A Future Outlook on Youth Ministry Employment

Originally published June 2004.

In my humble and fearful opinion, there is a big change coming for employment in the youth ministry world.  Youth ministry as we know it will continue in many of the large churches. Those who do corporate-style of youth ministry will continue to be in the forefront and continue to be the publishers of most of the youth ministry resources.  (In a very generic nutshell, corporate-style of youth ministry is the youth pastor as CEO, he/she trains volunteers who then reach the students through small groups or other form.)  But I believe the full-time youth-only pastor position will be available less and less in the coming years. I know many of you know you are truly called into full-time youth ministry.  I fear writing this for those of you.  But this is Wild Frontier with out there and true insight.

 It is already quite obvious that a shake up in church planning is happening.  Whether it is emerging, third wave, micro-church, or whatever, the business of church is changing and that will change youth ministry.  There are a lot of youth pastors who are excited about these church changes.  Some are leading the churches in these changes.  It would be foolish to not see changes in youth ministry also happening.

Due to these coming changes, I ask that you re-examine your call.  Not to re-examine your love for youth but to re-examine the expectations of your call.  The expectations of that call may be more reflective of what you grew up with than what God is really calling you to.  For example, you may have been greatly influenced by a corporate-style youth minister and you expect your call to be like the one who influenced you.  That may be so.  But God may have also called you to some sort of Wild Frontier life that involves loving youth and introducing them to Jesus but in a different form.  Be challenged!

To further understand some of the changes happening on the church level, read the following quote from a former youth pastor now senior pastor and the situation he is facing: “As a Senior Pastor, the epidemic of a generation of adults that are uncommitted to leadership level volunteering is more evident.  As a youth pastor, I didn't need strong leaders--I needed good helpers.  In a mid-sized church (150-250 people) the traditional model of hiring is to hire a Sr. Pastor, and then a Youth Pastor.  This model has been successful because the adults in other ministry areas have been fairly committed.  Churches have not had a problem finding a gifted AWANA commander (or children's club leader) or a Sunday School Superintendent, etc.  That generation of committed adults is starting to age, however, and in our church setting (and as I've spoken to other pastors about this problem, in most church settings) there is a generation of Christians that are uncommitted to leadership level positions in the church.  They want to help, but not lead.  That leaves me as a pastor in an awkward position, because instead of being able to say ‘Let's focus on the youth, everything else is being covered,’ I instead come to a point of saying ‘Let's focus on the youth instead of these other ministries.’

“The problem with that focus is that studies have shown that 85 percent of people who become Christians have done so before they are of youth group age.  Ten percent of people who become Christians do so during their youth group years, and only 5 percent become Christians after 18 years of age.  I think from a simple effectiveness point of view that in a church setting in which a person had to make a choice--either children or youth--the numbers would direct you to hiring children first.  It's become my sincere conviction, however, that hiring to fill the positions qualified people within the church body could fill is putting a band-aid on a cultural and spiritual problem that exists in our church.

“The church has been marginalized in our culture to a point of ineffectivity.  The kingdom of God isn't advancing as it should because the people of God aren't involved.  The question has been oft-asked, "Is youth ministry biblical?"  We often blast the person, ignore him, or question their motives in asking--yet I think it is a valid question.  Is youth ministry, the way many youth pastors do it, biblical?  Does it really fit within the Biblical definitions of an overseer (which we are as pastors) to just run fun events, hopefully reach out, teach the Bible, and recruit babysitters?  I know that youth ministry should be a lot more than that, the question is--is it?

“The other question I had to ask myself was--Could a trained, dedicated team of volunteers do the work of the youth ministry and establish a sense of continuity that doesn't exist from hiring?  I'm not sure what the current numbers are for a youth pastor's tenure at a church.  I know it's been rising and that's been good to see.  In many cases, the people in the church will be there much longer than the staff.  When it comes to not short-changing the youth, don't you think that teaching, training, discipline, growing and equipping a volunteer who is going to be in the church and possibly involved in the ministry for 30 years would be better for them than putting a guy in to start new programs who will be there three to four years?

“So that's what I've been wrestling with.  I really think that, for most churches, the change is not a devaluing of youth, but a reflection of the culture our current volunteers should be (but aren't) coming from.  It's also a realization that we simply cannot afford to put all of our resources into a 6-year age range of our congregation.”  (Mike Picconato, Staples Alliance Church)

There is an honest evaluation of an average-sized congregation’s struggle.

Another problem in youth ministry we must recognize and adjust to was also addressed by the above pastor.  To quote a Pair of Cleats from a year ago, “Somehow today's youth ministry has become centered around the youth pastor.  Today's youth ministry is not centered on youth and it is not centered on the legal caregivers of youth. It is centered around the youth pastor. Need proof? Who always speaks at most of the youth meetings? Who always plans the retreats? Who always attends the retreats? Who always coaches the small group leaders? Who goes on all the mission trips? The answer is, of course, the youth pastor.  That is why he/she is paid.  The history shows that this was not the intention but youth ministry has grown into this.

“The usual end result really was instead of a youth ministry which focused on your church’s youth, it was a (insert name here) ministry which focused on the hired person (with good intentions).”  After (insert name here) is gone, the youth ministry changes drastically.  It is hard to continue on when the axle that makes the wheel go round is gone.

The relational youth ministry model is very popular.  Mostly because it feels right and many in youth ministry had their lives changed due to some powerful relational youth pastor or adult.  This model really began 50+ years ago with Young Life and Youth for Christ.  Bible quizzing, zany games, dynamic speakers, contemporary music, and safe entertainment for teens were started with Young Life and Youth for Christ.  Adults hanging out with teens to gain the right to be heard also started with Young Life and Youth for Christ.  After some time the Church wanted a part of this “life” and began hiring Young Life and Youth for Christ leaders to be youth pastors.  They saw the lack in their own church youth ministry and wanted the life Young Life and Youth for Christ found.  And that is how the entire youth ministry culture got started.

Times are changing though.  Youth ministry has been around long enough that it doesn’t need mavericks to show the church how to do it.  It has become a hired position for someone to do it so the church doesn’t have to.  You may have experienced this attitude yourself when trying to recruit good youth leaders.

Also the role of parents raising their own children spiritually has been weakened (making parents feel inferior) or outright usurped.  Things need to change which is also why youth ministry is changing.  Some maverick senior pastors and youth pastors are seeing that these changes happen.

On an important side note, the role of a youth pastor is not to be a buddy or friend.  You may be that significant other adult in some teens lives but so is Mrs. SundaySchoolTeacher.  This important ministry role is not a full-time position.  It is the natural outflow of a God-loving life.  The spiritual formation of your teens is a youth ministry priority and that comes first through parents (many studies prove it) and then through the church.  Your role as youth pastor simplified is to set a consistent example of Christ living in you and teaching from that so the church and parents can do their role.

So where does that leave you and your call?  Fighting it out for the fewer and fewer traditional youth pastor jobs available?  Maybe and that may be all right.  Or you can change your expectations and philosophy to expand the 6-year range and still have a focus on youth.  You can come up with a plan that doesn’t center on you but provides a church a youth program that will continue to grow with or without you.

It is hard to argue though the importance of a full-time paid youth minister in reaching pre-saved youth.  One of the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion was that when there were teens who were highly religiously involved in a church and their parents are not, the largest factor surveyed was a church that had a youth ministry program run by a full-time paid youth minister. So many of us love teenagers so much and we want to see as many as possible come to be in love with Jesus and have a new life.  But you know that most churches cannot afford to put their budget into a 6-year gap for those outside of the church.  And some churches are looking for new, more effective ways to do youth ministry.  This is not because there is no evangelistic fervor for the lost.  It is a matter of practics and how can they do this for the best of the church with a wise budget move that fits emerging, third-wave, micro-church, or whatever direction the church is going in.

The following are two ways I see this new called full-time youth ministry position filling out.  Both emphasize the youth ministry and both allow you time with youth.  Plus both fill needs of churches no matter if they are emerging, third wave, micro-church, or whatever.

Family Ministry Pastor - Yes, this basically is family-based youth ministry but you would also help oversee the children’s ministry using the same ministry ideas.  You may have little passion for children but you do have passion for parents and those children will one day be teenagers.  Take that passion of helping parents be the spiritual influence  to younger ages and you will truly have a more complete youth ministry program.  And you can recruit adults to help you with those younger ages so you are freed up to spend more time on the youth program.

Pastor of Volunteers - This is truly a need of average-sized churches with the emerging crisis of the lack of volunteer leadership.  With your charisma and organizational skills, you would be doing a real service to the church as whole and have the greatest volunteer staff ever for the youth ministry.  Certainly you would develop the best volunteers for the youth ministry and those volunteers would stay with the youth long after you are gone.

In the history of youth ministry, youth ministry has been in constant motion evolving into many different forms. That is why there are always new youth ministry books.  I have some books from my early years from the early 1980s and they do not apply today.  Changes have always been happening. How will you fit into these changes?  How will you lead in these changes?  You are walking into exciting time.