The Flawed History of Youth Ministry in Less than 400 Words

Youth ministry in its modern manifestation is relatively young, having only emerged in the first half of the twentieth century. Scholars have dedicated much ink to youth ministry’s problems in its initial generation. In particular, the field has drawn much criticism for its failure to form students with lasting faith. Some surveys estimate that as many as seventy-percent of young people left the church after high school. ¹ However, youth ministry has learned a great deal in the last decade, and continues to move forward.

Looking back at the flawed history of youth ministry can help us avoid past mistakes and cultivate our vision and practice for the future. Here is a brief history of youth ministry’s past flaws in three sentences and less than 400 words.

1. Youth ministry had the wrong purpose.
The concrete vision of the church, as ordained by Christ in the Great Commission, is to make disciples. In the youth context, that means forming students with a solid, lasting relationship with Christ who can handle the challenges to their faith in adulthood.

Too often, youth ministries focused on getting kids in the door, and then overly-focused on their moral behavior in the present. In many contexts, the purpose was to make “good” kids now, without proper consideration for the hard work of building a firm foundation of faith for the future. Since so many churches had the wrong purpose in their youth ministries, students failed to stick with their faith.

(2) Youth ministry used the wrong provisions.
God has provided his means of grace – prayer, scripture, and sacraments – in the context of relationships and community for making disciples. All of these means point back to the Gospel as the ultimate vehicle that draws people into lasting relationship with Jesus. Effective discipleship necessitates proclaiming the Gospel of grace, the reality of sin, teaching God’s word, and praying for kids, all while mentoring them and bringing them into Christian community.

When churches had the right purpose, they still often relied on entertainment, moralism, and emotionalism as the means by which they tried to make disciples. The research from the National Study on Youth and Religion, the College Transition Project, and other research demonstrated that kids fundamentally had a view of Christianity that contrasted diametrically with the portrayal offered in the Bible. Kids had poor spiritual, biblical, and theological foundations for the challenges to faith that awaited them in the real world.

(3) Youth ministry operated in the wrong place.
The Bible calls for the discipleship of kids to be a cooperative effort between both the whole church and families. Churches are meant to educate, equip, and empower parents to invest in their kids’ spiritual lives. Kids are meant to worship and serve with the whole church and not be exclusively segregated to the youth room and children’s chapel.

Unfortunately, the majority of kids’ spiritual formation occurred in the youth room on Sunday mornings or Sunday night. Parents were not educated or equipped. Kids were separated from the many generations of the church and not prepared to worship or serve as church members when they grew into adulthood.

We can lead more effective youth ministries by focusing on the right purpose, provisions, and place.

¹ Lifeway, 2006

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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