Articles about “The Failure of Youth Ministry”
by Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties
Posted by Neil MacQueen at https://sundaysoftware.com/yaconelli/
ON THIS PAGE:
Article 1: “The Failure of Youth Ministry” and “An Apology”
by Mike Yaconelli, founder of Youth Specialties and YouthWorker Journal
The following articles are copyrighted material that was removed from YouthWorker’s website a number of years ago. I read and saved the article years ago, and up until now have only shared it privately. Too soon after writing it, Mike Yaconelli died in a car accident. I’m re-posting it without permission because the TRUTH needs to be heard. I think more churches need to hear it, and probably would have –had Mike lived. Many of us have been down the road you’re on. In a sentence: we’ve realized that “great youth groups” do not necessarily produce believing young adults. Indeed, where are all the kids who FILLED the youth groups of so many churches back in the 70’s and 80’s? I ran some of those great youth groups, —kids piled on the couches and floor. Yet if I can could go back and do it differently, I would. …And I know a lot of “old” youth leaders who believe the same way.
Article 2: “Seismic Shift? A Call to Youth Ministers and Church”
A follow-up article by several nationally recognized youth leaders who came out of Mike’s Youth Specialties movement, or were heavily influenced by his ministry. This was written after Mike died in a car accident.
For those of you who don’t remember, or weren’t old enough, Mike Yaconelli and Youth Specialties Inc. blew out of El Cajon CA in the 70’s basically inventing youth ministry as we know it today. Their approach to youth groups, their “Ideas” book series and seminars were the gold standard of youth ministries everywhere, -in every denomination, -for the 30 years. They started YouthWorker Journal (an un-edgy corporate version of which still exists as an ad-driven website). Then in 2003, Mike Yaconelli, “the founder”, “THE guy” in youth ministry wrote this article below. It said what a lot of people were thinking, …a lot of us who had followed the standard accepted youth group model and realized it wasn’t discipling kids into believing adults.
I have written about the subject and my ideas for changing youth ministry over in my blog at http://sundayresources.net/neil/2011/11/12/rethinking-youth-ministry/. I have also posted the story of my “Tribe13” experiment –a different type of youth ministry at www.sundaysoftware.com/articles/tribe13. The Tribe13 experiment was very much influenced by these two articles.
Article 1: “The Failure of Youth Ministry” and “An Apology”
Originally published in Youth Worker, June 2003
“The Failure of Youth Ministry”
by Mike Yaconelli. founder of Youth Specialties
What is the most important function of youth ministry?
A) Introducing young people to Jesus
B) Providing healthy activities
C) Involving young people in service
D) Abstinence pledges
E) Good theological training
Answer: None of the above.
The most important function of youth ministry is longevity. Long-term discipleship.
It’s my contention that the vast majority of youth ministries focus all of their time and energy on the none-of-the-aboves and very little on longevity. How do I know?
Look at the results.
Attend any youth group in this country and notice the “ageing effect.”
Attendance is directly proportional to age. The older the students, the fewer are likely to attend youth group. Typically, there are more freshman than sophomores, more sophomores than juniors, and more juniors than seniors.
I’m sure there are many reasons for this phenomenon. Older students are more likely to work, more likely to have a car, and more likely to be extremely busy. But the real reason is that older students are much more likely to lose interest in Christianity, lose the desire to stay close to Christ, or don’t lose the willingness to pay the price of commitment. In the everyday battle for the souls of the older students, the lure of the secular is just too strong.
Almost every study out there shows that when it comes to moral behavior, there’s no difference between secular and Christian students. They drink as much, screw as much, have oral sex as much, and party as much.
Youth ministry doesn’t have any staying power.
Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer Jesus at large events, and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it’s not because of Jesus; it’s because they’re young!
The success of youth ministry in this country is an illusion.
Very little youth ministry has a lasting impact on students.
I believe we’re no more effective today reaching young people with the gospel than we’ve ever been. In spite of all the dazzling super stars of youth ministry, the amazing array of YS products, the thousands of youth ministry training events, nothing much has changed.
Following Jesus is hard.
Faith is difficult.
Discipleship requires a huge investment of time. Most of us don’t have the time. Or we chose not to take the time. Or our current models of ministry don’t allow us the time.
So let’s be honest.
Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.
What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But my hunch is that if we want to see young people have a faith that lasts, then we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry in America.
I wonder if any of us has the courage to try.
by Mike Yaconelli
Originally published in YouthWorker, July 2003
I have an apology to make.
In my rush to make deadline my last column communicated the wrong message.
What I thought I said and what many people read were two quite different things.
I was hoping to throw some cold water on the high profile ministries out there that give the impression they’re attracting gazillions of young people to their ministries and changing the lives of gazillions more.
I was trying to level the playing field by introducing a dose of reality.
My hope was that the person in Podunk, Iowa would be encouraged. My hope was that the majority of us who have smaller ministries would realize that no matter how much press a particular ministry gets, the results are the same for all of us. According to Jesus and his parable of the seed, the best we can hope for is about 25%.
At least one reader, Ken McDonald, a volunteer youth worker from Texas, heard me:
I’ve been a volunteer youth worker for pushing 10 years. I eat lunch with the students every day. I go to their ballgames and soccer matches. I’ve been to countless funerals for their grandparents, parents, and friends. I spend hours each week talking to them online. I’m an elder and I’ve tried to incorporate them into the life of the church. I pray for them, send them birthday cards, and take them sailing to scare the hell out of them. But this year, the students I’ve spent the most time with, prayed hardest for, and lost the most sleep over are seniors. In a few months they’ll be gone.
Taking stock, of the 5 to 10 closest students, only one of them is regularly in church or youth group. The others got their driving licenses and never came back or just faded into oblivion. These were students who wrote passionate poems about Jesus and his love, cluttered up AOL’s trunk lines with hundreds of forwards saying, “if you love Jesus you’ll pass this on,” built porches on mobile homes in Appalachia, worshipped at “Fun in the Son,” rang handbells on Sundays, and crawled under flooded homes to install insulation. But one-by-one they disappeared.
Ken understood my point. All the hype about youth ministry simply hides the painful reality that no matter what we do, most of the kids we work with “disappear.”
But what most of you read was, “Youth ministry is worthless, useless, and not worth doing.” I apologize. The last thing I want to do is discourage youth workers.
What I intended (and didn’t accomplish) was to un-intimidate those youth workers who were discouraged because of all the “successful” ministries who were implying results different from the rest of us.
Luckily, like most of you, Ken McDonald understands youth ministry. And, like you, he’s the real deal. He concludes his letter:
So it feels like time to throw in the towel. Pull off the river, dump out the raft, and head for home. Take up gardening and try nurturing plants for a while instead of young people.
There’s just one problem. God won’t let me do it.
The Call remains.
The bat-infested, apathetic place I call church is my lot at the moment. Those seniors are my seniors, and God has placed us together for some weird reason.
Maybe the institution of youth ministry is a failure, but it hasn’t failed all young people.
Maybe techniques and programs don’t work very well, but they work for some.
Maybe many of the young people we work with don’t make it, but some do.
Maybe our programs aren’t effective for all, but they are effective for a few.
Maybe our programs aren’t changing the world, but they are changing some.
Maybe most kids disappear, but not all of them do.
Maybe we don’t need a revolution in youth ministry; maybe what we need is what we’ve always needed—a few adults who are willing to follow God’s call to love young people into the kingdom of God no matter what the result…like Ken McDonald…and like you.
Mike died in Oct of 2003.
Article 2: “Seismic Shift? A Call to Youth Ministers and Church”
Originally published in Youth Worker Journal, Feb 2004, five months after Mike’s death
Seismic shift? Leaders call for new youth ministry model (excerpts)
By Brent Thompson
A new vision
Concerned that the late-20th century model of youth ministry is flawed, a group of prominent youth leaders has issued a call for a new model that could lead to a seismic shift in church youth ministry philosophy, training and leadership.
“For around 60 years, student ministry has focused almost exclusively on teenagers,” said Richard Ross, professor of youth and student ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas. In a letter sent to youth ministry gatekeepers around the nation last year, Ross pointed out that an increasing number of youth leaders are coming to believe that model falls short.
“We now have enough history to know that the majority of students who stay on mission for a lifetime are those from emotionally and spiritually vibrant homes,” Ross wrote.
Noted author and speaker Josh McDowell added, “The most powerful impact upon a child’s ethical, moral and spiritual development is the relationship with the parents. It is 300 times greater than the church.”
The question of how to turn student ministries more toward impacting parents and families brought together a group of 22 well-known youth leaders at the National Network of Youth Ministries Forum in Glorieta, N.M., in January.
Some were present by telephone, some in person. The meeting succeeded in joining leaders such as Ross, Josh McDowell, Barry St. Clair, Sue McAllister, Rick Lawrence, Jim Burns and Randy Phillips.
Although these leaders represented a variety of evangelical denominations and para-church ministries, they were unified around the issue of the need for a more intergenerational approach to youth ministry.
The result of this conference was a document titled, “The Call to Youth Ministers and the Church.”
The first part of the document contains resolutions drawn directly from Scripture.
The second part contains affirmations reflecting a distinct intentionality to draw youth and parents together as much as possible in youth ministry programs.
For example, the document asks youth ministers to “acknowledg[e] parents as the primary spiritual leaders of their children” and to “consistently … involve parents with leaders and resources that equip parents for biblical parenting and primary discipling of their children.”
The document also asks youth ministers to “include events and experiences that bring parents and teenagers together when it best achieves ministry purposes.” Churches are called to “encourage existing youth ministers to make a transition toward parent ministry.”
“The team writing The Call spent an unusually long time in prayer,” Ross said. “We knew this effort would matter little without God’s direction in writing and His empowering any future impact. At least twice as we wrote, the group fell into reverential silence as we sensed God’s direct hand in giving us the words to place on paper.”
Rick Lawrence, executive editor of GROUP magazine, was present and helped draft the document.
“More than any other factor [by far], parents are responsible for helping their teenagers grow deeply in Christ,” Lawrence said. “It’s just as important for us to invest in parents’ spiritual growth as it is to invest in our youth group members’ spiritual growth.”
Lawrence explained that “if we can get parents to see themselves as the primary catalysts for faith growth in their kids’ lives, our ministries will explode. I think this is the crucial turning-point issue for today’s youth ministers.”
“I am honored to be part of the group of people that are helping put this into expression,” said Sue McAllister, a long-time youth minister from Tupelo, Miss., and Southeastern Regional Coordinator of the National Network of Youth Ministries.
“As you work with parents there is a maturing that comes for the youth pastor as well as for the students. There is a trust factor that is built. I am looking forward to the fruitfulness of intergenerational youth ministry as we encourage youth pastors to do this.”
Ross began championing such a shift in youth ministry about two decades ago. His 1984 book “Ministry with Youth and Their Parents” was one of the first to lay out what this approach to ministry might look like.
Anecdotal evidence and some small-scale studies have indicated that not only is religion an important influence in the lives of American youth, but that the church has not been doing a good job of cultivating their spiritual lives.
Obviously, there are situations where children from troubled homes stay strong in their faith for a lifetime, Ross said. “These are wonderful, but, sadly, rare.”
Studies have shown a correlation between the spiritual health of a young person and the quality of that young person’s family life.
In August 2001, the National Study of Youth and Religion was initiated to study the religious lives of American teenagers. Conducted at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill under the direction of Christian Smith, this four-year project is funded by a grant from the Lilly Endowment, Inc.
“Any broad design for student ministry for the future must include a powerful focus on parents and families,” Ross said.
About Neil MacQueen
–the poster of these articles and owner of this website
My “Sunday Software” resource ministry began a few years after I helped launch the “Workshop Rotation Model” for Sunday School. Like those in youth ministry, we were working on re-inventing Sunday School, and addressing its many failures. As a youth minister, I realized that a lot what I was trying to do in youth ministry was in response to what WASN’T being done in children’s ministry, and family ministry. Software in Sunday School is one part of the type of innovation we need to attract and teach kids so that our long-term discipling goals for these kids can be met. Read more about my software work at www.sundaysoftware.com. Read more about the Workshop Rotation approach to Sunday School at www.sundaysoftware.com/rotation.htmRead my article about “A Different Kind of Youth Group.”
<>< (Rev) Neil MacQueen