One of the hardest jobs in a church these days is that of youth minister.
Not just because the schedule of activities can be grueling or the work can be physically demanding. The reason, instead, is ever-increasing demands placed on churches and pastors for what youth ministry should look like and feel like.
The days of the one-size-fits-all, “y’all come” youth ministry I knew as a teenager in the 1970s are long gone, especially in urban areas where youth and their families have lots of choices in learning styles, leadership, worship styles, fun factor and access to peer groups.
Life for teenagers today is full of so many more choices than in previous times. That’s neither a good thing or a bad thing, just a reality. As television choices have grown from three networks to hundreds of options via cable and satellite, so have choices in virtually every other area of life expanded. Churches are not exempt from this competitive marketplace.
The problem: Few churches have the capacity be all things to all youth. Instead, churches have to make choices about what kind of youth ministry they’re willing and able to offer. And even this has been complicated by the influence of parachurch youth programs that often take on lives of their own and duplicate what once was the mainstay of church youth ministries.
This market segmentation creates havoc for families who have kids with different temperaments and needs, and for families with kids who disagree with their parents about what church is best. When that parent-youth tug-of-war erupts these days, nine times out of 10, the teenager wins the battle because the parents would rather sacrifice their own spiritual development for the sake of their kids.
What I speak of here is not just the experience we’ve had at our church in Dallas but what has been confirmed through informal conversation as the experience of many other pastors and churches in many other places. And yet most church lay leaders and most parents of youth may not understand the systemic dynamics at play.
Here are some of the key factors I’ve witnessed or have gleaned from other church leaders that would be worth additional conversation among church leaders and youth parents:
1. Peer groups hold the greatest sway. There’s nothing new in the fact that teenagers want to be around their friends. What is new is the degree to which this crowd-sourcing goes unchallenged by parents who want, above all, for their kids to be happy. We’re seeing this happen now as early as fifth grade. One of the dangers here is not helping teenagers learn to make friends where they are or learn to adapt to the environments in which they are placed with their families. Adaptation is an important life skill.
2. Theology doesn’t seem to matter. As I argued in a previous commentary, people too often today choose churches based on aesthetic or feel-good factors and fail to account for differences in theology. While perhaps not essential to salvation, these differences are real and have consequences for the future. What pastors and youth leaders see as important distinctives in theology and pedagogy simply don’t register as important with parents.
3. Perception is reality. I have talked with parents who have children in the same grade in our youth program and yet have opposite viewpoints on what the experience is like for their kids. And there is no solace in telling them someone else has a differing perspective. What their kid perceives is the reality for that family. The oddest variation on this occurs when an awkward teenager finds immediate community and acceptance in the youth group and other more average kids swear to their parents no one talks to them and they can’t make friends in the same youth group. Even within the same family, sometimes children have opposite experiences, with a younger sibling fitting right in while an older sibling feels disconnected.
4. Time is short. Students today have less discretionary time than ever, meaning they and their parents have to make choices. Usually, church gets the short end of that stick. Playing in club sports teams competes head-to-head with Sunday morning church, and a plethora of summer options competes head-to-head with summer church camps, choir tours and service projects.
5. You’ve got to show up. Amid all these competing schedules, it is easy for teenagers (and their parents) not to show up at church often. When a parent complains that their child doesn’t feel connected to the youth group, one of the first questions to ask is, “How often is your child there?” One former youth minister compared teenagers to electrical plugs and churches to electrical outlets: “You don’t get the power if you don’t plug in.”
6. Sometimes the problem is with your kid. This is hard to say and no doubt hard to hear, but few parents are capable of imagining that the “problem” with the church youth group might be their child more than the rest of the youth. While attention to every child’s needs is important, the entire structure of a youth program cannot be upended to suit the unique needs of one child. And by the way, sometimes teenagers don’t want to be at church because they don’t really want to be anywhere.
7. There’s an expectation of entertainment. One friend reported on a conversation with parents at his suburban church, asking them why they had chosen that church. The answer: “Because the youth group is good.” But when pressed to say what made the youth group “good” or what those parents hoped for their children by way of spiritual formation, the crowd went silent. They mainly were happy that their kids were being entertained in a safe environment. One youth minister said in response: “It is not the church’s job to entertain your kids. There are plenty of other places available to entertain them. We want to teach them.”
8. Diversity creates challenges. Urban churches, and even many suburban churches, must deal with students from multiple schools. In our youth group of about 100 kids, 30 schools are represented. Few churches today are neighborhood churches the way they were in the old days. Churches that have the luxury of serving a homogenous community still gain a distinct advantage in acculturation and retention.
So, pity the poor youth minister who is expected to solve all these problems, be a friend to every child who passes through the doors, offer parenting advice on call, cook up fun programs and deep Bible study at the same time and meet the expectations of congregants who don’t even have kids in the youth group but remember the glory days of a previous generation.
Despite these challenges, many women and men continue to faithfully answer the call to service in local churches as youth leaders. They are brave souls. Next time you see one of them, thank them for what they do and perhaps engage them in a meaningful conversation about any of the points outlined above. That’s a conversation they are uniquely prepared to address.