Letting Go of the American Youth Ministry Dream

I don’t want to be trendy.

I don’t want to be the youth pastor with that one slick line every week that will get tweeted.

I don’t want to be the CEO youth pastor.

I don’t want to be the pastor of a separate “youth service.”

I don’t want to be program driven.

I don’t want to be chasing all of the new trends.

I don’t want to be relevant.

I don’t want to be the youth pastor boasting about numbers.

Throughout my 16 years of ministering to young people, I am ashamed to admit that I have “wanted” every one of those things listed above…and I know I’m not alone in that statement.  Every youth pastor at some point goes on a search for a new and innovative way of doing ministry, but just as I found in my many pursuits, we so often come back feeling frustrated and disillusioned.  We need to abandon, and quickly, the idea that there is some sort of great American youth ministry dream of making young disciples.

The trends and fads of youth ministry have no context for the messiness of student’s lives, but the Gospel of grace does.  Nevertheless, our days are often consumed with a concern for how we can become more relevant, how we can build a better program than the church down the street, or how we can make the students laugh and like us more during our Wednesday or Sunday night “talk.”  The young people we come across every day are hurting and are in a very real way dying, but we’d rather worry about and waste our time dreaming about what could be rather than what should be, which is taking seriously the call to make disciples.

Our idolatry (numbers, fame, accolades, attention, fear, etc.) as youth pastors takes us away from the seriousness of our call to make disciples.  It is much easier to entertain a group of students than to actually engage them relationally.  It is much easier to create a program and give a “talk” than it is to boldly proclaim the Word of God.  Entertainment over relationships, and programs over the Word of God cannot be pawned off as Gospel-centered youth ministry.  We must heed the words of the late Scottish pastor William Still, “The pastor is called to feed the sheep, even if the sheep do not want to be fed.  He is certainly not to become an entertainer of goats.  Let goats entertain goats, and let them do it in goatland.  You will certainly not turn goats into sheep by pandering to their goatishness.”

I have found no other way to feed the sheep, no other way to turn goats to sheep, no other way to make disciples than to practice intentional relational ministry and to faithfully preach and teach the Gospel of grace.  I have placed the word “intentional” in front of the phrase “relational ministry” deliberately.  We must be intentional with our time with students, confronting them in their sin, challenging them to “bump” Weezy, praying for them, loving on them, laughing with them, calling them out for last night’s “twitter battle,” all the while speaking and even modeling the Gospel of grace in their lives.  Intentional relational ministry is Biblical, but the sad reality is not all students want us speaking into their lives.  So then, what are we to do?

We cannot, as youth pastors, abandon the preaching and teaching of the Bible.  Disciples are made and grown through the reading and teaching of God’s Word.  His Word, not mine, and not yours, only His Word pierces hearts and minds.  It is not about our funny stories, it is not about 5 steps to shine in this world, it is not about pushing students to legalism and rule following, it is about faithfully teaching the grace and love of Jesus Christ.  We often think that our teaching rises and falls on us.  We’re half right with that assessment, it rises if we proclaim Christ and His grace, but it falls when we focus on anything other than Him.

John Piper in a sermon he preached to a group of youth pastors said, “We want our young people to burn for Christ and so we show them how to find the glory of Christ in the Bible and we make Him look really good from the Bible.”  The hearts of our young people will not “burn” (Luke 24:32) if during our time of teaching we gloss over the infinite glories of the Gospel.  We should be all for illustrations, stories, and humor, but our students cannot leave our ministries on Wednesday or Sunday nights without the Gospel being the focus of our teaching.  The Word of God “is living and active” (Hebrews 4:12) and it pierces hearts and minds and we as Bible-believing youth pastors have been called to proclaim these eternal truths to the students who are under our care.

Sadly, our youth ministry has lost students over the years because we’ve challenged them both relationally and through the teaching of the Word, that if Christ has truly changed them, their lives must look different.  As youth pastors we must push our students relationally and through our teaching that if they claim that Christ is their treasure their lives must be about sacrifice and self-denial (Matthew 13:44).  We need to communicate clearly, effectively, and even graciously to students that there is a real cost to truly following Jesus (Luke 9:23-27).

Again the wise words of William Still, “Jesus allowed people, when he had challenged them, to choose their level.  That is why He let the rich young ruler go.  You must discern what people are after, and not waste a lifetime running after those who are vain and empty, selling them a Christ they don’t want.”  I felt like I was “running” for years in youth ministry, but by God’s grace I came to understand that disciples are made through challenge, hard conversations, and the Gospel piercing hearts over and again.  I’m glad the American youth ministry dream is dead in me, I hope it is with you too.

I want to be an intentionally relational youth pastor.

I want to be a youth pastor who proclaims Jesus Christ.

Darren DePaul is a graduate of Geneva College (B.A., History) and of Trinity School for Ministry (M. Div.). He has been in full-time ministry for nearly 20 years, and is the author of the chapter on discipleship for the book, "Gospel Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide." Darren has been married to his wife Jenny for 14 years, and they have two beautiful daughters. You can read more of his writings at darrenjdepaul.com

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