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Common Problems in Youth Ministry


We’re all at different levels spiritually—even for the youth in our youth group. I say this because we tend to place all our young people at the same level spiritually since they are all in the same age range. This often means we have one program for everyone. But consider Hebrews 5:12:

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.”

Here it is clear that our spiritual level has little to do with age or even the length of time one is exposed to God’s Word—maturity in this case was for those who had put what they knew into practice.

The same I will say for the youth group. More often than not, within a group, there will be teens at different levels spiritually. Some are mature and even set an example for others in speech, conduct love, faith and purity (1 Tim 4:12), some are like children who could easily be deceived by some false teaching (Ephesians 4:14) and many are somewhere in between. Let me challenge you in this article to make a good assessment on where your young people are spiritually. It will be well worth your effort.

Now, there are different ways to this can be done1 but when I do this, I have leaders break down their young people into 6 categories2:

Unconnected Youth – those youth we know who have never attended any of our events or been to our church
Irregular Attendee – those who have been in our activities once or twice,
Regular Attendee – those who regularly join the fellowship,
Growing Youth – those ready to be discipled
Youth Leader – those handling a ministry
Leader Maker – one who develops youth leaders such as Paul’s charge in 2 Timothy 2:2.

I hope you would spend time after reading (or even right now) to do just this. If possible put specific names to these categories, it will make you more accurate as you do this.

Why assess? Consider some common problems when we don’t take time to assess where our youth are spiritually:

Problem 1: Right Program, Wrong People

It doesn’t matter how much of a budget you have or the time and effort you have put into place to make the activity excellent, if the people who attend are not the people you intended it for, you aren’t going to be very effective.

You could be teaching, for example, principles of growth to students who may not have gotten the gospel yet. Many of our students may as the writer of Hebrews says, “need milk, not solid food” or we need to teach them again the basic principles of God’s words. The opposite could also apply, we could be giving bread crumbs of theology to young people who are starving for the Word of God. How do we know where they are at? One point from our level 1 has been helpful to me, “We must look for the spiritually hungry young person (all may not be).”3 One way I have implemented this as a youth pastor is having one program for everybody who regularly attends but offer small groups or even a different program for those who need it. If there are only a few who fit this category, specially focused 1-on-1 sessions can also be applied. During this time, deeper concerns are dealt with. It could be focused on studying a particular book of the Bible or even showing through example how the principles are applied in your own life.

If your time is limited, it doesn’t mean you can’t make use of this concept. In the letter of 1st John for example, the apostle writes in his letter to those who he categorizes as fathers, young people and children (1 John 2:12-14)—again this had less to do with age and more to do with spiritual maturity. He does it in a single letter and we can also address people at different spiritual levels through one program. But we won’t do that if we think all of our youth are all at the same level. Knowing well the condition of our flock (Prov. 27:23) make us better ministers.

Problem 2: Ministry Before Growth

It also happens that we could be focusing on how our youth minister, teaching them to lead worship or placing gifted folk into administrative roles when they have not mastered the most necessary elements for growth. Some excitement can be generated as people come and appear very eager. This though could lead to problems later on. When what is seen on the outside is emphasized without considering the often hidden building up of faith through prayer, Bible study and the wisdom of putting into practice what one learns this often creates an imbalance resulting in burnout. Or worse, a disgraced youth leader and a discredited ministry could result.4 This is one reason we emphasize growth before ministry and leadership.

Problem 3: Not Outward-looking

This is the case where ministry could be going great, we are intentionally discipling our youth and seeing them grow spiritually, but we are few in number. If the only people we know by name are those already regularly involved in youth group this probably means we don’t have enough focus on outreach and evangelism.
Now it may be that you are concentrating right now on building up your youth group from the inside which is alright. Too often though it becomes that we only focus on those in the youth group and we no longer intentionally reach out to others and just wait for someone new to come into our youth room. Let me argue though, that getting new young people into your youth group from the outside is actually helpful in getting your young people to grow.  This is because they get to put into practice such things as sharing the gospel, and developing the fruit of the Spirit in their life (patience, kindness, self-control) that are often taken for granted when there’s nobody new in youth group.

Also, we are commanded to go. We as leaders should always be on the lookout to bring people to Christ and as a youth group this means a heart to reach out for those not yet in the body. Having such a group – with teens eager to invite friends, starts with the leader. So take a step, refresh yourself again with the principles of meeting youth where they are, reach out and communicate the love of God to those who are lost.

Problem 4: Not Forward-looking

The point in the ministry where the youth group is growing and leaders are blossoming is one of the best stages to be in as a youth leader. And you could do fine by it. But again if you take a look at Jesus’ earthly ministry he did not stop at the level of creating leaders. He went further and created leaders to take his place. In our strategy this stage is called multiplication and we want you to also do as Jesus did. Your job is ultimately to get out of your job.

Here’s what happened to me:

As a youth pastor I was doing fine, it was wonderful seeing young people come into the ministry, hear the Good News that Christ died for them, grow into a relationship with Jesus and mature through the Holy Spirit working in them. I was in a really good situation, and I could have stayed there forever it seemed. And then I was given the opportunity to minister somewhere else.

I almost said no. What gave me pause was the thought: “More could happen to your youth ministry if you leave it.” And that is what happened, with the foresight that I would eventually leave the ministry, I prayed for and trained youth leaders with the knowledge that one day they would step into my shoes and be the ones to lead the ministry. Many years after I did leave the group, that ministry continues to thrive.  I am amazed every time I go back. God continues using the youth leaders there even as he uses me where I am.

You may not go through the same set of circumstances, but I know you will likely not stay where you are forever. So even right now I challenge you to consider what you will do to make things better if you do eventually go. Think of it this way, if you were to suddenly leave the ministry you have: What are the things that would continue? What in the ministry likely would not? Consider how you can make sure that the most important things that the ministry needs will continue.

A final point, and another reason I have asked you to write down the names of your youth, is that I hope it will drive you to your knees in prayer. Pray for the young people. Perhaps this article has motivated you to do something. Maybe this article has overwhelmed you with the things you need to do. Yes, we have a part to do. But in the end, especially on the spiritual level, it is God’s part that will matter the most. May the Holy Spirit, lead your youth onward and upward. And you as well.

Notes:

  1. Some other ways you could categorize:
    A. Jonathan Mckee breaks down youth into two types, those who don’t know Jesus and those who do. He breaks them further into two groups. Those for outreach: “No Way!, not interested, checking things out; and those for discipleship: stagnant, growing and looking for ministry. You can watch a video on it here: http://www.thesource4ym.com/trainingtools/article.aspx?id=38
    B. Doug Fields, in the book Purpose Driven Youth Ministry, identifies youth as part of the Community, Crowd, Congregation, Committed or Core.
  2. If you have been through the GYMN strategy seminar, the 6 categories I use here also correspond to the levels in our pyramid. Consider using “meeting youth where they are” principles for the unconnected youth, evangelism principles for those who have come once or twice, etc. on toward multiplication principles for leaders.
  3. GYMN Level 1 Book, Session on Growth
  4. This can be found and is discussed much deeper in GYMN Level 2 in the Session on the Internal Heart of the Leader
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