Give Up the Gimmicks, Youth Pastors

It’s amazing what youth will eat. I love sushi, but it’s quite different than eating a live goldfish. I sat near the back of the crowd and watched with a curious sea-sickness—gazing at the teenage wonder while keeping one eye on the nearest trash can! A loud unified chant shook the entire room: “Mar-cus, Mar-cus.” And down it went, to the praise of cheering youth. He was the envy of every guy and the disgust of every girl. The champion collected his prizes and walked off the stage with a hero-notch on his belt.

“So what can we do next week,” I thought to myself. “There’s no way I can top eating a live goldfish.” I was helping out with the youth program at the time, and we had been gradually escalating the “shock factor” to attract more youth. And, for all intents and purposes, it seemed to work. Every week, we saw new youth, who occasionally seemed to embody a little of the “shock factor” themselves.

Over time, though, we began to run out of ideas and started getting desperate. The youth seemed bored, and we had to think of something fast. We didn’t have much money in our youth budget, so we decided to be good stewards and spend the rest of it on bringing a “Christian” rock band to the church (though nobody had ever heard of the group). The band arrived, set up, and did a sound check from a stage in the church gym—and topped the show with choreographed dancing. I was pumped! “The youth are going to love this,” I thought out loud.

To my great horror and disbelief, only eight youth came. They stood lined up in a row with folded arms, listening to the thumping noise echoing around the vacant gym. I couldn’t take it anymore. I was burned out of youth ministry, and I had just begun. There had to be something deeper, richer, and more satisfying than this. There had to be something that nourished the youth more than a wiggling goldfish and a high-priced band.

We Can Do Better

The absolutely amazing truth is that God has already supplied us with the means to nourish his people, and we find ourselves thinking we can do better.  These include the historic “means of grace”—especially the Word of God, prayer, and the sacraments. Other ordinances of Christ, such as gospel-motivated service and grace-centered community—may also appropriately be included in this category (cf. Acts 2:42-47).

All too often, youth programs have turned to entertainment-driven models of ministry in order to bring in youth. Success has become the name of the church-growth game. The devastating effects, however, are not only seen in the number of youth leaving the church after high school, but also in a spiritually and theologically shallow worldview among many American teenagers. The irony is that these same teens actually want to grow and learn hard truths. They want to know how to think about suffering, how to pray, and why Jesus had to die.

If there’s anything a youth pastor knows—even after only a few months in ministry—it’s that fatigue and feelings of burnout come with the task. The constant pressure from parents, youth, church leadership, the senior pastor, and even his own family can wear a minister out very quickly.

Added to this stress is the continual expectations to meet certain numerical standards. The most frequent question that I get is, “How many?” It sometimes becomes a plague and burden—tempting you with pride (wow, I attracted a ton of youth tonight!) or despair (nobody came . . . and nobody will come next week either). It’s no wonder that the average youth minister stays in one location less than 18 months!

But as ministers in Christ’s church, our task is to be faithful to the Lord in the ministry means that he has given us and look to him to provide the increase. We are to plant and water the gospel of Jesus Christ—while God gives the growth (1 Cor. 3:7). It is easy to become numbers-driven because it makes a minister “look good” (if a lot of youth come, of course). But God’s not after looks; he’s after hearts.

Our Task

When you realize that our task is to simply be faithful, you will have an overwhelming sense of freedom and joy. But this begs the question: What does it look like to be faithful to God in youth ministry? I maintain that the “how to” of being faithful in youth ministry—indeed, in all ministry—is demonstrated through the means of God’s transformative grace.

Youth need the means of grace that God has provided his church—the local, intergenerational, community of sinner-saints—to supply both the content and the method of ministry. This is the biblical model given by Christ and witnessed in the early church, and remains, I believe, the most faithful and Christ-centered approach to youth ministry today.

Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Apart from the Spirit taking the finished work of Christ and applying it to our lives, we can do nothing that would please or honor God. Here, Jesus calls us to a singular calling and focus—“abide in me.” As youth workers, our task is to guide youth to the true Vine, where they will find grace, salvation, and the Lordship of Christ. The means of grace are instruments and gifts that God has given his church for the increase of faith, hope, love, and joy in him. Youth ministry should always direct youth toward God, not man. It should always concern itself with bearing fruit as an effect of abiding in the Vine.

With all my heart, I plead with you to not be tempted with “success,” professionalism, or the fading fads of our entertainment-driven culture. Rather, pursue Jesus as the all-satisfying Treasure that he is and feed his young sheep with the means God has provided.

  • Justin Burkholder


    You put into words what I and many other youth pastors feel deeply. This has been my goal and ongoing struggle. There is much pressure. There is a lot of pressure particularly from parents that want their student to engage in our community, but their student chooses otherwise. Instead of rightly understanding their child’s fallen tendencies and desires for things other than church, they blame it on youth group not being fun.

    This job does come with seasons of doubt and the consistent question “Am I offering what is best for these students?” This article has served to confirm. Thanks again.

  • Jono Gaspa

    Great article, hard to find good articles on youth ministry around. Simple, concise, easy to understand and a very good reminder for myself. Im a young guy from Australia now going into my 3rd year of youth ministry, im not even a youth pastor and i get that burnt out feeling, so often my eyes are on myself, what the kids think of me, a fear of man and an identity issue, good to be reminded its so so not about us, its about God, and our aim is to point these kids toward God, i do agree as well, we cant be scared of preaching theological biblical truth to teenagers, thanks for the article.

    • Paul


      The seminal book by Chrsitopher Schlect, “Critique of Modern Youth Ministry” is a must read for concerned parents, pastors, and youth ministers. Here’s a link:

      • Joe yang

        Thanks for posting this link. I just got done reading some reviews so I’m pretty excited about picking this up.

      • John

        Ditto Paul’s recommendation of Schlect’s book. Cosby’s book is definitely an improvement on the standard youth group paradigm. But he doesn’t seem to realize that the entire concept of youth group is a historical novelty. Separating our young people from the life of the body is a lousy ministry philosophy even if you approach it in a way that is serious about the Scriptures.

        • paul cummings

          I think you’re missing the big picture. If adults are involved in teaching, then they aren’t separated. If they worship and serve corporately with the rest of the body they aren’t separated. If you carry your logic out to it’s natural course, then let’s not have women’s ministries…cause they shouldn’t be separated from men, or let’s not have childrens church (in any form) and bring cribs into the sanctuary. Remember that hymnals, pipe organs, church buses, pews, offering plates, powerpoint, sound systems, ash wednesday….none have a direct Biblical mandate either.

          • Homeschool Mom in AZ

            I think you missed the big picture. It’s called a family integrated church. No, you don’t need cribs in the sanctuary, you need families with their little ones who can rest easily in Mom or Dad’s arms-just like believers did for centuries. Children can sit quietly in the pews for an hour long sermon-plenty of Americans worship this way every Sunday and sometimes on Wednesdays too. I don’t go to a church that is specifically family integrated, but about half of the 200 families do keep their children with them during the service. The only Bible Study option for everyone over 12 is the adult Bible Study Class. Small groups are for the whole family too.

            Most women’s ministries are so light on theology and heavy on anecdote and emotion, that when looking for a new church a couple of years ago, I learned that if you want to know what doctrine a person’s church teaches, 9 times out of 10, don’t bother to ask a woman. She won’t be able to answer very basic questions like:

            1. Is your church Calvinist or Arminian when it comes to the doctrine of election?
            2. Does your church teach Covenant Theology or do they have more Dispensational leaning views on Israel and the Old Testament?

            Those two questions cover a lot of territory and I am stunned that none of the couple dozen women replying in my homeschooling network of more than a thousand homeschoolers could not answer either of the questions. They said in one way or another that they didn’t know what those words meant. When I explained they still couldn’t answer definitively. How sad.

            • paul Cummings

              Ok…you went off on a tangent there about Women’s ministries…How about Youth ministries…not in theory how it should work, but how exactly would it work? I’m not advocating total separation either and I’m trying to figure out what types of youth ministries do this? I’ve never seen or heard of it…
              The intent of this article was rightly to say “Spend quality time with your students youth pastors…” “Make the most of Discipling through scripture, and equip your students, don’t simply entertain them…” and somehow we’ve gotten into…”Youth ministry is frivolous as a concept and not truly necessary.”
              I think your missing where the majority of parents live. Parents at our church, especially young ones, can’t wait to drop their kids off at Childrens church, or Sunday school or Kids Club on Wednesday night and head to their adult Bible study so they can spend time with the Lord without wiping someones nose or stopping a fight between their 5 and 7yr olds. Is that to be looked down upon, or like me do you say “Thank the Lord it’s 2012 and we have those kinds of opportunites.” ?

              The “early church” is romanticized too much…”If we could only get back to what that was like…” It was rough, that’s what it was like, check out Corinthians. We used to think it was great to have all 12 grades in a schoolhouse room too…but now we know better.

              It’s awesome that you have a passion for Eschatology and deeper doctrinal issues…I would say you are unique in that…and that’s great! Our Women’s ministries love to dig deep into Beth Moore’s stuff and as a pastor I think she is an incredible Bible teacher…so we try and give our ladies great opps for digging deeper too, but also the GRACE to understand that issues like “My kid’s making awful choices…” or “My baby is teething and we haven’t slept in weeks…” demand on the spot support and attention…and if that’s all that’s discussed that night…that’s ok.

  • Andy

    Thank you! As a youth leader I am thankful for this Gospel-centered reminder. It has already spurred me a bit in a new direction for this week’s youth group…

  • Bryan

    Thank you for this article. As the volunteer youth director at my church for over 2 years now, it’s a refreshing reminder that youth ministry is not about bells and whistles and it never should be. I still struggle with whether or not I’m “reaching” the kids, if they like me, etc. I work 45 hrs a week, run youth group on Sundays, a small group on Wednesdays and meet with students throughout the week. We don’t have the funding for full-time youth ministry, and remembering God’s call to be faithful to His Word while directing my students to Him has been greatly encouraging, albeit lonely at times. But I praise God for what He’s doing behind the scenes in our lives as we draw closer to Himself through Christ.

  • Mark Dickinson

    I’ll go one step further. Drop youth ministry. Churches have bought into the segregation of society by age that came with the onslaught of education reform of the early twentieth century. There is no biblical mandate for children’s ministry or youth ministry or senior adult ministry….only ministry to people. I understand that sometimes there needs to be a focus on a particular maturity or discipleship level, but all the time? What has children’s/youth ministry done to the family? In a culture that spends an inordinate amount of time and money on encouraging the separation of the family, should the church do this as well?

    • Bryan


      You’re correct that there is no biblical mandate for segregated ministry- the early apostles did not separate converts by age, gender, race or economic position. Youth ministry is a reaction to education reform and the onslaught of extended adolescence that came when kids stopped working on farms and in factories and were sent to school. I see my youth ministry to the families in our church. I see my job as helping our parents raise their children and always put their families before our youth ministry. I also agree with Paul’s words that youth ministry is an opportunity for non-Christian families to experience Christ for the first time. Yes, those in youth ministry can go ridiculously awry, but they can also minister uniquely to a generation that’s brokenness desperately needs Christ by continually modeling and teaching dependence and repentance in Him.

      • Bryan

        Sorry, “my youth ministry as ministry to the families in my church.”

  • Jeff Baxter

    Thanks for posting Justin. I look forward to reading the book. I propose a new mission for youth ministry: “Help youth on the journey to becoming mature Jesus following adults who are connected to the church family.” This should begin to happen today. Having been in youth ministry for nearly 20 years, I have experienced it all, but we need to focus on them being connected to an intergenerational body of believers. This is why I wrote, “Together: Adults and Teenagers Transforming the Church” (Zondervan). I would love your feedback if you get a chance to read it. Thanks!

  • paul

    @mark…do you actually work for a church? I mean seriously bro…talk about throwing the baby out with the bath water. I’m a 20+ year pastor and we have had more families (who don’t know the Lord) find Him because their student found a home in our youth ministry.

    • Mark Dickinson

      Actually, I’ve worked for three churches in a youth/children’s context. I expected your exact objection. I’m glad that you have been successful with that model. I do not think, however, that it is in any way normative. In fact, I think the church you serve is evangelizing on your back. Why doesn’t the church body evangelize the family? What is it about the church that the family does not like?
      These questions are hard, I realize. But they should be asked. And I stand by the Word of God…there is no biblical mandate for age-segregated ministries.

      • paul

        Mark, I appreciate your candor my brother. I think it’s helpful to remember 2 things that are contrary to your argument. 1. there are (because Church history is important too) a wealth of normative things for the church that don’t have a specific Biblical mandate…and these things range in largess from Christmas to a church bus. None of which have a Biblical mandate, but taking our history into context I don’t think we’d want to get rid of them. 2. Age and Gender separation have long been a part of the church dating all the way back to OT Jewish times, so it’s not some “new” idea.

        Our youth are taught by adults, have corporate worship with the whole church, serve and go on mission with the whole church…so there isn’t some 100% segregation. If you follow the logic of your age-segregation idea, you’re going to need to bring cribs into the sanctuary and have a lot of explaining to do when your married couples do “Song of Solomon” by Tommy Nelson to your 6th grader who’s in there with them…
        I could go on…but I think the burden of proof is on your idea…

        How EXACTLY would having everyone together or having mixed ages work…not in theory…but how does it work? What is your plan for engaging that age span….because I can tell you that teaching the age span simply from 6-12th grade in a large group is a serious “shot-gun” spread…so imagine 6th grade to 86yrs old…

      • Scott G. Lewis

        Mark, I just had lunch yesterday with a Mom and a former student. The student was brought to my old church by a friend, had a great time, and pestered her Mom to start bringing her. Mom was in danger of a divorce at the time, had work problems, health problems, and was very angry, and very much away from the Lord and had been for quite some time. She agreed to drop her off, because she “didn’t care about any of that stuff, but my daughter enjoys it” (her words). She later got tired of dropping her off, then coming back an hour and a half later, so she started staying. Her daughter accepted Christ, and soon after was adamant about wanting to be Baptized. We had a policy of interviewing the child (this is children’s, not youth ministry) to make sure they really were ready, and understood what they were doing, and had a real relationship with Christ (many of our kids just got wrapped up in the emotion of the kid next to them), and then obtaining the parent’s permission.

        I will never forget the night (Christmas Eve) when her mother turned to us and said “I don’t really care about any of this stuff, but if she wants to, I won’t stand in her way”, before realizing the daughter had followed us to the lobby and overheard everything. I sat down with the crying daughter and told her that parent’s were supposed to lead children towards Christ, but sometimes it happens the other way, and in fact, that was exactly how I myself came to know Jesus – through my children.

        Several months later, on my last weekend with that church, the last Baptism I saw was that of her mother, who had stopped merely showing up for an hour waiting to pick up her child, but started listening, hearing the Gospel, came to Christ, began serving in the church, and was Baptized Easter weekend.

        No, I don’t think it would have worked the other way around. I do not, for one minute believe in “gimmicks”, but I don’t believe in folding the entire church back together again either. You ask why the church didn’t evangelize to the family. We had. We had a culture of inviting that extended to the children’s ministry. My (then 4 year old) daughter knew when we were out together in a supermarket or something similar that she cannot talk to strange adults, but would hand out invite cards to children, and occasionally tap me on the shoulder and ask if I would invite that person, since they had no kids.

        This is going to be a long post, because I’m passionate about this issue. My whole ministry was built around what you would probably call “gimmicks”. The reality is, I learned early on, that rather than seeing children bored to tears hearing things beyond their reading comprehension levels in adult church, that if you put a few dozen in a room, lit up the stage with brilliant lights and blasted some good Christian music, the kids would jump, dance and sing in worship. We would then engage them in “gimmicks”. We shot funny videos about the lesson. We would engage the kids trying to put boys against the girls in shouting out a bible verse the loudest. We’d play gameshow type games loosely centered around the lesson for the week. We’d make them laugh, giggle and groan. And after about 15-20 minutes they would be at ease enough (especially the non-Christians), that they would sit down at listen for 10 minutes while someone preached at them.

        This is not about buying some curriculum and letting a Bible cartoon play for 20 minutes and then watching Veggietales. You’re right – fold them into the main church instead. This is about kids getting to know the Good News, not just sitting quietly while Mom and Dad worship and they kick their feet and twiddle their thumbs (or sneak out their Gameboy as today’s youth are more apt to do).

        We would cover some serious topics. I had a lot of defending to do, to church leadership (yes, we need to keep doing this, come watch, it’s worth it), and in many cases to parents, who sometimes want to shield their kids far longer than is feasible in today’s society – if you’re 11 year old goes to public school, they aren’t shielded anymore. I don’t know what was more amazing the time I covered abuse, and trusting in God to lead you through it – how many kids finally broke down and accept Christ, or the victim of abuse that sat down privately with a couple of us and shared a story that she had been hiding for too long.

        I realize funny videos (and even the occasional fart joke) are gimmicky in the eyes of many – but if it’s a tool to get the kids attention, then I’m happy to stand in a hallway and get pelted with water balloons once in awhile to make a point.

        We cannot bore children to Christ, but we can win them over by engaging with them, and then letting the Holy Spirit speak into their hearts.

        • paul Cummings

          @Scott, Amen my brother. While we must form all ministry within it’s Biblical context, and keep Discipleship through scripture always as the center…there is freedom in how this is done….
          I’d hate to think of what Children’s ministry, youth ministry, women’s ministry would be like if it was all having to pass through the auspices of what a group of middle aged men thought it should be.

  • A mom

    You think YOU have fatigue and are burned out? Try living with the teens.

    I’ve never understood why youth leaders are the men with the least experience. No wonder you don’t know what to do.

    • paul

      but…if you want to go into the ministry (as in church) what church is going to hire a youngin’ out of seminary to be lead pastor? Or associate Pastor? Your choices are most usually Youth and Children and this is reflected in turn-over. Churches see Youth pastors as “a dime a dozen” and youth pastors too often see the ministry as merely a “stepping stone” to what they really want to do but are too young or inexperienced to do right away. Not to mention that there is a synergy in “Experience and Relatability” and this is usually found in a window of time. The window is usually fairly large, but it’s also why we don’t see 60 year old youth ministers.

    • Phillip

      I get this all the time. “What do you know about parenting. You have a 17 mos old, mine is 17 years old.” I may not know a lot about parenting teens. But I understand teens. I took four years of my life and studied teens and student ministry. Why? Because I take my calling to student ministry seriously. Are there inexperienced youth ministers out there? of course. Please do not discredit those of us who are committed to our calling in reaching teens for Jesus. I am in no way saying that I have it harder than the parents. However, you must understand that we as student pastors are submersed in their culture. We are friends with them on Facebook. We see it all. We loose sleep over it all. Our heart breaks over it all. We want the best for your child, just like you do. Please do not see us as an enemy, but a partner to raise your student up in faith, hoping they defy the statistics and go and make a difference for Jesus.

  • Ben

    I have been struggling myself in wondering if I have been faithful to the Lord in ministering to my students. This article has encouraged me to set my heart and mind of the things of Jesus. It is so easy to set our eyes on the shadow of things and not the substance. I have tried to do big programs, and all I get is more heartache, questions, and doubts. What matters is having a relationship with your kids where they see you live out your faith in Christ. The greatest sermon to teach a teen is your personal walk with Christ.

    • Bryan


  • Joan

    I agree that segregation of youth from adult ministry isn’t the best way long term. From what I have seen, programs that try to be a one-size-fits-all approach end up burning out quickly with little transforming change in the lives of teenagers. What they need most is a friend and a mentor, someone who’ll believe in them and love them as they are. That’s the way Jesus did it and that’s the way we ought to do it. Small is the new big!

  • Bill

    Pressure from parents – That’s tough. If only most parents understood that THEY are Biblically responsible for their kids faith and dicipleship, not you.
    I also agree that we should examine the possiblility that age segragation might be the reason for our youth leaving the church.

    However, I still see a need for youth ministry. Despite want we want to believe about two faithful parents doing there part, gaps exist. And as someone pointed out above, families come to Christ using youth ministry as outreach.

    Keep at it, Brian. I believe you are on to something believing that youth thirst for challenge and learning with the occasional bout of fun.

  • David Reith

    I’ve always known that we should be feeding our youth ‘solid food’ and not entertainment (or goldfish) and I’ve heard the argument that real teaching and Jesus focussed ministry will equip them to persevere where others may not…but how do I keep going when even the ones who are taught well don’t continue?

    • Bryan

      “Remember this: Whoever sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and whoever sows generously will also reap generously. Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to bless you abundantly, so that in all things at all times, having all that you need, you will abound in every good work. As it is written:

      “They have freely scattered their gifts to the poor;
      their righteousness endures forever.”

      Now he who supplies seed to the sower and bread for food will also supply and increase your store of seed and will enlarge the harvest of your righteousness. You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.

      This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God. Because of the service by which you have proved yourselves, others will praise God for the obedience that accompanies your confession of the gospel of Christ, and for your generosity in sharing with them and with everyone else. And in their prayers for you their hearts will go out to you, because of the surpassing grace God has given you. Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!” -2 Corinthians 9:6-15

      God is working behind the scenes. Ministry is tough because we measure our effectiveness and success by quantity (number of kids at large group, number who accept Christ, number who are growing them) when God looks at the heart. God is most concerned about us becoming sanctified into His image as our character bears witness to His Son. We may never see what we call significant fruit, but God continues to work on hearts to bring about repentance and a call to discipleship in the lives of our young people.

  • Scott Kingsolver

    This is great! I’ve been in student ministry for 5 years now and seen how big a problem this is and what happens when a Youth Pastor wants to give up gimmicks and focus on biblical teaching and discipleship.

    I think it shows a lot about churches that think Christ alone can’t be entertaining enough. Isn’t the fact that God who created us and saved us in the midst our sin amazing and wonderful in and of itself?

  • Dan McCarl

    I think the “numbers” thing is Armenian in theology at its best (or worst). Beyond that, I don’t think there is anything wrong with getting a group of youth together to have a good time. Adults do that sort of thing all the time.

    What is wrong about it is that the “word of God” gets short-changed over the long haul. I have come to the opinion that five youth together in a class or group that eat pizza and have fun, along with an in-depth Bible study is a good thing. Sixty youth eating goldfish or listening to a band, if that is all they do, is a waste of time (unless of course you bill the thing as just “Christian entertainment,” and not Bible Study.

    Anyway, over the thirty years I have been a believer and now a pastor I have witnessed very few “Youth Groups” that are making disciples. I agree with the article…the entertainment youth group culture has to be at least part of what is driving the kids leaving the church when they hit college age.

  • Eric

    This was an enjoyable article. I’d be interested to know if this book addresses the reasons WHY as a youth pastor it took an experience of feeling burnt out to convince the author that faithfulness was the true barometer of one’s ministry. Understanding these reasons might be more helpful than just pointing out that we shouldn’t be only entertaining teens. After all, I doubt many evangelical pastors went to a seminary that told us that our ministry is measured by numbers and shock/entertainment factor. How did so many buy into it? Hopefully the book delves into that and can be even more useful for youth pastors, senior pastors, search committees, and the like!

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for the post. Our boys do not participate in youth group for a myriad of reasons. I wrote about it here:

    • Bryan


      Thank you for sharing your post. I couldn’t agree with you more and am thankful that you take your command to raise your children to know Christ so seriously. I wish that all of the parents in my youth ministry would do the same.

      • Elizabeth

        You’re welcome, Bryan. Four short years ago my husband and I woke up to the fact that we weren’t intentionally discipling our two sons in the way God has commanded. We thought by parking them in church and getting them “plugged in” was sufficient, with a quick devotion here or a casual conversation there amounting to mere moralistic therapeutic deism. Only after we sincerely repented was grace poured out on us to “shut the door” and pour fine oil into them. We’re still at it. Jugs aren’t full yet:)

  • Chris Land

    It amazes me how a youth ministry’s success is based on the activities and events it draws teens rather than how we disciple students. Southern Baptist Churches are more guilty of this than any other demonation that I know. I was asked the other day if I had ever thought of taking our youth to a Dallas Mavericks game. I am never asked about how is Bible study going.

    Yes, we need to give up the gimmicks and get back to teaching the Bible to students.

  • Rick Hill

    Interesting….but the article doesn’t share any practical insights as to how we can reach the goal they present. It shares practical things NOT to do….but fails to offer a practical alternative. Thoughts?

    • Bryan


      Some amateur thoughts:

      1) Live out your faith in front of your students. Obviously you need to be cautious in what you share with them (you wouldn’t want to tell your large group that you struggle with sexual purity). Letting your life demonstrate your love of Christ and of others. Being yourself is a breath of honesty and teens can always sense when you’re not being honest.

      2) Expository teaching. I took my youth through Ephesians in great depth and at great length. They harass me all the time whenever they hear anything about it, but they remember the positional and practical truth from the letter.

      3) Apologetics. Christian defense of the faith. Why are you a Christian? How do you know that God exists? How do you know that the Bible is true? The faith of our young people will fail when others begin assaulting it and we’ve never trained them to learn, defend and lovingly share the Truth.

      4) Have fun and share life together within safe boundaries. I let my youth be a part of my life. I take my guys when I run errands and the ones who come early help me clean up my apartment on Wednesday nights for out small group. I try my best to listen to them rather than seeking to have the right super-spiritual answer and take an interest in what interests them. It builds bridges.

      5) Have lots of adults plugged into their lives. Too many churches hire one person to be responsible for their youth. Parents are charged with this duty in Scripture and the church should support them. I’d much rather not have a youth group but have one or two adults deeply plugged into the lives of my students. Their faith can’t be contingent on mine. I’m one frail, sinful person. Having many personalities around will engage the students that I just don’t connect with on a given day.

      Some thoughts, anyway.

      • paul cummings

        And also just a couple more pragmatic thoughts…

        1. If your youth is on a school night…you gotta plan on doing something interactive/requiring movement for Middle schoolers. Teach them scripture yes! but remember…asking a 6th grader who has sat in class all day, sat in confirmation and now is sitting in youth to stay still is like asking the tide not to come in.

        2. Steward your time wisely. It’s totally fine to have some crazy game for your youth. But when you have kids for an hour…let it be a quick game and get on with it. We go- 15Min for sword drill, announcements and a game, 15-20min corporate worship/prayer, 30min Bible teaching. Then followed up with an hour small group for the older youth. Do something fun but let it just be a fraction of the time.

      • Rick Hill

        Yes, i agree with all these things…all very useful and helpful. However they aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive with messy games are they?

        It’s easy to criticise…

        • Bryan

          Absolutely not exclusive. Our large group runs 2 hours. One hour of games, 20-30 mins of transition time, announcements and prayer requests and 30 minutes of lesson time. My youth love being outdoors so we run around a ton. Even some of our indoor games are active (we don’t have a gym or anything). Game time is just as important as lesson time in some respects because you want something that everyone will enjoy at best and never want to favor highly competitive sports when some of your teens don’t excel or enjoy those activities. It ends up excluding part of the group. We compromise on games but they always take up about half of our meeting time.

    • Cameron Cole

      Great question, Rick. I presently am working through Brian’s book right now and applaud how he actually offers positive steps to take. So much literature on youth ministry is great at identifying the problem but very little direction has been offered. Giving up Gimmick’s does a good job of offering an alternative to entertainment based, and law-driven ministry.

      Bryan, good suggestions.

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  • Peter Beardsley

    The author should be ashamed of himself for using 1 Corinthians 3:7 so far out of context, as if that passage says that God and God alone grows a congregation.

    Paul uses the analogy of plant growth to explain the spiritual growth of an individual: Paul planted, Apollos watered, (both are necessary truths of the plant’s growth, by the way), but by the laws of nature and nature’s God, the plant (the individual)actually grows. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17, Galatians 3:2), and that seed of faith falling upon the accepting heart grows naturally (Mark 4:1-32).

    I agree with the point of the article, and I’d extend it beyond youth ministry. More allegedly mature Christians seem to go for the same junk.

    If your point is true and Biblical, there will be Biblical backing for it. 1 Corinthians 3:7 is not the verse you seek.

  • Luke


    Sorry Peter but I think you’re overacting. Re-read the paragraph that the author used 1 Corin. 3:7 in and then read what you wrote. To say that he should be “ashamed of himself” is more than a bit much. I am all for not using a passage out of context and to call someone out when needed for doing so but his reference to 1 Corin. 3:7 and how it applies to his point is not a stretch. How you corrected him in your paragraph is not contrary to his point or how he uses 1 Corin. 3:7. Not trying to start an argument but I think your post was unnecessary. If he was teaching modalism or Pelagianism I am with you but he isn’t :)! A post that shows thankfulness and encouragement rather than a correction might be a bit more appropriate brother.


    Thanks for the article and another reminder that the Gospel of Jesus Christ is better and more than enough for all including youth! As an Associate Pastor / Youth Director I’ll be picking up the book and discussing it with our youth leaders and interns.

    For the Gospel,


    • Peter Beardsley

      Luke, we’ll just have to agree to disagree. I realize this is a very Calvinist post and his approach to 1 Corinthians 3:7 is very Calvinist. I disagree that the verse in question has anything to do with the numbers growth of a congregation (unless Paul took a four verse non-sequitor from the rest of the chapter, which is all about individual growth), which is quite clearly how it’s being used by the author.

      Using 1 Corinthians 3:7 to say that God alone grows a congregation is exactly the type of eisegesis that Calvinists get accused of by ‘modalists’ and ‘Pelagians.’ It makes Calvinists look academically dishonest at best.

      • Phillip Barrera

        Wow. Another stretch I think. I would have said academically dishonest at worst, not best.

        • Peter Beardsley

          Well then what is it at best? Because it’s clearly wrong.

      • John

        Wow, I love a brother bashing on other brothers based on the knowledge he received from Bible college/seminary. Yes, context is important, but look at the bigger picture of his article. If you see a man in China (with no seminary training) preaching out of the Bible to multitudes, and his passages are out of context, but people are coming to Christ, do you think he should be looked down upon? If anyone is for us, he is not against us (Luke 9:49-50).

  • Joe yang

    Thanks for sharing this. I look forward to picking up the book.

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  • Hobo Derek

    As a fellow pastor to students, I greatly appreciate this reminder. Thanks!

  • Sebs |

    Great article and wake up call for youth pastors like me. Thanks!

  • Derek Mansker

    That was excellent. Hype is absolutely no way to lead. Besides, youth need the Word of God, not gimmicks.

  • darrell creswell

    Great article….Being one who spent years as a youth pastor, I have swallowed a few goldfish sadly to say.. :)

  • Ken Orton

    In the mid-eighties my wife and I volunteered to serve with the high school ministry at our church. My oldest son was a sophomore. After a year of fun-and-games teaching I asked the youth pastor if he would alternate with me teaching verse by verse through the book of Romans. After much discussion, he agreed with the caveat that if a lot stopped coming we would change course. Long story short, the crowd grew week by week, they started bringing their friends. Although he was Arminian leaning and I was reformed (I let him teach Romans 9) at the end of the study they wanted input on the next book to go through in the same manner. And the youth pastor – he became reformed. It works people. Let God be God.

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  • Fokke Pathuis

    Inspiring post. Therefore I’ve translated and adapted it in Dutch, Thanks.

    • Steve Martin

      I went over there…but it was like a whole different language! ;)

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  • Tim

    For those youth minister looking for a little encouragement check out “Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry” by Doug Fields.

  • Noah

    I recently had the opportunity to be a youth leader for a short time while overseas. I struggle with the age-segregation concept as well, and was not as ready for the task as I would of liked to have been besides. However, toward the end of my stay, I saw the Lord break through in a great way. Four words:


    One day while just leading the guys, I offered a frequent Bible study (wanting to do it on possibly a daily basis) to those that elected to do so. I basically told them that it was optional, but that I thought that it could really help them. Well, the general consensus was that they had exams going on in school that week, but that next week they could start. Overall, they didn’t seem too interested. However, one young man approached me afterwards and said he was interested (this was shortly after I had sent out an email update asking people to pray that I could be a special blessing to someone on campus before I left, but I didn’t know who and I didn’t know how). We met the next day, and what a great opportunity it was. Most guys aren’t going to want to ask frank questions in a corporate setting, but when I had him one-on-one, he really opened up. The next day, we doubled in attendance with one more guy showing up:) The next day, three other guys showed up who I didn’t really recognize from previous youth times. It turned out that they recently came to the school that was part of the ministry there, but were from a Hindu background. Since the first day, I had been working verse-by-verse through Romans for the study (but leaving it open to whatever questions they might have), and we were at a great point for these Hindu guys to come in on. I was able to continue working with the boys, and within the same week all of them had professed faith in Christ! Don’t worry about flashy youth curriculum for this. Open the Bible and try to tell them what it means verse-by-verse, and don’t dodge tough questions. I definitely would have liked to have been able to give better answers sometimes and at least once or twice I had to say I wasn’t sure, but it’s better to face Scripture head-on.

  • Diane G

    My gratitude goes out to all the youth pastors out there- because of one of you I was introduced to a God I didn’t even know existed- to a Savior that had a name- Jesus. I grew up in an unchurched family. I joke that where I grew up Jose, Jesus and Juan were common names and I was so clueless that I didn’t even know that the baby Jesus in the Christmas story was the same Jesus who died on the cross (and that whole cross thing was just bizarre anyway).

    Then 35 years ago I was invited to a Young Life meeting and, after being assured that it would be fun, my friend and I went. And it was fun and the people were nice so we went back. A couple meetings later I was given a New Testament and I read it all in two days. When I read in John that the Word was God and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us my life was forever changed. I knew it was true and that New Testament was like finding the Rosetta Stone. In a world of lies and BS, I could hold the truth in my hands and learn it. I could have a relationship with my Creator and He would teach me who He was. I still can’t believe it sometimes- it is just so amazing to me.

    Would I have gone if invited to a Bible study?- unlikely. So, for me, the fun things got me in the door. After that, just give them the Word. This is who Jesus claims to be- either you believe it or you don’t. This is what the Bible says- either you believe it is the truth or you don’t (and you might not now but you might believe it later). Answer their questions. Show them how relevant it is, how it truly works. God promised this and this is what He did for me…. I was going through a really rough time and this is how God turned it around for me…. etc. Just let them see how God is working in you and for you and let them know that He will do the same for them. God loves them beyond measure- that’s pretty hard to resist when you truly understand it.

    • paul

      @Diane, Amen. I served with YL for 3 years…great passion for evangelism through relationships.

  • Ian Thompson

    There is a special going on at WTS Books this week to get Brian’s book at half price

  • So What? Studies Team

    Great post. We wholeheartedly agree. This is exactly what we are trying to provide: resources that help youth leaders do in-depth, engaging Bible studies and encourage their students to ask the “so what?” questions. (If you’re interested, sample Bible studies can be downloaded for free at And more studies are on their way later this year.)

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  • Janet

    Exciting Discovery! Every youth pastor needs to know this before they start!

  • Homeschool Mom in AZ

    I’m getting to the point where I am very wary of ever attending a church with paid staff (pastors and elders) again. I think one of the root problems with gimmickry is staff with too much time on their hands and not enough real work to do.

    Now that I attend a church with no paid elders or pastors that only rents a school gym, I see how doing less allows for much higher quality focused time and demands highly motivated elders and pastors. These men usually have a higher understanding the real world demands of job, family, ministry, etc. that their congregation has. They are forced by time constraints to infuse as much a few high quality, very important ministries than fritter away time with amusement oriented “edutainment.”

    They also expect to be the primary bread-winners. I have seen many churches where the wives of particularly Youth Minsters are required to be the steady income supporting the family while their husbands hope to find a decently paid position in Youth Ministry. I know of a few senior pastors in and out of this kind of situation. Along with a degree from seminary a man needs a marketable skill like the apostle Paul had.

    Even our youth activities every 2nd and 4th Sunday evenings begin with serious Bible Study before the fun activity. Once a month they get together for a couple of hours for a game night where they play dodgeball or kickball or something like that. This is a much better proportion of their time spent on fun vs. study.

    I understand that it is Biblically acceptable to pay pastors, but I prefer tentmakers.

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  • David Valencia

    The problem is not the gimmicks…the gimmicks are a means of compensating for the lack of confidence, understanding and grasp of the gospel.
    The major work is the translating of the good news in parlance that today will be understood…
    For example: how would you explain and what word would you use for he concept of: Justification,imputation,redemption,sanctification?
    Have you ever realize that in everything that humans do today they are longing for the meaning of the above words…so, what modern words would you use?
    What words do you think Paul would use in order to be understood…THAT’S THE ISSUE
    99% OF ALL CHRISTIAN, WELL MEANING ONES, DO NOT UNDERSTAND THE GOSPEL….if you think you do, you don’t…if my statement offends you…your security is not coming from the gospel but from your personal insecurity.
    Here are a few preachers that understand the gospel better than us…and buy all their audio recordings: Paul Zahl, Steve Brown, Tim Keller…I personally know of no others

  • Tim

    “Gimmicks” (i.e. fun games, exciting videos and sugar) have their place in youth ministry. I’ve worked with junior high students for more than 5 years (pitifully short compared to some, longer than many others). In that time I’ve learn something very important, something that is applied in just about every adult service. People need to be comfortable in their environment before they are ready to absorb biblical teaching. For adults that might be as simple as a warm greeting, a padded chair and maybe some air conditioning so we don’t always consider it as a task.

    Junior High students need to think you understand them. They are entering into a time of life where they automatically distrust adults because they don’t think they “get them.” “Gimmicks” are a tool to help students connect relationally in a ministry; to feel like they have a place. Like any tool they can become the focus, which is wrong. They can become the focus for any number of reasons but that doesn’t make the proper use of the tool illegitimate. Our youth ministries should not be focused on fun but if it takes 30 minutes of games and a 10 minute bathroom break to relax a student long enough to engage in a 20 minute lesson that communicates the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly then so be it. A proportionate amount of minutes isn’t an issue. God can do so much in anyone’s life in 20 minutes.

    We have to be careful that we don’t design ministries that are comfortable to adults and then assume that students should just be comfortable too.

    • paul cummings

      @Tim, that is wisely spoken my friend.

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  • Steve Crosthwaite

    Some of the comments on here are terrible!

    Are we not all after the same thing? Which is to see young people on fire for God?

    Parents have a responsibility, every member of every church has a responsibility and so do youth workers. To see youth leaders criticise other youth leaders and parents criticise youth workers is awful.

    I agree that many youth programmes have become more about entertainment and filling the seats than about making whole life disciples of Christ. Yet some of the negativity on here is what fuels the insecurity and the desire for numbers.

    I think the intitial article is great – although we need to remember to have fun for God gave us that too – but before we can get there we need to learn to see and value each other through with a bigger lense of grace.

    Parents need to see their responsibilities and take it seriously and youth workers need to be free and encouraged to live out the calling the Lord has put on their lives in making young disciples.

    Its little wonder our young people are confused when we spend so much time being critical of each other.

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  • Patricia Ann

    Where do we think the youth are headed? I think marriage and think it sould be encouraged, let’s give our youth purpose and future and our community as well, what better way to grow the church, a person and life around us. Youth don’t stay young forever

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