Why Youth Ministries Are Not Working In America

Why Youth Ministries Are Not Working In America

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I have a dare for you. Take the next 30 minutes and do a little math. Identify all of the churches and ministry organizations in your community with a youth ministry program. Do a quick estimate or make a couple of calls to determine how many students participate on an average week. Total that number up.

Next, go to your local school district website and see how many middle school and high school students are served in that same area. Divide the number. Now you have the percentage of students in your community currently engaged in youth ministry.

Are you OK with that number? Is that number theologically appropriate to you?

While youth ministry, relationally, has never been about numbers we can all agree that numbers are important to God. We can all agree that a teenage life with Jesus is better than a teenage life without Christ.

Now that agree we that youth ministry has a numbers problem let’s begin to think about some of the contributing factors.

And since it’s summer, let’s make up some words to describe these factors. (Our smart brain is out canoeing down a creek right now, right?)

Amissiological Approaches

If you were to move to a new community as a church planter or if you relocated cross-culturally as a missionary your first year would be heavily engaged in research. You’d spend months doing ethnography, learning the nuances of language, understanding norms, mores, and discovering not just how people communicate but how the culture really operates.

We don’t do any of that in American youth ministry. Our approach is amissiological. Most youth workers start a new job the same way pioneers tried to settle Massachusetts.  We don’t just deny the importance of local culture and church ecology, we find our identity in ignoring it and pressing forward without ever asking the question, “Is this even Good News to the students in my ministry?”


One problem with youth ministry is that we think that a single approach will reach every student. At most, a youth ministry in a local church operates with two strategies. (One driven by confirmation and church kids, one driven by outreach)

In an adolescent culture driven by personal choice we are ignorant to think that so few strategies will impact a multitude of students. It’s not that Jesus is irrelevant to students who don’t come to youth ministry– we are all made in God’s image– it’s that the shape, structure, and strategy we implement is irrelevant to those who don’t come.


This is an exhibition of the first two. I can’t tell you how many frustrated coffee meetings I’ve shared with excellent, hard-working youth workers who stare into a latte and say, “I know this stuff works. It worked for me!”

Herein lies a problem. We can’t let our own spiritual journey, our soul longing which tries to replicate hyper-religious experiences of our own teenage years, to become the output of our student ministries. I get it, a retreat or mission trip or camp or Bible quizzing was great for you. Yes, you gave up a career on the soccer team to be a student leader. But this isn’t 2001. You need to stop bringing your own experiential seeking to help your students find what connects them to God in today’s culture!


In 1980 more people went to church. Interestingly, your church didn’t need a bigger building or have a bigger staff. There is an economics theory known as inverse-relationships which points to a major problem in youth ministry today. While we’ve spent more money, gotten more advanced degrees, gotten better space, and bigger budgets… our churches are reaching fewer teenagers. So what do we do? Whine about more salary, more education, better space, and bigger budgets!

The solution can’t be more money. It’s the money that’s killing us. That’s been the blessing of this recession, hasn’t it? Without the status quo spending we’ve had to get creative and in doing so many of us discovered we could reach people without spending a dime! This worked pretty well in Acts if you ask me.

Lastly and the thing that you need to understand the most– It’s not the people who are failing.

When you did that math in the first paragraph I know your heart sunk. Maybe it made you a little mad. And maybe it made you want to give up. Don’t give up.

Join us in dreaming about new strategies for reaching teenagers. Help us find ways that don’t cost a dime or involve a single paid person. Help us do things so well that these kids will turn them into sacred cows. Dig in and become the expert on adolescence in your neighborhood.

But don’t give up. Jesus created you, on purpose and on time, for good works. (Ephesians 2:10)



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