Tuesday, October 03, 2006

Youth Ministry: Some Evangelical Introspection

Christianity Today surveyed "114 leaders from 11 ministry spheres about evangelical priorities for the next 50 years," and is publishing some of those observations, one area of ministry at a time. Here's what they report about the comments from youth ministry leaders.

The first paragraph contains these words from Mark Oestreicher, president of YouthSpecialties:
There are a lot of people who've had this nagging sense that we're missing the mark somehow. That kids seem happy and willing to attend, and engaged in our ministries, but five years from now, when they're in college or post-college, they just really aren't connecting with real faith, let alone church.
Now, if you're familiar with YouthSpecialties, you're probably aware that the mark they seem to be aiming at is attracting young people to church (or perhaps we should say, the church's "youth ministry") by making it fun, entertaining, hip, and exciting. Perhaps it's a good thing that Oestreicher is beginning to recognize that the market-driven strategy of fun and excitement draws a crowd, but does not make a church.

Oestreicher's comments are followed by others from people at places like Princeton and Fuller seminaries, some of which are rather insightful and sound.

I'm not holding my breath that this is the beginning of some revolution for the better in evangelical youth ministry. But it does bring to mind the statement I've heard Frank Hamrick make, and that others have told me Les Ollila has made: "What it takes to reach them is what it takes to keep them."

If broadly evangelical churches are suffering a dearth of post-college young people, so are many fundamentalist churches. I wonder if fundamentalist churches don't often employ the same "fun and exciting" strategy for youth ministry (just without the rock music) and experience the same departure of those young people when they're transitioned into big people church after high school or college. After all, isn't it fair to say that after high school, many fundamentalist young people "really aren't connecting with real faith, let alone church"?

Here's my question: If your church uses candy or prizes as a primary motivational techniques in your children's ministry or youth ministry, what do you think those strategies accomplish? And if they accomplish something of value, do you use the same strategies with your adults? If not, why not?

What it takes to reach them is what it takes to keep them.


Jason Janz said...

As a youth pastor, I always reacted against this statement about winning and keeping. I think it goes much deeper than that.

First of all, if this phrase is referring to evangelism, usually (even with fun and games) people are still won (saved) by the preaching of the Gospel. I don't think this is what most people are referring to.

If we are referring to attracting saved/unsaved kids methodologically (tube tug or big bands depending on your style), I think the truer statement is as follows: What youth leaders do to to gather a crowd is the same as what they do to keep a crowd. In other words, having a big ball for the outreach activity is just followed the next week by a small ball in a circle playing hot potato. They attract kids with a CCM concert and then just have mini-concerts on youth group nights with their little band. Their reliance is on relevance and fun.

However, left like that most youth guys then react and go the other direction - expository preaching on Sunday and Wednesday and no outreach. They talk about outreach, but the youth groups really are stagnant evangelistically.

I wonder if the better approach is to say that we are going to reach out in as many ways as possible, but build the ministry on the Word day in and day out.

I'm not sure if this makes sense, but I believe the cliche is definitely limited and simplistic.

Ben said...

I'm not sure there's anything you said that I disagree with (other than the final sentence), but it's unclear to me what that statement asserts that you deny. In particular, I do not understand your second paragraph and how it relates to that statement.

Jason Janz said...

I just don't agree with the statement that what it takes to win them is what it takes to keep them.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes we have a big crowd, sometimes a small crowd, but for us it's mostly time of year. Like in July when everyone is on vacation we had one night of 10, but when it's the school year we have 30-70 jr. highers. Our youth activities are for fellowship and our Wednesday Nights for training.

I understand the statement...but I think no matter what your teens are somewhat tethered to what their parents are doing at the time. Or if they have a job or not.

Don said...

ben, I'm with you on this one. I posted some somewhat related thoughts here:


Feel free to delete the link (and this post) if you like, when I saw the subject I was posting on, I thought of this poset and wanted to call your attention to it.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Ben said...


I wouldn't imagine that this post would be able to convince you if you disagree, but I do consider it interesting that perhaps the broadest range of evangelicals might be beginning to recognize the truth in this statement.

Clearly, they're not all the way there yet, and I doubt that they'll ever arrive at agreement. But they're beginning to recognize the problem that Hamrick and Ollila have diagnosed.

And I think the question is still worth answering--if fun and games works to attract teens to hear the gospel, why not use it with adults? How is the fun and games approach qualitatively different from the seeker-driven model?