Youth Ministries: Back to the Future of Youth Ministry

Youth ministry is a very slippery topic. It is difficult to even pinpoint its origin because youth ministry has yet to be well-defined. I spend a lot of time these days off-campus, speaking to youth leaders, training volunteers, and consulting with various church boards and committees about youth ministry.

One of the things that fascinates me is the incredible variety of job descriptions that fall under the heading of “youth ministry.” When I’m introduced to a church staff, I can pretty much nail each staff member’s job description just by his or her title. We all know the responsibilities of a senior pastor, a choir director, a children’s minister, a director of Christian education. While the “generalist” associate pastor’s job is still a mystery, many even have descriptive titles these days—associate for visitation, associate for discipleship, associate for missions. But put a dozen youth ministers in a room, listen to them describe their jobs, and one would be hard-pressed to conclude that they are all serving in the same field of ministry!

For nearly a quarter-century, Ted Ward, a professor of education from Michigan State University and Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, has promoted his notion that “Christian education is neither.” Ward has contended that Christian education is neither thoroughly Christian nor soundly educational. I believe that we are on the verge of declaring a similar fate for youth ministry. As we arrive at the dawn of the twenty-first century, nearly 100 years into the field we call youth ministry, it is my contention that “youth ministry is neither.”

As youth ministry evolves, it appears to be becoming more and more a mere shadow of itself. Historically, youth ministry has been a missional focus strategically targeted to adolescents. And while there are notable exceptions, in far too many cases today, youth ministry is neither focused on youth nor evangelistic in its ministry.

Focused on Youth?

Youth ministry has become concerned with everything other than adolescents. Today, many consider 10-, 9-, 8-, and even 7-year-olds to be part of the company of youth ministry. These children are just that, children—and while they certainly need to be cared for, they are not what the church has traditionally labeled “youth.” The time is right for focused children’s ministries to provide an adequate ministry for prepubescent children. Youth ministry, however, must be seen as unique in that it is a ministry focused on adolescents—that part of the lifespan that is neither child nor adult, generally marked by puberty.

Marking the other end of adolescence is more difficult. Our society has extended adolescence well into the twenty-something range. However, those who include young adults in the job description of youth ministers would do well to reconsider the contrast in nature between the life of an adolescent and someone who is considered to be a young adult.

Another issue that has emerged is the programmatic trend in the church to “family ministry.” There has been much written about youth ministry as also needing to be concerned with this nebulous movement called family ministry. As I understand the task of youth ministry, nothing could be more of an imposition to youth ministry than to expand it into family ministry! Now don’t get me wrong here, I’m not being anti-family. I love my family, and I’m sure that you love your family, and the Body of Christ is certainly called to be the family of God. But just because the church is failing in its obligation to minister to the family, it is vital not to dilute the primary mission of youth ministry.

Mark DeVries1 claims that youth ministry has alienated itself on the outer edge of the church. I agree. However, this is not necessarily a distinctive of youth ministry. According to Chapman Clark, the entire church is alienated on the outer edge.2 We are a fragmented church of ministry departments and foci for every possible constituency — children, youth, singles, young adults, women, men, seniors, and so forth. Youth ministry should not be uniquely saddled with the complex notion of family ministry. A decade ago, before family ministry was in vogue, sociologist Tony Campolo warned youth ministers about family ministry. He argued that to burden the youth minister with the whole family would create conflict within the pastoral staff, detract from the primary goal of youth ministry and alienate youth from the mentor-like relationship they typically enjoy with their youth minister.3 Family ministry, then, is the by-product of the proper integration of all the ministries of the church and should ultimately be the responsibility of the senior pastor and the elders of the congregation, not the youth minister.

David Elkind has suggested that there are few adults in our postmodern culture genuinely committed to teenagers.4 Tragically, this too has occurred in the church. Youth ministers must focus on youth! This is not to say that youth ministers do not need to know parents and siblings, intervene in cases of abuse, keep parents informed on the trends of youth culture, and help kids relate to their parents. Youth ministry in the coming years, however, must be marked by a renewed primary focus on the ministry needs of the adolescent. Youth ministry, then, is not about children, it is not about adults, and it is not about families. It is about youth—adolescents who are struggling to navigate that tumultuous transition between childhood and adulthood.

Evangelistic in Ministry?

Not only is youth ministry losing its focus on youth, it is also losing its focus as the historically evangelistic ministry through which it was birthed in the early 1900s. Five years ago, Youth Specialties’ owner Mike Yaconelli suggested that youth ministers were not “social workers or counselors or social change agents or family therapists or funny arbitrators or stepparents or activities coordinators or recreation directors or programmers or educators.”5 While youth ministers certainly help kids relate to their families, engage in social services, counsel, program, and educate, youth ministry is primarily missional in nature. According to Yaconelli, the purpose of youth ministry can be summarized this way: “Youth ministry is about bringing kids into the presence of Jesus Christ.”6 And which kids are we to bring into the presence of Jesus Christ? Kids who are outside of the presence of Jesus Christ, of course. Why, then, has youth ministry become so centered on nurturing the kids who are already in the presence of Christ? For the last few decades we have not taken Yaconelli’s warning to heart and therefore find ourselves with an overwhelming proportion of contemporary youth ministries focusing on programming, promotion, and activities designed almost exclusively for those students who are already “in.” Some would perhaps argue the point, but we have done relatively well at keeping relatively satisfied those students who enjoy our programs. But most everyone would acknowledge that we have failed miserably at bringing disinterested or even irreligious kids who are far from God into the presence of Christ.

Historically, youth ministry has sought to be at least as missional as educational. “Tiger” McLuen, an executive director of youth leadership in Minneapolis, recently wrote that youth ministry must “shift from a Christian education focus to a missions focus. Our Christian education programs typically work to improve kids who are already in our sphere of influence. But our real job is to be missionaries to a world that’s increasingly unchurched and unchristian. We’ll have little impact on the next generation of teenagers without a missions perspective permeating what we do.”7

I invite those who are skeptical to complete this simple exercise. Gather a stack of theological dictionaries and books on the history and theology of Christian education. Now try to find “Youth Ministry” in these books. It will not be a major heading. Rather, youth ministry organizations, events, and leaders will be located under other major headings. But located where?

People like to be part of the middle class, preferably of the upper-middle class. One of the ways in which you achieve that goal is by working hard, by making long hours, by investing all your time and energy and insuring that you can buy a house that is in a neighborhood that you think is safe. As a consequence of all that, very little time is left over for emotions. It’s almost like material aspects have begun running people’s lives One of the mistakes that all adults are prone to make is to provide adolescents with material goods, be it a special CD player, be it special clothes, whatever it is. And say, “This is my sign of love to you.” And the adolescents are very happy with that. They’ll take any kind of presents that you give ‘em. What they don’t tell you, because it’s not cool to tell you as an adolescent, is, “I’d like a hug. I’d like to just sit next to you for five minutes and not talk about anything.” If you talk with an 8- or 9-year-old, they’ll snuggle up, they’ll sit next to you, they still feel comfortable expressing those emotions. Once you are a teenager, you don’t express it anymore, but you still need that. And somehow, by becoming so focused on where we are in terms of our class in society as adults, we forget that we then need to take the initiative to provide that kind of emotional support to our teenagers.

Claire Sterk, Professor, Emory University, on “Frontline,” Public Broadcasting System

If you look under “Education” in the dictionaries, you will not find youth ministry. Oh, you will find the Sunday school movement, the Christian school movement, vacation Bible school, and the Society for Christian Endeavor and its denominational clones. These are also the movements which comprise the history of the Christian education of youth. But these are not youth ministries. The Sunday school movement existed prior to the advent of adolescence. And even though Christian Endeavor and its clones ministered to adolescents, they were educational programs designed to nurture Christian kids of the church, not to reach those kids outside the church walls.

Now if you look in a theological dictionary under “Missions/Evangelism,” you will find all of the youth ministry movements—from the Wood brothers’ Young Life campaign in Great Britain and Jim Riyburn’s Young Life USA to Lloyd Bryant’s Christian Youth Campaign in New York City. From Evangelistic Radio Ministries and the Miracle Book Club to the Youth for Christ movement that began in Australia and spread throughout Canada before permeating the United States. In the history books, these youth ministry movements are usually relegated to the last chapter under “Parachurch Ministries” and have no place in the history of Christian education.

In other theological tomes, the same dichotomy is found as the theology of nurture is promoted in Christian education dating back to Horace Bushnell’s theory that a “child is to grow up Christian and never know himself as being otherwise.”8 It is only in the history of missiological revivals that you will find the youth ministry movements of the twentieth century recorded, and for good reason. Youth ministry grew out of revivalism and is historically based upon missional theology.

It is my firm belief that the most important single thing we can do—as parents, teachers, and health professionals—is to reinvent our adulthood…. Children are the young of the species, and like the young of all species, they need adult guidance, direction, and protection.

David Elkind Ties That Stress: The New Family Imbalance (Harvard University Press, 1994)

Youth ministry is a missional ministry whose objective it is to proclaim the gospel to a nation named Adolescence. And regardless of the strategy, the historical objective must remain. Pete Ward, a youth ministry leader in England, has described two approaches to youth ministry which he calls “outside-in” and “inside-out.”9

The outside-in strategy focuses on reaching those young people who are especially distant from the church through radically penetrating the postmodern culture with committed youth leaders. This strategy entails working far outside the church in the hope that some might be brought inside.

The inside-out strategy is equally committed to evangelism, but aims to reach young people who are less distant from the church, those who sit on the fringe of the church and can be reached through peer evangelism with a core group of Christian kids. This strategy uses young people inside the church to reach kids just outside on the fringe. The objective of both strategies is the same: Proclaim the gospel to a defined and targeted adolescent population, a nation named Adolescence.

Unfortunately, today there are too many youth ministries which do not even reach out to the kids on the fringe of the church, must less those who are clearly “outside.” Christian young people inside the church walls are being nurtured (on some level, at least), but in most cases they are not reaching outside. According to the strategy mentioned above, when the inside-out approach loses its out-ness it is no longer youth ministry. Rather, it has become youth education. Christian education has generally been based upon a theology of nurture. And its component part, youth education, is vital to the discipleship process of young people within the fold. Youth ministry,however, has never been simply for those inside the church. It is also for those outside heaven’s gate.

Both historically and theologically, youth ministry by definition is an evangelistic ministry to a specific culture of people who do not know Jesus Christ and the power of his resurrection. Walt Mueller, executive director of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, points to the future of youth ministry by challenging us to reclaim Jesus’ incarnational model of the past: “I’m not talking about inventing anything new. I’m talking about recovering what was originally right.”10

Sharing the Load

Many churches are killing their youth ministers, and youth ministers are killing themselves, because they perpetuate these historical dichotomies between evangelism and discipleship, Christian education of youth and youth ministry, and the Great Commission and the Great Commandment. But biblically, no such dichotomy actually exists.

Youth ministers seem to be doing more “babysitting” than ever before as churches implore them to keep church kids interested in church. And for those youth ministers and programs who reach out to lost, disinterested and/or unchurched kids before finishing the task of developing spiritual giants of all the church kids, the voices of discontent can quickly divide a church and even cost a youth minister his or her job. This can occur simply by attempting to put into place strategies and methodologies that seek to care for the needs of those beyond the scope of traditional youth ministry.

I would like to make a radical suggestion: The spiritual formation of churched kids is not the responsibility of youth ministers—it is the responsibility of the adult members of the church. Perhaps next Sunday, the pastor could try this little experiment, by standing before the congregation and saying:

“Every so often in our worship service, we dedicate/baptize (depending on one’s tradition) the children of our members. Each of you has witnessed many of the ceremonies. And each time you are asked as a congregation to answer this question: ‘Will you, the congregation, commit to help raise this child in the ways of the Lord?’ And each time you have in unison declared; ‘We will.’ I would like you at this time to write down the names of those young people in our church whom you have assisted in their spiritual journey over the last five years.”

Chances are the congregation will be stunned. The vast majority will be unable to come up with even the name of one child to whom they made that commitment, let alone done anything for. What would happen if every church member that committed to help raise these children in the faith at their dedication or baptism actually followed through on that promise? I suspect that if only 10 percent of the congregation followed through in a meaningful way, the lives of our churched young people would be radically different. And, as a result, youth ministers would be free to focus on reaching the lost kids of the community who have no church family investing in them.

There is great irony here. Typically, we hire youth ministers, at great expense, to do a job that the church membership has already committed to do. We hire a professional to do a job that the family and the church family (the laity) are quite capable of doing. We should hire professional youth workers who will use their training and expertise to mobilize the church to reach out to adolescents who have no one to share the gospel with them. We must hire people to do only that which the average layperson cannot do—help the church penetrate the postmodern youth culture to reach irreligious kids with Jesus Christ. Today’s kids long for ordinary adults who genuinely care. Every member of the Body of Christ has gifts and talents that can be used to both nurture kids who live within the church walls and to be available to those who do not.

A recent study of 2,400 Protestant youth ministers throughout the United States revealed some encouraging trends. Many youth ministers today are between 30 and 39 years old, married with children, have been educated in the field of youth ministry in college or seminary, have served in youth ministry for at least seven years, and believe that they are called to youth ministry as a vocation, not a stepping-stone profession.11 We in the church would do well to allow these gifted and committed youth ministers to fulfill the mission of the church that cannot be fulfilled by the average person in the pew.

The time has come to put an end to the historical dichotomy between evangelism and discipleship. We need to develop youth ministries in which congregations, under the supervision and training of youth ministers, take seriously their responsibility of nurturing those young people who would call themselves “disciples of Christ.” Then we can release youth ministers to proclaim the gospel to a lost generation along with a team of youth evangelists, both adults and students who are gifted and passionate about sharing their faith with irreligious adolescents.

The heart and soul of youth ministry is to reach out to spiritually disinterested adolescents and invite them into a relationship with the God who came to seek and save the lost, Jesus Christ. To be faithful and effective in this mission, we must clearly understand the significant roles of the church, the family, and the youth minister in making genuine disciples of all the teenagers in this millennial generation who would have ears to hear.


1. Mark DeVries, Family-Based Youth Ministry (InterVarsity, 1994).

2. Chapman Clark, Youthworker’s Handbook on Family Ministry (Zondervan, 1997).

3. Tony Campolo, Growing Up in America (Zondervan, 1989).

4. David Elkind, All Grown Up and No Place to Go (Addison Wesley, 1997).

5. Mike Yaconelli, “The Heart of Youth Ministry” [Video Series] (Zondervan, 1995).

6. Ibid.

7. Dennis “Tiger” McLuen, “A Missions Mindset: The Future of Youth Ministry,” Group (Sept./Oct. 1998), 35-36.

8. Horace Bushnell, Christian Nurture (Baker Hooks, 1861). See also a discussion of Bushnell in Kenneth Gangel’s and Warren Benson’s Christian Education: Its History and Philosophy (Moody Press, 1983).

9. Pete Ward, Youthwork and the Mission of God (SPCK, 1997).

10. Walt Mueller, “Bridging the Gap,” Youthworker (Jan./Feb. 1999), 33-42.

11. Karen Jones, “Refining the Image: A Vocational Perspective on Youth Ministry,” Christian Education Journal (Fall 1999).

MARK W. CANNISTER, Ed. D., is a veteran of 25 years of youth ministry experience. Currently, Dr. Cannister serves as associate professor and chair of the Youth Ministries and Missions Program at Gordon College in Wenham, Massachusetts, just north of Boston.

Originally published in Theology News & Notes, June 2000, copyright Fuller Theological Seminary

Author: Mark W. Cannister

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