Youth Group Culture: Bigger Than Ourselves

This is the fifth piece in our series on youth group culture that asks the question, “How do we create a culture of participation, passion, and engagement in the broader church in our youth groups?” The fourth piece can be found here.

One of the first major blow-outs I had with my senior pastor was about seven years ago when I expressed to him, a bit too abrasively, that I didn’t believe the church really valued youth ministry. This led to his telling me to hand in my resignation, fortunately followed by a time of reconciliation. I am happy to say that I am still there.

Now, seven years later, I can see clearly what the underlying root of my frustration was: Church Growth Culture.  By Church Growth Culture, I mean the implementation of the idea that churches grow in a similar way to a corporation–focusing on bottom lines and doing what it takes to bring up numbers.  I had taken the Church Growth Culture paradigm and laser-focused it on my youth ministry.  I was consumed with the growth of the youth ministry and the growth of the youth ministry only.  It never dawned on me to ask what else in the church was happening on that particular Saturday as I planned my event.  I was never concerned whether someone I asked for help was already serving in other ways.  It was impossible that the reason anyone questioned my idea was to help me think it through, or even just to better understand.  My foot was on the pedal, and I was wearing blinders.

I believe now that the way I operated is actually a contributing factor to why so many college-age students never integrate into larger church life.  While operating in Growth mode, I never considered how being a part of a huge youth ministry without ever participating in the rest of church life could adversely impact a student.  To me, it was all about attending what I had planned.  Whatever else was going on in the church was really not my concern, unless of course there was a calendar conflict.

Before I go on and leave you thinking that I am the most fleshly, carnal, self-centered youth guy walking, I want you to hear my heart.  I really do love God, and I really do love youth.  I desperately want the youth to love God, and I want to please God in all I do.  However, when my heart was combined with Growth thinking, it created a monster—a monster that could have potentially caused incredible division in our church and disillusionment in the hearts and minds of my students.

Church Growth Culture is all about results.  The results can be good, don’t get me wrong, but they are incomplete.  It is a good thing to see students surrender to Christ and grow as disciples.  It is a good thing to create an atmosphere where students feel comfortable and to teach them in a way that is relevant.  It is a good thing to come up with healthy ways to get the students to grow deeper in their relationship with Christ and with one another.  These are all good things.  They are just incomplete things.

Over the years, though, I have seen the youth ministry at Open Arms Church mature into a Gospel Culture.  Allow me to share what I believe that culture is, at least in my present understanding. 

The Gospel Culture is one that considers the whole family.  

When we are scheduling an event, we first look at the church calendar to make sure we won’t be creating any extra work for the cleaning and maintenance teams.  We then consider what that time of year is like for the families of our youth.  When it comes to holidays and big cultural events, we prefer that families enjoy those times together and with their friends, free from the guilt of choosing to not attend a youth program.  When it comes to regular activities, we consider the work, school and extracurricular schedules of our students and their families.

The Gospel Culture is one that dies to itself.  

When there is a schedule conflict, we model to our students that we are to die to ourselves.  For example, if it is either the youth group or the prayer group meeting outside under the pavilion, we quickly and happily give it up to the prayer group.  If it is either leaving the chairs down to give our men a break from the constant folding and unfolding (we have a multi-purpose gym that serves as our worship center also) or us playing games on an empty gym floor, we quickly and happily tell them to leave the chairs—we will find something else to do.

The Gospel Culture is one that serves the body.  

We encourage our students to get involved in the other ministries in our church.  Our teens serve in the nursery and kids’ church.  They serve on the grounds team, the chair team, the greeting team, and even the worship team.  At our annual Community Day where we invite families from all over to come to church, stay for a BBQ and enjoy the play and festivities, our teens are seen helping with it all! They even set up and run other games for the kids in the community.

As this culture has continued to grow in our church, our teens have increased in their understanding of the gospel, as well as their desire to serve and grow.  It is a beautiful thing to hear my students’ names spoken back to me by so many adults who have nothing to do with the youth ministry, itself.  And it is a wonderful thing to know that since they already serve and participate in the broader body in such a great way now, it will be more natural for them to continue once they have graduated.

Join us for Rooted 2015, an intimate youth ministry conference, where we will explore how the good news of God coming to mankind in the person of Jesus Christ offers student ministers and teenagers, hope, healing and connectedness.  

Shaun McDonald has been serving as youth pastor at Open Arms Church in upstate New York since 2008, and has been involved in youth ministry since 2004.  He has a passion to see Christ take root in the hearts and lives of youth and their families.  Coming from a tumultuous and rebellious background, Shaun can think of no greater privilege than sharing the greatest hope of Jesus Christ.  Shaun received an Associates Degree in Pastoral Ministry from Mid-America Baptist Theological Seminary, Bachelor degree in Religion from Liberty University, and is working on his Master of Divinity in Discipleship and Family Ministry through The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.  Shaun, his wife and their three children live in Rotterdam, N.Y. You can read his devotional blog at

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