why youth ministry is broken.

It’s short: hardly anybody knows how to care for a youth from 6th grade to 12th grade.

From there, obviously, it gets complicated. I came to that realization last year as my own son hit 1st grade. He had an incredible 1st grade teacher–Mrs. Downer. (Perfect teacher name.) At the end of his 1st grade year, she retired after 30 or so years of elementary education. When we met her, it was so obvious–she was an expert at 6 & 7 year olds. She’d met every kind, and knew how to engage and teach and discipline everything any 6 & 7 year old could possibly throw at her.

This offset another truth I’ve observed over time in parents of multiple children, particularly if there’s a little age difference between them–parents often seem to believe that the developmental information that they gleaned from child #1 will apply to child #2. In most cases, it doesn’t; at that point they can become scared and gun-shy about trying to figure out their own kid. It does in broad strokes, but in the day-to-day every kid will respond to life, discipline, and faith very, very differently.

Oh, faith: enter the youthworker. So in a world where parents increasingly take their kids to activity X to have them learn activity X from the Xperts (sorry), the spiritual development of youth gets similarly compartmentalized. So after the kid gets dropped off at the school to learn football from Coach Bob and his 20+ years of high school football wisdom, we’ll drop him off at the church to learn spirituality from Youth Leader Steve with his whatever years of experience. Behold, the problem.

The average youth room youthworker will never have those years of experience. The average youth ministry career lasts barely longer than half of the amount of time that it takes a youth to move from 6th grade to 12th grade. If your youth ministry career lasts 10 years, you acquire a “veteran” tag because, in theory, you’ve seen 3 years worth of kids from 6-12, but in reality, you haven’t; in all likelihood you moved at some point, and ordinary social dynamics kept you from seeing your former 6th graders to completion or getting to form legitimate relationships with your new, exiting upperclassmen.

From there there’s a weird fragmentation of roles that ruins things for the kids. The genuine spiritual influence in the life of a youth, for good or bad, is their parent or parents. The parents, despite their years of influence, don’t feel equipped to raise their kids spiritually, so they drop them off in the youth room with the “experts” who, in reality, aren’t. The real “experts” in youth ministry haven’t set foot in a local youth room in years. They’re off somewhere writing great things or speaking great ideals or waxing profound about broader concepts of ministry that keep veteran youthworkers clinging to some hope that what they’re doing does matter, even if it’s imperfectly executed in 3-6 year bursts of church ministry across their 10-15 year career. And that’s a best case scenario.

Meanwhile a kid somewhere bounces from spiritual oasis to spiritual oasis found in their friends’ half-formed spiritual identities. While we somehow can’t seem to align actual influence (parents) with perceived source of influence & knowledge (youthworkers) with actual knowledge (the writing, speaking, teaching, non-youthworking vets).

It seems like all the ingredients are there, but this pie sucks. It’s broken.



  1. I am writing, and I am still doing weekly direct work with kids in ministry and in my clinical practice. The real truth, methinks, is that most parents, adults, ministers, and congregations are only willing to pay lip service to youth ministry. Until the church gets serious about children, youth, and family ministry, we will continue the downward spiral. The problem isn’t a lack of knowledge and know how, but a lack of support and respect for YM’s and a ‘kick the can down the road’ mentality in the church.

  2. There are definitely some challenges named here. What may be part of the answer is not youth workers but mentors who will grow with the youth through those years, pay attention to them and be interested int hem and available to them throughout their years. If youth are paired with a mentor who has some common ground in both interests and personality, the relationships formed here will carry through the years. I was the mentor for a high school student more than 20 years ago who called me two days ago to discuss what is going on her life. She, as an adult, has also been a support for me. Not to say it is easy — relationships of any kind are not easy. But we talked through her college years — and I drove the three hours to her college on several occasions, even to meet her for a show in Memphis. We talked through her dating and marriage, the births of her children, and career changes. Bonds formed in her teen years have remained despite distance (I’m now 500 miles away, but will see her in May when I travel to where she is, and in June when she will be in my direction for a conference.) It has been a blessing.

  3. These are good honest thoughts. If these statements are true, and they seem to be for a majority of churchy context, this may require a “zooming out” to view more of the situation- If our youthministry situation is in an overall broken state (which, statistically can be supported with the decline in the western/american church-young people do not return to church as they have in past generations) maybe we should look at the format/organizational structure of the church? If this is something that is not an anomaly, but rather something standard we need to reassess as a “church.” We have maintained a CEO mentality instead of a community of believers mentality. Christianity/faith development has been left to the “professionals” and I don’t see that qualification or ideal in anything Jesus ever did or said.
    What if we rather than “led youth” engaged in their lives? (Of course this starts with parents, but again- has the church as a whole supported the mentality mentioned here that christianity is not a life status- something we are, rather than something we do?)
    What if we didnt drive miles and miles to work at the big church with the fancy stuff, where it is safe and cozy, where christianity is but an activity, but rather intentionally engaged the young people around our home and community where we live and did so intentionally?
    We can “fix” what is amiss with youth workers, but not if we are not willing to address the obvious issues within “church culture.”

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