“Are you going to spank your kids?” was the first question. As I stumbled for an adequate answer, “Of course!” tumbled out. I didn’t have any children at the time, but the room was packed with young examiners probing areas I usually didn’t talk about. But I wanted to make a good first impression.

I was being interviewed for a youth pastor position at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Ga. I had completed a phone interview and written questionnaire, and now I was visiting the church for a thorough three-day interview process with the search committee, the elders, and finally the students themselves.

After a barrage of random (and I mean random) questions came my way, one teenager in the back of the room raised his hand. “Are you going to hold us to high standards?” A little shocked and wanting him to clarify, I asked him to repeat his question. “Will you challenge us as our youth pastor?” he said with greater intention. I was both stunned and delighted.

In preparation for the series of interviews, I had been reading every book I could get my hands on relating to youth ministry.  Although I had already been a youth pastor for several years before the interview, I felt like I needed to brush up on the “how-tos” of youth ministry.

After I’d scoured the pages of countless books on youth games, icebreakers, and strategies to attract the largest number of youth to a church, the key theme of many of these books became abundantly clear: Build a youth program centered on making youth ministry as entertainment-driven as possible with a message on Jesus “slipped in” somewhere.

After I arrived in Peachtree City, I happened to sit in on a meeting of various youth pastors planning a big ecumenical weekend event. The first hour was spent talking about which “Christian magician” to invite. The group spent the next 10 minutes selecting a speaker, who invariably needed to be “funny.” After hearing reports that all the youth who went to this particular event experienced a spiritual revival, I started questioning whether I should have supported it. But it took only a week before those high-on-Jesus youth fell back into their same old patterns at school and exhibited very little, if any, lasting effect.

The Graduates’ Great Exodus

In his book Battle Cry for a Generation, Ron Luce estimates that “88 percent of kids raised in Christian homes do not continue to follow the Lord after they graduate from high school.” The drive to elevate experience over truth within youth group worship time has caused youth pastors to spend through the roof on fog machines, circulating lights, and artistic backgrounds. In the end, the show has left the teenager with some teary eyes and perhaps a newfound commitment that he or she will never sin again. But the next morning, it’s all over, and they are left wanting something deeper, richer, and more meaningful.

The numbers are staggering of those leaving the church after high school, and yet youth ministries across the nation continue to pack in more and more pizza parties and video games to keep youth coming back, thinking that somehow their lives will be changed.

Since that awkward and semi-nervous interview several years ago, I have witnessed an increasing interest in the Bible, theology, and prayer from students within the PCA and those either involved in other churches or no church at all. They’ve seen how the American Dream has left their parents and the “boomers” empty and still dreaming.  Entertainment simply hasn’t provided meaning or answers to the ever-wandering hearts of America’s youth.

Why haven’t teens who were involved in youth group in high school stayed involved with a local church after graduating? There are many possible reasons, from wanting to experience the newfound freedom of being out of the house to being intimidated about meeting a host of new people.

Whatever reasons may be offered, one thing is clear: Post-high school teens are leaving the church because they have failed to be nurtured and established in the faith through a Christ-centered, means-of-grace ministry. In other words, America’s youth not only need a ministry that seeks to communicate God’s grace through the teaching of the Word, the administration of the Sacraments, a life of prayer, gospel-motivated ministry, and grace-centered community — they actually want such a ministry.

Youth Want the Challenge

In spring 2010, after repeated emails and phone calls from students about the meaning of certain Greek words in the language of the New Testament, I offered the possibility of teaching a basic Greek overview course the following summer. Hoping to attract 10 to 15 students, I knew I was being overly optimistic. But when the class began, students filed into the large choir room — some even bringing their parents — until the place was packed! And then it hit me. These youth want to be challenged. They want to go deeper into God’s Word and to mine the riches found there. They want to understand why Presbyterians baptize infants and how prayer works. They want to explore the development of the canon of Scripture and how to defend it at school.

This wave of interest in wanting to be challenged isn’t new but has become a central theme in Christian ministry thanks, in part, to Alex and Brett Harris’ book, Do Hard Things: A Teenage Rebellion Against Low Expectations, and their supporting website, therebelution.com. The two have begun hosting multiple conferences and seminars across the nation, attracting teens of all stripes into supporting a vision that encourages youth to take initiatives, ask the hard questions, and think big for God. For many, such a plea is a wake-up call from the “I’m bored” youth phenomenon we see plastered all over Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace. They are bored because they are living from one pleasure-high to the next. They’re not encouraged to live out, for example, the content and method of ministry service.

As I was preparing some music for youth group one evening, a young teenage girl walked up and told me that she was “bored.” I looked up and saw scores of youth talking, reading, and just hanging out. I looked back at her, hoping not to be too critical, and paused for a second. “You know, Lauren (not her real name), the team of youth leaders is preparing dessert for tonight in the kitchen. How about you go and ask how you might serve them?” Though at first she wasn’t thrilled with the idea, she later told me how much she enjoyed helping our leaders and how much they appreciated her willingness. For Lauren, that was when the realization set in that she wanted to be a part of something greater than herself.

Poll after poll has revealed that American teenagers’ number one fear is being alone. These same polls also reveal that the second greatest fear (which leads to being alone) is rejection. The irony, of course, is that these same teenagers want to be unique. Youth want to be known — blemishes, sin, and all — and told, “I’m going to love you and accept you anyway!” If we would but realize that this is the gospel message:  You are more sinful than you would ever imagine, and yet, through faith in Christ, you are more accepted and loved than you could ever dream.

In March 2010, the Facebook social networking site became the most-hit Internet site in America, toppling the Web giant Google for the first time in history. Why?  I contend that young people in America (who account for the largest percentage of users) are starved for truly intimate relationships. Moreover, being “accepted” as a friend does wonders in fighting their continual fear of being rejected. Virtual relationships, therefore, have done nothing but appease a God-given appetite for true, grace-centered, intimate relationships.

Being Faithful Over Being Successful

If there’s anything a youth pastor knows it’s the fatigue that comes with the task. The constant pressure from parents, youth, the session, the senior pastor, and family can wear a minister out. Added to these stressors are the continual expectations of these people to meet certain attendance standards. The most frequent question I get as a youth pastor is, “How many?” It sometimes becomes a plague and burden — driving you to either be prideful (wow, I attracted a ton of youth tonight!) or full of despair (nobody came … and nobody will come next week either). It’s no wonder the average youth minister stays in one location less than 18 months!

Kent and Barbara Hughes, in Liberating Ministry from the Success Syndrome, argue that it is always better to be faithful to the Lord than successful in ministry. In other words, as ministers in Christ’s church, our task is to plant and water the gospel of Christ — while God gives the growth (1 Corinthians 3:7). It is easy to become number-driven because it makes a minister “look good” (if a lot of youth come, of course).  But God’s not after looks; He’s after hearts.

When you realize that the task is simply to be faithful, you will have a sense of freedom and joy. But this begs the question: What does it mean to be faithful in youth ministry? I maintain that the “how to” of being faithful in youth ministry — indeed, in all ministry — is demonstrated through the means of grace; in particular, teaching the Bible, administering the sacraments, prayer, gospel-motivated service, and grace-centered community.

Striving to be faithful rather than successful is essentially the same as what Paul calls “boasting in the Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:31). Our boast should be in the works of God who elects, calls, justifies, adopts, sanctifies, and glorifies (cf. Romans 8:30). Our call is to boast in His powerful working in the lives of our youth. But He has granted His church various “means” to practically boast in the Lord.

It might be appropriate to offer a word of caution at this point. If your ministry has not been led by an emphasis on the means of grace, implementing such a ministry will likely cause some members, leaders, and students to stop coming. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however. As we have seen, the lasting effects of our current youth ministry in America have left a void in churches in the 20-somethings age group.

For some of you, this is old news, and you might be reading this for additional support, encouragement, or an idea. If that is you, praise the Lord. But for others, this might be a new shift in how youth ministry is conducted at your church. I would suggest casting the overall vision — through speaking or writing — before launching a new approach to youth ministry at your church. Talk it over with your pastoral staff, your elders and deacons, or other mentors you have in ministry. Quick changes can lead to bitterness, resentment, and lack of understanding.

Toward a Means-of-Grace Youth Ministry

“Brian, doesn’t the program-driven, pizza party-saturated youth minister know a lot about the teenage culture in America?” Most do. In fact, youth ministries have picked up on this teenage fear of being alone and have spent countless millions trying to fix their problem. Indeed, all sorts of “communities” are popping up to create a sense of belonging among teenage Christians. However, these communities so often are formed around special interest and hobby, not the gospel. Or, perhaps a more dangerous approach, they boast of a certain moral or social justice theme as their communal bond as a substitute for the gospel.

In the end, however, these program-focused models of youth ministry are no different than any other social club with moral principles. Youth need the means of grace that God has provided His church to supply both the content and the method of ministry. Not only is this the biblical model given by Christ and witnessed in the early church, but it remains, I believe, the most faithful and Christ-centered approach to youth ministry today.

Brian H. Cosby, an ordained minister in the PCA, is associate pastor of youth and families at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, Ga.