Drifting from the Essentials: Why Many Youth Pastors Don’t Make It

The average youth pastor lasts only 4.5 years in ministry.

I’m sure you feel the same but, as a youth pastor myself, I want to run in such a way to gain great reward. I don’t want to labor in vain. I also want you to succeed. Working toward the wrong goal or with the wrong methods can be one of the most frustrating experiences – trust me, I know! I’ve seen many pastors labor in vain and many students “on fire” and entertained, only to burn out a few months or years later. This is why so many youth ministers (and students) don’t last.

Although it is not a comprehensive list, the following four principles capture a biblically grounded vision of ministry to youth.

  1. Equipping Leaders and Parents

The youth pastor at a large church knows how important this is, but equipping leaders and parents is important in any context. I remember my first year in ministry. I was listening to a talk on this subject and realized that when it comes to seriously investing in and discipling teens, the maximum number of students I would have capacity to invest in would be four to five. What would that mean for the rest of my students? A team of well-trained, gospel-centered leaders – and a team of leaders equipping parents – can do much more than one person.

Early on it was drilled into me that however much I felt called to direct time investing in students, I was only one, very finite person and my ministry impact would be severely limited.

This is what the Apostle Paul was getting at when he wrote to Timothy, “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2). When we train up and empower others, we exponentially grow our impact.

Furthermore, we must equip parents to disciple their students. All research (especially Christian Smith’s National Study of Youth and Religion) from the last couple of decades points to the truth that parents are the primary influencers of their child’s faith. How might our ministries better reflect this?

  1. Disciple-Making

Most would pay lip-service to the importance of having a discipleship-driven ministry. However, functionally, many ministries are not always built around intentional, Christ-centered mentoring and discipling relationships.

We like big programs. Christ, however, invested in a few who would invest in a few others. We want fast growth and flashy productions. Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God is like a small mustard seed; he exhorted his followers to endure and warned against fast growth and ministry done by worldly means (Mark 4:1-20, 10:42).

According to Christ, the Great Commission cannot be accomplished without personal, one-on-one discipleship. Some parents and students will merely want a ministry run much like a YMCA with a Bible verse tagline. The New Testament is clear: all enduring ministry is discipleship-driven.

  1.  Expositional Teaching

Satan will always wage war against the Word of God. He waged this warfare in Eden and in the Judean wilderness. And he does so in the church today, perhaps in no other place more than in the ministry to children and youth. He does not want you preaching the gospel of Christ’s unmerited grace to sinners; he does not want you proclaiming the whole counsel of God week in and week out.

It is this satanic spirit that is behind every voice that encourages us to tone down the gospel, to water down the Word; it is behind every voice that attempts to convince us that students aren’t really “ready” for the Bible. Some will want you to fill up the seats and keep kids coming. Parents and pastors alike might want you to just entertain and instruct kids on “good” behavior.

However, Scripture is clear: the self-absorbed, Snapchat-obsessed student, the porn addict or the self-righteous squeaky-clean teen can only be transformed and freed by the hearing of the Word of Christ (Rom 10:17). Not through fun activities. Not through social events. Not through small groups. Not even through worship. All of these have their rightful place, of course. But only the gospel – as presented by the Word of God – can bring life to dead hearts.

  1. Intercessory Prayer

We can do nothing without prayer.

Go ahead, read that last sentence again: We can do nothing without prayer.

But do we believe that? Do we build our ministries around that truth? Functionally I know I don’t. Christ said, “Apart from me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Pray through your youth ministry rosters daily. Equip your ministry leaders, parents, and elders to pray. Spend time in prayer during youth group or host special events where this might be a special focus.

In the Book of Acts, the church is described as “devoted to prayer” (Acts 2:42). Paul wrote, “First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people” (1 Timothy 2:1). This is one of the marks of believers, “They cry unto [the Lord] day and night” (Luke 18:1). Prayer-soaked ministry is powerful and effective (James 5:16).

Gospel Promises Are For Youth Pastors Too

The thing is, I need this message. Many…many times in my “career” I have felt that my role in the lives of students and families was painfully microscopic. I’ve wanted to bang my head against my desk in agonizing defeat at leaders and parents who just didn’t “get it.”

In my better and more honest moments, more often than not, I feel like I am failing in ministry. I recall the emptiness and  forming tears as I walked back from my car in the  chill, eerily quiet of my littered Chicago neighborhood. Having just returned from another night of youth group feeling empty and asking the ever-present ministry leader’s question: am I making any difference?

It’s in these moments – when I haven’t seen the gospel fruit I had longed for in my ministry, when the gnawing voice of comparison and bitterness begin to eat away at my thought-life, when opponents and naysayers seem all around me, and when yet again my ideals continue to crush me – keeping a vise-grip onto God’s promise of future reward is all I’ve had.

We as pastors need the gospel of grace. We are not the Messiah. The Lord loves us regardless of ministry fruitfulness. He doesn’t need us; but He loved us so much that He died so we could know Him, so that we might make Him known to others.

Christ In The Trenches

There’s no 1 + 2 = 3 formula to ministry fruit – praise God! In an era marked by quick fixes, keeping up-to-date with the freshest youth ministry method, or church growth gurus, let us remember to look to Scripture to recall the foundational principles of ministry. There, God has set his seal.

Keep fighting the good fight and know, brothers and sisters, that I and many others are in the trenches with you. But more importantly, Christ is. Christ sees you and every ounce of holy sweat you put into your ministry.

Jonathan has been leading, teaching and discipling students in professional youth ministry the last decade in Chicagoland. His greatest desire is to see people’s lives saturated and transformed by the Gospel.

Originally a native of the San Francisco area, Jonathan has been discipling students for fifteen years. He enjoys hanging out in coffee shops, reading, bonfires, and spending quality time with friends and family, alongside his wife Chelsea and their four children! He and his wife have recently pursued the call to begin planting a church in Glendale Heights, IL. You can contact him at jbarney@allpeopleschurch.org.

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