What Teenagers Need in a Youth Pastor Might Surprise You

If you serve in youth ministry, you have probably run into that “cool” youth pastor. He or she may be in a rock band, make a lot of cool videos (I know one who had a podcast), wear cool glasses, sip lattes, and use all of the latest youth vocabulary words like sus, stan, or merch. By contrast, I often seem to be behind on the latest social media or cultural craze. Maybe you can relate.

I confess I have a closet admiration for those leaders who exemplify the “super-teen” persona. They are not in high school, and yet somehow these youth ministers still represent the things our students might look for in the most popular, culturally relevant teenager. However, youth ministry effectiveness isn’t dependent on the “super-teen” vibe. If you, like me, have ever felt discouraged that you’re not that cool or relevant, take heart! God’s Word points us to an even more compelling vision for youth ministry.

Consider the verbs that the Bible uses when it comes to ministry to young people: “train” (Prov. 6:22), “bring them up” (Eph. 6:4), and “teach” (Deut. 11:18), to name a few. Most all of these verses address parents specifically, but youth ministers join in this same calling as we partner with parents. Nowhere does Scripture instruct us to “be relatable,” “identify with” or “have their same interests.” Understanding teenagers’ world, their struggles, and their temptations is no doubt important, but those skills are available to all of us—even if we’re no longer 25, or we lack a social media following.

In a survey of 120 students from different youth groups in various parts of the country, youth pastor Scott Gillenwaters asked students the main reasons they attend youth group.1 The top five were as follows: 

  • Their friends are there.
  • They have a desire to grow closer to God.
  • They have a desire to learn about the teachings of Jesus.
  • They are seeking opportunities to make their faith relevant in the world.
  • They desire close friendships within a fellowship of believers.

None of the reasons these students cited involve a leader with a TikTok account or a deep knowledge of trendy vocabulary. This survey reveals that kids want to be known, they want to be loved, and they want someone who understands them to teach them more about the gospel. Sadly, church leaders often mistake the importance of understanding teenagers’ context for some sort of iconic personality they will idolize. In the rush of trying to become this special individual for the students in our ministries, we may be tempted to sacrifice wisdom and godliness. So let’s examine three qualities students truly need in their youth pastor.

Teenagers Want Someone to Know Them

Most teenagers really want someone to take the time to know them in a personal way.  This goes beyond simply knowing their home address or social media handle. Anyone can find out that information from students’ parents. But few will take the time to know the world that they live in, the stories that shape who they are, their insecurities, their hopes, and what keeps them up at night (other than video games).  

Over the years, I have served with volunteers who were not what teenagers would call “cool,” but who were patient in learning these things. As a result, these adults have had an indelible impact on our students’ lives. A youth minister needs to take the time to become a student of his or her students. Teenagers often have their guards up, however, and many of them distrust authority due to painful experiences with parents, teachers, or other adults. Some fear gossip, while others may feel unsure whether you are hanging around for the moment or will stick around for the long run. They will reveal these things when they are comfortable, not you. With patience and perseverance, however, you can win their trust.

Teenagers Want Someone to Love Them

Deep down, students want to be loved by their leaders. If it sounds cliché, that’s because it’s a timeless truth. The problem is that our culture often waters down the word love to represent tacit approval. When teenagers really trust you, they will scale a proverbial mountain for you and take your constructive feedback. The problem is that many adults assume that just because they are older, teenagers should automatically trust them. This is where love comes into play. 

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:5 that love is not self-seeking. When a student calls you at an inconvenient hour, either because they have a nagging question or some family drama, what’s your first reaction? I will confess that often times, my reaction is annoyance. But then I remember Jesus’ words in Matthew 7:9-10, “Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake?” This verse is about actual parents, but Jesus goes on to describe how this portrays the love of God the Father. Shouldn’t we, as God’s representatives to our students, seek to imitate God’s love for them?

This type of selfless love is challenging indeed. But the good news is that anyone is capable of showing this kind of love. You don’t need to be a student’s BFF in order to love him or her like this. When you are patient with their shortcomings, problems and annoyances, you will find that many teenagers will grow to respect you, even if you were a teenager before cell phones or the Internet.

Teenagers Need Someone to Teach the Gospel

Gillenwaters’ survey indicated that “[kids] have a desire to learn about the teachings of Jesus,” but this is where a lot of youth leaders can go wrong. Teenagers want to learn about God and his Word from someone who understands them and their context. The implication here isn’t that teachers need to be cool in order to gain a hearing. Instead, we need to make sure our teaching answers the questions teenagers have about God, about the Bible, and about their world.

Many adults assume that extended talking means teaching, when in fact it doesn’t. When talking to kids about the gospel or the Bible, I have often found that kids will either follow or dismiss the first 1-2 minutes, and the rest is wasting your vocal cords. More words don’t equate more learning. Instead we should be wise and efficient about the words that we use and trust the Holy Spirit to work in teenager’s hearts.

The key is to understand teenagers’ context. You may not be a social media influencer, but you should take the time to learn about the major values of the culture in which they live. The more you understand that, the more valuable you will be in teaching them. For example, I regularly walk the halls in the high schools while attending students’ school Bible studies. I take note of what they talk about, what they value, and the kinds of initiatives the school promotes. When you begin to understand the world they live in on a daily basis (not just from news articles) it will be easier to speak truth to them on a level that they understand. By taking the time to understand the values of their world, you will be positioned to counteract it with the gospel.

You don’t have to be cool to be an effective youth pastor. Jesus came to serve and not be served (Matt. 20:28). Cool is overrated. Very often, trying to be cool can cause us to miss out on what teenagers really need: the news that Jesus came into our world and died to save them from sin so they can experience life with him now and forever. Teenagers can detect a counterfeit from a mile away. They want more than someone who makes funny videos and uses the most recent vocabulary. They are looking for someone who authentically lives out faith in Jesus, while taking the time to get to know them and to love them. 

If you’re looking for practical help teaching the Bible and relating to teenagers, Rooted Reservoir can help. We offer customizable packages of Bible-based curriculum, an illustration bank, training videos, and more.

  1. Gillenwaters, Scott. “The Cycle of Welcome: Five Reasons Students Attend Youth Group.” https://www.youthworker.com/the-cycle-of-welcome-five-reasons-students-attend-youth-group/ .  Accessed February 5, 2024. ↩︎

Steve Eatmon has over 12 years of experience in youth ministry and a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary.  Currently, he serves as the pastor to high school and middle school students at the Chinese Bible Church of Maryland. He is married to Heather and they have two children, Ryan and Rachael.  

More From This Author