The Wild Frontier Youth Ministry Paradigm

Originally published June 2005.

Wild Frontier began 15 years ago with a call on my heart which was already seven years old and a nagging gut feeling that youth ministry could be done better, done differently. I was inspired by a Randy Stonehill song, "Out on the Wild Frontier," (my inspiration and accomplishments have blessed him too) and a quote "Every other human being has no choice but to bow to their human limitations. Only believers can draw upon God's supernatural power to live beyond their limits." These are the hallmarks of my personal life which pour into my professional life.

I could go on and on about what I have discovered in my journey. In fact, I have over the last fifteen years, in the Pair of Cleats issues. But I thought I would surmise all of my random thoughts into one working document. It is a working document because I am no where near done with this journey.


Parents are Number One

Honestly, I haven't believed this point during my entire youth ministry career. I at one time believed the myth that adolescents pull away from adults, especially their parents, as they strive for independence during adolescent development. The recent Time article on 13-year olds mentioned this myth again, "We know that 13- year olds are going to move away from their parents. The question is, Where are they going to move to? In the youth pastors, they see people who drive jeeps and love Jesus." (Bryan Wilkerson, senior pastor at Grace Chapel, Time, August 8, 2005) Teens do pull away in one way or another, but they never want adults out of their lives, especially their parents.

I could re-list the numerous studies here of how important teens believe their parents are but I won't. Just know that parents really are number one and your youth ministry needs to reflect that if you truly want to help teens. We believe this fact so much that we have created an entire section on our webpage with resources.

I do love Jesus but I don't drive a jeep. I don't think driving a jeep matters that much overall to teens. But parents do.

Raise the Youth in the Church Family.

Youth need community. That statement has been repeated often and used as a reason (or excuse) for the many things we do in youth ministry. The result is we have our youth programs, youth rooms, and most currently, some churches are even running their own youth worship services. Such youth ministry does provide community, but teens also know how two-faced teens are because they are. Teens need community larger than their peer group. You and your volunteer leaders (if you have any!) are not enough. The good news is there is a ready made community in the church family.

I've heard other ministers describe youth ministries as "orphaning structures" because youth graduate from youth programs without being connected to the church family. Why do teens disappear after graduation? It is not because the church has a weak college and career program. It is because the now young adult's only connection to the church, the youth ministry, has been outgrown and that connection was never really connected to the church--other than through the church budget.

After involving parents in your youth ministry, involve as many other members of your congregation as you can. They don't have to be at the weekly youth meetings. It may be just once a year or even once overall. I literally spend most of my time in preparations to set a long list of adults up to interact with the teens at my church. When they do volunteer I make sure they are not abandoned. And for all of those who have never volunteered, I have set them up to effectively interact with the teens and I doubt they even know it.

This gives us an ironic job description. The youth worker really spends a great deal of time working with adults when his/her job title is the youth. From experience I can tell you that this does work well.

Don't Feel Guilty About Spending Time in Your Office

Some churches do require office time, some don't. I have heard too many conversations about how youth ministry cannot happen in your office. That would be the kind of youth ministry which is built around me, a Brenda ministry. If you are spending significant amounts of your time with teens off-site of the church, the youth ministry may be too centered on you. Your role as the youth minister is to raise the youth in the church family. That takes office time as you do your creative thing to get adults involved in teens' lives.

Youth Services Are Designed as Outreach Opportunities for the Unchurched

Youth services are designed as outreach opportunities for the unchurched. I stole this title from another youth ministry article like this was some new youth ministry idea that needed to be mentioned in an article. Isn't this why we do youth ministry?

Teens are more open to God and church than at any other time in their lives. However, too many of the unchurched youth are completely lost by our customs and codes. You know those customs and codes like how we worship, hand motions to certain songs, etc. The unchurched have no idea why we do those things nor are they comfortable sitting through those things. Your worship band may be powerful but to be a visitor and sit through 30 minutes of singing to lyrics you don't know, music that is too loud (a frequent mistake in youth worship bands), and body movements that are supernatural or just weird is very uncomfortable. Often visitors are invited to hear a guest speaker or the cool youth worker or to talk about a certain topic in a small group. They weren't warned about the weird singing which is usually the first thing up at a youth service.

Thom Schulz, founder and president of Group wisely observed, "In the early days, I think people in youth ministry felt they should simply mimic what they'd seen happen in the adult world. So if adults have a preacher stand up behind a podium and preach at people, well, you do the same thing with kids--only you have somebody who doesn't dress quite as nicely as the preacher and who uses a little more contemporary language. Well, that's not really effective youth ministry." (Group, September 10, 2004) This is something to think about.

Youth Services Should Include Times of Worship. Youth Services Should Include Times for Games

Honestly, both do work for individual groups. Both are uncomfortable for some individual groups. If one style is working for you, great. Because you are a games-oriented youth group does not mean you are a lesser youth group to a worship-oriented youth group. Both have pluses and minuses but in the end are effective for that individual group. The bottom-line is that how a youth group works varies widely from church to church and one set up is not better than any other set up.

However if you are a games-oriented youth group, be careful that you do not become competition to the Boys & Girls Club across town. You are a church first so don't forget to offer what the community expects the church to offer--Bible teaching.

If you are a worship-oriented youth group, be careful of everything mentioned above. When I last got my hair cut, my stylist was telling me how she was looking for a church. She went to one for a while which had an hour (her opinion) of singing. She started going to church purposely late because she didn't get the purpose for all that singing when the purpose of going to church is to be taught from the Bible. She eventually tried out other churches and found one that didn't have "all that singing." As a seeker (and a confused one at that) she wants a church that teaches the Bible and is friendly. Hmmm...

At my church we do not do worship/singing or games and that works too.

Youth Strive for Challenge, so Challenge

The increased popularity of extreme sports is one proof of this true desire for a challenge. Extreme sports is all about the challenge. Another proof is the increase enrollment in AP and IB education programs. Some youth want more challenging curriculum so they feel challenged in their education. There education means more than seat warming for something that is easy for them. They will take a C in an AP or IB class over an easy A in a regular class.

Be sure in your youth ministry to set the challenge of what a life of faith is. If the crowds don't follow, oh well. You will be growing true disciples and teaching new converts the true way of faith. The challenge will be respected no matter what their personal decisions are. And remember, youth ministry is part of a lifelong journey. The challenge you set will go with them throughout their lives even if they don't decide to follow those few short years you have with them.

The Location of the Youth Service is Not a Billion Dollar Investment

Some churches do give large budgets to build the ideal youth room and often that budget money is spent to make the youth room look like a high-tech Starbucks. If you've got it, use it. If you don't, do not fret that you don't and spend your time wondering 'only if..." That musty couch which was dumped on you may be that sacred place for some of your teens. You can make that musty couch a sacred place too.

Even with the high dollar youth room, youth still struggle to come to it. Maybe the reason why outsiders don't come to the "Teen Scene" or "Extreme Lounge" or whatever set up there is might be because they are tired of being ripped off by the church. When the banner advertises "Music - Games - Food," would that be what an outsider would come to a church for? What I mean is people come to a church expecting to come to something churchy--not the MTV-style/Hollister-look of something that is nothing like the real thing. It is fraudulent for the church to try to be something it is not and it feels fraudulent to the crowd you are trying to attract. Dr. Christian Smith, director of the National Study of Youth and Religion, had this to say about such efforts, "It's a creative effort to reach people, but at another level, it's a pretty drastic accommodation. They mostly define religion in consumerist terms. 'We want to sell you our product.' It signals a shift from the authority of the religious tradition to the individual consumer as the authority." (The Indianpolis Star, September 26, 2004)

Some churches purposely hold youth meetings in a rented room, often at a high school, because of the understanding that unchurched youth would more likely enter a common space like that rather than through a church door. This I don't agree with. The main reason for my disagreement is your youth ministry should also be a part of the life of your church which will be helped by the adults and youth bumping into each other in the church building. This is good even for your visitors. How often do they get to have conversations with adults who are not school teachers and managers at work? Another reason is that your youth do tire of going into a school building. For some, their time in a school building is torture enough. For some the school building is a reminder of the stressor that school is.

I also heard a youth worker recommend using a bowling alley or park to meet for youth group in response to the problem that the youth whose parents are highly involved in church didn't want to come to youth group. This offsite location would be so they could find a place and style of learning all their own. Whatever. If those youth with involved parents have a problem attending youth group, don't you think there is a bigger problem than the meeting location?

Then there is the underlying question, with the youth meeting at an off-site location are the minors in your care safe? Are there enough adult volunteers to keep an eye out? A church location offers all kinds of eyes to protect minors. I once preached at a youth group who's youth pastor purposely moved them to an off-site location which coincidentally had a McDonald's across the busy street. The rules were to not cross the street to McDonald's but who could stop the 50-plus youth from doing that when there were only three adults with them. It was a scary situation and I was only there one night.

Teach What Youth are Coming to Church For: understanding God, looking for their place in the world and why they were born

Youth are scheduling youth group into their busy lives on purpose. As quoted in a previous Pair of Cleats (and worth quoting again): "In a round table discussion about faith with teenagers, one girl said, 'I go to a public school, so basically they try to avoid talking about religion. (Students), of course, we talk about it all day long.' Another teenage girl said, 'I go to a Catholic school so I have religion as one of my classes. We debate a lot in there about different issues that concern us about the church and how we live out our religion in our lives. Most of us are not afraid to say what we feel. We are at a time in our lives where we're supposed to be questioning what we believe. In my day to day life, religion does come up.' (The Courier Journal, March 16, 2003). Teens want to know this stuff. It is a part of their daily conversations. That is why they are coming to church. Of course, some youth are forced to be there by their parents. But addressing these life issues in the church setting will somehow sink in even to them."

By representing and teaching these things, you will not be fraudulent. And your visitors will not feel ripped off. Remember that youth are coming to church expecting to be taught things about God and church.

Teach a Correct Biblical Worldview

Dr. Christian Smith, backed up by the research from the National Study of Youth and Religion, defines the worldview of today's youth as Moralistic Therapeutic Deism. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism defined is: there's a God who created the world, but that God is not particularly involved in my way of life. I live my own life apart from God except when I have problems. Then I can call upon God to come solve those problems for me. Moral Therapeutic Deism asserts that people should be good which basically means not being a jerk. God is something like a divine butler or cosmic therapist who is there to meet your needs but doesn't get too personally involved with you and certainly is not demanding. Religion's main benefit is that is applies therapeutic satisfaction, that it meets therapeutic needs. This is a faith that saves from. It saves them from their problems. This is a faith which can be left behind by a decision. This is a faith that if you adhere to this and this and this all the way through to number 999, you are set.

There is a lot wrong with this worldview as you can see. Since the youth are coming to church, take the opportunity to teach the correct Biblical worldview. This is imperative.

The Barna Group's August 2005 report discovered that only five percent of adult Americans have a correct Biblical worldview. Five percent! ( Teaching this to teens is imperative.

A good definition of a Biblical worldview has been defined by George Barna is: "A biblical worldview was defined as believing that absolute moral truths exist; that such truth is defined by the Bible; and firm belief in six specific religious views. Those views were that Jesus Christ lived a sinless life; God is the all powerful and all knowing Creator of the universe and He stills rules it today; salvation is a gift from God and cannot be earned; Satan is real; a Christian has a responsibility to share their faith in Christ with other people; and the Bible is accurate in all of its teachings." ("Only Half Of Protestant Pastors Have A Biblical Worldview," January 12, 2004)

Remember that youth are coming to church expecting to be taught things about God and church.

Plan Ritualized Times Together

This sounds like an awful idea. Ritual is a word many youth workers over the last 50 years have run from. Yet it is one of those special comforting things we can offer youth.

In a non-youth ministry book I read this letter from a then 20 year old: "In the last six years I have come to feel strongly that parents need to spend one to one time with their teenagers. Ritualized time together, however long or short, allows trust to build in a healthy, deliberate manner. The ritual time I shared with my father (every night at bedtime until age 13, then ice cream out once a week) helped me connect with him as a respectful adult and parent, who, through it all, was there for me regardless of whether I felt like sharing my problems." (Putting Family First, p. 79)

Ritualized time together is necessary for teens to survive through adolescence. When looking at youth ministry overall, we are built on ritualized times together. Our schedules are built on it. Sometimes we feel overwhelmed with schedules and programs. We sweat over the creativity of these times together so they are somewhat memorable. Sometimes we devalue Sunday School as not important when in reality this is truly ritualized time together. The times we teach from the Bible (again, why they are scheduling church into their busy schedules) and the relational bonuses of these ritualized times together are youth ministry.

We need to value our ritualized times we have with our youth.

Small Groups are Organized Around Common Interests

Small groups are great youth ministry and they don't necessarily have to be made up of teens. Let other adults organize a knitting small group, scrapbooking small group, basketball small group, etc. The list is endless. And open up the small groups to the entire church family. My church's paintball small group is organized around the common interest of paintball. Youth and adults are both a part of it where they can enjoy each other, talk about what happened on the field and what happens in life, and faith crosses in and out of all conversation. A bonus is visitors are easily absorbed because of the common interest.

With this plan you could actually run an entire youth ministry and never have a weekly youth service while your youth would come into numerous faith lessons which they would remember for a lifetime. Remember all those office hours spent setting up adults to be involved with the youth whether they know it or not? This is one way to do that.

You Don't Necessarily Have to Have a Weekly Youth Meeting

In some areas the weekly youth meeting is a part of the community. In some areas the weekly youth meeting has become something on a long list of choices to squeeze into a schedule. To change up the weekly schedule is not a statement that the church is giving in to society. The reason to do it should be to help parents take back their rightful role of raising their children spiritually. Parents are already taxi drivers rushing through traffic to get their children to what is important. Sometimes getting to that weekly service after a day of work and traffic is quite a bit of stress.

Some churches operate that the church building should be open every night of the week otherwise the church would not truly be helping the community. Good theory but what is sacrificed for that theory is family time and I believe the church should be the greatest supporter of family time.

Take a good look at your church schedule. If Sunday mornings is the planned time for the family to be in church, make your Sunday school program better, more like the weekly youth meeting. Maybe planning something better and more memorable once a month would be more effective than a weekly thrown-together youth meeting that a youth forgets what was taught two days later. Maybe meet after school. Maybe do more small groups.

The greatest youth ministry planning you can do is to help your parents do their job which is to raise their own children spiritually. This goes back to those office hours you put in. With your resources, you can create tools to help parents do their role better. Moms & Pops Stuff is a great resource as you are giving them ideas that they can do in their own time. Create such resources and such opportunities so spiritual growth happens outside of the youth meeting. Parents do have countless more hours of influence in their children's lives than you do.

Plan Events Around the Church Calendar

I would like other adults from my church involved in the youth ministry. I clearly want the parents of the youth to be involved in the youth ministry. If I plan events without looking at the church calendar, I would pay no consideration to the life of the church. Besides, too much of youth ministry is already run separately from the life of the church. I don't want to contribute to the youth missing out on hanging with the saints of the church by not working with the church calendar.

When planning, do what you can to get the youth stuff on the calendar first and then get those dates into the hands of the parents. Getting first on the calendars gives you a better chance when parents need to choose between that soccer camp or the youth retreat.

Plan Events Around the School Calendar

This is also a good idea. Planning a retreat the weekend before mid-terms would be the death of your retreat. You should always check the school calendar and the church calendar before setting the youth ministry calendar.

The Youth Minister Doesn't Have to do Everything

This summer the youth group at my church went off on their first-ever mission trip and I didn't go. "What?!" you exclaim. The least I can do is the "big things." Yes, I could. But instead I had parents rise up to lead. Another adult, who prior to this trip just prayed for the youth, led one of the teams. And the entire trip was headed by one of the pastors who is also a parent. Why would I take away anyone's blessing by going? If I was there, too much "stuff" would automatically fall to me to do when everyone who went was just as capable. Plus I was not worried about the safety of the youth. The parents were set free to do what comes natural.

For some of you because you are paid, you think you could never get away with this because then what would the church be paying you for? They would be paying you to move around the adults in your congregation to be a part of the youths' lives. That takes preparation and work, lots of it. Lots of office hours.

Remember that a youth ministry centered on you doing everything turns into a "(insert your name here) youth ministry" and not one centered on the youth of your church.

Youth Leaders are Authority Figures

You are not big buddies. I heard yet again another story about a family who is no longer a part of my church (moved away) who is still angry at a former youth pastor who let her daughter ride on the hood of his car around the church parking lot. I hear such stories all the time with the youth worker thinking he/she is "cool." You have been entrusted by the parents with the welfare of minors. That means you have to be concerned with safety and safety means rules. Rules need to be enforced by the authority and that is you. You are an authority figure.

Don't worry. As an authority figure your youth will still like you because in safety and authority there is comfort and security. In comfort and security anyone can learn and that is what you want to see happen which is why you work with youth. Even if you are 18 years old and in charge (the age when I started) you need to separate yourself as an authority figure.

Spend Purposed Time at the School

If you can, yes. But don't just do it by visiting at lunch. While the youth you are visiting go crazy with appreciation for your visit, you have just used the school's generosity to further push your agenda and not help the school. We love teenagers and want as many to be saved as possible. You have righteous and pure motives. But that is not the agenda of the school. Their agenda is to educate students and they need all the help possible to help achieve that. We see the "tribe" gathered in one location which gives us easier opportunities. The school sees the "tribe" gathered as their responsibility and they are already fighting losing battles with attitudes, violence, and apathy. Just to name a few. Some schools want help from the church, but it is not in the form of a Bible club or your lunchtime visit. Further in the reality of these times of higher security, your visit during the most unsecure time of the school day may actually not be a blessing to the school. Ask any teacher or security person, lunch is the most nerve-wracking time.

Take that time and actually help the school. For many practical ideas, go to our oft-mentioned resource at In doing so you will be helping the school with their agenda and your youth will still go crazy with appreciation for seeing you in their territory.

Initiate Involvement with the School

As Steven McFarland, former executive director of the Christian Legal Society's Center for Law and Religious Freedom said, "I've had a lot of calls about how to get by the schoolhouse gate in order to share their faith, or get kids to come to a Friday night concert, or have an assembly where we sneak the gospel in at the end. But in nine years I have never had a single call from a pastor, a youth minister or a parachurch ministry asking me what the First Amendment will allow them to do to help their local public school." (Joseph Loonte, "Bullet Proofing Our Schools...With Faith," Citizen, April 2000). Ponder that one in your prayer time for a while.

Two ideas you can borrow: Your church is a public facility with walls, roof, bathroom and seating capacity. Just like you can use your building for community events, the community can use your building. One specific use that many schools, particularly middle schools, could benefit from your church building is your "auditorium" and sound system. Your sound system is better than most schools have. And with budget cuts affecting such clubs as drama, you could offer your building for practices and performances.

Here is another idea. Teachers are underpaid and are in the constant crosshairs between the parents and the administration. This is the teacher's number one complaint about their chosen profession. Do something extravagant and creative for no reason at all for them. If you did this only once a year, your church will be reflected upon fondly for the rest of the school year and the next school year. I know. I am at my school quite a bit and hear the teachers talk.

Purposely Celebrate Rites of Passages

Without purposely doing it, we have turned over rites of passages to the peer culture. Prom has turned into all kinds of other "adult" behaviors away from the presence of adults such as drinking, reckless use of vehicles and sex. While graduation still involves the family, right after the actual ceremony the new graduate takes off with his/her fellow new graduates to celebrate minus the adults again in the same reckless "adult" ways. Then they take off for beach week or whatever week is in your area to live like what they see on MTV's Spring Break. Only they have to live with the results.

Your youth ministry is a great place to take this responsibility back. It is a responsibility. To help both the parents and the youth workers to take this back, we have compiled a downloadable resource with all sorts of ideas. You can find it on our website.

Purposely Provide Spiritual Markers and Memories

You will know this is a good youth ministry idea by taking a quick analysis of your own life. Imagine drawing out or telling your own spiritual journey story. No matter how you got to God I guarantee it is a path made up of strong and emotional memories. It wasn't the powerful sermons you heard and it wasn't your attendance to a certain youth group--unless you were personally and emotionally connected to the group experience.

A good use of your time would be to plan such spiritual markers and memories. Whether they are rites of passages, out-of-the-ordinary-God-experience events, and/or relationship builders with the church family. Your time investment will have the best returns. Your youth will remember this more than any of the messages you will have preached.

Here is a truth. If youth have no important memories of the faith, of the church, of an experience with God, of worship, or of spiritual feelings, they will find themselves in a faith vacuum as young adults.

Your youth ministry is one of many youth ministries in your community but it is still part of the youth ministry movement of your community.

Many years ago my pastor preached this message again and again. It is one of the big reasons why I became a part of that church and have been there for fifteen years. Our church practices that we are part of the Church of Manassas. Our church family is only one part of the larger church. I take that attitude with the youth ministry too. If a parent wants his/her child to attend a youth group with a weekly meeting, I have no problem with that. I do not fear losing that youth to that youth ministry or that I am in competition for that youth. That particular youth and family has simply chosen that they want weekly meetings as part of their spiritual journey. As long as I know that I'm in alignment with what God is doing at my part of the Church of Manassas, I can bless the other branches with my wonderful youth. I also know that due to the parent ties and the ties to the entire church family that my church will be the youth's church forever.

Youth Ministry is a Tool for a Life's Long Journey

We get to work with these wonderful teens for just a few years of their overall life. But these teens have a long life to live overall. Our job as youth workers is to plant and water and to do that well (2 Corinthians 3:6 7). We are to provide a foundation for faith to grow on. We are to provide a mirror for their faith. We are to give them spiritual markers where they can look back when re- evaluating their faith and say at these points I know God is real and was real in my life. The youth ministry is not the "most important" anything. It is a wonderful tool provided by a church through your leadership to be "along the way" in that youth's life journey.

There are some great people in youth ministry. More often than not, when I am brought in to speak somewhere I meet people who are better than me. These are people I wish I was like more. I love to watch them work with their teens, ask them questions, and soak what I can so I can become more like him/her.

I am hopeful for youth ministry not because of what I see in youth ministry resources or what I read on the internet but because there are so many people like the people I meet who have found their place to love and serve God. They are, in their many individual and unique ways, touching teens lives which will affect life on earth and in eternity.