How Not to Do Youth Ministry

It all started with these words: “God has given me a vision.”

It was a grand vision, too–a vision of a youth group with 250 attendees: one teen for every adult member of the church. At the time, my youth group had around 40 teens, meeting in a room where 120 was a tight crowd. If we were going to welcome 200 new teens into our youth group, we had work to do. So, we got busy.

First, the youth chapel had to be repainted. Peach walls? Who was going to put up with that? No, we needed something outside of the box. Bright silver with red trim. That will get people talking.

Next, we needed a cafe. After all, the kids hafta eat, right? We tore out the old Sunday School rooms, bolted a couple of restaurant booths into the corner of the new space, and set up a serving counter complete with fully stocked mini fridge.

Next up: games. The newcomers were going to need something to do before service started. Don’t want anyone feeling bored. So, a pool table went in front of the new cafe. We tore out some old rooms behind the stage and set up TVs with gaming consoles. A skate park went up in the church parking lot.

We got new music, too. Newsboys was no longer good enough to play on the stereo before service. Now it was Kutless and P.O.D. And we had to play it loud enough to rattle the drum heads in the main sanctuary. We put colored lights on the band stage and weighed the pros and cons of a fog machine.

Now for a name. “Awake” just didn’t seem to cut it anymore. Anyone can be awake. Boring! We wanted to be known as extreme! So “X-Stream” we became. We even carved it into the carpet.

There’s an old saying: “If you build it, they will come.” And they came…from all corners of the community. Kids in beanie hats and sagging jeans with chains hanging from their pockets. Kids with black nail polish, ragged skateboards, and shaggy hair. Kids with divorced parents, absent parents, alcoholic parents. Kids who probably hadn’t seen the inside of a church since their childhood VBS.

They came and filled the house. And we weren’t ready for them.

In the push to repaint the room and relight the stage and rename the group, the visionary forgot that we would need additional youth leaders to provide both spiritual guidance and crowd control. The mob was unmanageable. Teens wandered the parking lot, unsupervised, during the service–because they were there for the skate park, not the service. The noise level inside the youth room was disruptive to other worshipers sharing the same building. Worship itself was a disaster: most of the teens sat back flirting, talking and smirking while the core membership attempted to commune with God.

The visionary became frustrated. He had done everything imaginable to make worship appealing (Hello? Stage lighting!), but the kids wouldn’t cooperate. The majority of them hadn’t yet accepted Christ. They needed to feel connected and cared about. They needed discipleship.

So he went to the core youth members, appointed them as cell leaders, and assigned them some newcomers to mentor. I think all the preparation these cell leaders had beforehand was a couple of meetings with the youth pastor to go over their responsibilities.

One of the people chosen to lead a cell group was my brother. Now, I love my brother dearly, but he’s not one I would have chosen for this task. He’s a little reckless and terribly stubborn–almost to the point of being contrary. Here he was, at 16 years old, telling a group of new, young male Christians that he didn’t think sex before marriage was that big of a deal. I know, because he told me this later.

Although, to be fair, my brother has an amazing way with people and developed some meaningful relationships with these guys. In spite of everything, he just might have been the most effective cell leader on the team. Scary.

And when the youth pastor resigned? When the skate park was dismantled because the city built a newer, safer one? The 200-member youth group shrank back to 40. No, not 40. Maybe 25, if that. The teens who had come for the cafe and the pool table and the sanitized death metal went back home. The core members who had come fully into adulthood, like me, got married and left. A couple of core members who had entered the group as former drug users and partiers went back to their drugs and parties. The ones who stayed were mostly the ones who had parents in the church.

We had a 200-member youth group, but almost no presence of the Holy Spirit. Few teens accepted Christ. Even fewer were transformed in a lasting way.

The problem wasn’t the vision. The problem was that the visionary tried to achieve the vision in his own strength. God must be the one to bring His visions into reality–in His perfect timing.

Please, for all that is good and holy, don’t do youth ministry–or any ministry–like this. If God has given you a vision for ministry, awesome! Fast. Pray. Seek his guidance. Don’t do a darn thing until you are sure He goes with you. The cost of doing otherwise is simply too steep.

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2 responses to “How Not to Do Youth Ministry

  1. Hi April. I have read a number of the posts on your blog. I particularly liked the post about the poor and homeless that you put up earlier this year. It was spot on. You are without doubt one of the Top 10 most dangerous Christians on the planet because you know that Jesus and real Christianity are—in their essence—an extraordinarily radical scandal.