I am stating five problems that may be transpiring in the youth ministry in America. I am not claiming to have the answers, I am merely laying out my observations. It is my goal to identify the problems, so I can begin to clarify solutions.
1. Weak youth ministry ecclesiology
Many youth pastors have a difficult time connecting, participating and assimilating into the church body. Our students dislike the big church feel—for multiple reasons. The church and youth ministry must be fused together. It is pointless to do youth ministry in isolation of the church. Somehow our youth ministries must play very well with the “big” church. Value the church and intentionally work with the church in order to make students fully devoted followers of Jesus. Our youth ministries must fit the larger vision and mission of the church body.
2. Limited teaching on other world religions
It is becoming more and more common for students to have friends of different religions. For example, Islam is rapidly evangelizing the world and it is growing at a fast pace. Islamic influence is slowly starting to saturate American culture. Our students need to know how to talk about other religions. It is unproductive when our students start talking down about other religions, especially when they are uninformed. It is not good when it becomes “us” vs. “them.” Focus on the similarities and become more ecumenical. I see more youth ministries teaching students the fundamentals of other religions while also educating how to respect and admire them. You may find it odd when you realize that you don’t know much about the other religions. I found myself having to read a lot of the other holy books.
3. The Gospel (sin, redemption, Jesus, cross, freedom, forgiveness) is extremely foreign to youth culture
This is a problem, but I think it is a major advantage. When the gospel becomes normative, it becomes comfortable and popular. Oscar Wilde stated: Everything popular is wrong. Jesus was not popular and didn’t preach an easy-feel good message. He actually stated the exact opposite. The pearly gates are very narrow. Getting kids to acknowledge they are screwed up and that Jesus restores life is really a unique message that they will not hear anywhere else in their life. The difficulty is “persuading” kids why Jesus matters and that He is the only way. I am finding more and more that students don’t have a basic understanding of who Jesus is and what He is really about. It is a bummer, but cool at the same time. I think this is why the gospel right here and now is very powerful and counter-cultural.
4. Hurried evangelism
Youth ministries are excited to get kids saved. However the transition from evangelism to discipleship is tough. My good friend Dan Haugh says it well: It starts with many, many intentional Jesus conversations before the conversion. What if youth pastors started with discipleship? What if youth ministry totally skipped evangelism as the first step? I think if we can educate and get our students to experience God before they accept Jesus, they will most likely latch onto their faith in a more deep and real way. The students will be able to test drive the car and know what they are getting themselves into before they sign on the dotted line. I am arguing that discipleship is the new evangelism. Please don’t misinterpret me. I still strongly believe in evangelism. I think it should appear later in the game. In the gospels, Jesus never asked His disciples to believe in Him right away as the first step. He only required them to follow Him. Essentially experiencing and knowing God can possibly produce a student who wants to deeply and fully desire and believe in God. Granted, our youth ministries may be a little bit smaller … but deeper.
5. Youth pastors are not teaching students how to think critically
It is so easy to teach students what to think and teach them the “principles.” Coaching students how to think is a difficult task because they need to swing to extremes in order to develop a healthy worldview. Youth pastors need to feel really encouraged when a well-churched student says: I cannot feel God and I don’t believe in Him anymore. Youth pastors should not freak out, but rather help the student ask the right questions. There is not a better time to provide a support and structure than in mid-to-late teenage years. If youth pastors can build a supportive structure in their youth ministry programming, then students will open up and feel safe to say what nobody else is willing to share. The sooner we can get students to doubt and question their faith, the more sustainable their faith will be.
What other problems are youth ministries experiencing? I want to hear what other struggles youth pastors are encountering …
This article originally appeared here.