Youth ministers must be theologians, pastors, babysitters, and the master of no fewer than 10 different kinds of ceremonies. They must be friends and leaders. They’ve got to please the senior pastor and church session, satisfy the sky-high expectations of parents, and meet the spiritual and emotional needs of the hormone-charged, insecure, and confused teenagers under their care.
Complicating their lives further is the cottage industry that has sprung up to provide curriculum, conferences, training material, and resources for them — materials that have to be analyzed and reviewed to determine if they’re meant to disciple students or merely entertain them. Even youth ministry networks might offer camaraderie for youth pastors, but just because a group of people shares the same job title doesn’t mean they share the same theology and vision.
And for churches that can’t afford a full-time youth pastor, these issues confront a well-meaning and probably unsuspecting volunteer.
Yet what’s at stake is nothing less than the next generation of faithful Christ followers. Which begs a few questions: What does a successful student ministry look like? How should leaders think about the job? And what are they to accomplish in the few years students are with them?
At the moment there are roughly 50 student-ministry positions open in the PCA. Some are summer internships, some are full-time positions, and others are part-time. Some combine student ministry with other responsibilities such as “youth and family” or “student ministry and worship.” Some churches want their student minister to be an ordained pastor; others have no preference.
Regardless of who leads, this is sure: The job requires a long obedience in the same direction, a willingness to reject the latest fad, and diligence to keep the main thing the main thing — coming alongside parents in discipling students into lifelong followers of Christ.
Before Danny Kwon had kids, he thought the parents of his youth group students were a pain. They just got in the way, Kwon thought. Now that he’s raised three teenagers of his own, the PCA teaching elder and pastor of youth and family at Yuong Sang Presbyterian Church in Horsham, Pennsylvania, gets it: Parenting teens is often nerve-wracking. It takes wisdom, insight, understanding, patience, more patience, and a lot of prayer.
When the physiological realities of adolescence — shifting hormones, physical changes, and increased independence — meet the turbulence of teen culture, the results perplex parents and pastors alike. Clearly, this is work that requires a partnership.
Walt Mueller, founder and president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, often says that teens are swimming in a cultural soup. But in the 21st century, the soup has some new ingredients. The most obvious one is the omnipresent screen, which now facilitates the interactions between teens and the world, usually to the student’s detriment.
Researchers in London, for example, have determined that 40% of college students show signs of smartphone addiction. Another British study found that heavy social media use correlated with a sense of negative well-being and self-esteem, with more girls experiencing feelings of depression and hopelessness.
But it’s not just screens that cause problems; it’s also parents. Students are far busier than they used to be. More families now find themselves running from play rehearsal to soccer practice to piano lessons. As a result, activities that once seemed like obvious priorities — youth group — are now just another option.
“A lot of people still value youth group,” says Matt Luchenbill, student and family ministries pastor at New City Presbyterian Church in Ferndale, Michigan, “and they’ll fit it in if they have time.” But there’s tough competition for that time.
The breakneck pace of family life has many causes. First, parents give in to their teenagers, allowing them to take on more than they can responsibly handle. Then there are parents who embrace the notion that busy kids stay out of trouble. Other parents pressure their students to take on more activities out of fear that they might not get accepted to an elite college or might miss a scholarship opportunity.
As a result too many teens feel stressed — all the time. In 2020, Barna Research and Impact 360 Institute surveyed members of Gen Z (7-22-year-olds) and discovered that nearly one-third (31%) of students say they feel internal pressure, and 25% say they face external pressure. Among those who face internal pressure, the most common themes were the “pressure to be successful” (56%) and “a need to be perfect” (42%). Those who feel external pressure report feeling “judged by older generations” (42%) and “pressured by my parents’ expectations” (39%). Barna also discovered that students experience anxiety about the future and are afraid to fail.
More disconcerting is research from the Fuller Youth Institute which found that nearly 50% of students leave the church after high school.
The stats worry parents and put a lot of pressure on youth ministry. “Everybody keeps looking for a silver bullet of student ministry,” Luchenbill says. “But the goals haven’t changed. We point to Scripture, we try to do ministry the way Jesus did, “building relationships as he transforms hearts and lives by the power of the gospel.”
Luchenbill has spent nearly 25 years in youth ministry at six churches, including seven years as the junior high pastor at Perimeter Church outside Atlanta. He is also the facilitator of PCA Discipleship Ministry’s student ministry team.
Students Need Adults, and a Broader Community
Youth pastors such as Luchenbill say intergenerational ministry is essential to helping teens stay connected to church after they leave high school. “Students need adults other than their parents who care about them and are investing in them.”
The Fuller research reveals that when students stick with the church, four anchors are present: intergenerational relationships, parents involved in the students’ lives, application of the gospel to all of life, and the creation of safe places to doubt.
After Kwon discovered these findings, he lobbied to add “and families” to his youth pastor title. “I wanted to create a bigger role as a youth pastor where I would also minister to families and adults and foster intergenerational connections with students, families, [and the] broader church.”
When Mark Davis worked as a youth pastor at Chesterfield Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, he used to hear senior pastor Hugh Barlett talk about how effective ministry looked like youth ministry: It was incarnational, relational, communal — living out one’s faith in community together.
Now that Davis is the senior pastor of Park Cities Presbyterian Church in Dallas, he takes his student ministry approach to his senior pastor ministry. “My approach as senior pastor … is essentially the same,” he said. “Pouring into elders and staff as I did with youth leaders.”
Luchenbill thinks about youth ministry as coming alongside parents to see students transformed by the gospel’s power. His vision for student ministry is students “connecting, growing, and going.” He wants students to connect by building meaningful relationships with Christ, other students, and adult leaders. Growing, Luchenbill says, means discipleship in a church setting and at home where students are discipled by their parents. Students are then equipped to go make disciples by serving their communities, inviting friends to join the ministry, and participating in mission opportunities.
What Matters, and What Doesn’t
Despite so many stereotypes, success in student ministry doesn’t hinge on keeping students entertained. Luchenbill points out that students have access to entertainment options like never before, so if the student ministry tries to impress kids with gimmicks, there’s not much chance that it will succeed.
Youth pastors can, however, care for students. They can have dinner with them, go to their ballgames, and get them involved in serving others — things that will leave a long-lasting impression.
That takes a set of skills, of course, which may not always mean being the coolest guy in the congregation. “We’ve got to push against a mentality that prizes a youth pastor who is young, energetic, fun, and a little bit crazy,” says Luchenbill. Youth pastors don’t need to keep up with students on the basketball court, but they do have to engage with them, talk to them, and cheer for them.
Ultimately, youth ministry isn’t about youth ministry at all. It’s about adults whose faith took root in their teen years.
None of this, however, is to suggest that youth group ought to be boring. There’s no virtue in creating a youth ministry that’s so dull nobody wants to come, says Davis. “Just because students don’t enjoy it doesn’t mean a church is doing something right.”
Youth group is not a substitute for worship, either. More churches, some youth pastors have observed, are holding youth group during the worship service. Thankfully, Reformed churches seem to be bucking the trend. And for good reasons: It not only moves students away from adults, it also makes corporate worship seem less relevant. “One of the key aspects of Reformed theology is valuing corporate worship,” Luchenbill explains. “We want students involved in the life of the church.”
The Long-Term View of Youth Ministry
Youth pastor Mike McGarry writes, “Ultimately, youth ministry isn’t about youth ministry at all. It’s about adults whose faith took root in their teen years. Keep this goal in mind. Fix your eyes on this long-term vision when teaching students, counseling parents, integrating students into the life of the church, and empowering students to serve.”
Kwon tells parents that the most important part of youth group is what happens after youth group, when students return home and discuss the lessons with their parents.
Kwon, too, doesn’t judge success by what happens during the years he has students in the ministry, but what happens during the course of those students’ lives.