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Teen Ministry: Rethinking Our Paradigm

We are finding ourselves in a "whole new ball game" as we face the complex issues affecting today's teens in the media-driven youth culture they have inherited. The Christian church is discovering the "old ways" of reaching teens with the gospel are no longer effective when applied to the kids of the Boomers. Times have changed and so must our methods of youth ministry and evangelism. An open and honest approach is imperative as we face these challenges. Our response will dramatically affect the future of our denomination.

Christianity Today, in a lead article in the February 3, 1997 issue, discusses the changing face of youth ministry. The article covers a bit of the history of youth ministry and explains how changes in the youth culture have forced the church to rethink its course if it is to remain viable in reaching the "Millennial generation" for Christ. It analyzes where youth ministry went wrong, defines who the Millennials are and provides examples of successful teen ministries that focus on a personal relationship with Jesus and his relevance to their lives today.

Integrating young people into the larger worshipping body has been a monumental problem and concern not only in our fellowship but in most others in the evangelical tradition. "More faith commitments are made during the teen years than in any other age group. But huge numbers leave the fellowship after high school, most never to return" (Ron Luce, author of the book, Are Your Kids Bored With God and the Church? and Inspire the Fire). Reasons for this phenomenon vary, but discoveries are being made and models developed that stand to reverse the negative trend.

The reality is that the busy-ness of our lives today leaves our teens yearning for positive relationships. They see a lifestyle of confusion and fragmentation. MTV says it listens to its viewers and credits that as the reason for its success (MTV Media Kit, 1993). Letters from viewers say things like, "No one else even pretends to care about what we think," or "I have a question, and I figured that if anyone could help me, you guys could." MTV has become a trusted advisor to a generation of teens that trust it more than the adults in their lives. However, the good news is that youths in the Millennial generation are looking for more than a relationship with a TV network. We have the chance to reach them with the gospel.

From Programs to Ministry

Churches are starting to realize, as we have, you cannot neglect your youth or simply occupy them with programs and activities, without a price. A nearly 90 percent attrition rate in our fellowship of youth leaving after YOU through the '80s and early '90s bears painful witness to this fact. Today's teens are too smart, too sensitive. They require a no-nonsense, "in-your-face" gospel tack. Kids don't want hype —their desire is to be together with their peers and caring adults and for the Bible to be made relevant to their lives and problems. They will respond only when it's real.

The only way we can be credible to them is when they see our passion for Jesus —when his love for them is reflected in us and our actions today (not discussions of the past). Our youth workers must have a significant and trusting relationship with the young people so they will experience Christ. The foundation, and there is only One foundation (1 Cor. 3:11), must be built on a relationship. It won't be the killer message we gave on sex or drugs they will remember, but the personal time we gave them walking along the lake at the retreat or the late-night phone call when they were facing a major problem or decision and just wanted to talk. Our teens want to know and trust someone that they can do this with.

Sports and leadership programs just don't cut it anymore, if indeed they ever did. Our young people today must be evangelized and discipled. Our past programs were not generally successful in imparting the essentials for spiritual growth to our youth. Program-based ministries do little to transform lives. They tend to just keep teens busy, but don't always challenge them to action with the gospel. Youths today are looking for intimacy and maturation —they require sacrificial love, not socials. A challenge to action, not passive observation in church service.

Programs, curriculums and activities are of little value when students don't know they need their lives changed. The success of a youth ministry must be evaluated on how well it is leading them to a deeper commitment to Christ. This is how nonchurched kids enter the Body —not through activities, but through relationships with churched kids. Activities simply act as a way to get people together where they can share their need for Christ.

An Example

This relational approach with our teen group in Pasadena began to bear fruit last summer with a trip to a nearby lake. Our teens sensed we weren't just babysitting them but that we really cared. Discussions about many things went late into the night. Teens shared their ideas, goals, fears and problems with many of the adults who were chaperoning the event. This was just a beginning. Since then the spiritual transformation has been phenomenal. Yes, we do activities, but the focus is on relationships, with Jesus first and each other second. We reiterate to them that while they were yet sinners, God's love for them was so great he sent his Son to redeem them and that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. We teach them that Jesus called us friends and empowers us through the Holy Spirit to follow him. That a relationship with him is an energizing relationship based on God's pure love, and that it is both real and available to them right now.

Once committed to him, they have begun to bond as a group and to open up to our youth workers. Some are now making accountability commitments to each other. Many have asked Jesus into their hearts and lives. Others who were hurt in the past and kids whose parents are in splinter groups are starting to return as our teens practice relational evangelism. Some of our teens who have been secretly battling drug addiction, apathy, depression and other major problems in their lives are now working through their problems with the support and prayers of adults in the congregation.

The teen church has become a part of the Body where the reconciliation, healing and renewal process is most recognizable in many churches. Teens are action-oriented people. So when reconciliation with Christ occurs in a teen, the teen takes action, and the new relationship begins to affect every part of his or her life. Teens often go back to their school and begin evangelizing to their friends. So their faith has a very visible and immediate effect. In our case, upward, inward and outward is taking hold and becoming meaningful to them as well.

What is so important about a teen church? What is it like? In the Pasadena congregation, we established teen church about 18 months ago to try to meet their specific needs, such as:

  • Teens want to feel safe to participate, debate, ask questions, or just keep silent during worship and discussion.

  • Teens have a penchant for "in your face" questions and answers that are sometimes hard for us adults to listen to.

  • Teens may not always want to sing hymns during a worship service, or they may wish to worship through the message of a music video by Jars of Clay or Three Crosses or Big Tent Revival or Gospel Gangstas.

  • Teens may wish to challenge the message of the day (this has led to some quite deep discussions in our case).

  • Teens wish to be challenged to take action on what they believe or to decide what they believe.

We alternate weekly between celebration services and interactive groups for our teens. This allows them the most freedom to have the gospel message reach them. Teens also appreciate follow-up when they make a commitment. So we try to remain in contact with them throughout the week.

But establishing and maintaining a strong teen church isn't an end in itself. What happens next? As stated earlier, many youths who find their identity in teen church fail to make the transition to the larger fellowship —- they simply can't relate there. But, exciting things are happening on this front.

Many churches are finding a solution in small group and mentoring ministries that target this very issue. The goal is to prepare the young person for assimilation into the main body after high school. Younger teens are placed with mature, older peers in small groups or with solid adult members who mentor them along the way in preparation for their entry into the adult congregation. Teens are encouraged to participate in Bible study groups and other Christian groups that are active on their junior high and high school campuses. Those who go away to college are urged to stay spiritually connected through campus ministries, and those who stay in the local area are included into young adult small groups. It takes work, but the results are more than worth it. Please request information regarding teen small groups and mentoring models if you feel it would benefit your church area.


There is a plethora of youth ministry resources available to the church today. We suggest you check out Christian bookstores in your area. Most have well-stocked youth sections with teen Bibles, magazines, videos and books by notable youth ministry authors like Ron Luce, Doug Fields and Josh McDowell. We also recommend books by Ron Fields, Mark Ostreicher, Mike Yaconnelli, Jim Burns and others written for youth workers.Youthworker —The Contemporary Journal for Youth Ministry is an invaluable guide, full of cutting-edge informative articles and ads for every youth resource imaginable.

While at your Christian bookstore, don't forget the music section. It won't take long to get a feel for what kinds of music kids are relating to. Spend some time in the contemporary, rock, rap, alternative, country, and praise and worship sections. (A praise band is now forming in our teen group.) Music books and songsheets are also available, as well as trax and information regarding overhead transparencies, slides and software. This style of sharing lyrics is a must for youth worship. Maranatha and Integrity Music both offer full lines. Music magazines and concert schedules for Christian artists can also be found there.

Don't be afraid to take your teens to Christian concerts. Many will go to country and western, rock, classical and other concerts during their teen years. Let them experience Newsboys, Jars of Clay, DC Talk or other Christian artists in concert. These artists share the gospel and its relevance to teens' problems today. Besides, it's fun. Our teens have been shocked to see hundreds and even thousands of other teens on fire about the gospel at these events. They even discuss their faith with other teens at concerts.

We also encourage you to interface with other churches in the community. Find out which ones have strong youth ministries and draw from their experience. Doors often open up as a result of these contacts. Learn where the youth camps and retreats are located, what events are scheduled that they will be attending and what fundraising methods work best for them. Sharing ideas, problems and frustrations with others can be both encouraging and therapeutic, not to mention the friendships that are bound to develop.

Ministries like Youth for Christ, Teen Mania, Miles Ahead Ministries, World Vision and others, along with their sponsored events like DC/LA, Acquire the Fire, and the 30-Hour Famine, can be extremely valuable in bringing our youth to a personal faith in Christ and discipling them toward a deeper faith commitment in the church.

The Holy Spirit began to move powerfully in our group after Acquire the Fire. Many of our teens have made life commitments to Christ since their experience at ATF. It is quite an experience to spend time with teens who have been transformed by the Holy Spirit and have committed their lives to Christ. And when a whole group has made the commitment, WOW!!

DC/LA is a tri-annual summer youth conference on evangelism. Its strengths are its focus on youth evangelism, through helping teens to a closer relationship with Christ, giving them tools to evangelize and letting them see that other teens are just as committed as they are to their relationship with Christ. It will be held this summer in Washington, D.C. (July 16-20) and Los Angeles (June 25-29). The conference is five days long, and each day is full of small groups, prayer, seminars, worship, Christian music as well as fellowship and general sessions that will inspire our teens. DC/LA boasts a 90 percent retention rate in the church for all teens who attend, even through college. There is still time if you would like to register for the conference. It is fairly expensive, so fund raising should not be delayed. If you need more information, please call DC/LA '97 at 1-800-735-DCLA.

Our group also participated again this year in the 30-Hour Famine sponsored by World Vision. The 30-Hour Famine is an excellent opportunity for teens to put into practice some of the things we teach them. This year the teens from several southern California congregations spent the 30-Hour Famine working with Friend Ships, a Christian relief organization that ships food and relief supplies to disaster and emergency hot spots around the world. They also run one of the largest food banks in the western United States. What an opportunity for our teens to practice what the 30-Hour Famine represents and to practice loving others! Our teens were really "jazzed" to see how Christians put their commitment where their mouth is. They had the opportunity to work with adults who are full-time volunteers who receive only room and board for their long hours of work to relieve the suffering of others.

Other resources we've found helpful include relational videos from EDGE TV, Interlinc For Youth Pastors (an excellent resource for Christian music and access to Christian artists), and guest speakers from the local Christian community in our youth worship. These resources are extremely helpful. When Christians the teens respect share their vision and the fact that Christ is real to them today, it can help teens see the real struggles of life, and it makes the gospel real to them today.

Much information is also available over the Internet from several sources, including Youth Specialties (publisher of Youthworker) at We recommend that you explore their entire website and their links to other helpful youth ministry sites. Another good Internet resource is Youth for Christ. There are several web pages for them around the world, so we recommend using Yahoo or another search tool to find the one near you.

Youth worker training seminars are available in many areas each year. If you have the chance to go to one of them, make the time. Youth Specialties sponsors many one-day seminars throughout the year in areas that may be close to you. We are including a schedule for those to be held through the spring, summer and winter. They also sponsor two annual regional youth workers conferences each year. There are other organizations that sponsor youth ministry training as well. These include Group Publishing, National Institute of Youth Ministry (we are including their addresses and phone numbers so you can get more information from them) and others. Some of these organizations provide, in conjunction with Christian universities, undergraduate and graduate credit for their training.

Another tool is the fall festival. If you are able to provide teens with an environment that is conducive to helping them commit to Christ and to serve others, it will make their fall festival very special. This year we hope to provide special services to the teens from age 11 to 19 at the Palm Springs site. The schedule has not been finalized, but will tentatively include separate worship, special service opportunities, seminars on relationships and other topics, and time for socializing. This will be done over the weekend, when more teens will probably attend, since many are in school during the week.

Finally, don't be afraid to call youth pastors from other Christian churches in your area. Youth pastors are many times a different breed of person. Youth pastor has become more of a career calling than in the past, when it was viewed as part of paying the dues in working toward a senior pastorship. Many more Christian youth workers today view youth work as their calling and tend to stick with it for the long term as a career. These people can be great resources and sources of inspiration for your youth coordinator, youth workers and teens. Other youth ministries in the local area may also be willing to work together with your group to put on a vacation camp. However, be warned, their focus may be more on Christ than what we have been used to in the past.

We hope this information is helpful. Please send us your questions, comments and requests. We would like to leave you with the mission statement we've adopted here:

Bring the gospel of Jesus Christ to the youth of our congregation and local communities; provide a positive, nurturing, Christian environment for teens, lead them toward accepting and knowing Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and equip them for ministry to others.

We keep this focus through planned values we adopted from other youth ministries in our area:



Relational approach
Laughter and celebration
Involvement of teens
Outreach oriented
Numerical growth
Spiritual growth
Homelike atmosphere
Strategic follow-up

We recognize that this is an ever-changing ministry. The key to it is to ask ourselves, "How is Christ relevant today to this generation?" The Millennial Generation is reached differently than we baby boomers were, and than the X generation is. But the gospel always reaches people where they are at, and the message remains the same. "God loved the world this way: He gave his only son so that everyone who believes in him would not die but will have eternal life. God sent his Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but to save the world. Those who believe in him won't be condemned. But those who don't believe are already condemned because they don't believe in God's only Son" (John 3:16-18, God's Wordtranslation).

Dave Smith, March 1997

Comments on Teen Ministry

Comment: I believe that the church does not need more and better youth programs — we need more effective parenting. God gave the responsibility of rearing children to parents, not to the church. The church's role is to support the parents. We need to emphasize family ministries. I believe that the church does not need more and better youth programs — we need more effective parenting. God gave the responsibility of rearing children to parents, not to the church. The church's role is to support the parents. We need to emphasize family ministries.


Response: Thank you for commenting on the article about re-thinking teen ministry. As the author, I would like to respond to your concerns in more detail by discussing several issues.

The article in no way meant to imply that teen ministry attempts to replace good parenting. For some families, good parenting is sufficient. For many families, however, additional support from the church is needed. Youth ministry not only fills gaps that exist in the structure of many families, it ministers to many teens whose family situations are beyond repair.

For example, in southern California, only 25 percent of teens live with both their birth parents (source — Barna Research, as quoted in Youth Worker Update, March 1997). Even in the church, parents are not always able to supply the kind of parenting that is needed, so it is important for the church to reach the teens directly with a ministry designed for them.

By the age of 11, teens have begun to become individuals, and they are beginning to look outside their immediate family for role models and meaningful friendships. Add to this the adolescent angst of puberty (hormonal changes) and distrust for adults (because teens are beginning to see the imperfections of the adults in their lives), and you can see that we have several reasons for reaching teens directly.

Many parents understand this. In fact, nearly all our youth workers are parents. Also, we regularly meet with the teens' parents to discuss what we are doing and why. And we spend a lot of time helping teens learn how to have a better relationship with their parents as Christians. The primary focus is Jesus Christ.

Second, as you said, the answer is not in youth programs. The article tried to get that point across. YOU programs have not worked, and while we still have activities and ball games, they are no longer a major focus in youth ministry. Our Pasadena teen ministry mission statement gives these goals:

  • Evangelism to our teens, and through them, the community's teens

  • Relationship with Jesus Christ

  • Discovering their gifts

  • Ministering to others by getting involved

The key to youth ministry is not ministering to teens, but teens ministering. It is positive relationships with Jesus Christ, parents, other adults and peers.

Third, God has always worked with teens and even young children directly. Joseph, Samuel, David, Solomon, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Daniel, Mary and many others. In some cases, their parents are not even mentioned. This is not to say parents are unimportant, but it shows that young people are quite capable of having their own relationship with God.

Fourth, in our church area, we work a lot with teens who have harbored secret sins of apathy, drug abuse, sexual immorality, etc. In some cases we have worked with their parents to restore them and to help them be healed, accepting Jesus Christ in their hearts and lives. Teens are very good at keeping these things secret from their parents (or at least they think they are). However, when the Holy Spirit begins working with them, amazing things happen from the inside out.

For example, in one church area there was a teen, who, at the age of 13, was part of a gang, used drugs, and was involved in many other things. This teen first shared this with the youth ministry leader after having attended the youth group for nearly a year. The youth minister and wife spent time with the teen, prayed with the teen and gave support to the teen. Eventually, the teen was baptized — and one of the teen's parents was also baptized! Could it be that God made a difference in the teen's family because of what he did through the teen's involvement in the youth group? That family has become like an extended family of the youth ministry leaders who worked with the teen. So God worked through the youth workers to build and reach a family through one teen.

As you know, God is the one doing the reaching. Sometimes it will be done through parents, sometimes through peers, sometimes through concerned Christian adults ministering to their needs, but we cannot say that it can come only through the family model. God is never limited in the avenues he can use to reach people.

Youth ministry includes evangelism and mission. In many cases, the best evangelizer of a teen can be a teen, not necessarily an adult. If teens are willing by their actions and friendships to share the healing message of the gospel (even with those who are antagonistic), it makes a difference. One does not come to Christ by being beaten, but by seeing his love shed abroad in the hearts of his people. The teen I mentioned above came to the youth minister for healing. God is healing this teen, who can now bring other teens to Christ from similar backgrounds far better than you or I or even the family can.

We work with parents, but not just by telling them how to be more effective parents. Instead, any way that the gospel can be shared, we use. Whether through parents, other teens, activities, small groups, youth workers, music, it does not matter. Whatever it takes for the gospel to reach kids, we try to do.

Family is about empowering our kids to be successful Christians in a world that doesn't know Christ. To do that, we have to help them be able to face the world by depending on Christ, not us. We have to let them be able to share Jesus unashamed, because we will one day be gone. The only relationship that will last them forever is the relationship they have with Christ. Teens see that, and they want that relationship when it is modeled for them by their parents or other adults. Unfortunately, counterfeit models can lead to involvement in drugs, sex and gangs, and thus lead away from Christ.

In the United States, even after decades of preaching about parenting, we have had a 90 percent dropout rate in our church by teens and young adults. We have had every kind of family problem, and we have also had very successful families. The key is that our families, to one extent or another, no matter how perfect we try to be, will fall far short of perfection. We will let our kids down. We will say and do things that hurt. But if we point them to Jesus Christ, he will never do that. And he will give them peace. That is what we were trying to get across in the article.

David Smith, 1997

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