Three Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Do Youth Ministry

Earlier this week I linked to Andrew Wilson quoting Michael Horton, asking if this was the best reason not to do youth work.

Michael Horton—tentatively, cautiously, graciously—asks is it a shame that youth ministers have taken the work of discipling young people away from the senior pastor and the rest of the church? And is it not a bit sad that the youth group has “tended to distance believers from the church at precisely the moment that they were supposed to take that next step of maturity”?

This is a big objection to youth ministry, but it’s not the only one. There are two other common objections to running dedicated youth ministry in your church. Before I offer some sort of a response I’ll briefly outline all three.

1) It’s parents, not youth workers, who should be discipling their children.

The argument goes; parents have spiritual responsibility for their children’s growth in faith. Therefore parents should be taking the primary role in their children’s spiritual development. Therefore delegating most of that away to anyone (be that the overall church leader or the youth worker) is not just a bad idea, but actually sinful. When we think about evangelising young people in this model, it’s not really an option. Get the young people’s parents saved and the young people will follow.

2) It’s the church, not youth workers, who should be discipling the children.

This argument is the one Michael Horton is making. The bible doesn’t seem to offer age-segregated ministry, and when we divide the church up we are separating the young people out of the regular life of the church and harming their discipleship. We’re also harming the rest of the believers as they don’t get to experience what the young people have to offer, nor do they get to serve and sacrifice for the young people in the congregation.

(The book to read on these two arguments is Perspectives on Family Ministry, edited by Paul Jones)

3) It’s the Christian young people who should be doing the evangelism of their friends, not adults.

This argument against youth work is generally made about youth evangelism not discipleship. The argument goes, young people are best placed to reach their peers and reach them as equals —there’s no awkward potentially manipulative power dynamic like their could be with an adult evangelising a young person. We should enable our Christian young people to reach their peers, whether to evangelise the unbelievers or disciple the less mature ones. We shouldn’t do it ourselves.

Those are the arguments, and you know what? none of them are wrong. In fact, I agree with them all. If your young people are segregated from the church life and don’t get to serve the younger children and learn from the older members they’ll suffer greatly in their faith1. And if your young people don’t see in their parents an active and living faith, which leads them to discipling their children, there’s a good chance they’ll never have it in their own lives2. And your young people are best placed to to reach their peers, that’s obvious3.

So let’s ditch youth work right? No. The job of any full-time minister is to equip the people of the church for their ministry (Ephesians 4:11-12). Youth ministry is the same. Equip the young people, and parents, and church for the works of ministry God’s prepared for them. The arguments against youth ministry are the same as the arguments against paid ministry. It’s the families who should be doing the work, it’s the church as a whole not some paid individuals job, it’s everyone’s responsibility to evangelise. These are true points, but we’d still agree that some full-time church leadership roles should exist to support the church in doing this. The question is, is youth ministry something your particular church needs to be paying someone to equip the church to do?

Here’s an obvious point of application from all this for youth workers; If your youth ministry is working against one of these three things, even incidentally, then you’re doing something wrong. Is your youth group supporting and submitting to the parents of the young person? Is your youth group just another part of the church family, which supports the church as a whole, or is it a separate enclave? Are your outreach events supporting the young people as they try to see their friends saved, or are they holding them back?

And here’s an obvious application for those not youth workers; if you’re worried about the young people in your church or your local area, don’t think getting a youth worker’s going to be the magic fix. In fact, there’s a good chance it won’t fix anything.

Footnotes

1 See for example the research in A Youth Ministry That Transforms or the Sticky Faith research

2 As well as the previously linked Sticky Faith stuff, see Kenda Creasy Dean’s Almost Christian based on the (US) National Study of Youth and Religion. One of the strongest determining factor that a young person will “retain faith” is whether or not their parents have an active and visible faith.

3 I have no research to support this statement. From experience and from reason it seems obvious, but if you know of some, then let me know.