Let’s get right to it… Do we really need youth pastors? Are they necessary? Are they truly helpful? These are rather taboo questions in the context of current church culture. I grew up hearing the mantra “the kids are our future” and rightly so in a sense (Christ is actually our future…), but is the youth pastor and children’s church adequate means for preparing our future generation?
I sincerely think not.
I’m a thirty-something who has grown up in churches where youth pastors were a given. The job description was always the same and went something like this…
“…to teach the youth about Jesus and render encouragement through culturally relatable means as a preparatory method for growth into adult life with a hearty focus on outreach through relevance and entertainment.”
On the surface, this sounds like a good thing. What could be better than catering to the demographic that matters most to the future of the church? It sounds reasonable. Additionally, I have yet to meet a church going parent that actively desires their child to leave the church. So parents and church leaders agree that it is necessary to bring up our children in the faith, and as you may have guessed, the bible agrees (Proverbs 22:6 and Ephesians 6:4 come to mind). For what it’s worth, I too agree that we should bring up our children in the faith. There should be purposeful instruction. So what’s my issue with youth pastors you ask? Before I begin to answer the question, let me first set the stage. It may not be a shock to many, but as a youth, I attended youth group for three reasons…
1. My parents made me.
2. I actually enjoyed socially interacting with my peers.
3. Girls were present.
While I may be an anomaly, I would venture to say that a majority of cultural Christian youth attended for similar reasons. It also didn’t hurt that while light, topical bible study did occur, the primary focus was outreach through entertainment. From bowling alley lock-ins to amusement park adventures, it was rather easy to get my unsaved friends to go to the fun events. They usually weren’t pressured with the message of Christ, and more often than not I worked hard to show them how “normal” I was (as if Christian and normal are mutually exclusive). I knew the youth pastor was trying his best and meant well, but I also knew he was a caricature of what focus groups said drew kids to church. Even though I was on to the tactic, I willingly played along because I really thought it was the proper way to win souls and grow the church. As I grew older the true state of this methods ineffectiveness began to rise to the surface as my unsaved friends became more coy and resistant to my outreach attempts. They saw through the facade and stared at the heart of the perceived loving manipulation tactic and recoiled while shaking their heads with contempt. They knew what church was supposed to be and saw the conflict. They also knew that the fun and games were a trap (a poorly constructed trap at that). As I got older, the only unsaved friends that showed any interest in coming were those interested in pursuing a “relationship” with a certain boy or girl in the youth group. The argument from the youth leadership was that if we’d just get them in the door, then they’d hear the gospel and possibly make a decision for Jesus or something like that. Most of the time, the talks were light, fluffy and centered on self-help life lessons. Anytime the study waded to the deep end, the lessons focused on law centered warnings. In any case, the gospel was glaringly absent. In the end the bait and switch was really just bait and release (or bait, beat and release). The switch never really happened. So the attempt to manipulate youth to faith resulted two differing scenarios; the captive youth feeling either superior to their unsaved friends or disillusioned with the faith altogether. Sadly, this is a solid picture of many of my youth group friends and peers. To this day only a small percentage are still active in the faith. Of the core youth group attenders, a large majority have left the church with many of those not wanting anything to do Christ, Christians or His gift of forgiveness. I can relate to them in a way as the lack of adequate teaching coupled with an unhealthy focus on obedience and outreach nearly forced me from the church as well. While each of the youth pastors I sat under earnestly cared for me and my growth, the structure and function of the position was simply designed to fail. This post is not a hit piece against the youth pastors that I formerly sat under or served alongside or even against ones that I am currently friends with or even those I have yet to meet. I simply want to shed light on a youth ministry paradigm that was birthed as a perceived fix to a misdiagnosed problem resulting in the complete fabrication of an unnecessary church office. The failure of the office of youth pastor is a consequence of incorrectly masking the symptom instead of getting to the root of the problem. As a result, furthering the cause of this office, in it’s current condition, is a detriment to the church catholic instead of torch to carry forth to future generations.
On to the question at hand.
Youth ministry as we know it has only been around for a short time. Although the Sunday school movement dates back to mid-18th century as method to distribute free education to child laborers, youth ministry within its current context, dates back the 1970’s. The movement began within evolving interdenominational parachurch organizations like “Youth for Christ” and “Young Life” that targeted adolescents for Christian outreach. As these organizations grew in effectiveness (they are both still around today), churches began to model their methodology as a means to retain the already attending youth as well as a means to aid in community outreach. By the 1960’s individual church youth Sunday school programs were widely seen as irrelevant to the context of the 1960’s youth as numbers began to decline. Churches began to rethink how to maintain and attract adolescents once again. This is also the time that college campus ministries began as an effort to reach those lost through failed Sunday School and youth ministry programming. By the 1970’s youth ministry was re-branded as “youth groups” and were led primarily by laymen. These lay workers began to host bible study on week nights in homes as a means make youth feel more comfortable outside the stuffy confines of a church building. Special youth events played host to live music and free food as a means to draw in a new generation of youth. Kids came and numbers looked good for a while…until the culture once again shifted. Many churches continued to struggle utilizing lay leaders to run youth ministries as it was hard to stay in the cultural forefront while dedicating the necessary time to coordinating the various productions, trips and lessons while balancing a family and a secular job. In response, the cutting edge ministries began to hire pastors specifically tasked to lead the youth. The revolutionaries at the forefront of the church growth movement decided that the best way to invest into the future would be to create a draw for teens and young adults. If church is made culturally relevant to teens and able to stay at or ahead of the cultural curve, then the ministry would be viewed as relevant, the youth would want to go, and the chance the parents follow would be increased. The position of youth pastor appears to have originally been started as a stepping stone position. A youth pastor degree had yet to exist, so those desiring to be youth pastors would still go to seminary just like all other pastors in their denomination. The career path would start out in youth and as the pastor grew in experience and age, he would eventually transfer to become a lead pastor. It was only recently (in the last 20 years) that one could actually go to school for the sole purpose of becoming a youth pastor. This leads to the next area of concern.
Youth Pastor Degrees are undergraduate degrees that focus on a blend of theology, communication, sociology and culture. A Youth Ministry undergraduate program from a reputable university is approximately 120 credit hours and takes about 4 years to complete. This is a standard bachelor’s degree. While I would agree that a bachelor’s is better than nothing, the graduate is still assuming duties of the office of the holy ministry. The only difference between his duties and the head pastor’s duties are the audience. In addition, the Youth Pastor will typically fill in for the Senior Pastor when the Senior Pastor is out of the office. Most mainline denominations require a Masters of Divinity degree to become a rostered pastor, which is an actual master’s degree from an accredited seminary. While I will freely admit that training alone does not a pastor make, it does not mean that training should be forsaken or undervalued. A prospective pastor could obtain a bachelors and masters degree and still be a heretical wolf that should never be elevated to shepherd. The problem here, however, is not with the schooling, but with the prospective pastor. Proper education should not be a free license, but should most certainly be a prerequisite. A Masters of Divinity is approximately an additional 96 credit hours which usually takes 2 to 3 years to complete. The course work for a Masters of Divinity degree typically covers more in-depth theological training, church history and learning the biblical languages (Hebrew, Latin and Greek). Many modern churches, especially in the non-denominational stripe, have very broad educational requirements for receiving a pastoral call. This only adds to the problem as some youth pastors are more trained than their senior pastors.
As stated before, the duties of the senior pastor and youth pastor are quite similar as scale and audience are the primary variants. The Senior Pastor will typically handle all of the major service preparation, hospital visits and counseling sessions. Likewise Youth Pastors will handle all of the youth ministry preparation, high-school lunch visits and youth counseling sessions. This can become problematic for the freshly graduated youth pastor as they are more than likely only 3 to 4 years older than the minors they are leading, supervising and counseling. This becomes tricky when the sin nature present within us all wishes to show off and look cool for the youth or potentially lead to larger sexual attraction issues with minors which can devastate a congregation. Couple this with the fact that, as a society, our children are maturing and taking on responsibility at slowed rate. According to a 2010 article in the New York Times and a 2013 article in the Daily Mail, adolescence no longer ends at 18 or even 21 as 26 is where adulthood now begins. Think about that for a minute. The Pastor, whether youth or senior, holds a power position within the church over many, many people. That kind of power given to an under-educated and many times immature leader is not only disconcerting from a parental vantage point, but also shortsighted from a mentoring view. The vocation of Pastor, is not an easy one. It’s rife with pain, struggle and tension. Throwing a 21 or 22 year old into a vocation of power in an ever changing environment that follows children through adolescence and strategically places these young men in the hard place between parent and child is a course set for failure. The fact is, the most conservative and by the book universities who require 4 years’ worth of credits are still graduating students and placing them in congregations where they are not adequately prepared to shepherd the greatest commodity of the church; its youth. This leads to the next concern.
Building on the last point, if our children are truly our future, shouldn’t youth pastors receive the same or more training than a senior pastor? The current thought seems to be, turn them out as soon as possible, so that the freshest, youngest, hippest youth pastor prospects can start their ministries while they are still relevant. I mean, who’s closer to the mind of a 17 year old? A 22 year old or a 26 year old? That seems to be the driving thought. If our kids are the future of the church, then what should matter most is the preparation of those who are responsible for shepherding them. I am sure that a 22 year old graduate fresh out of college can plan a great game night and give a good relevant pep talk about doing your best for Jesus, but the truth is that isn’t shepherding…that is pacifying. It’s pacifying the parents because their kids are in church, at youth group. It’s pacifying the kids because there is an event with friends, games and pizza. It’s pacifying the youth pastor because his attendance numbers are showing signs of a successful ministry. Shepherding, on the other hand, calls for proper instruction through love and discipline. Pastor Bryan Wolfmueller once said “Youth Evangelism” is the Millennium Falcon of false doctrine smuggling” and I believe he is correct. What the kids need the most is catechesis. They need to be taught something substantive. Doing this may make some kids leave, and while that is discouraging, attrition should be expected because the gospel is ultimately offensive to our human nature. Many times the gospel isn’t presented in the current youth ministry paradigm due to this very fear. To expound on this, many times parents make things worse by complaining about a shrinking youth group or allowing their kids to attend supposedly cooler, more relevent youth groups instead of their home church. The problem here is ultimately two-fold. First, a youth ministry bachelor’s degree (or less) does not give the youth minister adequate training to properly teach and disciple the youth. Second, the mere existence of a youth pastor in charge of a youth ministry gives the parents an out to stop home catechesis.
Catechesis, or teaching, needs to be done at home. As fathers, we are responsible for teaching the bible to our families. It is not the sole responsibility of our pastors to do the teaching. We should be rearing our children in the faith by reading scripture with them, teaching the creeds, and generally discussing spiritual matters. I understand that children of unbelieving parents do attend church and that those children do not have the advantage of receiving proper catechesis, however, their unfortunate position does not lower the bar for us as fathers. The bar remains the same. We are to teach our families. The primary unintended consequence of the youth pastor is a devaluing of home catechesis as youth group has become the spiritual daycare of modern Christianity. The problem only starts here. Many fathers aren’t teaching at home because they do not know the faith that they supposedly believe. The faith of many in the modern visible church is superficial at best. Sunday’s are no longer even set aside for the modern Christian. Sports and activities have taken priority of the church services in many Christian homes. This too is a fruit earned by failure to catechize at home. Lastly, many Senior Pastors are shirking their shepherding duties and spending Sunday mornings talking about things they think will draw in unbelievers such as sermons on the latest Hollywood blockbuster or giving advice about “10 steps to a better sex life” instead of preaching Christ crucified for our sins. The cornerstone of the modern church movement is growth and relevance instead of Christ. The reaction by many in the church has been to treat the symptom instead of fighting the disease. It seems that many are perfectly fine continuing to treat the symptoms. Treating the symptoms pacifies the patient. It masks the real problems while the diseases battles forward. Treating the disease isn’t easy and it is painful. Treating the disease means that your church may lose members and the local news might not reach out to you for interviews anymore. It means that your budget may be reduced and that you may not be able to afford a Starbucks in the foyer. It also means that as Christ is restored to the foundation of the church, the healing salve that is the gospel is delivered to the congregation. Proper teaching can begin and people will begin to have a desire to learn about the faith that was watered down and de-emphasized the previous years. Catechesis must happen at home and be continued in the church whenever the church doors are open. Otherwise the youth group is relegated to a spiritual daycare and Sunday mornings is no more than a self-help dissertation with guitars and a smoke machine.
Sadly I cannot remember one lesson about Jesus, the cross or anything remotely biblical when it comes to my youth group days. I do remember the outreach events and service projects. That really seems to be all we ever did. Thinking about it now is quite sad really. So much time spent trying to get our friends to church and when they finally got there, they received nothing of eternal value. Just a safe fun time with wacky Christians. I am all for teaching the youth to serve their neighbor in vocation. Christ came to serve, not to be served. We too should serve our neighbors in Christ. However, STOP with all the outreach malarkey. If Youth Pastors spent half the time truly ministering to their youth about Christ that they normally spend planning fundraisers and events, the kids might actually have something to grab onto that will stay with them and allow them to want to serve their neighbors without manipulating them into it. Amusement parks, water parks and lock-ins are great, but they are utterly unnecessary within the context of building and strengthening the church.
There is one last root cause in this paradigm that is many times neglected and it centers on our Seminaries and Christian universities. Seminaries and Universities are in the business of making money. Sure, some are subsidized to a degree, but overall they must make money or close. Harken back to the point made above concerning Youth Ministry degrees taking 4 years to complete. Couple that with the perceived necessity of every church needing a youth pastor and one can begin to see how Youth Ministry has created quite the product for struggling universities. For there to be a bachelor’s program, there has to be material to teach and these materials must be constantly updated because cultural relevance is the name of the game. So these universities create a need for Youth Ministry specific educational materials. Now it rather easy to see how Youth Ministry in the modern church is not only a cash cow, but a self-feeding monster. Seminaries and scholars create the source material for youth pastors who have to buy said source material for necessary classes to earn their degree. One reason that Youth Pastors will be hard to eliminate is that it would eliminate a large sector of economic growth for seminaries and the scholastic writers and publishers that contribute curriculum to these seminaries.
So what’s the answer? I know it probably sounds old fashioned and quite impossible, but here it goes….
Eliminate youth ministry degrees. If one desires to be a shepherd, then a masters of divinity must be a prerequisite. This will be hard to do because it will eliminate a large source of funding for seminaries as not all of those going into youth ministry desire the work, course load and resulting job responsibilities of a head pastor. As stated earlier, education isn’t the sole qualifier for the pastoral office and neither is age. I strongly recommend those fresh out of seminary to seek a call as an associate pastor in a larger church. Many times the responsibilities of the associate pastors will line up rather close with the responsibilities of many current youth pastors, with the primary difference being that the associate pastor will be properly educated and three to four years older than a typical Youth Ministry undergrad. The head pastor can then mentor and prepare the associate pastor to eventually accept a call to a congregation of their own. I am not against teaching kids or having programming for youth. I am certainly and advocate for it. If a church wants a Youth Program, great. It can either be ran by a rostered pastor with a Masters of Divinity Degree or organized by a current or previous church Elder with direct oversight from the head or associate pastor.
In addition to church programming, parents MUST catechize their children at home. This can be propagated by holding classes to instruct parents, especially fathers, on how to catechize their children at home. If parents are not taking an interest in spiritual life at home, it is highly unlikely that their children will either. Youth ministry can not function as a spiritual daycare. Parents must be given the tools and encouraged to bring their children up in the faith. In addition, home catechism should be a topic thoroughly covered in pastoral pre-marital counseling. This can also be supplemented by continually teaching and reteaching congregants the doctrine of vocation. I find that many people do not have a clue about vocation. Properly teaching vocation will go a long way in supporting home catechesis.
Another tendency that must stop is teaching down to children. Stop having children’s church. Have children worship with their parents from birth. Children learn by doing. Taking them out of “adult church” to get on their level (and to get rid of distractions…) fails to give them proper insight to what they should be striving for. It teaches complacency. Unified worship of all believers is what should be constantly encouraged. Children are much smarter than we give them credit for. Let them hear big words and ask questions about what they mean. Let them question why certain things are done. Teach them to sit quietly and be prepared to excuse yourself when they misbehave and return when they are calm. It’s going to happen. They are kids. The only difference between us and them is that they aren’t as good at hiding their sins as we are. However, the potential for embarrassment when they act up does not relinquish the responsibility you have for teaching them the faith. While at church, there is no place better for them to be than sitting with you in service.
Lastly, stop and ask yourself what you believe about justification. If you truly don’t believe you can manipulate someone to faith, then stop acting as if you can. Stop the bait and switch tactics that are present in youth groups and adult small groups alike. Focus Sunday mornings on preaching the proper distinction between law and gospel, sin and grace, repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Cater Sunday service and youth ministry activities around teaching these things to the believers that are present. Sunday morning is not for the unbeliever, but for the believer. Focus on continually equipping believers to receive Christ’s gracious gifts so that they can leave service and serve their families and neighbors.
Overall, youth ministry has grown to megalithic proportions in the modern church. While the intentions are good, the methodology and practice are not. Going forward the church needs to stop focusing on focus group trends and get back to the biblical shepherding of families. Families should attend church together. The church service should rightly teach the proper distinction of law and gospel, sin and grace, and repentance and the forgiveness of sins. Children should be getting this same teaching at home from their parents. Children most certainly are the present and future of the church. We need to start treating them as such. The problem doesn’t solely reside with youth pastors, but is found in the modern youth ministry paradigm that includes youth pastors, universities, parents, and the lack of proper teaching found in many churches. The paradigm must change if we truly desire giving our children the best foundation for their faith to carry the light of Christ to future generations.
Parents, there is no better use of time than to teach your children about Christ.
Churches, there is no better use of your resources than to teach your congregations about Christ.
Seminaries, there is no better use of your funds than to properly equip your students to share Christ.
So, what about current youth pastors? Should we fire them all? Not hardly. My encouragement to those who are currently youth pastors is for them to preach the gospel at all cost and continue their education through continued mentoring under their head pastor and by making arrangements to finish school by obtaining their masters of divinity. Your primary job is to shepherd the flock that has been entrusted to you. Persevere by doing all that you can to adequately equip yourself to do the job in which you have been called.