ruining the spiritual lives of youth on purpose

What do you do when you know that a youth in your group would be better suited to another practice of faith?

I was talking with a school counselor the other day about a student. I’d be to this counselor for the first few sessions with the youth in question to help establish trust in their relationship. After a few more sessions, the counselor determined that her style of counseling just wasn’t a good fit for how this student was processing the counseling relationship, so she was referring the youth to a different counselor that would be more likely to be helpful. You hear about that kind of thing all the time in counseling, medical practices, etc. “You’ll get better help over there; we’re gonna let them take care of you like you need.”

Why don’t we do that in youth ministry?

This is probably more of an argument against our general practice of church than just youth ministry. Our churches will contort themselves unbelievably to land on just the right blend of “what everybody wants” to be as welcoming, intentional, and vital as we can be to as many as we can. We’re just trying to give them what they want, but a lot of the time by trying to reach everybody we forget to reach somebody. Buried in that effort as well is the notion that any one church is somehow actually capable of ministering well to anyone that walks through its doors. What are the odds of any church really being equipped to do that?

And we do it in youth ministry too. We get awfully focused on new faces, total numbers present, attendance ratios in relation to total worship for the church, and a million other indicators that don’t have anything to do with connecting youth to God. We feel like it’s our fault if a youth stops coming. It simply cannot be that our ministry isn’t meeting their needs. What can we do better/more/differently to keep you? What do you mean you “just don’t like it”?

What if we were more honest about it? Think through your group. Who do you already know you’re not reaching? Is there anything you can do to change that? I’m not advocating that we start sitting down with families and “refer” them to other churches. But if that would genuinely benefit them, would we be willing to do that? How would that conversation even go?

Behind all of this is a very specific situation within my own ministry. There’s a youth in our group that needs a different church. This kid is going to drown in Methodism. The family is the worst kind of a different faith background, continually telling her that she’s going to hell for things that she thinks and things that she doesn’t think. So her primary spiritual focus, naturally, is hell-avoidance. She enters our youth group through an odd side door through a community event. She loves our group and they love her. But she’s not getting what she needs spiritually, because she’s desperate for assurances that our theology just doesn’t provide. She needs to know that the magical “saved switch” has been properly flipped within her soul. And that it will stay flipped, no matter what. So that she knows “beyond a shadow of a doubt” that she has experienced a very real saving from a very real fiery hell.

I can love her, I can pray for her, and I can be there for her, but our heads will never come together about grace & eternity. Her home environment isn’t even letting her have the warmth and security that her beliefs should provide for her. And I really want her to have that, even though I disagree with a lot of it. And I know she could find it in a warm, loving environment at the church that is nearly literally across the street from ours. So I should trade her, right? They’ve got to have a mildly progressive kid over there that’s always asking pestering questions about scripture. That kid would get a lot from us.

But I don’t, because you can’t actually do that. So week after week I provide programs that don’t scratch that itch. And week after week she remains afraid and unsatisfied. I’m ruining her spiritual life on purpose, because we never want to lose anybody. Right?

What would you do?




  1. Seems to me that a theology that doesn’t provide at least a modest level of salvation assurance is a theology that doesn’t jibe with the gospel Jesus presented, denominational differences or otherwise. There are deeper issues at work here than denominational uncertainties. If Methodism (and yes, i am a methodist) isn’t providing the assurance she needs, then i see one of two problems. A) Methodism is not clearly portraying biblical grace, OR, B) this young lady doesn’t really need more assurance of salvation. she needs a better understanding of Christ’s work and God’s nature. I suspect the answer is B, although i can only speak for Methodism in Indiana. I say this because being told we’re saved carries little weight in our hearts. Encountering that salvation in a divine way does.

    At it’s core, the issue is not whether the denomination is meeting her needs. The issue is overcoming emotional baggage. If that baggage stays put, NO amount of reassurance from ANY denomination will ever give her peace.

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