October 23, 2017

Five Things That Youth Ministers Need To Hear (and you’re afraid to tell them, so, OK, I’ll do it.)

ym.jpgAt least once a month, someone writes me about their youth minister. What to do…what to do…what to do….with the zealous, sincere, yet wrong-headed young fellow who is about to split the church between the youth who would die for him and the adults who want to kill him.

I suppose I am a member of the youth minister’s fraternal for the rest of my earthly life. I’ve been involved with teenagers in ministry for almost all of my 30 years of paid ministry. I’ve been the college-age youth director and the seminary graduated, full-time associate pastor with youth responsibilities. I’ve done everything youth ministers do, over and over and over, till I went to the hospital and got medication for my blood pressure. I’ve also been a pastor who fired and hired youth ministers, so I know both sides of the desk. I’ve consulted with churches and spoken at conferences. I’ve met with parents and counseled many, many youth ministers in crisis. I’ve loved it, and hated it; watched it happen and been in the middle of whatever was happening. The sublime. The ridiculous. The Youth Specialties stuff. All of it. I was never arrested, but I should have been shot several times. Since I lived it, I have some street cred, and I want to use it.

I would like to attempt a general piece of advice to youth ministers. A single, comprehensive, absurdly ambitious list of wisdom to answer all questions and remedy all situations? No, more of what I’d say if I had to prepare an answer to most of my “What can we do about the youth minister?” mail. Let’s call it “Five Things That Youth Ministers Need To Hear.”

Just have a seat. You’re 24, you look great, you’re having fun at your job….time to sit in the chair, take out the earphones, and listen to the old, fat guy.

Before I start, two preliminary words: First, we appreciate you. This isn’t easy, I know. It can be fun, but it is hard to be a friend to everyone, and to hear all the pain and emptiness that’s out there in the lives of teenagers. We want you to succeed, and to be the presence of Christ for these kids. We will support you, and we’ll do all we can to make your ministry a success in ways that honor God and the Gospel.

Second: Church…you asked for it. Deciding to have a youth minister should have committed you to the process of getting a mature, trained, professional who sees him/herself as a pastor and teacher, who loves the ministry and seeks the supervision of the church and the approval of parents. If you wound up with a 21 year old clueless adolescent who can’t be trusted with $20 or the announcements, it’s your fault. If you allow that person unchecked and unsupervised freedom to “work with the youth,” then be sure and applaud the show, because you could have gone several other directions. If things are bad now, don’t just fire the youth minister. Fix your idea of leadership, your method of supervising ministry and your goals for a youth program.

Ok. Enough of being nice and spiritual. Time to poke you with a stick.

1. Who are you responsible to? Is it the pastor? OK. If it is the pastor, when was the last time you discussed your responsibilities in detail? When was the last time you asked for an evaluation? In detail? Are you avoiding your pastor? Acting like he’s not actually your mentor and supervisor? Are you running your own show and grinning at him during the occasional devotional meeting for the staff? Stop acting like that. Go see your pastor. Get completely and totally under his supervision for whatever you are doing. Give him the whole plan, and ask him what he thinks. He is the man. You are the boy. Sign up for that and love it.

Oh…he doesn’t want to meet with you? Then get another job. That’s right, quit. Take your time, but quit. If you don’t have pastoral supervision and pastoral sponsorship you need to work elsewhere.

While you are at it, get a job description. Written down. Telling you exactly what you are supposed to be doing, who you report to, and how you fit into what the church is doing. See, you work for our church, helping us fulfill our mission. So you need to be very concerned about our expectations, not just your own ideas.

2. Are you really popular with the kids? That’s great. How are you achieving this popularity? By introducing them to Christ? The Bible? The Gospel? Are you bringing them into the life of the church? Teaching them the faith and demonstrating the church’s mission of service to others in Jesus’ name?

Or are you doing lots of cool, fun, stuff? Oh…you are doing both, are you? Cool and fun, plus Bible and Gospel. Hmmmm….

Are you sure about this? You’re quite sure you are giving them the truth about Jesus, an honest look at scripture and a loyalty to the church? You aren’t selling these things at discount prices? You aren’t cutting corners that will ensure your kids will abandon the church at the first opportunity and head for whatever three ring, mall-looking circus of a mega-church youth and college ministry does the best Dave Mathews Praise and Worship Band impersonation? You aren’t making them into the enemies of the older members? You aren’t teaching them that their parents are wrong? You aren’t teaching them that we need to spend lots of money on them and take them lots of places and do lots of extreme things because we MUST BE SURE THEY ARE NEVER EVER BORED?

Good. I’m glad. Really. Because, you see I know lots of youth group graduates who have tossed out their past Christian faith like an old pair of shorts. I mean, these are kids who were in every youth activity the church could lure them into: beach trips, concerts, games, teams, fun, fun, fun….with a little Bible study in there, too. And when they were two years out of high school Jesus was old news fast. It’s like if they can’t have that old youth group party, with lots of entertainment, they want nothing to do with following Jesus. The church? Not for them unless it is ALL ABOUT THEM. Now that’s NOT what we want, is it? You wouldn’t be producing that kind of kid, right?

Isn’t it good we decided to have this little talk? I think so, too.

3. Can I ask you to do something for me? Could you read a book? Maybe two or three books. Good books of Bible, theology and the Christian life. Because, here’s the thing. I know you watch a lot of MTV and go to a lot of movies. I see your iPod and your CDs. I know you do a lot with music. And I’m sure all that time you spend “chillin'” with your friends and dates is important, but we’ve handed over our children to you, and frankly, when I stand outside your youth class and listen to what you are teaching them, I want to have you arrested.

I think you need to read a book, dude.

Yeah, you’re funny and irreverent. It’s a blast in your Bible study. The kids love the movie clips and the song excerpts. I’m sure the various lessons you teach from their favorite movies are holding their interest, but we’d all feel a lot better if you could teach the meaning of a book of the Bible, or explain some theology from the Bible, in a way that helped our kids actually trust the book for the truth they will need in years to come. We’ve made you into a teacher of some very impressionable minds. We need you to be prepared. Am I asking too much? Hey, we will buy the books for you. You just read them and get excited about what you want to teach. Ok?

4. We have to talk about this music situation. You may have noticed that a Sunday worship service at our church is not very similar to a nightclub mosh pit. Or to your favorite concert. We don’t have a really rockin’ band, and the contemporary music that we do use is pretty tame. But I notice you are teaching the kids all kinds of things to do in worship that our older people aren’t going to do, and you are telling the kids that if they really want to experience God they need to dance, and wave their hands, and shout, and so on. We’re all watching this, and if you could read our minds, you would be holding on to your paycheck.

You’ve had a lot of fun with the new projector screen, and we’ve all gotten used to your little- and not-so-little- talks before these youth-oriented worship songs, where we all learn that God has anointed this particular song to get the church out of bondage and into freedom. We’ve gotten used to stomping, screaming, swaying, and various body movements that our grandparents would have found a tad out of place in church. I just need to tell you something: You aren’t helping our church with this approach. You’re making us a divided and tense family, and you are teaching our kids a lot of wrong things about worship. You’re demanding that we change for the sake of entertainment. You’re teaching our kids that the music we love and use is worthless because it’s boring, and that we need to get excited about music we can’t relate to so that the worship service can be a youth event.

You’re on the wrong path here, and I’m asking you to consider what you are doing. You’re not acting like a minister of the church, or as someone who represents all of our church. You’re a cheerleader for youth culture and for your own preferences. You’re making fashion and trendiness more important than the unity of the body. You may have noticed that, for most of us, church music isn’t like any other kind of music. It’s special. It’s not entertainment. Some of your new music is OK. Some of it isn’t. What’s the real problem is your insistence that because you are up front with a guitar, you are rightly leading and teaching the whole church with the things you are doing. That’s not the case. The opposite is the case. You are dividing and belittling, not unifying and encouraging. Show some maturity and some sensitivity. We can bend. We need to be flexible. We need to be alive to the Spirit, but your agenda isn’t very spiritual. It’s very personal. Don’t insist that we bend till we break, and like it. Help us all worship together, as one church, even if we all have to compromise to get there.

5. You’ve asked a lot of parents this year. Money for several trips. Lots of food and transportation. Time and support. I think the parents have been generous. You’ve gotten everything you needed. So can I ask something of you? Could you communicate with them? Regularly. In detail. Could you be a professional in getting newsletters, calendars and information to those parents? They have busy lives and lots of demands. They are committed to supporting you. When you do things at the last minute, and don’t plan, they have to rescue you, because they want their kids in church. Be more mature around those parents. You aren’t a kid. You are an adult. Treat the adults who are the parents of your kids as adults want to be treated. Impress everyone in the church, not just the students. Be a model of someone who has embraced adulthood, not a model of someone avoiding it.

I’ll stop at five. I could write more. Maybe this is just part one. The point, for all you youth ministers out there, is that I’m saying some things to you that your church needs to say, but probably won’t say, because you are popular with the kids and they don’t want to seem unhappy with you. So I’m your daddy for a couple of pages. Take it, read it, get irritated at me, but believe me, these things are important. Pay attention.

Comments

  1. A lot of truth here Michael.
    Good job.

  2. After reading the post and all the comments, I felt compelled to reply as well. I spent the first 9 years of my ministry as a youth pastor. I sense that there is always a distinction between the ultra-fun guys and the ultra-study guys in youth ministry. However, I read with some frustration your post because it seems to lead people to believe that all youth pastors are the guys that you have described.

    So many people leave youth ministry, and ministry in general, not because the “pagans” are bothering them, but because the church people are killing them. It is a shame that so many “Christian” people are actually just “church members” who see youth ministry as a babysitting club. Parents and elders alike.

    I am now a Sr. Pastor who sees the need for a disciple-making youth ministry that includes times of fun and fellowship. A youth ministry that challenges kids to live godly lives, not patterned after a youth minister who is human like everyone else, but patterned after Christ.

    Blessings to you.

  3. it is for this reason that youth ministers do not stay in a church long. they are regulated to the point where they cannot minister in a meaningful way. ministering to youth is not singing amazing grace and reading through esther. it’s relationships, it’s pastors like you that run youth ministers and youth away from the ‘traditional’ church. it’s so much politics in church and not enough ‘i love you’ and you are contributing. i’d like to write a few things senior pastors need to hear but nobody will…

  4. Great article, unfortunatley so true about so many of the youth ministers. I am an up and coming youth minister and I couldnt say it any better than you have. However the one thing that I keep my own reservations about it the music ministry. I think if your not putting your church in the position to change the way they think, and as long as your teaching your kids that there are many different ways to worship, and not seperating “right from wrong” ways to worship or “boring and cool” ways to worship, than there really is not problem with contemporary music. Our world is in constant flux that includes our music of worship, we don’t have to defy our grandparents to worship in new ways, we also don’t have to make them worship any differently either. We should be unifying ourselvess to worship instead of seperating ourselves, but that doesn’t mean getting rid of contemporary music.

  5. Whirlwind says:

    Wow,as a youth pastors wife,I am truly amazed at the writings of Imonk. It was very helpful to remember those things which we so easily forget.
    In all my years of helping my husband Youth Pastor I have learned this… If we can get our young people to fall in love with Jesus, not our rules, or doctrine, or regulations ( all those things will come in time on their own), we will have made great Christians. And when we get to heaven they will be there to hear “Him” say “Well Done”.

    Thanks again for the reminders 🙂