A Different Way to Do Teen Ministry Campus Ministry Church, Putting Theory into Practice


I’m a big fan of youth ministry and youth ministers. I’m just not such a big fan of turning youth ministry into a sub-congregation that practices a Christianity unlike that practiced by the rest of the church. It’s unhealthy for the church and even more unhealthy for the teens.

Here’s the idea —

1. Every single outreach ministry, service project, and mission trip needs to be a congregation wide event. That’s the ideal. This means some programs get thrown out and some get added. It’ll take time.

2. The teen ministers and the ministers who work with adults, the elders, and the ministry leaders therefore have to meet and decide what they’ll do together. Neither side gets to dictate. They work together.

3. The teens work as full partners in the adult efforts — to the extent they can. They aren’t served. Rather, they serve alongside. They are co-servants or servant apprentices. The adults mentor by modeling the life of Jesus by serving others. The teens are served by learning how to serve alongside experienced, passionate servants.

4. If you have a college or single ministry, all the same principles apply. This is not about families according to the flesh. It’s about the church being a family.

5. I think teens should also participate in children’s ministry — as trainees and to see the passion of the adults for babies and young children. So should college students.

Now, teens and college students — even the most responsible ones — will have finals and field trips and will leave town for the summer. Teens who work often get the worst shifts, such as Sunday morning. So maybe you can’t put them in charge. But they can help and learn and sometimes take a turn.

In small churches, the teens and college students are always involved in children’s ministry. In big churches, they are shooed out so they can form relationships and gain valuable life lessons in the teen ministry — and so they never learn the joys of serving younger children or gain the skills for how to do it. And they miss the chance to serve alongside older, more experienced volunteers. And as a result, we’re producing young singles and young marrieds who are looking for a program to help them form relationships rather than seeking opportunities to serve.

Our teens are learning that the relationships that really matter are peer relationships — with friends their own age. They aren’t taught how to relate to five-years or 50-year olds. They don’t bond across generational lines. And yet we have many teens that come from broken homes with all sorts of dysfunctions who are looking for and need surrogate parents and grandparents.

But kids need time with other kids

Yes, they do. Kids need peers who are devoted to Christianity because teens are strongly influenced by their peers. And so they need some devos and some teen-only trips. But in a time when families are small and kids spend their days in school and playing ball or taking dance only with kids their own age, they desperately need time with older and younger kids, young adults, and old adults.

We wonder why prolonged adolescence is becoming a major societal issue — but I think it’s because our kids are always with people their own age. And so they’ve never seen anything but adolescent behavior except from their parents and teachers.

Would this mean the end of teen ministry?

Not at all. We still need teen ministry and teen ministers, but not to run a separate sub-congregation. Rather, their role becomes advocating for the kids and helping the adults to find a way to serve alongside the teens. Adults are bad to just do it and not to bother with the kids — who just slow things down. The ministers have to help us remember that we’re all parents when it comes to training children to be adult Christians.

It will mean a loss of ministry autonomy. Presently, in most churches, the teen ministry and campus ministry go their separate ways. The ministers design their events and programs with little need to coordinate with other ministries. But with this approach, the ministries have to be very thoughfully coordinated. If, for example, the teen short-term mission trip becomes a congregational trip, the teen ministers may not be in charge of the effort at all. Rather, their role becomes advocacy for the teens — to make sure the adults don’t ignore the teens’ legitimate needs. Moreover, the ministers should help the teens internalize the lessons, by helping them process and understand what they experience.

Teens need to be taught what Christianity is really all about. The heart of Christianity is the Christ, and he showed us how to live as kings — by a sacrifice that defeats God’s enemies — whether it’s hanging your life on a cross or skipping meals for 30 hours or taking off a week to teach and play with orphans. And there’s joy in being like Jesus.

Teen ministers will have to learn how to work with adults who aren’t in their program. They’ll need to develop the skills necessary to encourage the adults to take a little time and train a teenager how to do what the adult does. And they’ll need to think hard about how to make this work — because I’m really just guessing.

And we’ll still need the teens to attend youth rallies and go to concerts by Christian artists. We’ll still need classes. Youth ministry will still happen; it’ll just be different.

12 Responses

  1. jay, i like the ideas. there was a push when i was at lipscomb (i was a youth ministry major for like four weeks) towards family ministry. well, i say there was a push. there were classes in it and a lot of talk, but i don’t think it was ever really taken seriously.

    i’m wondering, though, you keep referencing small churches — and i agree with you, often small churches do great jobs of having different age groups constantly in interaction with one another. anyway, i’m wondering how much separation of ministries (youth, college, singles, retired, and the like) is just an attempt at getting back to manageable sizes, so that we can actually encourage and build one another up, as seems to be much of the point of meeting together.

    it’s just that, to me, a lot of what we’re discussing would be best answered by having smaller churches where there is greater interaction between Christians of all ages, and the church can actually know one another. and it also seems that if we’re not going to introduce the things you’re suggesting through smaller churches, we’re going to have to introduce them (at least) through some version of small groups, whether they be weekly meetings, service groups, fellowship teams, sports groups, mission trip groups, etc.

    so does anyone else see part of the problem as being that our churches are simply too big to function like they’re “supposed” to?

  2. jamesbrett,

    I see it as a numbers situation. I have met strong Christians who pulled people of all ages to them to serve together as a Christian family. I have met these strong Christians in small and large churches. Large churches are more likely to have such Christians. Small churches are more likely to have none of these Christians. I use the word “likely” as numbers and probabilities and all that are realities.

    Having large churches “birth” a group of small churches in likely to leave some of the small churches with doing a lot of nothing.

  3. I like this vision! I found out officially–via an announcement from the pulpit–that my funding as a youth minister will be ending this summer, but I was already looking elsewhere because I knew that was coming sooner or later. However, I think I will bring up some of these ideas in my exit interview. “Mainstreaming” the few youth we have into the congregation as a whold seems like the best (and possibly only) option we will have. As always, Jay, challenging thoughts!

  4. Good thinking! We lose our youth because we do not use our youth in church activities. When they outgrow the young-peoples’ church, there’s no direct path into meaningful membership in adult church. Of course we lose them. This is not a fault of church size. The same is true in churches large and small. We’ve separated ourselves and are now paying the price in young people not attached to the adult congregations.

  5. ray, i agree it’s a problem of separation and not size. but what i’m suggesting is that this separation doesn’t happen in a lot of smaller churches. i’ve visited, been a member at, and preached at several small churches in which social activities are social activities for all, retreats are church-wide, and they get together as whole families for watching football and eating burgers on saturdays.

    what i’m wondering is how are you going to do those things as a large church? i’m not saying it can’t happen — but i’m wanting to know what it will look like?

    and dwayne, i’d suggest that if a large church has some of those “strong” Christians and a small one doesn’t, then that doesn’t sound like a problem of numbers as much as it does watered-down Christianity. but even if it’s just numbers and probability, you’re still proportionally growing the numbers of “weak” Christians to “strong” ones. suppose a church of 80 doesn’t have any of these “strong” Christians — then a church of 400 isn’t going to have any more than 4. so you’re still looking at a ratio that’s too large to do the kinds of things we’re talking about, right?

  6. james,

    There are many advantages of a larger church, too. The way to get the best of both worlds is to have small groups in a larger church. But I’ve never seen a small group model that works well with teens, because the adults and teens are generally learning at very different levels and often need to discuss subjects inappropriate for kids.

    And so my thinking is that a larger church gets around this through whole-church ministry — having the teens participate in adult missions and ministries, internal and external. In a typical church, the teens are only about 10% of the membership (6 years out of, say, 80 with the numbers being a bit larger in the younger ages). That means it shouldn’t be very hard to find enough adult activities to involve the teens in. They don’t have to be mentored or in relationship with all the adults, just enough adults.

  7. thanks, jay. that’s what i was looking for — a how to do this in bigger churches. i also see many advantages in large churches, though given the opportunity to start anew in the states, i’d like to explore some sort of cell church plan, in which the group meets altogether once or maybe twice a month. i think in many ways, then, you could enjoy the benefits of both small and large churches. but that’s another topic.

    there are a few churches whose youth ministries seem to service entire towns, drawing kids from other churches but also (because of numbers and popularity, i would guess) pulling in kids that would never come to church otherwise. i wonder how those youth ministries function.

    and even more, those college ministries that are similar? i went to auburn, and the church was basically split in half — university students and “residents.”

    along those same lines, college ministries generally function even more separate than youth ministries, yet we don’t see the numbers fall off as they do during the transition to college from high school. does being integrated into the larger church become less important with maturity?

  8. James,

    Our church at times has had large numbers of teens whose parents don’t attend our church. That’s the case presently. And that means we can’t do family-oriented ministry. If the teens all do things with their parents, many of our teens would have no one to do ministry with. But for us, at least, there are still plenty of other adults to go around.

    Campus ministry, as you say, is different. I have a son at Auburn (blue-and-orange sheep of the family), and I’m familiar with that campus ministry. The same problem arises in a town with a Christian college — the number of college students can overwhelm the local churches. I’d bet that’s a serious issue for Freed-Hardeman, which is in a very small town.

    As you note, the problem with losing colleges students after they graduate is much less of a problem than we have with teenagers. The college students who attend only come because they choose to. Many teens are forced to attend.

    We’re fortunate that our church has grown large enough that we could integrate the college students, but many churches just have to do the best they can with the hand they’re dealt. And I must say that Jim Brinkerhoff does a great job with his ministry in Auburn.

  9. i see the difficulties of family-oriented ministry when there are so many youth who come apart from parents. you noted that college students attendance is their choice, so that explains the lower drop-off after college. i’d add two or three other thoughts / factors:

    1. in those large high school youth groups there are often as many as 1/4 to half of the students involved NOT being forced to come. and i hate to “broad-stroke” them all, but the majority are coming for social reasons. it is a parent-approved social activity group. when they get to college, there will be so many other social groups, and there’s no need for parent approval. so they switch over. it’s just that the problem doesn’t really seem to be only the parent’s forcing students to participate in high school. [on a similar note, concerning this search for social activity, richard beck over at acu suggests that facebook will be the downfall of church attendance, because it offers community that college students used to go to church to find.]

    2. i’ve never read studies on this, but my guess is that we’d find a huge number of kids who leave church during their college years only to come back after college. there are a whole lot of people who have this plan. and i’m not saying once they return they are whole-heartedly committed to Christ — i think many of them just “want to raise their children well” or feel Christianity brings respect in society, etc. but motives aside, we’re only looking at church attendance here. i can’t tell you how many people in college talk about straightening up once they get married — or once they have kids. and many do.

    3. i’m guessing another reason college students don’t stop attending after school is that during those 4-8 years, they have the opportunity to let their faith become their own. for me, i never experienced a lot of what you call ‘progressive’ on your site until college. and my mind was blown. i had no idea what to do with it initially. but i started sorting through it all, and before long i’d empty my faith suitcase of a bunch of luggage, and was putting back in what i felt belonged there. once an individual’s done that, they’re much less likely to leave. i wonder if there’s any way to have high school students experience a bit of this — or if they’re ready.

    p.s. — jim does do a great job of ministry. if i’d not been a part of the acsc, i would be a rich architect today (nothing against architects, it’s just that i would have been a particularly selfish, greedy, and materialistic one), but jim and other students there influenced me a great deal. and certain things became less important to me. rather, i learned what really is important.

  10. Jay,

    What do you say to youth ministers working very much against the grain?

    My experience wasn’t as bad as some. But one church wanted me to put together a youth program that was very much like traditional big-church youth programs just because it gave us (a small, waning church) the feeling that things were “happening.” Another church i worked at wanted a very traditional youth program because they had always had one and they were sold that it was *the* way “reach” kids.

    But at all the churches i worked at, there was a general sense of numerical participation being a measure of success. But if a youth minister was to put together a practicing/training-for-discipleship-heavy program, a lot of kids would stop showing up. –for obvious reasons of course: pizza parties and laser tag and even retreats to scenic places are “fun,” whereas handing out bag lunches to the homeless in the slums is not. Even if a youth minister was doing good stuff like having kids do tough charity work, the fact that only ten kids show up to that (whereas 25 would’ve come to a pizza party) can lead congregants to think the YM is failing. How can YM’s comat those kinds of expectations and standards?


  11. Guy,

    I’ve been an elder long enough to know I’ve been pretty stupid at times, and will likely look back at 2010 and think I was pretty stupid then, too. The minister has to sit down with the elders and present his thinking — respectfully and convincingly. Elders will have a lot of trouble objecting to service projects. But … and here’s one of many examples of stupid things I’ve done … not all good ideas are practical.

    Some years ago, I attended a class taught by a deacon — our first black deacon. I don’t know how it came up, but he expressed his dismay at our teens going to the Memphis Work Camp — a great program where teens go to Memphis to paint houses and otherwise serve the poor. The deacon said we have plenty of poor here in Tuscaloosa — so let’s have a Tuscaloosa work camp — and this way our kids can form relationships with the people in the poor communities here that will last and help bridge the racial divide here in Tuscaloosa.

    So, being stupid (I was not yet an elder, but that’s not why I was stupid) I asked our then youth minister about this. And he refused — you see, our kids form GREAT RELATIONSHIPS WITH EACH OTHER by serving others out of town, the underlying premise being that it’s more about our kids than the poor. And I cringed.

    But we later hired a new youth minister, and I was an elder then, and I suggested, kindly, that we have a Tuscaloosa work camp. He thought it was a great idea! I think he meant it, but it may have been because I was an elder. But I was stupid — and the Tuscaloosa work camp was a bust. You see, pizza parties are so much more fun than painting houses.

    I’ve now concluded that the key is to stop sending the teens out to do things the adults are unwilling to do. Rather, we need an adult Tuscaloosa work camp (or the equivalent), and then we need to invite the teens to help. It won’t be a pizza party, but it’ll work.

    In fact, just a few weeks ago, several adults and college students (from here and three other colleges) spent spring break preparing a community garden for a housing project in town our church has kind of adopted. Very cool. It’d been so much cooler if the teens had been a part (they might have been, but I don’t think so). But the adults and college students worked together, and it was a great time of service.

    And none of this prevents us from having pizza parties. I’m good with pizza parties. But the pizza party after the garden was put in would have included teens, college students, and adults celebrating a great victory for God together. And that’s the best kind of party.

  12. […] can read the next installment of this here. – Jerry) 27.664827 […]

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