For too many churches, the youth pastor has become little more than the spiritual equivalent of an activities director on a cruise ship. He plans “events” and activities, hangs out with the kids, entertains, and provides some semblance of oversight in order to keep the kids reasonably safe and occupied. Many churches have designed “youth programs” that allow their teens to grow up with a sense of “entitlement” wherein they expect to be amused, indulged, and isolated from the adults with most every whim of appetite and interest being met by the church. They have separate services—sometimes to the point that they never even have an opportunity to go to the adult service, which is often described as “dry” and/or “irrelevant” to what they need. (Think about this: Many children are growing up in a church culture where they never sit under the pastor’s teaching or with their parents and family in a church service from infancy through adolescence because of nurseries, children’s programs, and youth programs.)
Parents frequently demand that the church hire a youth director or pastor whose primary job description is to keep their kids “engaged” in church. This engagement takes place preferably through weekly activities, contemporary music, activities, and youth centers equipped with video games and comfortable lounge areas exclusively reserved for teens. Youth pastors are expected to be “hip,” accessible, relevant, and responsible. They need to be masters at keeping teens “occupied.”
Thus, many teens develop an “us” vs. “them” mentality toward the older generation in their church (those of their parents’ and grandparents’ ages). Many of the “older” generation are quite fine with this scenario because—let’s face it—teenagers can be rowdy, messy, and ornery. They become compartmentalized apart from the church “body” with their own facilities, program, ministry leadership, music, and calendar. They aren’t encouraged—nor sometimes even permitted—to be integrated into service opportunities generally reserved for adults—opportunities like serving as ushers or greeters, participating in the adult choir, or even working in various aspects of the children’s ministries. Over time, they buy into a “consumer” mentality of church and expect to have their “needs met” rather than to find their role and function within an overall body life.
Today’s youth ministry has been dumbed down for a variety of reasons. I offer a limited list here:
- We have created an extended adolescence. Western culture has normalized a premature adolescence and a delayed adulthood that have extended puberty into a nearly decade-long process. It begins with little girls wearing makeup in elementary school and ends up with 30-year-old college grads living in their parents’ basements with moms still doing their laundry.
- We do not believe teens listen to or have a thirst for strong scriptural teachings. By listening to our culture, we have bought into the fallacy that kids can’t or won’t tolerate “deep” stuff and that we must “keep it real” by offering them intellectual and spiritual junk food. We fear challenging our students with meaty subjects that might bore them or turn them off to spiritual interest.
- We have bought into an entertainment mentality that sees keeping teens occupied as an adult’s obligation. The mantra of today’s teens is often “I’m bored.” Angst-ridden parents with an inflated sense of guilt seem all too willing to rush to provide more activities and distractions for their precious progeny.
- We fail to recognize the raw potential most adolescents possess. When we study the culture when Jesus walked the Holy Land, we discover that most of His 12 disciples were probably in their late teens to mid-20s. Children were expected to put away much of their childhood once they reached maturity, which is age 13 in Jewish culture. From that landmark age, apprenticeships and jobs soon followed, and many got married in their mid-to-late teenage years. Today’s teens are no less capable of acting maturely and of making an impact even in their youth.
- We have low expectations and even lower accountability for teenagers. Many parents have surrendered their kids to an extended period of foolish behavior marked by rebellion, antisocial (toward adults) behavior, irresponsible conduct, and a lack of accountability. During this time, parents “expect” them to experiment, to sow their “wild oats,” and to push the limits. Today’s parents expect too little from their teens and seem more than willing to shrug their shoulders and to roll their eyes at behavior that could threaten their health and heart for many years to come.
With these causes in mind, what steps should youth pastors consider to bring sanity back to our strategy for spiritual development among adolescents? Here are some thoughts:
Emphasize Teaching, Not Activities
Expectations need to change as far as what parents and their teens expect from youth ministries. If youth ministry is about drawing a big crowd, then build a huge lounge, order the PS3’s, buy a pizza oven, and hire a band. If it’s about training young people in the Scriptures and equipping them for ministry, let every parent know upfront that the church’s responsibility is not to provide recreation, entertainment, amusement, and a weekly complimentary buffet. Kids need to spend more time at home, not less. Mom and dad would be smart to park the cars in the driveway for a few years, to turn their garage into a family “rec center,” and to invite their kid’s friends over to their house. Let the church be used for biblical equipping. That doesn’t mean that at church teens won’t have the occasional fun activity or food. It just means that it is the occasional treat, not the expected norm.
Provide a “Grownup” Youth Pastor
Kids don’t need their youth pastor to be their “buddy.” He needs to be their pastor. He doesn’t need to dress like a mortician, but he shouldn’t pretend he’s 16 either. (Few things in this world are more pathetic than adults who refuse to grow up. Neither real grownups nor real teenagers respect people like that.) Balance is essential in being an effective ministry leader. The youth pastor must be mature enough to know what his objectives should be, where his boundaries should lie, where his authority should reside, and how to move students forward spiritually.
Challenge Teens Toward Maturity
Our Western culture exalts values that promote rebellion—from hard-edged rock ‘n’ roll to extreme sports to uncensored expression. Rebellion has almost become synonymous with being “American.” Fast cars, loose morals, and risky business in all its permutations have been the generational mantra from James Dean to Tom Cruise to Britney/Lindsay/Paris. But even many teenagers are now becoming aware of the soulless vacuousness of such a lifestyle. They desire something more substantive, more concrete, and weightier. Certainly not every teenager is sick of low expectations, but a core is ready to get a jump on their peers and to start taking life seriously.
Youth leaders can train teens by teaching them to comprehend and establish priorities in their lives. What role is authority going to play in their lives, and where is that authority found? Every teen should be confronted with the principle of “first priorities.” Are we willing to give the Lord the first and the best in what we do vocationally, with whom we will spend our lives (marriage), in how we will spend our money, and in how we will use our talents and gifts?
Teach Doctrine, Apologetics, and Rhetoric
Many within Fundamentalism have bought into an “isolationist” mentality that encourages them to withdraw from the world rather than to engage it with truth. Without a doubt, it is foolish to shove our kids into a world system intent on ignoring and countering spiritual truth without adequate preparation. Today’s youth ministries have an opportunity and an obligation to equip our next generation of leaders with a sound grasp of biblical doctrine, the education to tell people “why” they believe what they believe, and the skill to fluently articulate truth and its logical defense in the public forum.
Encourage Service and Ministry
In a generation that’s “all about me,” Christian teens can make a difference by living out the Great Commandment and the Great Commission. By this author’s definition, service means using our skills and talents to be a blessing to others; and ministry means directly bringing the souls of men and women into contact with the Word of God. Our teens can learn and practice service and ministry at an earlier age than most give them an opportunity to do so.
Promote Cross-Generational Interaction
Rather than isolate our kids from the older generation, we should integrate generations. There is much older generations can teach teens, and there is much teens can do to inspire and encourage older generations. This integration means that those of us in the older generation must accept the fact that today’s teens aren’t quite the way we were at their age; we must be patient with them as they grow into maturity. It also means that teens must be taught respect and consideration for those who have traveled a few more miles down the road than they have. Our current approach of inflexible isolation is making generational transfers of ministry and leadership difficult and at times impossible.
Include the Pastor in the Ministry
The lead or senior pastor needs to be plugged in to the teens of his church flock. He needs to spend time with them, to preach to them, and to get to know them. He should be their cheerleader. Too often, teens view their senior pastor as some out-of-touch stiff who wears a suit and prays in the King James English. No wonder he makes little, if any, impression on them. Most surrender to go into the ministry in their teens with a vast majority doing so by the time they are 14 years old. Any pastor who spends time with his teens is using his time wisely. The youth pastor isn’t a substitute for the senior pastor; he should be an extension of him.
Create a Positive Spirit Toward the Youth
It’s long been a sport to trash-talk teenagers. Sure, they are pimply, hormonal, gangly, and unpredictable messes in sneakers. But they are also witty, gifted, vibrant, gregarious, curious, and reflective gifts from God. Let everyone else put them down and diminish them in word and in deed, but let the church and her leadership be their cheerleaders. When we project love, enthusiasm, interest, and confidence in our teens, we create a positive spirit and relationship that benefit both sides of the generational divide.
Train and Equip Parents, Not Just Teens
Today’s parents of teens often grew up in dysfunctional homes. These are the parents who experienced the consequences of the 50 percent divorce rate. These are the parents whose parents tuned out during the free-love, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll craziness of the 1960s and ’70s. Consequently, many of these parents didn’t have a stabilizing, spiritual role model during their formative years. The church has an opportunity to train and equip them as the parents of their teens. Church youth pastors and ministries ought not to be a substitute for parents but rather an extension of them. We can serve teens by serving their parents and by helping them to adopt healthy leadership strategies and biblical values in their God-given roles.
Today’s ministry leaders need to smarten up and to counter the dumbing down of youth ministry. An unfathomable well of opportunity is at hand. Wise pastors and spiritual leaders must recognize the opportunities, and alert and conscientious parent should anticipate them as they work together to see teens come of age into the leaders God created them to be.Dan Burrell is on a sabbatical after seventeen years of pastoral ministry of two large churches and is currently serving three colleges and seminaries as an adjunct professor, consulting with Christian day schools and working on several book projects. He’s also a commentator for the Evangelical Press News and blogs at Whirled Views with Dan Burrell.