Editors’ note: 

Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Parents, pastors, and the youth themselves have expectations and demands that don’t always overlap. But the rash of dire statistics about the ineffectiveness of youth ministry has prompted rethinking in these ranks. So we devote one day per week this month to exploring several issues in youth ministry, including its history, problems, and biblical mandate. The Gospel Coalition thanks Cameron Cole and the leadership team of Rooted: A Theology Conference for Student Ministryfor their help in compiling this series.

Everyone knows the stereotype of the youth minister as a big kid with an expertise in games and an affinity for creative facial hair and body piercings. Despite the stereotype, many youth pastors are passionate and intelligent. Yet youth ministry has a reputation for not doing serious theology. In the book The Theological Turn in Youth Ministry, Andrew Root describes a discussion about a PhD program for youth ministry at his seminary. A biblical scholar asked, “Who is going to teach the seminar on group mixers?” Root goes on to describe the perception of youth ministers as theologically “lightweight.” The National Study of Youth and Religion notes, “The vast majority of teens, who call themselves Christians, haven’t been well educated in religious doctrine and, therefore, really don’t know what they believe.” Certainly, these results, at least to some degree, reflect the typically shallow theological culture of youth ministry. Why, then, does there seem to be a gap between youth ministry and theology?

People underestimate what students can comprehend.

We live in a society where we have relegated the teen years to something of a carefree vacation, protected from consequences and responsibilities. Alex and Brett Harris challenge this notion in their book Do Hard Things. When we don’t expect teens to rise to challenges, we don’t teach them doctrine. However, this lack of confidence in teens has left us with an ignorant generation (or several) with regard to what the church actually believes. It is strange that we teach young people complex calculus and physics but don’t think they can handle or will be interested in understanding the significance of the Trinity or atonement. Brian Cosby, in his book Giving Up Gimmicks, recalls offering a basic biblical Greek overview class to teens. He expected a handful to respond but the room couldn’t fit everyone who was interested.

Youth ministry has a popularity culture.

A veteran youth minister retired after 20 years citing exhaustion. Living a perpetual popularity contest finally wore him down. Well-meaning mentors assured (or cursed) him early in his career that if the kids like you, they will come to your programs, putting him on an approval treadmill. In reality, youth ministry seems to take on a cult of personality surrounding the student pastor, perhaps more than other sectors of the church. Consequently, when so much of success in ministry seems to depend on popularity among students, we’re tempted to steer away from difficult theology. When one faithfully exegetes Scripture, difficult and complex topics arise.

Churches have different expectations of youth ministries.

Some pastors view youth ministry as a necessary bother. They see youth ministry as required yet do not want it to cause them problems or drain their time. Some churches view youth ministers as entertainers and buddies, not serious ministers of God’s Word. Hence, they may hire energetic young adults without theological training (this varies between denominations) to run programs and do little to invest in their theological formation. The care with which we select youth pastors is not typically on par with the process we go through to call other clergy. Often the first question a church leader has for the youth pastor is, “How many came this week?” The second one may be, “Did they have fun?”

Youth pastors just love kids and want them to meet Jesus.

Evangelistic passion among some youth pastors has meant a neglect of theology—both studying it and teaching it. We can aim for “decisions for Christ” and overlook the spiritual formation that follows conversion. It is easy to get so wrapped up in doing evangelism and relationships that little time is spent deepening our own understanding of doctrine. Given that most people who come to faith do so before they complete their teen years, a youth minister can easily take on the attitude that “students don’t need deep theology, they just need Jesus.” Yet presenting the gospel without a solid theology is dangerous. A youth pastor with weak theology is more susceptible to developing a messiah complex, thinking we need to save these students. Students who don’t grasp good theology cannot articulate a faith that will stand up in college or beyond.

The egg-and-armpit relay ruined youth ministry.

Mike Yaconelli, co-founder of Youth Specialties, used to joke about the egg-and-armpit relay as a central pillar of youth ministry. He was acknowledging that youth ministry had created a culture of fun. While we might have one of the most fun jobs on the planet, it becomes burdensome to manufacture fun all the time. Attending youth ministry conventions and conferences is a bit like a cross between Disney and Mardi Gras. Despite excellent training and inspiration, the atmosphere created by the sponsors reinforces a mentality that youth ministry is all about fun. In most youth ministry resources we find the emphasis on fun and games. The founder of Young Life was famous for saying, “It’s sin to bore a kid with the gospel.” When we look at photos of youth groups in our churches, we typically see lots of messy games and wacky skits. Given this perception, it becomes the expectation of parents, pastors, and church leaders to see youth ministry continue in that way. In truth, we don’t want to bore the kids. Theology, on the other hand, is not usually perceived as fun. So does the typical youth pastor pour time into reading theology or planning more fun programs? The answer is not so difficult when we know a parent or student is going to ask if youth group will be fun this week.

How do we close the gap between youth ministry and theology? Perhaps we first need to change the perceptions of what youth ministry is all about and what students are capable of. Then we should insist that our youth pastors are lifelong learners trained in good theology. It may take a decade or two to get there, but in the end, it will have been worth the battle.

Also in the series on youth ministry:

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