I’ve served in youth ministry for 18 years. There’s always a temptation to look back through nostalgic, rose-colored glasses to the good ole days when things were easier and the sun shined brighter. But most veteran youth pastors will agree that leading a successful youth discipleship ministry is harder today than it was a decade ago.
Andrew Root’s book The End of Youth Ministry? Why Parents Don’t Really Care About Youth Groups and What Youth Workers Should Do About It validates this notion more empirically. Root echoed my sense that many youth pastors now struggle to get access to kids or garner regular attendance at youth group events. And when kids don’t attend consistently, it’s hard for youth ministers to connect relationally, build community, or disciple effectively.
What factors have led to this struggle, and what can we do about them?
4 Barriers Keeping Students from Youth Ministry
1. College Admissions Arms Race
The lengths to which suburban students and parents will go to gain an edge in college admissions and scholarships have surpassed what we saw a decade ago. SAT and ACT prep courses were once a tool for the uberserious. They’re now standard operating procedure. Much of a teenager’s life revolves around résumé building, which means loads of extracurricular activities and staying up late to manage a challenging course load.
Too often students bail on Sunday and Wednesday night youth gatherings because they simply have too much on their plates. And scheduling appointments with students for one-on-one discipleship can feel as impossible as landing a meeting with a U.S. senator.
2. Changing Technology
Video games and smartphones are a distraction—so distracting that when parents don’t remind some kids to get off their screens, they forget to show up at church. But beyond the distraction, social media is a nightmare for youth ministry communication.
Ask any youth pastor how he feels about Snapchat and you’ll hear a vomit reflex or some other sign of disgust. Many kids now use the app as their primary mode of communication with peers. Often, they’ll only use Snapchat and neglect checking their text messages or returning phone calls. (It’s like how most youth pastors neglect their old Hotmail accounts.)
Youth pastors can’t interact with students on Snapchat. Since the messages disappear, this violates accepted standards of transparency, and adults who use Snapchat are generally thought of as sketchy. Changing technology has put up a major communication barrier between youth pastors and the kids in their ministries.
3. Limited Access to Schools
When I first started in youth ministry, I’d visit around two schools per week. I’d sit in the lunchroom with students and even stand in the halls, chatting with them. I’d meet their friends and get a good pulse on their lives.
When kids don’t attend consistently, it’s hard for youth ministers to connect relationally, build community, or disciple effectively.
The sad reality of school shootings has forced school administrations to limit access and make their facilities into de facto fortresses. It’s the only prudent response given the imminent danger of gun violence, and I both sympathize with and support these measures. But this change is another way a youth minister’s access to students has been limited.
4. Travel Sports
Schools take a kid’s time during the week, and travel sports, dance, and band take her time on the weekends. I hear it from youth ministers across the country. During certain seasons, students from otherwise faithful families mostly disappear from Sunday worship and youth group activities due to travel soccer, volleyball, baseball, lacrosse, or band and dance competitions. You may argue this affects only a small percentage of kids, but these absences affect the whole group.
The lifeblood of a vibrant youth ministry is a strong community. The number one reason kids enthusiastically come to youth group is that they feel they have solid friends there. Studying Scripture, praying, and worship bless them with a sense of life in Christ, but the promise of community gets them in the door. Sporadic attendance at gatherings rarely results in meaningful Christian community.
How Do We Respond to These Challenges?
These factors all limit a youth minister’s access to students and disrupt the relational consistency necessary for effective discipleship. But they validate some basic principles of gospel-centered ministry. Remembering these principles can help us fight against sporadic relationships and cultivate a transformative Christian community.
1. Program Simply
Out with the mediocre and in with the effective. Fifteen years ago, our church’s youth ministry had dozens of programs. But over time, we began to feel spread too thin. Youth ministries that thrive today have moved from mediocre to effective by limiting the programs they offer. These churches communicate two or three priority programs and ask families to commit to only one or two.
Evaluate what programs have been most effective for your youth ministry. Where do you see kids growing spiritually and enjoying Christian fellowship? Where is attendance most consistent, and where is it flagging? Choose to invest where you see fruit.
2. Disciple Intentionally
With limited access to students, you must make every gathering count. When I first started in youth ministry, we had thriving small groups on weekdays, lots of good trips, and strong attendance at Sunday school. We had prayer and Bible study at each of those gatherings, so we focused our Sunday afternoon gathering on building relationships. We’d play frisbee or go out to dinner. Today, it’s essential to include the key ingredients for discipleship—Bible study, prayer, and community—at every event. There’s no room for fluff.
3. Invest in Families
While youth pastors don’t have as much access to students, parents have more access than they did in previous generations. So youth ministers must find ways to invest in parents spiritually. For a younger youth pastor, this may mean partnering with older adults in your church or with your supervising pastor. This could mean leading a basic Bible study for moms and dads, or regularly having parents in your home. Investing in the spiritual maturity of your church’s parents is an investment in your students’ discipleship.
4. Commit to Prayer
When I first started in youth ministry, someone asked me, “What would be better: to spend eight hours with a student or eight hours praying for a student?” I tend to think prayer would be the better option. While we may not be able to spend as much time with kids as we like, the Lord responds to our prayers by imparting his grace into our students’ lives.
Yes, the challenges before today’s youth ministers can be frustrating and difficult, but the Lord continues to pursue and draw young people to himself. As we submit to him, he’ll give us wisdom for how to offer Christ to the next generation, no matter what barriers come.