The Only Foundation for Youth Ministry

I remember sitting in the auditorium at the 2009 Gospel Coalition National Conference in Chicago. A session had just finished; we had been shown the glories of Jesus and how he is the only hope and foundation for our ministry. My heart was full, and I was glad that God had called me to minister to students. The two guys who came with me to the conference digested the content as they considered how to apply it not only to our own lives, but also to the students we served back home at church.

In the middle of our conversation another youth pastor came up to us and jumped into the conversation. I don’t know who he was or where he was from. All I know is that his statements totally caught me off guard. “This stuff is really good,” he said matter-of-factly. “Not much is applicable for youth ministry though. Glad we don’t have to worry about using all of this with students.” I don’t think I even responded.

Many of you would agree with me about the absurdity of his comment. Yet, sadly, this is how thousands of youth ministries across the nation operate. Jesus is fine for big church, but he won’t keep students engaged. Jesus is okay for my daily devotions, but students need something more to capture their attention. Jesus is great for those who want to go deeper, but we need to start with something else to get them in the door on Wednesday night.

In more than 11 years working with students in many different capacities in many different settings, I have found the exact opposite to be true. Ministries that focus on anything but Jesus may fill the seats on Wednesday night, but they do not prepare students to live in the real world. That guy at The Gospel Coalition National Conference, along with countless other youth ministers, failed to build his ministry on Jesus.

Bought the Lie

Students have many different needs today: acceptance, belonging, discipline, jobs, and so on. But in all cultures in every generation, all students need a true Savior. The students who every week reluctantly attend your church with their parents have one overarching need in their life. They need to see that Jesus is the only foundation on which they can build their hope, joy, and security. Anything else will leave them needing more, looking elsewhere, and suffering loss.

We have bought the lie that if we can simply get students in the door, entertain them, and keep them happy, we will somehow make disciples of the students in our church. So every couple years, at most, we seek new styles, systems, and methods for youth ministry. In a rapidly changing culture we seek cutting-edge games, activities, outings, missions trips, and weekends away to keep the students happy.

But revamping youth ministry to make it more appealing won’t necessarily solve our problem with reaching and keeping students. No, the very foundation needs to change. In Isaiah 28 the prophet uses the picture of Christ as the cornerstone upon which life must be built. This image is used again in 1 Peter, and Jesus even shows us that Isaiah was talking about him (Mark 12:10). Tragically, Israel placed their hope on something else, a treaty with Egypt (Isa. 28.15).

Likewise, many youth leaders have built our hope on something other than Jesus. We have built on a foundation other than the only cornerstone that can truly stand the waves of life that you and your students will pass through. Students in 2013 need the same foundation as students of the 1950s and even those who lived in Isaiah’s day. It is what Adam and Eve needed to remember in the garden during their temptation. Only God always delivers on his promises.

Many of us have made a proverbial treaty with Egypt: the Egypt of entertainment, wisdom, programing, and fun. But our students need something more helpful and biblical. Something that will withstand their parents’ divorce, bullying, pressure to give up what God has preserved for marriage, war, and countless other things. A life built only on fun loses its luster when real life hits. And trust me, real life is hitting even earlier for many students these days.

Our Call

Love youth enough to win them with the foundation truth of Jesus, his love, his forgiveness for their wrongdoing, his loving acceptance, and most of all his sacrifice, which made it possible to be right with God the Father. Many pastors have observed, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” I want students to be won to Jesus, not jokes and games. I must trust in the Spirit, not my amazing programs, to work in my midst.

We’re called to build our lives on the firm foundation of Christ, the chosen, precious cornerstone, and we will not be put to shame (1 Peter 2.4-7). I don’t know about you, but I have seen God as more than faithful in my life. There will always be another method of how to do youth ministry, or the best way to reach students. Let’s take God at his word and build our ministries on Jesus and Jesus alone. He is the only firm foundation your students need.

* * * * * * * * * *

Join us next month for The Gospel Coalition 2013 National Conference and learn more from Josh Cousineau when you sign up for his workshop with Nate Morgan Locke on “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Building on Jesus not the Jokes.” When you register for TGC13 in Orlando, you can also hear from Tim Hawkins and Dave Wright on “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: Jesus’ Mission to the Next Generation.”

  • Sam

    Thank you for this.

    i think our churches need to be on the front lines of challenging the so called “youth culture.” The idea that teens are a different specimen of human than adults or children is a marketing tool, not a biblical idea. While the social, emotional, and physical contexts may be different, students have the same basic needs as grown ups: To love Jesus Christ from the heart.

  • Frank Gil

    Excellent Post! I hope this challenges Youth Pastors across the country the way it challenged me!

    • Josh Cousineau

      Frank, would love to know what hit you, and how it challenged you? Are you in youth ministry? How do you go about bringing the change that you feel the Sprit is leading you?


  • Stephen Schultze

    Well said! I think this needs to be heard by leaders AND students! We tell students consistently that the one thing that brings us together is Jesus Christ as expressed in the Word of God! I’ve never had a young person come back and say that fun changed their life…but many have returned to share how the Word of God DID prepare them for the realities of loving Jesus Christ for the rest of their life. May we KNOW Jesus, LOVE Jesus and LIVE Jesus!

  • Elizabeth DeBarros

    Thank you. This message bears repeating, again and again. By allowing the City of Man to inculcate our methods, we’ve lost the City of God.

    Here’s a relevant post I wrote on the matter a few years ago:

  • Chris Talbot


    This is a subject that I care very deeply about and have faced the same sort of detraction as you. It is unfortunate that we have “ghettoized” the youth of our Church. Ironically, I just recently wrote an essay on this subject for a website. I’d love to hear your, or others, thoughts on it:

  • john

    I totally agree and track with you that the foundation has to be on Chirst alone (“his love, his forgiveness for their wrongdoing, his loving acceptance, and most of all his sacrifice, which made it possible to be right with God the Father”) and not on cokes and jokes and games … But Josh do you play games with students – do you joke with them – do you take them on mission trips, outings, do you have pizza with students, etc…? Is not the relationship aspect of youth ministry (and ministry as a whole) important as well? Pizza, games, cokes and jokes do not change students lives – only the Word of God does! only seeing Jesus for who He really is does! But games, jokes, cokes and pizza sure do set up opportunities to have conversations, build relationships and fellowship and I will dare to say even have fun! A solid balance key!

    • Josh Cousineau

      John, I agree and believe that the community aspect is key to all ministry, the jokes, fun etc.. is all part of doing gospel ministry, with teens or anyone. Isn’t this how Jesus did His ministry? Parties, walks, eating and so on? Yet the whole time He was about His fathers business. So in the midst of our fun the foundational truth should not change.

      I hope that clarifies a little bro.

  • Batreader
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  • Mark Zellner

    I agree wholeheartedly. Love the quote ‘what you win them with you win them to’. That is so true. Hope more ministers wake up to the truth you’ve proclaimed.

  • Kraig

    As I walked by the student auditorium last night of a prominent SBC church, I heard loud music that sounded out of place. As I peered through the door into the crowded, dark auditorium, I learned that the students were excitedly watching the “Harlem shake” video they made the week before. Immediately I thanked God for not calling me to youth ministry. But to those for whom he did call: May God help you to not be Really Hip and Cool.

  • Joey Cochran

    Josh, fantastic post! If you have a minute shoot me an e-mail, I have a story to tell you.

  • J. Gardner

    I think the point is well taken and well intended. I agree that there are many youth ministries that run astray on the popularity and attraction model. Is it possible, however, to hear the occasional positive towards youth ministry from someone in TGC? Are there testimonies of youth pastors that could get some front and center attention about how things are going well in evangelicalism? I would love to hear about gospel-centered ministries that are succeeding, if for nothing else than a little hope in the YM process. It seems as though most articles on the site (and others) start with “Here is some gigantic problem in contemporary youth ministry, and a few examples of how almost every Youth Pastor is screwing up the next generation of leaders” and then 3 ways to fix it. I think articles like this are essential to the task of right evaluation and competent practice, but they seem to be the exclusive approach to discussing Youth Ministry on TGC’s website. I want to make sure to emphasize I have no ill will toward the author or to the excellent points he has made. My only struggle is with TGC’s website in it’s multiplicity of similar articles that can wear down competent, intentional, and gospel centered youth pastors.

    • Josh Cousineau


      No ill will taken, I cannot speak for TGC (as I only wrote this one piece) but I know there are many great stories of people who do have their youth ministry firmly built on Jesus, and the fruit is beautiful. I know for myself, we have seen students come to love and treasure Jesus more than we could have dreamed. We have seen sin overcome, the broken mended and the lost come into a relationship with their Father.

      Often times these types of articles are simply a ‘reminder’ for us that are already doing ministry this way, that we are on the right path and a call for those who have wandered off the path. I would encourage you to check out the Rooted blog (which is in my bio above) as they are a ministry devoted to this type of ministry, and have a ton of great content.

      Thanks for serving students and for interacting here.


  • Jonathan Pearson

    Man, this article hit the matter right on the head. At the church I was at previously, this was a huge issue. I was striving to build a foundation on Jesus and Scripture and it was being systematically attacked by the other volunteers and even the senior pastor. They wanted fun, not the Bible. I was even told that I was “weird” because I liked reading the Bible. The pastor told me it was okay that our Sunday School teachers didn’t have daily quiet times and that I really couldn’t expect it, that the most important thing in the youth ministry was building a relationship with the students. It was a sad thing.

  • David Grant

    Josh, thanks so much for pointing us (youth workers) to Jesus. All ministry (student / adult) must be built on the work and sustaining power of Jesus. He provides the resource and as a result he receives the glory. He is the one who brings fruit that remains. In our ministry I long for all adults and students to savor Jesus.

    But to be honest I don’t understand how having fun or living in community is contrary to Jesus centered ministry. I’m not saying that is your position but many of those who comment seem to reflect this philosophy.

    If the gospel is about restoring all things and worship about our life it seems that having fun could be as honoring to God and exegeting scripture.

    Of course there are ministries that are only attractional and very light on relational discipleship, but I believe it brings no glory to God for feeling better about ourselves by saying “we’re not like those ministries, we hate fun”.

    A huge part of ministry is about accepting students where they are and pointing them to Jesus and helping them grow in Jesus. Sometimes this relationship begins at a football game, coffee shop or fun youth event.

    Can’t we just be balanced? It’s not all Bible study all the time. It’s not all fun and games all the time.

    A youth ministry isn’t more “gospel centered” just because there’s no fun.

    To repent I think everyone who has commented on this blog should right now, stand up, and do the Harlem Shake. :)

    • Josh Cousineau

      I just finished the Harlem Shake, although I am alone in my office so it wasn’t all that great.

      I totally agree, community, fun, interaction are all part of the call to ministry to all people, isn’t that how Jesus dd it? I also agree that too often ‘Jesus-centered’ or ‘gospel-centered’ gets connected with boring, which it shouldn’t. To be honest, a ministry that is founded on Jesus should be the best ministry, and all those fun things should be an outworking of it. So community is key to truly understanding Jesus, because the Bible over and over again informs us that we were not created to do this alone.

      The article is saying, ‘make sure the foundation is Jesus, build on Him.’ So if you never do anything more than sit in a circle and sing worship songs, I am not sure you are being biblical. Likewise if you only have deep theological discussions, I also am not sure you are being biblical. There has to be a balance, as you said, but the foundation upon which that balance is build must be Jesus.

      In essence your ministry modle may be vastly different than mine, but if we are both build on Jesus, we are both fulfilling what Jesus has called us to do.

      I hope you hear my heart in this, do all those things students need in their life, just please do not 1) let those be the goal or 2) let those be the foundation for your ministry.

      Thanks man!

      • David Grant

        Thanks Josh, I do hear your heart. In reality our ministry models are probably very similar.

        I just want us to be careful they we don’t create a caricature of student ministry that makes us feel we’re just a little bit better.

        Have a great weekend.

  • Bob Cleveland

    Good stuff. I think the way to get young people interested in church is to get them involved. Our church is now training folks to be “greeters”, and using whole families including children. Impressing them with how important that task is. Making them feel part of the church, not just recipients of something the church does.

  • Phil Bell

    Josh, thanks for your post. I am glad it has stirred conversation. You said, “Many of us have made a proverbial treaty with Egypt: the Egypt of entertainment, wisdom, programing, and fun. But our students need something more helpful and biblical. Something that will withstand their parents’ divorce, bullying, pressure to give up what God has preserved for marriage, war, and countless other things. A life built only on fun loses its luster when real life hits. And trust me, real life is hitting even earlier for many students these days…”

    I have been in youth ministry nearly 20 years. I am glad to report to you that many of my peers have not taken a trip to Egypt. While many youth ministries still to lose sight of the Gospel, I am seeing the landscape change dramatically.

    While many have “bought the lie,” the majority of my youth ministry peers are ministering in the truth…

    As I see it, there’s been a switch in four key areas in the last 5-10 years:

    1) Discipleship Focus: Ministries becoming more discipleship based ministry and helping students become self-feeders of their faith.

    2) Partnering with Parents: We are seeing movements all across the world to help churches partner with parents and help them be the primary disciple makers. Organizations like Homeword, Sticky Faith, and Orange are all centered on this key issue.

    3) Equipping Students for Ministry and Evangelism: People like Dare2Share are waving the banner for student led evangelism as well as helping youth workers equip their students to share the Gospel. Before now it was, “bring your friends to church and we’ll teach them.” Now it is becoming, “let us help you discover ways in which you can share your faith with your friends and family.”

    4) Church and Students Come Together: We are seeing that keeping students separate from the church family is unhealthy. I am consistently talking to youth workers who are actively finding ways to get students out of their youth room and into the church…

    I wanted to mention these bright spots in ministry, since it’s imperative we talk about what is working well too… I know it’s not all good out there, but we can’t assume all youth ministries are getting it wrong…

    I do want to add that, just as Paul talked the language of the Athenians (which was intellect and philosophy), we need to realize that starting place for the language of youth culture has been entertainment and humor. For me, I use it as a bridge to their hearts and minds… If anyone says that games and fun is wasted time in youth ministry, they have missed the point… I would assert that it is a missionaries job to understand and speak the language of the people before they present the gospel. As a youth worker, I am a missionary to students. I speak their language first, then I address their deepest needs and help them understand and live the Gospel.

    I don’t think you meant this, but your post does seem to assume that most of us are taking a party bus to Egypt, when I don’t think this is the case. I would appreciate some clarification if I have interpreted this incorrectly? BUT, as always, it’s very difficult to communicate everything in one blog post :-)

    Thanks for putting the challenge out there for us all! Let’s keep focused on Jesus together :-)

    Phil <

    • Josh Cousineau

      Phil, thanks for sharing those. I also have many ministry in New England that have not sold out, they are firmly built on Jesus, and the fruit is there.

      So thankful for the Spirit leading us together on this mission!


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  • Mark Zellner

    To the author, I would like to hear more of your thoughts on this:

    “Let’s take God at his word and build our ministries on Jesus and Jesus alone. He is the only firm foundation your students need.”

    What does that look like exactly? Within the context of a Wed night youth meeting, what does building a ministry on Jesus alone consist of? And just as important, what does it exclude?

    • Josh Cousineau


      I am not sure I would want to make a ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ list for youth ministry. I would say there are some things that are unbiblical, which we would never want to do. These would be things we all agree on. Not the gray stuff, but the out there sin stuff. So I don’t need to unpack that.

      Much of the ‘do’ is going to be driven by context and structure. What I mean by this is, if you only interact with students on Wed night then, and dont have any other connection with them, than I would say you should have a time that you are in the Word of God with them, you pray with them and have them pray with each other. But say you meet on Wed night, and also have a small group ministry that really spends the majority of their time on Friday night in the word, than is it wrong to use Wed night as a time to pray and maybe just connect as a community of believers or to do a service project where they are living out their faith in deeds and even declaration.

      For me there has always been a grid of what we need to make sure we are hitting each week, we want to be in the word and in prayer (Gospel) which is our time to remember what Jesus has done and seek the Spirit to lead us to hear what He is doing here and now. We also want to connect to encourage each other, fight sin together and just hang out (Community). Finally, our group should not be a country club, but it should be reaching those in our neighborhood, schools and towns with the good news of Jesus (Mission).

      I would see that a ministry that is founded on Jesus would have these three (Gospel, Community, Mission) things in them in some way. The way that happens will look very different depending on where you are and the students you minister with. That is why simply drawing up a ‘do’ and ‘don’t’ list isn’t always helpful, and can even be harmful, in my view.

      Not sure if that helps you out at all Mark. I would be more than willing to chat more about your situation if you are struggling to know what this looks like. But for me these are three, handels so to speak, which you can grab and build around.


  • Paul Cummings

    Josh, thanks for your passion and heart. I think another place that may be partly to blame is the culture of churches concerning how they view and hire their youth pastors. It’s widely seen by churches as this “jr” level of ministry, worthy of some young person fresh out of school who’s energy is more prized than commitment to discipleship. I can’t tell you how many times someone has said “oh they are a pastor at so and so church” only to hear someone respond by saying… “We’ll…a YOUTH pastor” …as if that significantly lessens their credibility. It’s a both-and problem… Youth pastors have treated their jobs as merely stepping stones and churches have treated them as “dime a dozen”… Thinking that “if this one doesn’t work, well… We’ll just scoop up another.”
    All of this has led to a lack of taking youth ministry seriously. Not sure however what the solution is…. Because no church is going to hire a fresh out of seminary grad to be their lead pastor, and most youth pastors have a “shelf life” in wanting to stay in youth ministry (I don’t know what this is, but I’ve never met a 65yr old youth pastor). If churches raised the bar (and the pay) we could change the culture I think…

  • Tom Lowry

    I spent more than thirty years working with students, before the last thirteen (and counting) in other ministry areas. I am thankful that early on I was challenged to make my ministry focused on Jesus and not games and fun. “What you win them on is what you keep them on,” a friend used to say. Jesus must be our focus, and we must teach the Word, all of it.

  • CS

    I hate writing this. Truly. I’m not being sarcastic or snarky; it seems so antiquated and out of date…so yesterday. But didn’t we used to call Youth Ministers mom and dad? Am I showing my age and bias?

    I understand that there are young people whose parents don’t attend…I get it. But the majority of those have friends, or at the least were invited by young people that DO have a mom and dad that attend.

    Bottom line, shouldn’t the Body of Christ – the mature believers – be taking collective responsibility for the youth, no matter their particular relationship with the young people? Don’t we each have a responsibility to care for the orphans?

    It worked for centuries and it works in a number of churches I know. Have things really changed that much?

    Again, I’m not trying to be controversial…I just simply do not understand the motivation for dedicated youth ministry if the body is functioning properly.

  • Andy

    It seems in the reformed world youth ministries is the perpetual whipping child. There are a lot of good things happening in the world of Student Ministries. Check out this article from Greg Stier.

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  • Eric Gargus

    There’s always going to be some group who believes they, like Moses led God’s people out of bondage, will lead youth pastors to the Promised land. Unfortunately, these types would be better served to close their traps get on their knees in prayer. I’ve been doing this 15 years and watched them come and go. The high horse eventually comes down. One thing remains– God’s Word.

    There’s too much of the “Buy my book: God’s way to reach and disciple students” and not enough “Shut up and make disciples!” If you need to look at other youth ministries to make you feel better about yourself and your ministry, then perhaps you can recall the attitude of the Pharisees who so vehemently attacked Christ’s unconventional ways of ministering.

    In the real world, there are broken families and conflicted teens. And in the real world, many parents aren’t pulling their weight as disciplers. Furthermore, in the real world pious attitudes are guiding people who are watching straight to hell on a daily basis.
    Blessings on you all. Now shut up and make disciples! ;)

  • Matt Thompson

    Hey Josh,

    Thanks so much for your article! By God’s grace and only for His glory have we seen what God does through a student ministry that has a foundation built on Christ. Everything that we desire (or should desire!) to see happen in student ministries happens when the foundation is built on Jesus!

    I believe we have worshipped for way too long at the alter of numbers and so have neglected to proclaim Christ above all else (Colossians 1:28-29)! JESUS is what every teen desperately needs and we have instead given them games, glitz, glamor, girls/guys, being in a group that is cool… what about the life-changing truths of the GOSPEL!? I truly believe that many students are leaving the church in droves because we have proclaimed that which has caused them to fall more in love with the things of the world then with CHRIST!

    It is sad how our students minds are capable of wrestling with some of the most complex mathematic algorithms daily in school, only to be babied that very same night with the man-centered “teachings” of shallow student ministries. May we raise the bar theologically in our own minds and hearts, and call our students to join us in placing their thoughts on things above and the glorious mysteries of Christ and Him crucified as only found in His Word!

    Men, lets never settle for anything less! May our student ministries be in line with II Corinthians 4:5, “For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.”

    Josh, thanks again for your article and commitment to what the unshaken foundation of student ministries should be: JESUS!

    All for the fame of Jesus’ name,

    Matt Thompson

  • Jay

    Hi Josh,

    I just really want to be clear with what your article is saying. I’m from another part of the world, which is in Asia but specifically what I want to ask is, “what is the context or background of the churches that you describe?” Are these youth ministry’s just doing programs (without the effort of sharing the gospel) rather than bible/gospel-centered sermons? Fun games and events without discipleship?

    It would really help our ministry if you can clarify the details (background) behind the article and maybe sharing about what you did in your ministry to create an environment that would be more focused on the foundation (Jesus) in lieu of the rise of participant-centered programming rather than Jesus-centric or gospel-centric programs.