the death of the buddy youthworker

This article was originally published November 15, 2011.

It goes without saying that youth ministry is always changing. (Oops. Well, it would have.)

I grew up in the land of the forgotten nightmares of Unsafe Sanctuaries. “Chubby Bunny” was the least of our worries. Our adults were encouraged to take kids off alone; we’d go fishing in the middle of nowhere with a Sunday school teacher. We’d play cash card games on choir tour with trip money loaned to us by the leaders for the evening. We shared hotel beds with our youth workers. And it really wasn’t about seat belts as much as it was about how many kids you could stuff into the borrowed custom van to drive to Florida.

It was all good youth ministry. You could ask anybody.

Most of those nightmares have faded into the morning light of “common sense” in our current climate of appropriate relationships and acceptable adult ratios. But our satisfaction with how we’ve corrected the past makes it so easy to forget one of the most obvious lessons we can learn from the big picture of youth ministry history: if we’ve got a rule about something in youth ministry, 99% of the time that rule reverses something that was once common practice. Which means without a doubt that much of what we’re doing today will be frowned on in 5-10 years and disallowed in 15. What are we doing wrong right now?

I think the buddy youth worker is dying. Or maybe needs to.

There’s an interesting societal dichotomy in progress between how we interact with our kids at school and how we interact with them at church. Schools have crystal clear boundaries about how/when/why teachers can interact with students. Even in the most relaxed communities eyebrows are raised if a student and teacher appear to be developing a friendship beyond the interaction of student and teacher. But at church the youthworker is expected in many cases to break down that boundary; you’re not just their spiritual instructor, you’re supposed to be their friend. Their awkward friend that always needs to have another adult in the room.

My wife and I were talking the other day about how awesome our son’s 1st grade teacher is. To watch her work is like looking into a magical fairyland of knowledge and fun and control; she’s fearless, loving, and always knows just what to do. As we talked, it occurred to me: of course she is. For her, they’re always in the first grade. She’s an expert in 6-years-old. If our son Grey stayed 6 years old for 20 years, we’d probably get pretty good at handling him too. But we, like all parents, live in the real world of kids that are always getting older, never quite getting a handle on this age before they move to the next. And, as much awesome as she brings to his 1st grade world, I’d never want to just hand over this part of his life to her.

The buddy youthworker needs to take note of that distinction. We are often the loudest voice into the spirituality of youth. Sometimes the most most informed. Almost never the most influential. Parents have been, are, and will remain the single largest influence into the lives of youth. Youthworkers, according to a study I saw once somewhere, rank somewhere around #17. I believe “dentist” was #16 on the list. What’s alarming is that #1 regularly drops off their child to #17, believing that all-things-spiritual are in better hands. The sentiment echoes in their own words: “We’re afraid to talk about this stuff at home; we feel like they know more about spiritual stuff than we do.” “We don’t want to look dumb.” “We’re so grateful that you’re here to teach them all this stuff.”

The problem is that we’re not talking about ABCs or months-in-order or what colors mixed together make what other colors, all bits of knowledge we’re content to let Mrs. Downer (best teacher name ever) teach Grey. We’re not simply dispensing spiritual facts or information; we’re talking about living lives of discipleship, lives motivated to becoming more Christlike and following hard after God, even when we misstep. There are incredibly valuable lessons to be learned in those missteps, particularly when you learn them from your parents. But by letting the parents hand off spiritual training to youth ministry, we’re letting youth learn that; that when it comes to spirituality, we can’t handle it in the home. It’s not something that we talk about at home much; we’re so glad you’re learning about it somewhere. Hopefully when you have kids of your own you’ll be able to find a church to drop them off at to learn about this stuff.

Back to the dying buddy.

I think the window where churches can allow youthworkers to exist as “friends” to their youth is closing. Churches have begun closing off closeness in those relationships (and with good reason). Policies are starting to exist about interaction through social media. If the schools are any indication (and they are), it’s worth noting that some school systems are now disallowing their teachers to have friends on Facebook under the age of 18. Interaction outside of school is discouraged, heavily. So what happens when the church begins to close these same doors? What happens when in 5 to 10 years youthworkers are discouraged from individual student contact?

Seriously, what happens?

I feel like we must move quickly to re-empower parents to be spiritual leaders. Or at least make them aware that they are the spiritual leaders in the lives of their kids. For good or for bad. What are they teaching them by the way they live? What would they rather be teaching them? How can we help that process?

I’ve got a pile of questions I’d love to hear some feedback on. What remains valid about the youthworker/youth relationship? What do you think needs to change? If ministry shifts to re-empower families, what happens to youth in less-than-supportive families? Youth without families?

Do tell.



KEVIN ALTON :: the tall one @ the youthworker circuit
youthworker :: musician :: friend :: twitter: @elvisfreakshow ::



  1. Great post, Kevin. I’ve believed for a while that the “buddy youthworker” has been dead/dying for a while. But you know, I’m not all broken up about it. When I was 21 and my kids were 15, the “buddy” mentality worked. It was normal to be the Christian big brother figure. Now that I’m 35, the buddy approach is contrived and not nearly as natural when I was closer to their age. And this is not a detriment to my ministry. Without the “buddy system”, I feel like my students respect me more as a leader and as an authority figure. I am still their friend on Facebook, but I don’t meet them for lunch at Taco Bell. A lot of that is because of our church policy, some of it is common sense, but some of it is just me finding more creative ways to connect with my kids. The biggest thing I do now is really try to capitalize on time I spend with them on youth events and retreats. This is normal and expected whereas the one-on-one lunch “interview” is a little creepy. This is a great post. thanks for sharing!

  2. Thank you Jesus (and Gavin) for this post! I am a teacher and a youth worker and I have a much better relationship with my schools kids because we have clear(er) boundaries. Just because I don’t let you do everything you want doesn’t mean I don’t love you!

  3. I believe what is commonly called “buddy youthworker” and what is discussed in this article are not the same thing. Buddy youthworker has for years (decades?) meant someone who tried to reach out to youth by being like them, by trying to be cool, by trying to get the youth to like them. The old “lets hire a 20 year old with a goatee” cliche fits here. But this has been dead for a long time (in most churches and most denominations).
    I believe what this article is referring to is relational youth ministry. And that, my friends, will never die. I’m sorry. That’s how youth ministry is done. Face to face. Person to person. You pay attention to the kids. You really listen to them. You go to their ball games or concerts. The group goes on trips together and community increases. You are called together to be a supportive community. To push faith formation back to the individual homes is a mistake. Yes, parents are #1 influence and family ministry must be encouraged, but there is an undeniable need for a safe place where kids can share their struggles and get support. You need MORE adults connected with youth, not fewer (check recent Sticky Faith research).
    This article seems to be saying “if you want to hang out with (read minister to) youth, people will think you are a creeper and so social institutions (read churches) will develop policies to stop you.” Not my church–or it won’t be my church. This type of ministry is way too detached and way too sterile for me. Yes, I have boundaries. I wouldn’t have lasted 35+ years in youth ministry if I didn’t. But lets not throw the baby out with the bath water.

    • Completely agree 1000% with what Richard Jones said in his reply. We are the body of Christ and we are a spiritual family. I once had a teen share that she was a little creeped out when a teacher texted her on her phone. I asked her how that is different from me. She said it’s totally different because I know her and her parents and am good friends with them. It is important to build a relationship with the entire family. It is also important to know how teens communicate and to use that technology whether it is Facebook, texting, e-mail, etc. To insist on sterile, hard boundaries will alienate the teens from the church or youth group. Of course it is important to have smart boundaries to protect your leaders and the teens. Common sense stuff. But to overreact and go to the opposite extreme will hollow out the heart of any healthy youth ministry.

      • “She said it’s totally different because I know her and her parents and am good friends with them. It is important to build a relationship with the entire family. It is also important to know how teens communicate and to use that technology whether it is Facebook, texting, e-mail, etc.”

        I appreciated this youth’s and Scott’s insight – absolutely. Makes such good sense. And I believe the heart of any healthy and growing youth ministry is understanding that youth are not sole entities – they are part of many communities (as we all are). As adult leaders in youth ministry, we need to be in ongoing, extended ministry with the youth’s core family and extended communities’ as well as be present and connected to youth culture and context. Youth ministry is much more than formal education, but it MUST incorporate appropriate boundaries. Boundaries are and always should be important modeling for the church to manifest. We should be leading this – not following the public school system.

        Thank you for the challenging and important post and the responses. Honestly, I think even the word “buddy” sort of creeps me out, but “Pastor to Youth and Families” (or Director) does not. Pastor and Teacher are different and both extremely important roles in youth context today. Friends are important, but as I tell my own children “I am not your best friend; (I’m even better than that!!) I am your MaMa.” To my youth, I would say “I am not your best friend; I am your Pastor.”

        It’s good to work on defining our roles. Thank you for the conversation, everyone.

  4. I agree with what Richard Jones said. Yet, I also agree with the last two paragraphs of Kevin’s article: an emphasis must be placed on equipping (re-empower) parents! While relational ministry with our teens is a key and should never die, it is time youth workers be just as ministry minded with the parents of the teens. The D6 conferences and Faith@Home seminars are just a couple of the places we are starting to see this emphasis become a priority. The Sticky Faith research Richard referred to earlier is also a great resource.

    • Oh, and I also totally, utterly agree and believe that families need to be invited, encouraged, challenged and led into (dragged???) being a strong, formative part of their children’s faith development!!

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