” church to be a foreign land because we kept them away from it for many years. (This is why I absolutely HATE the idea of Sunday School during worship time.)   The problem is that they are comparing every congregation to their happy-crazy youth group experience and youth worship experience and youth pastor experience.  And most churches fall short of that.  We do them a disservice by not doing family ministry,  and by sequestering them in the make-believe world of youth ministry.

I can’t tell you how many former members of my youth groups cite this as a problem…. they “never found a group or church as good as our youth group.”  They “never found a minister like you, ____ (the youth pastor).   And so they end up going nowhere.

And we need to recognize, celebrate and connect with the youth who DO NOT fit into our “Sunday night” program. Some of them are lost and need us not to be their “leader” but their pastor. And like Anne, some of them are quite found!  …and don’t need us sending the wrong message.

If you’ve read this far and feel my concern about youth ministry, read my article about the TRIBE13 Experiment.

Tribe13 was a new kind of children’s and youth group experience that I helped create –in response to a lot of my concerns and experiences.  It was moving in the direction which Jean and Bob could have really benefitted from -had I been smart enough to implement it so many years ago for them.

You may also enoy my other articles about the State of Children’s and Youth Ministry, and what to do about it!  You can find a menu to those articles here.

Let those who have ears, hear.

<>< Neil

Software is great for Sunday School!   ...and its something that young adults love too.
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