Why Theology and Youth Ministry Seldom Mix

Editors’ Note: Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don’t always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministry for their help in compiling this series. Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, will host their 2012 conference from August 9 to 11. Speakers Ray Ortlund, Timothy George, and Mary Willson will expound on the conference theme, “Adopted: The Beauty of Grace.”


Everyone knows the stereotype of the youth minister as a big kid with an expertise in games and an affinity for creative facial hair and body piercings. Despite the stereotype, many youth pastors are passionate and intelligent. Yet youth ministry has a reputation for not doing serious theology. In the book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, Andrew Root describes a discussion about a PhD program for youth ministry at his seminary. A biblical scholar asked, “Who is going to teach the seminar on group mixers?” Root goes on to describe the perception of youth ministers as theologically “lightweight.” The National Study of Youth and Religion notes, “The vast majority of teens, who call themselves Christians, haven’t been well educated in religious doctrine and, therefore, really don’t know what they believe.” Certainly, these results, at least to some degree, reflect the typically shallow theological culture of youth ministry. Why, then, does there seem to be a gap between youth ministry and theology?

People underestimate what students can comprehend.

We live in a society where we have relegated the teen years to something of a carefree vacation, protected from consequences and responsibilities. Alex and Brett Harris challenge this notion in their book Do Hard Things. When we don’t expect teens to rise to challenges, we don’t teach them doctrine. However, this lack of confidence in teens has left us with an ignorant generation (or several) with regard to what the church actually believes. It is strange that we teach young people complex calculus and physics but don’t think they can handle or will be interested in understanding the significance of the Trinity or atonement. Brian Cosby, in his book Giving Up Gimmicks, recalls offering a basic biblical Greek overview class to teens. He expected a handful to respond but the room couldn’t fit everyone who was interested.

Youth ministry has a popularity culture.

A veteran youth minister retired after 20 years citing exhaustion. Living a perpetual popularity contest finally wore him down. Well-meaning mentors assured (or cursed) him early in his career that if the kids like you, they will come to your programs, putting him on an approval treadmill. In reality, youth ministry seems to take on a cult of personality surrounding the student pastor, perhaps more than other sectors of the church. Consequently, when so much of success in ministry seems to depend on popularity among students, we’re tempted to steer away from difficult theology. When one faithfully exegetes Scripture, difficult and complex topics arise.

Churches have different expectations of youth ministries.

Some pastors view youth ministry as a necessary bother. They see youth ministry as required yet do not want it to cause them problems or drain their time. Some churches view youth ministers as entertainers and buddies, not serious ministers of God’s Word. Hence, they may hire energetic young adults without theological training (this varies between denominations) to run programs and do little to invest in their theological formation. The care with which we select youth pastors is not typically on par with the process we go through to call other clergy. Often the first question a church leader has for the youth pastor is, “How many came this week?” The second one may be, “Did they have fun?”

Youth pastors just love kids and want them to meet Jesus.

Evangelistic passion among some youth pastors has meant a neglect of theology—both studying it and teaching it. We can aim for “decisions for Christ” and overlook the spiritual formation that follows conversion. It is easy to get so wrapped up in doing evangelism and relationships that little time is spent deepening our own understanding of doctrine. Given that most people who come to faith do so before they complete their teen years, a youth minister can easily take on the attitude that “students don’t need deep theology, they just need Jesus.” Yet presenting the gospel without a solid theology is dangerous. A youth pastor with weak theology is more susceptible to developing a messiah complex, thinking we need to save these students. Students who don’t grasp good theology cannot articulate a faith that will stand up in college or beyond.

The egg-and-armpit relay ruined youth ministry.

Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties, used to joke about the egg-and-armpit relay as a central pillar of youth ministry. He was acknowledging that youth ministry had created a culture of fun. While we might have one of the most fun jobs on the planet, it becomes burdensome to manufacture fun all the time. Attending youth ministry conventions and conferences is a bit like a cross between Disney and Mardi Gras. Despite excellent training and inspiration, the atmosphere created by the sponsors reinforces a mentality that youth ministry is all about fun. In most youth ministry resources we find the emphasis on fun and games. The founder of Young Life was famous for saying, “It’s sin to bore a kid with the gospel.” When we look at photos of youth groups in our churches, we typically see lots of messy games and wacky skits. Given this perception, it becomes the expectation of parents, pastors, and church leaders to see youth ministry continue in that way. In truth, we don’t want to bore the kids. Theology, on the other hand, is not usually perceived as fun. So does the typical youth pastor pour time into reading theology or planning more fun programs? The answer is not so difficult when we know a parent or student is going to ask if youth group will be fun this week.

How do we close the gap between youth ministry and theology? Perhaps we first need to change the perceptions of what youth ministry is all about and what students are capable of. Then we should insist that our youth pastors are lifelong learners trained in good theology. It may take a decade or two to get there, but in the end, it will have been worth the battle.


Also in the series on youth ministry:

  • Amy Lee

    I’ve been keeping up with these articles and would agree with them with the exception of one point, “We teach young people complex calculus and physics but…” I think that this is a very dangerous. I used to say these same words until I started teaching at a local youth camp. I was teaching young ladies the gospel – especially Romans 3:21-31. I found that very common words and historical, even cultural, illustrations were foreign to them. I was not getting through to them when my teaching was based upon the assumption that “they learn difficult subjects at school, why not this one.” Not until I began to break down every word, illustration, and idea, did light bulbs begin to come on – even amongst those that I was pretty sure were saved. Most of these young ladies were average or above average students in public schools (like most youth in most youth groups) but lacked basic vocabulary and logic skills and knowledge of history. Very few students take physics, calculus, and other advanced placement classes. Having observed a few students from various high schools in our area, you are either an AP student and pushed too hard (4-5 hours of homework a night) or you are in with the “least common denominator.” My point: we must present a pure gospel but do so in a way that the most commonly educated person can understand. Other than that, yes, churches need to become family oriented and place youth from un-churched families in a family situation as often as possible so that they can hear and see the gospel.

    • Benjamin Ledford

      I think it’s important to distinguish between knowledge and ability. Most kids (and adults) have greater intellectual capacity than we give them credit for, but less background knowledge than we expect. Many of us have a tendency to throw out terminology and names of biblical characters without explanation, while at the same time dumbing-down the concepts or train of thought because the kids “don’t get it.” It think it’s pretty safe as a general rule to assume that the people you’re teaching (at whatever age) have essentially zero background knowledge of the subject, but have the ability to follow rather complex argumentation.

      The first time I taught at a bible camp with a fairly large age range (ages 10-15) I was concerned that some of the content would be over the heads of all the kids, let alone the younger ones, but was very pleasantly surprised at how easily even the youngest campers seemed to follow. They’re plenty smart, they just don’t know much, and we can’t assume things without explaining them.

      • SJ

        Thanks, that is a really helpful distinction

      • SirBrass

        We should never make the assumption that ignorance (lack of knowledge) equals stupidity (lack of ability to understand) with the kids. It’s foolish of us to treat the kids as stupid (in the technical sense) when all they are is ignorant. No wonder so many in their teens percieve their elders as foolish… b/c they’re treated as stupid when all they are is lacking in knowledge. And you know what? The kid who considers his elders foolish b/c they won’t treat him like he has an ability to understand is probably correct in his evaluation.

      • Amy Lee

        I do agree that the ability is there for most but we cannot assume anything if we want to adequately explain the gospel. I found that over half of the 10-12 grade girls could not define “wrath” when I was explaining propitiation. This did not stop the explanation but did cause me to slow down and explain and illustrate every concept. It is sad that the lack of education exists but it does. Therefore, we must make the gospel as clear as possible.

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  • Jonathan

    I know there are still programs that are more play and less discipleship but I do believe that the trend is changing. Part to better education and part to awareness. I have been in youth ministry for going on 15 years and have worked with a few other youth pastors through the years that were more focused on numbers but those were few and far between the vast majority were like minded and focused first on discipleship. Our goal teaching the students we already have to be Christ like, and encouraging them and equipping them to live for Christ, being his witness where we as pastors cannot get.
    I do think that articles like this are important because they help encourage new youth pastors to teach it right and hopefully in the coming years the programs that are just fun and games will come around!

  • Ashley Swords

    This article caught my attention. Will certainly pass this on within our church. I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

  • Danny

    “Students who don’t grasp good theology cannot articulate a faith that will stand up in college or beyond”.  Tell me…do you believe adults in congregations can articulate a faith that will stand up in the work place…why are people so hard on youth ministry and youth pastors without also acknowledging their hard work and marginalization in many churches…

    • Jonathan

      Good call Danny! I completely agree!

    • Doc B


      Straw man. This series has constantly acknowledged the hard work and marginalization of youth pastors. One of the articles was completely *about* this problem.

      And the authors have not been ‘hard’ on youth pastors, but on false teaching (or lack of any teaching) in youth groups.

      How do you think those adults you (correctly and accurately) cite got that way in the first place?

      • Derek

        Are you insisting the reason the adults who not theological sound are the result of a youth pastor they once were taught under? Surely you aren’t going that far. Teens and adults alike must be held responsible for their growth in Christ, not just the youth pastor or pastor. It is especially frustrating when you have bad doctrine being published everywhere on the internet, in book stores and tv. We are not fighting against people, rather, against the evil one and his powers.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      @Danny: Yes, sometimes adults can’t articulate a faith that will stand up in the workplace, but A. That’s not the focus of the article. I mean, you can’t correct any failings at all if you insist that ALL failings must be dealt with before you focus on one. And B. The adults in congregations sometimes get their training from Youth Groups…and they still (as adults) can’t articulate their faith! So, that still kind of would support what the author is saying here.

    • Bill

      Danny – Many adults in the workplace now were once raised in “armpit egg [thing]” youth groups, so to answer your question, no. If what the author says is true about this being a problem, it didn’t just start now.
      But I don’t want to put all the blame on adults for that reason. Like any other topic, adults at some point are responsible for their own learning.

      • Noah

        What came first? The adult chicken in the workplace or the armpit egg? :)

    • Cedric L


      You should go back and read the fourth paragraph

    • Bob K

      Yes! Thank you. I was slightly offended by the article. It’s such a generalization of youth ministry and seems to be more of a discouragement than an encouragement to those who are working toward proper ministry and biblical foundations. I’ve liked the articles in this series so far, but this one seemed to be more offensive than encouraging. Sorry GC, but this was not helpful at all.

    • SJ

      Bob, sorry if you have been offended, I am not sure that youth ministry is the only one in the firing line though, I have read at least as many critiques of music, preaching and childrens ministry as youth ministry, and that is after having done youth ministry for 13 years in two different continents. I know that in the UK this is still a massive problem, so many youth ministers do their role as a training ground before they ‘grow up’ and become senior pastors/vicars. I am not saying this is universal, thank God that I have a number of colleagues who are well trained and have spent many years in youth ministry. Sadly, I still find them the exception today. If this article does not ring true for you then praise God, it is wonderful that effective, faithful, biblical and theologically rich youth ministry is being done, but lets keep working to make that the rule rather than what I fear is the exception.

  • Riley

    I for one am not convinced that ministry to youth requires separate programs and distinct leadership. Let the church pastor minister to the youth, and let their activities be the common worship of the church, Bible studies along with the adults, etc.

    • Jonathan

      Youth ministry needs distinct leadership in the same way that your children’s ministry needs leadership. Preschoolers learn differently from Elementary age children, just as teenagers learn differently from adults.

      I do believe however that every ministry of the church should share a similar vision – and have a like minded leadership. At our church the Children’s Ministry, Youth Ministry, and College Ministry all share the same vision as the rest of the church. But they all still have their own leadership, and their own activities.

    • Heather E. Carrillo

      @Riley: I’m sympathetic, but I think the difference here would be WHEN are the youth groups meeting? If it’s a Wednesday night or something (as it often is) than it’s (ideally) a bible study where you can meet other kids who will be good influences in your life. If the youth group meets during the morning service, than yes, I have a problem with that too.
      It’s not that you HAVE to have a separate ministry. It’s just that some churches offer that and I think if it doesn’t get in the way of corporate worship, it’s not a problem. Wouldn’t you agree?

      • Ethan

        What would be really crazy is if we had youth attending the same Bible studies and Christian living seminars that their parents and other adults in the congregation are attending instead of separating (read “segregating”) them from everyone else and treating like they are not part of the church.

  • Riley

    I also am not convinced that children need separate ministries. The primary leadership and instruction of children should come from their parents. People learn in stages, children through adults. When I was a child, I guarantee that I learned much more from sermons in church than I did in Sunday School and “youth ministry.” Kids pick up a lot more than we think. Is there any scriptural support for separate ministries? I can’t find any.

    • Jonathan

      I will agree that families need to be more involved in the faith journey, and that kids do pick up more than we give them credit for. But if your Sunday Schools and youth ministries are functioning the way they should be they should be involving families, strengthening from the inside out building complete Christians. This is the model I grew up in, and can attest that if it were not for the loving care of Sunday School teachers, and the mentoring of my youth pastor I would very likely never have answered God’s calling to my life to serve him. My life certainly would have been different and I don’t think for the better. Personal experience will only take you so far, please observe what God is doing before condemning it!

      As far as scriptural basis for it, we are called train the young men and women but are not given any models, nor are we truly following any models set for the early church. If we were we would all be in house churches scattered and limited in our reach. But we don’t live in that day we live in 2012 and for us to reach the lost we have to seek them out and love them where they are, and be the physical body of the church representing Christ to a lost world. Not bickering or complaining about failed ministry models.

      • Riley

        There most certainly is a Scriptural model for discipling youth:

        Deuteronomy 11:19 And ye shall teach them your children, speaking of them when thou sittest in thine house, and when thou walkest by the way, when thou liest down, and when thou risest up.

        Parents are the God-given childrens and youth ministry leaders, tasked with teaching their children in their families. I’m not convinced that further special programs in the church for children or youth are needed or beneficial. What pastoral leadership is needed can be provided by the pastor, just like with the adults.

        “But if your Sunday Schools and youth ministries are functioning the way they should be they should be involving families”

        Right, and the best way to “involve” families, I maintain, is to teach the whole family together at once, not in separate age groupings.

        • James Watson

          Riley, in a perfect world you would be one hundred percent correct. Ideally, Parents should be the primary spiritual influences in the lives of their kids. Reality is clear that this just isn’t the case. As a youth pastor, for every 1 student I have whose parents are actively involved in their spiritual life, I have 10 whose parents don’t even go to church. If you are a parent who is discipling your kids, I say BRAVO!!!! But what about those other 5 who came to youth group because a friend invited them? They wouldn’t have come to hear a pastor preach on Sunday morning (at least not yet). If they come to my youth group, they won’t get pizza and bowling, they’ll hear the gospel. When I find a parent whose spiritually involved in their children’s lives, I make them a youth leader so they can make up for the shortcomings of other parents. We talk far too often about the 88% who leave after high school. Let’s not forget that we reached 12%, many of whom would never have heard the gospel had it not been for youth ministry. 60 years ago, youth ministry was created for the very reason that churches weren’t reaching youth in the first place, so your assessment that it was more effective together is statistically incorrect.

          You talk about Deuteronomy 11:19 as the ideal discipleship model and I would agree, but even within the pages of scripture, I challenge you to find one example of that actually being lived out. More than that, I challenge you to find one example of a father actually doing his job of leading his family spiritually. The Bible does not give us local church models, but rather gives us examples of churches being planted within their own cultural context. Every church in Acts is different, yet still exists for God’s glory.

          Separate ministries for age groups may not be ideal; but it is practical. And making posts on a blog marginalizing the work of faithful youth pastors and youth ministries is not helpful.

          • Eric V

            “You talk about Deuteronomy 11:19 as the ideal discipleship model and I would agree, but even within the pages of scripture, I challenge you to find one example of that actually being lived out. More than that, I challenge you to find one example of a father actually doing his job of leading his family spiritually.”

            There are multiple kings in the history of Israel that “walked in the ways of their father David” (also several who did not).

            Isaac also showed a familiarity with the process of worshipping Yahweh when asking Abraham “where is the lamb for the sacrifice?”

            How were the duties of Israel’s priestly class handed down? Through the fathers.

            While there is no single perfect example of fatherhood apart from God the Father Himself, to assume that fathers never did their job of faithfully leading their families in Scripture is incorrect. Additionally, it does not negate the command for men to did so.

            That said, I absolutely sympathize with the plight of youth ministry having parents that are not leading their families or even families that are antagonistic because our youth group preached a clear gospel which was against the “do what feels good” morals of unsaved parents.

            • Eric V

              *do so (oops)

  • Chris Dills

    I have built all my youth ministries around deep and Gospel-centered theology and know several men in my area who have done the same. It seem like most of the youth ministry posts on this site spend a lot of time discussing what’s wrong with most youth ministries and then have a small resolution at the end that really doesn’t offer any help for student ministers who don’t know how to begin developing a solid, sound ministry to students. Maybe it would be a good idea to have some folks who serve in student ministry to write some articles and make some videos to instruct others how to teach theology to students, make genuine disciples and teach students how to be actively involved in the life and mission of the entire church. A little more training and less complaining.

    • Jonathan

      Amen! I hear you!

    • John Gardner

      Agreed. While, yes, there are ministries out there that make youth pastors look like idiots, the same can be said of any form of ministry. This is not to suggest that finding resolutions to these issues is inherently problematic, but that the search for answers to these issues seems far relegated to the exposure of all of those ‘bad-old-messiah-complexed-frosted-tipped heretics we let teach our children’. Such insinuations and stereotypes may be doing more harm to the already broken relationships between many youth ministers and the “real pastors” that serve their congregations or their governing bodies. I would love to engage in a meaningful way about Gospel-centered theology and how you, Chris, have been able to bring it to the lives of students. With my own group, I find that their love and depth of insight and wisdom have been a tremendous blessing and an encouragement towards my own greater growth in theology, rather than moving me away from the beautiful doctrines of scripture towards egg and armpit racing. Yet there are many who, when I explain that this is happening with my junior and senior high kids, have heard these stereotypes propagated so much that they simply don’t believe it is happening. But it can, and does, happen. It is encouraging to me to see another faithful minister of the gospel getting a little tired of being lumped into a group of immature moralists. The argument against youth ministry stereotypes is an easy one. The groundwork of training and equipping ministers in a specific way to bring the gospel to youth, while much more demanding, is something I would love to be a part of alongside you.

  • Chris Dills

    *Seems. Sorry for the typo above.

  • Garrett

    Great article and thoughts regarding youth ministry. I see the value in running s youth ministry within a local church. Primarily it creates a space for teenagers to be exposed to healthy “older brothers and sisters” that are walking out their faith in Christ with passion and faithfulness. Youth ministry needs to be carried by the whole church as it takes a community to raise children in the Lord! Discipleship in the long run is more important than large numbers at youth gatherings!

    • Mark Soni

      “Youth ministry needs to be carried by the whole church as it takes a community to raise children in the Lord!”

      Great point. Looking back on my youth group days, I felt that one of the missing components was our inability to look above to older believers who could model the faith. To learn about their struggles, how to live the Christian life, and to know what to do when things are not going well, and how to praise God. Of course there were older kids and youth staff, but youth groups tend to be separated with not just their own sub-culture, but it was as if they had their own way of thinking, language, and felt empowered to do fun stuff while the rest of the church missed out.

      The church is a collective body that grows together as the unit that displays God’s glory to the world as a people. I’ve been learning this in Ephesians 3:10-11 from our pastor. So we too must take care of our youth and invest them in the Word that is weighty, a Seed, and shows significance when they walk in their middle and high schools.

      I hope that in the next article the authors will put up suggestions on how can youth pastors incorporate theology without overwhelming their kids to the point of “dang, I can’t get this.” I know of one pastor, when they go through the Book of John with their youth, will scream “BAM!” when Jesus declares his famous “I Am” statements. And games can incorporated with a Biblical purpose as well…as long as the Word and Theology are the focal point of it all.

  • JD

    Another great post guys. Thanks for your important contributions to this discussion.

  • SJ

    I agree that we shouldn’t let the adults off the hook either (Danny), but that is no excuse to say “well the adults don’t get it so why bother with the youth” (NB not that you are saying that). Young people think far more deeply than they are often given credit for, they need deep biblical answers to these thoughts. Yes, we need to work hard at how we communicate, but don’t water things down for them. Zacharius Ursinus, a little known but brilliant Reformer said, “a neglect of catechism is … one of the chief causes why there are so many at the present day tossed about by every wind of doctrine, and why so many fall from Christ to Anti-Christ.” It wasn’t catechism itself he was so keen on, it was teaching young people good theology, ie what they confess to believe. There is a reason that the Reformers were so hot on teaching, and it wasn’t because they were boring, they knew firsthand what happened when it wasn’t taught. Although I sympathise with the comment about negative analysis all the time, there is still a time and place for it. My opinion? We need to find a way of teaching the catechisms, or something similar, in a 21st century friendly way. Get good theology into our young people, well taught and applied and we will have a much stronger Church in 20 years time. Thanks for the article guys

  • paul cummings

    I don’t think that good theology and good youth ministry are antithetical, simply that they both take time to build and skill to balance.
    Youth ministry must be a place where kids are met “at their point of need and comprehension”. I learned this the hard way 12 years ago by jumping into my church’s youth leadership with deep Bible study only to be met with blank stares because the foundation wasn’t there with my youth. So I had to go back to the basics…and I mean basic basics of the Bible. Get deep with your kids..AMEN…but you can’t just jump to it, you must through the HOly Spirit build towards it. We surely do underestimate what kids can handle, but in tension we must also hold “but they’re also still kids”.
    And the balance/tension must come by keeping it deep and Biblical, but also fun enough for your 8th grade boy to bring the kid on his basketball team who’s parents hate church and have told him it’s boring. Youth (other than beleaguered husbands) are usually the last stand of people who will semi-willingly come to church but are simply waiting for it to miss their expectations so they can write it off to never come again. We all know that The Holy Spirit is the one who is doing the real work, but it’s not a sin to also make it fun.

  • Anthony Gee

    The gap isn’t that hard to bridge. The difficulties lie on what perceived notions there are about what a youth pastor should be.

    However if we hire the right men for the job, we could find a man that preaches theology in a way that’s not boring. But don’t we want any pastor who preaches the word, to be moved by it himself, and proclaim it in a way that does that?

  • Heather E. Carrillo

    Great thoughts! I loved what was said about not expecting anything great from teenagers. It’s a group that is constantly underrated as to what they can understand, especially about complex theology.

    Also, the constant barrage of messy games (egg and armpit relay) that is so true! And I don’t know why.

  • daniel

    This is not rocket science. Coffee houses, “cool” youth guys, ipod giveaways, nice fun youth program, making the room look cool–i’ve seen it all. And none of it works. Add that to the turnover rate of church youth directors (whether it be ill-equipped or trained to disciple and lead, or a stepping stone to seminary, worship leader, or head pastor somewhere), and it is a joke. The Gospel is the same yesterday, today, and forever. The church–and youth ministry–has been shaped by the culture WAY MORE than IT has shaped the culture. We need to reverse the trend. Jesus will ALWAYS be attractive to those who have ears to hear! We need to simply model what it means to walk with Jesus, practice His presence in our lives, and lose our lives for His sake in all ways. We must invest in the lives of kids and love them with relational consistency and faithful pursuit. 1 Thessalonians 2:8–“We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.” Amen.

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  • Tim

    Thanks for the article and discussions in the comments. I’m a new pastor, just graduated last year. I’ve been helping out with youth ministry for a 5-6 years now though. I do agree that in general, youth ministry is seen as entertainment/babysitting more than anything else. I also agree that we need to be more theologically grounded and really challenge teens to consider their faith. But like fellow poster Riley, I think the issue stems deeper than youth ministry. As I said, I’m very new but I’ve spent a lot of time reflecting on what youth ministry is over the past few years and while I understand it’s purpose I also recognize it’s major short-comings. When we only see these teens once MAYBE twice a week, we don’t have much opportunity to teach them and ground them scripturally or theologically. I’ve been struggling all year to do so, trying different ways to get us engaged in scripture with little to no “success” (I don’t using that word but nothing else quite fits). The deeper problem I see is that if there aren’t people to continue on these discussions with them on a more daily basis they’ll forget. We could give the most captivating sermon, but 3 hours later, people forget what was said, even if they felt that “burning in their heart.” We’re forgetful. We have been since the beginning. I have no answers of what to do next but I’m thinking about it and praying that God would intervene and do what none of us can. I do believe though that somehow, we have to start building up families rather than just individuals. We’re made for community but we often talk about our faith being “just me and God” or “you and God.” We need accountability, we need that regular meeting of believers (whether within just a family or more), we need Scripture to be our foundation, and we need God to transform us.

  • Eric

    As an 18-year youth ministry worker (including the last 5 in the same Birmingham community as Cameron), I have read and re-read this article with great interest. Certainly, I have found myself at times nodding in sincere agreement. And at times, I find myself questioning if all this debate and discussion misses the point altogether?

    Reading the article and the comments unveils a great deal of concern from several people who obviously care about genuine discipleship amongst adolescents, which I think is perhaps the biggest issue facing the 21st Century Church. Unquestionably, we are facing an epidemic of teenagers who either miss the Gospel completely or who claim it as a truth and reality, only to walk away from it (and the Church) in their late adolescence. And I believe that there is no question that the depth of theology we teach kids contributes to this problem. However, we are not serving adolescents, families, or our churches when we consider this the sole- or perhaps even the primary- reason we are facing this terrible reality.

    I think that Tim (above) makes an interesting point, and it is a point that I think illustrates the ultimate problem we’re facing in our evangelism and discipleship of adolescents. He says “When we only see these teens once MAYBE twice a week, we don’t have much opportunity to teach them and ground them scripturally or theologically. I’ve been struggling all year to do so, trying different ways to get us engaged in scripture with little to no “success” (I don’t using that word but nothing else quite fits). The deeper problem I see is that if there aren’t people to continue on these discussions with them on a more daily basis they’ll forget.” And he is exactly right.

    The point is this… all the fun and laughter in the world is meaningless apart from giving kids spiritual food to eat. We’d all agree with that. But, the deepest, most sound theology in the world is of little value in the hands of ministers who only see kids when they show up at our things (youth group, Sunday School, etc) once or twice a week. An understanding of adolescent culture (and even the Bible) will point us toward the truth that deep and effective disciple-making happens most effectively in the context of relationships. Take a look into the Gospels (and even The Master Plan of Evangelism) to see the way Jesus made disciples. Look at Paul’s words to the believers in Thessalonica (1 Thess. 2:8- “we loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you NOT ONLY THE GOSPEL, BUT OUR LIVES AS WELL, because you had become so dear to us.”) See how the letters to the Colossians and Hebrews point out that we are to invite people to imitate us as we imitate Christ… a process that can only happen in the context of genuine relationships. (1 Cor. 11:1, Heb. 13:7, among others.)

    I guess my point is this: I think we need to be careful that we frame “fun and laughter” or “egg in the armpit” or “pie in the face” ministry as the enemy of teaching correct and weighty theology to kids. I’m not sure at all that they need to be mutually exclusive. But I am convinced to the very depth of my soul that if we are not making disciples in a relational context, then we are not making them in a Biblical context.

    (As an aside, working “alongside” Cameron in Birmingham, I understand that he not only gets this, but he lives it out. I cannot think of a football or basketball game I’ve been to at the high school where he and I both minister in the past 3 or 4 years where he was not also there, spending time with kids and families.)

    • Eric

      Also, I want to be clear that the context of Jim Rayburn’s (founder of Young Life) was clear above. “It is a sin to bore a kid with the Gospel” is not an implicit or explicit endorsement simply of games and fun or “entertainistry.” Rayburn believed that ““Christ is the strongest, grandest, most attractive personality ever to grace the earth, but a careless messenger with the wrong approach can reduce all this magnificence to the level of boredom.”

      “Young Life is an outgrowth of the conviction that ‘Jesus Christ is everything that kids want most. He is the most wonderful, the most attractive, the strongest, most gracious, loving person this world has ever seen.’”

      “But an awful lot of you know that I believe the greatest job in the whole world today is to simply thumb through the pages of the New Testament, which was written to make Jesus Christ known, and to do it in the presence of a group of young people who are listening, who know you care about them- and no beans about it. People to whom you have taken the time and trouble to prove that you really care. And that they are people, and that’s all you are, is people. That you may indeed have one great and glorious advantage over them, but you didn’t earn it, and you don’t have any more right to it than they do, and that’s a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”

      Hope that helps make that comment above clear.

  • Landon Farris

    I just can’t get past this – The founder of Young Life was famous for saying, “It’s sin to bore a kid with the gospel.” This is deeply troublesome and disappointing. There are many that are tied up in this ministry and others that have testified about the lack of focus it places on the only Savior, Jesus Christ.

    • Eric

      It’s deeply troubling? Why? I’m guessing that you’re not understanding the context of the quote, which is posted above your comment.

      The context is not “the Gospel is boring, so don’t share it with kids.” The context is “the Gospel is exciting, so tell kids about it with passion and deep conviction.”

    • Eric

      And I will add this: to say Young Life has a “lack of focus on the only Savior, Jesus Christ” is patently and unequivocally false.

      Young Life, as a mission, has a lengthy document detailing what doctrines its staff must agree to, including the exclusivity of Christ as the atoning sacrifice for sin and the singular path to God. In its outreach platforms (“club” and camp), Young Life leaders are taught to communicate the story of the Gospel by looking almost exclusively at the story of Jesus as recorded by the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.) The person of Christ is central to every message given in those formats. (Small Group Bible Studies are where kids will dig deeper into Old Testament scriptures and letters to New Testament churches, as well as deeper looks at the person of Christ.)

      It is both dangerous and uninformed to take second-hand information and denigrate this mission. While not every kid or parent or church or pastor will like Young Life, it is a mission that takes very seriously the call to “introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith.” And I believe that it is a mission deeply committed to connecting teenagers to a local church where they can grow as part of the body of Christ in the manner ordained by God.

      Are there going to be some volunteers (among the more than 34,000 in the world) who don’t teach or explain the Gospel as well? Sure. And please hear me when I say that no one is making excuses for that. But, to say that the entire mission lacks focus on Jesus as the only Savior due to those folks is akin to saying that all Evangelicals disbelieve in monogamy and fidelity based on the actions of a few.

      Sorry to soapbox, but I find this comment offensive, and quite frankly untrue.

      • Paul Cummings

        Amen… Young Life at its core is about as legit as it gets when it comes to passionately pursuing youth for Christ.

  • Joe

    I think that it’s great for youth to have their own events and ministries, but I don’t think that it is good to isolate them from the church as a whole. I’ve seen too many churches where the youth bible studies, worship services, etc… are all separate with the youth only coming into contact with the rest of the body on special occasions. This is a philosophy of ministry that can be dangerous.

    On the other hand, I’ve seen youth discipled tremendously through multi-generational small groups. They still had their youth only activities, but they were also able to build invaluable relationships with godly men and women in the church.

  • Ethan

    I’ve been to a number of youth ministry conferences. The NYWC is well-known for being a sort-of “getaway” for youth ministers and is intended to be fun. Teaching is often very vague, and they treat everyone like they are big kids.

    *However*, I do recall one or two great breakout sessions on theology in youth ministry. One was taught by none other than Dan Kimball himself. Kimball’s breakout session was possibly the most memorable of all the conferences I attended.

  • Cliff

    Is there a correlation between the rise of daycare as an alternative parenting schema and the rise of youth ministry?

    • Eric

      The documentary Divided walks through the rise of the Sunday School movement and discusses the youth ministry movement, but does not mention daycare as a factor.

      Movie comes to a faulty conclusion, in my opinion, but is interesting to watch nonetheless.

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  • Coleman Ford

    Its all about balance. First book I read as a new youth minister four years ago was Do Hard Things by the Harris brothers and it profoundly affected my ministry. At times, I was probably overly anti-fun for the purpose of teaching deep truths of Scripture and the Christian faith, and at times someone could walk into the youth room and see kids faces covered with whip-cream. Both fellowship-oriented fun and Christ-exalting worship and teaching make for a well balanced youth ministry. What I learned was balance. Make games fun and if possible applicable, but also build in the expectation that the teaching is going to be deep and challenging. Dont let kids off the hook when it to engaging their hearts and minds. Our best study to date was a semester long look at the Apostles Creed (we’re a Southern Baptistnchurch mind you) and I have never been hesitant to challenge students to think theologically without making them feel dumb. The questions I’ve gotten as a result have been far more profound then just “how far is too far” and so forth. I also recommend some sort of seminary education from a conservative evangelical seminary, most preferably in person (no online or distance) so you sit under professors and gain theological wisdom to turn around and deliver to teens. How should we think that the next generation of the church could be well informed if the student minister isn’t. Save the money on conferences and spend it on seminary tuition.

  • abel

    Thanks for this article, it’s a good read. :) (warning, this is a long post, and full of my opinions, haha)

    I’d have to say that I never knew that a stereotype and reputation about the youth ministry exists:
    – “Everyone knows the stereotype of the youth minister as a big kid with an expertise in games and an affinity for creative facial hair and body piercings” and “Yet youth ministry has a reputation for not doing serious theology.” [sic]

    I guess I never had “proper” education on how to do youth ministry, that is why this is educating for me :) But in retrospect, I think “fun” mentality in youth ministry is inherent to the ministry, and I think it is because of the simple fact that we are discipling “young” people. This is the challenge: the kids have energy, lots of it, and because of innovations, the attention span have become very short. In my own (no study to prove it tho) opinion, I think this is why consciously or unconsciously the youth ministries have programs to address these realities – young kids with “hulk” (just watched avengers,hehe) like energies with very short attention span, or simply, very distracted. Movies, games, barkada outings, tech gadgets are all engineered to be attention grabbing, and energy consuming. We are competing against Hollywood grade distraction.

    Personally, I desire to have a meaningful discussion with the young people about the Gospel, the Holy Spirit and how He works, faith, works, and a lot more! Because for me, if we study God’s word, and they respond to it, I see their reactions, hear their questions, and pray with them, I am more assured that I am having a positive impact in their journey towards knowing God and loving Him with all they are. This also makes me learn more and love God more. It is my personal evaluation system.

    But oftentimes, I find myself with roadblocks such as: limited time(only on friday or saturday and not more than 2-3 hours), limited space, resources on top of the attention span and energy factor I mentioned before. So I often end up with activities designed to expend their energies and messages designed to capture their attention (which is very hard to do, and usually is time restricted to 45-1 hour) and lead them to Christ. These realities and roadblocks, although very challenging, makes the youth ministry very fun to do :)

    But I am blessed that God has taught us the small group system. The small group system is designed to minimize if not to address these issues. If the small group system is strong, correct theology can be taught in small groups, applied in fellowships and day to day living. The youth pastor will devote himself towards nurturing his small group with correct theology, and cultivating their passion to learn more about God and ultimately to love Him more. This of course, is more caught than taught. That is why authentic relationships between small group mates are a must, just like Jesus and His disciples. Personally, I find greater joy in spending time with my small group than speaking on retreats, events or gatherings.

    I am eagerly waiting though for the time to come when God will reveal to His church how to effectively reach out to the young generation without having to sacrifice correct content and theology in place of fun and attendance.
    The article is very good because it prompted us to do some deep thinking and re-evaluation of how we are doing our individual ministries, the greater benefit and challenge for us I think, is how to translate these realizations to actions. I’m definitely gonna share this to my small group this coming Sunday :)

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  • Ben

    Seriously doubt it’s this is the fault of youth ministry. I would say theology and church seldom mix. Everything rises and falls on the leadership of the church not simply the youth pastor. If the church teaches theology so does the youth program and vice versa.

  • Owen

    Wow, this was good to read. I don’t have a problem with youth ministry provided it’s done well, but I do have a problem with the idea that we can’t challenge youth–while they’re taking algebra, physics, and calculus, as the teaser said. To quote the great Snickers “Chefs” ad (look it up), great googly moogly.

    It runs me up and down the wall, for instance, to suggest that youth can’t focus for more than 9 minutes, or 7 minutes, or whatever polls are showing that number is. Yes, we’ll need to work hard to present our content to them and engage them–I worked as a summer camp counselor for week after week and learned this firsthand–but youth have no trouble at all focusing on Call of Duty 3 for 6-hour binges or Justin Bieber documentaries for hours at a time. We are flat out kidding ourselves if we think that the Bible, presented with passion and in a culture of care, can’t engage them. You might as well just shut the whole thing down and go to Six Flags.

    I love what Collin Hansen reported about Covenant Life–they take their kids through Wayne Grudem’s systematic theology material. That, to use a youth group word, rocks.

  • David Grant

    Great discussion. I love it!!!

    A thought and a question…

    Depth of theology and the gospel of grace must be the centerpiece of student ministry and all ministry. I’m tired of asking students about their relationship with Jesus and their response being “I’m cussing less”. We much teach them the gospel of grace.

    Is it wrong for students to have fun in their student ministries? Is serious, gospel centered, discipling ministry the enemy of fun?

    Ok, another question.
    Are we just called to reach and disciple the children of our families? Or has God called us to be and share the gospel with all students within our sphere of influence? It seems gospel transformation should go beyond the kids of our churched families. That’s not just the call of Young Life, but the call of the local church.

    • Eric

      Well said.

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  • Nick

    GREAT article. Lots of great comments here. As a guy who spent 24 years in full-time youth ministry it’s pretty dang encouraging to see so many people write so passionately about Student Ministry. I agree with most of the comments – families (just like the one I grew up in) are miserably fragmented. And, the average teen’s level of biblical knowledge is abysmal. But, I’m thinking that what Jesus saw 20 centuries ago was pretty discouraging too. But, He kept to the mission at hand, changing the world – one person at a time. Most guys/gals who’ve sensed a conviction from God to work with student have no problem with the “sizzle” side of youth ministry. It’s who they are…how they’re wired. But, because youth ministry is so relational, it’s a constant battle to force oneself to develop the “substance” side of youth ministry as well. And that begins with becoming a student of the Bible. When all the dust settles, no other source for advice matters. All of that said, some of our deepest, spur-of-the-moment, theological talks with a teen may actually erupt during….that egg/armpit race. :)

  • F. Phillips

    Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life, did indeed say that it was a sin to bore a kid with the gospel. But, contrary to your point of ‘balance’ (theology vs. fun) he meant that the gospel IS freeing, IS fun, IS relational. In short, it is Jesus. That message hasn’t changed. Theology is debated and studied but those that work with kids ‘get’ the most fundamental factor about evangelism: relationships. If you spend more time in books than you do with people, that’s a problem.

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  • Megan James

    I am a high school science teacher with two teenage sons who have not only not developed as Christians through church/youth group activities, but have struggled with disenchantment as a result. I am investigating starting a website/forum for intellectually minded high school/college students, dealing alternating with theological and practical issues. I’d like to dialog with several adults/youth leaders/young adults who might have ideas, advice, or inspiration for me. Young adults who are starving for Christian ”meat” need a place to be fed and process ideas;that’s what I want to create.

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