Much ink has been spilled and many words have been typed about shallow approaches to youth ministry and their damaging effect on young people’s engagement with Christ and the local church as they enter adulthood. There are valuable critiques; I’ve issued many of them. Youth pastors, directors, and workers need to be constantly called back to a focus on substantive, biblical, and gospel-centered ministry to young people, so that they do not fall prey to the gleam of a thriving and fun youth ministry that does not contribute to lasting kingdom fruit.

A strong and drastic reaction against youth ministry, by some, has been to eliminate it completely—to entirely integrate the younger generations of believers into the life of the church. There’s warrant in this move . . . when it actually works. The problem is that it can sometimes cut out a key season of ministry for both students and leaders, a time that God can use in powerful ways in spiritual development and relational growth in Christian community.

Holding the Balance

The “balance” that I want to call for in youth ministry today continues to walk a careful line between “entertainment” youth ministry (the shallow type that gravitates toward attraction rather than biblical substance) and the elimination of youth ministry (the move that provides no age-focused community for biblical teaching, training, and discipleship within the local church). It’s a balance that identifies a slightly different key question than the one that’s being asked many times: Should we do youth ministry? Here’s the question I would propose asking instead: Does this youth ministry contribute to the development of lifelong members, servants, and leaders in the local church? 

In the church contexts where I’ve served, it’s the students who have connected with the wider local church body in significant ways during their junior high and high school years who have matured and become deeply involved in local churches during college and beyond. Many of them have participated in vibrant youth ministries filled with fun events and activities, yet they have been groups led by youth pastors who have intentionally labored to grow the students’ faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, a faith that will be lived out, built up, and strengthened throughout their lives in the context of biblically solid and gospel-centered local churches. If youth pastors aren’t preparing students for that kind of future for their faith, they aren’t doing their jobs.

So, with this kind of evaluation metric for youth ministry in mind, I want to offer a few “diagnostic” questions that I would encourage pastors and church leaders to be asking of the youth ministries under their care. David Plant, Cameron Cole, and I hope to develop these questions more fully at our workshop in Orlando in April at The Gospel Coalition National Conference.

Diagnostic Questions for Youth Pastors 

Does our ministry compete in any way with the priority of corporate worship for students? We might consider, for example, how our desire to have relevant and age-appropriate teaching for our youth might sometimes prohibit them from being challenged to begin engaging with expository preaching, even during their young teenage years. This diagnostic question might force us to evaluate musical choices and styles as well, in both the youth group context and the corporate worship context.

Do our youth leaders intentionally encourage inter-generational relationships for the students? Part of the role of the youth leader is to do discipleship, obviously. But it’s sometimes just as valuable for a 20-something youth leader to encourage a high school student, for example, to meet regularly with an older leader in the church for prayer, encouragement, Bible study, and wise counsel. Youth leaders might consider setting an example for their students through their own engagement with the older generation in the church. 

Does our ministry generally support or compete with the discipleship work of godly parents in our congregation? Is our heart truly to support parents’ gospel-centered work in the home, or do we secretly relish being the fun counterpart to parents, as students complain about strict rules and misunderstandings in discipline? Often, we can begin to evaluate the state of our ministry in this regard by looking carefully at our communication, transparency, and relational engagement with the parents of our students.

Are students encouraged to choose between youth ministry involvement/leadership and service in other areas of the local church? Especially in larger churches, this can become an issue, as participation in a youth group leadership team can become quite consuming. Youth leaders should be looking for ways to allow—and even encourage—students to serve in the broader church body as well as in the youth group context. They shouldn’t have to choose.

Does the youth ministry hinder, in any way, the preparation of young men and women to engage in local church contexts as adult Christians? This is a big question, but one that we should be constantly asking. Our answers will probably lead to constant tweaking of our approaches to youth ministry, as we prayerfully consider how our ministry can contribute to lifelong lovers and servants of Christ’s body in local churches around the globe.

Let’s ask the tough questions of our youth ministries, for the glory of God and the good of his church.

Editors’ note: Jon Nielson will lead a workshop at The Gospel Coalition National Conference in April, along with David Plant (Redeemer Presbyterian Church) and Cameron Cole (Rooted Ministries), on the topic of ”Stumbling Blocks: Preparing Students for Life in a Fallen World.” Cole and Nielson are also co-editing a book—Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry (Crossway)—to which Plant is a contributor.