Let’s stop gambling on (youth) ministry

When it comes to youth ministry the church has a gambling problem, according to Nashville-based youth expert Mark DeVries. In his important work, Sustainable Youth Ministry, he suggests that the practices of many churches in the work of youth ministry can only be described as gambling.

You know how it works: the committee puts together an appealing job description and interviews the candidates, hoping to find the brightest and most creative of the bunch. Then they throw together an appealing salary package and finally hand over the entire youth programming to a wide-eyed 20-something and hope that magic happens. They give little regard to the long-term costs or sacrifices that are actually needed to create a meaningful youth program and instead rely solely on the work of one person to do the trick.

The gambling goes even further when the church attempts to build the program out of order. For instance, if you build a state-of-the-art recreation center or youth room before you’ve taken the time to build relationships with the youth of the church or schedule the calendar of events. In either case, your church may have a gambling problem.

Here are some other signs that your church may be gambling with youth ministry:

  • Do parents, laypeople, staff, the deacons or elders know what’s going on with the youth programming?
  • Are there volunteers that are committing time every week to the work of the youth group? Have they built relationships over a year or more with the youth?
  • Does your church budget reflect the investment it takes to create a meaningful youth program?
  • Are the youth regularly integrated in larger parts of the church life, such as worship, committees, and planning?
  • Is there a youth committee or group of elders to help enlist volunteers and support for the youth group?
  • Do other pastors and ministers of the church show up semi-regularly to youth events?
  • Will your church commit to the long-term structure and sacrificial investment it takes to grow a youth program over a number of years?

If the answer is “No” to most of these questions then your church may have a gambling problem and it will not serve the church, the youth, or the youth leader well at all. DeVries writes, “Gymnasiums, air-hockey tables, plasma TVs and leather couches don’t build thriving youth ministries; appropriate staffing, clear vision and structure do.”

The truth is even if your church is able to wrangle in the superstar youth minister who has the Jesus-like ability to draw crowds, or has done so in the past, this does not create ministries that sustain. If the church is not giving sacrificially to the work of that youth program, the youth leader will eventually burn out. What’s worse is what’s left: a void in the life of the church and the branded memory of “the way things used to be.” From now on, the church will look for someone they think will fill the void and the terrible truth is “the way things used to be” can never really be in our minds. And perhaps it never should, in my opinion.

While my time in youth ministry is nowhere near the scope and depth of DeVries, I’ve seen all the signs: pastors and deacons who have no idea what the youth program has been up to for years, adults who speak fondly of their rockstar youth minister but have no real connection to the ministry, and budgets and staff that don’t really reflect how much the church claims to love the youth.

With that said, I find myself (by luck) to be in a church that seems to be a wonderful place to build a thriving and sustainable youth ministry. At Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, we have a church staff, including a pastor and minister of religious education, who are well-versed in the recent happenings of the youth group. They know the families, they know the rituals, and they commit to showing up and helping where they can. We have a group of youth advisors, committed volunteers who have showed up every week for youth gatherings for years now. And we have a youth committee, composed of elders, laypeople, parents, and youth who give long-term vision and wisdom to the youth program.

With all of these parties involved, we do exponentially more than I could ever dream of doing alone. It is truly a ministry of the church, rather than some side-bet.

While I have found great insight from DeVries on the work of youth ministry, I also wonder how much of this might be applied to the broader scope of the church. As churches across the spectrum feel the burdens of a post-Protestant era in America, how much more have we started to grasp at the gambling straws?

We gamble on the next pastor or the next program. We gamble on the consultant or the marketing. We gamble on this renovation project or that name change. And we very often long for the way things once were.

Instead of gambling, what if we did some of the harder work of creating sustainable ministries? What if we stopped looking to the woman or man that will save us and started looking to the people? After all, liturgy, from the Greek leitourgia, literally means “work of the people.” Shouldn’t everything we do as a church be the work of the people?

What if we stopped looking for one person and started looking to each other?

What if we talked about mission and values and witness instead of renovations and looks and prestige in the community?

What if we stopped doing a project here or there and started taking in the long view? What if we learned more about our neighbors? What if we built partnerships and said, “We’re here for the long-haul. We’re committing our time and our money and our resources and our people here for the next ten years or so. Let’s see what happens!”

What if we stopped gambling and started creating ministries that sustain and are sustaining for the lives of the people and the communities around us? Let’s hope that such questions can lead us into a more authentic and sustaining vision for the church in our day.

Chris Hughes

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About the Author
Chris Hughes is a graduate of the Wake Forest University School of Divinity and is an aspiring writer, preacher and minister. He currently serves as Interim Director of Youth at Highland Presbyterian Church in Winston-Salem, NC.

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  • George Bullard

    Chris, this is a good article. I would like to read the book, and probably will. I have long believed that the right order is strategy, then staffing, then structure. Your post is right that too many churches go to structure before it is needed or they are ready. In doing so they highjack the overall church budget. Also, the superstar approach to hiring a youth minister only happen one out of seven times.

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