Youth Ministry


How to Connect With a Younger Generation

It’s one of the biggest paradoxes in my world: often the most qualified adult volunteers in student ministry feel like the least qualified because they think they’ll have trouble connecting with students. Additionally, the younger college students that are typically seen as the best youth volunteers may connect well with students on a relational level but have little maturity or experience to guide them once they do.  See: What the Next Generation Needs from the Church

Maybe it’s not teenagers you’d like to understand. Maybe it’s 20-somethings. Millennials. We might be the most talked about generation except so few of the people talking about millennials regularly spend time with millennials. See: 5 Reasons Your 20’s Matter

Maybe you’ve added someone new to your family and you’re trying to figure each other out. It doesn’t really matter who the person is.

So how do you connect? What does it take to build meaningful relationships with people decades younger than yourself?

Two simple things:

1.) Love

11059600_10153456077491001_6317721647227367480_oMy Grandpa is over 50 years older than me and our lives are very different. Outside of a general love for Jesus, sports, and family, we have very little in common yet I’ve never had trouble connecting with him because I’ve never wondered how he felt about me.

He has always made it abundantly clear that he loves me. He made a consistent effort when I was growing up to be a part of my life. He attended endless baseball games over my illustrious baseball career…and he hates baseball. When we moved 6 hours away almost three years ago he has made it a point to come visit on a regular basis.

He doesn’t need to know what the latest apps on my phone are or who Adele is to love me and connect with me.

2.) Authenticity

This is where older generations most often make mistakes in their efforts at connecting with a younger generation. They try too hard, which younger people see right through and it’s embarrassing for everyone.

One of the things I consistently try and thank my mom for is not being my friend when I was a teenager. She was constantly there for me, but always a parent first. I never confused who was in charge. It’s heart-breaking watching some parents try so desperately to win the approval of their kids or their kids’ friends that they start being a friend first and ditch their job as parents. My mom knew that being a parent was more important than connecting as a friend.

A few months ago, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton was trying to connect with a younger generation. You could argue that Barack Obama’s success in doing so was one of the keys that propelled him to the White House. She sent a series of tweets specifically targeted at recent college graduates (early 20s) asking them to…get this…describe in 3 emojis or less how they feel about the national student crisis.






Predictably, the move backfired.

She got thousands of tweets criticizing her woeful attempt at connecting with a younger generation. Several people even compared her to a mom trying to look cool in front of her daughter’s friends.

Here’s the big drawback to this approach: several members of her key target audience were offended they weren’t simply asked the question. Why the emojis? Are college graduates incapable of using words and forming full sentences? Hillary should have simply asked the question like she would have to any other demographic.

To connect with a younger generation, you need to do more than just care for them. You need to be YOU. Be authentic. Don’t try so hard.

Try hard at love. Try hard to be the version of you God made you to be. THAT will always work.


41 Questions/Doubts Teenagers Have about God & Faith

Research indicates that about 5 out of every 10 high schoolers will walk away from the church and their faith after graduation. There are a variety of reasons a student might leave their faith behind:

  • Other things simply become more important (driver’s license, dating relationship, etc.)
  • Acquire a new group of friends that don’t desire to be a part of the church.
  • Some simply experiment with straying from every opinion their parents hold in the quest for their own independence.
  • Some never felt like they belonged to the church to begin with.

The Fuller Youth Institute, in their exhaustive, nationwide studies discovered the number one reason young people leave church and faith behind: the Church’s failure to engage difficult questions.

From the research, “Specifically, these young people cited the church’s failure to wrestle with issues like the reliability of the biblical text, sexuality, evolution versus creation, and the exclusivity of Jesus. But notice these students did not say they left the faith because of the stance of their church took on the issues above. They left because the church failed to address them at all. When tough questions were addressed, the answers were found to be vague and superficial.

Last week I gave 41 students a pen and a blank note card. I told them that as a church and as caring Christian adults we wanted to listen, validate, and attempt to answer any and all questions they had about faith, God, etc.

Our group comes from pretty diverse church backgrounds (wide-ranging denominational upbringings). We have a few students who are the only Christians in their family. We also have several atheists in our group as well as some who aren’t sure what they believe or why what one believes even matters.

These are their questions: (the last two were especially tough to read)

  1. Why are there poor, hungry, and thirsty people if God is real?
  2. Why do we not get what we need when we need it?
  3. Why do we have to struggle with things over and over again? Sometimes it feels like we have no help from God.
  4. How do we know someone didn’t just write down whatever they felt like in the Bible?
  5. Why does God let such bad things happen to good people?
  6. How can God be good if people who follow him get so down that they commit suicide?
  7. If God really wants us to follow him, why doesn’t he just make us? Why do we want other things more than him and why do some people never want to follow God?
  8. Why isn’t there more proof? It would be so much easier to believe if we had physical proof like the people in the Bible did.
  9. What do I have to do to go to heaven?
  10. How do I love people who are bad influences for me? I love my friends but I don’t love what they do and I worry about how that affects me.
  11. Why does God seem to punish people who don’t deserve it?
  12. I feel like I only believe in God because I’m scared of hell. Is that wrong?
  13. When you get saved, is there a chance you can still go to hell? P.S. I don’t want to go to hell.
  14. Can I be a Christian and believe in evolution?
  15. Why doesn’t God help when you’re going through a rough patch and you pray and pray and nothing happens, nothing gets easier?
  16. Can you have faith in more than one thing, more than one god?
  17. How come Christians are able to forgive so easily?
  18. How do I know my faith is true and real? How can someone restore their faith?
  19. I have heard that God is with me but why does it sometimes feel like I’m all alone?
  20. Does God stay in your life even if you do a really bad sin?
  21. How do I get away from pornography?
  22. Why can’t God simply speak when we need him the most? How are we supposed to know what we wants us to do?
  23. Is sex outside marriage really wrong? If so, why?
  24. Can you go to heaven if you are not baptized?
  25. What happens when you die? Like right after you die, when your brain stops, what do you see or think or remember?
  26. Is it possible to grow your faith, to get stronger in your relationship with God?
  27. How can I get better at spreading the word in my school?
  28. Do people always have doubts about God? I believe in him but I sometimes feel guilty about doubting.
  29. Why did God not just make everything perfect?
  30. How did different races exist if everyone came from God?
  31. Can people believe in God and be gay at the same time?
  32. Why do some people who claim to believe in God not ever go to church?
  33. Does faith in God require me to be a good person?
  34. Why is lust bad?
  35. Why don’t we ever have to be physically punished for our sin? The pain Jesus went through on the cross seems so unfair.
  36. What do I do when it feels like Jesus shouldn’t forgive me? I know he does but it sometimes feels like I don’t deserve it.
  37. Why did God make us?
  38. Do you need to ask Jesus for forgiveness more than once?
  39. If God wanted us to choose his way, why did he make it so difficult?
  40. Why would someone pay attention to the Christians when there’s so many different groups of them and they hardly seem to agree on anything?
  41. Why do some people hide behind religious cliches instead of trying to wrestle with real questions?

Which questions surprised you?

What questions would you add to the list?


5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

Last weekend, I had the tremendous opportunity to attend the National Youth Workers Convention for the third year in a row. It is one of the most encouraging parts of my year and I earnestly look forward to it each year.

A few days after I get back from a conference I try and decompress a little. Most conferences are the same in that they’re full of seminars, breakout sessions, speakers, etc. Basically they try and cram as much information in a small window of time, which is a great thing if you take the time afterwards to process and see what might be helpful in your context.

My main takeaway was simple: The Church needs youth ministry.

My heart breaks to see some churches devalue youth ministry. The quotes below are real statements about youth ministry that I have heard from people I know and love:

“I just don’t get it. Youth ministry seems like a waste of time because so many of them just ditch faith afterwards.”

“It just kind of seems pointless because they don’t tithe yet so you’re always investing in someone else’s church.”

Youth ministry is constantly being re-imagined and the Church should be as well. The message of Jesus never changes but the methods we communicate that message to any and all ages should always be able to change.

Not valuing youth ministry because it does not directly contribute to the church’s “bottom line” is a refusal to measure success the way God does and a tragic neglect of the kingdom of God, which is much bigger than your specific local church.

At the conference, Mark Matlock, executive director of Youth Specialties, briefly outlined 5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry (click here to watch the 8-minute video).

I thought they were so perfect I did not change them at all. They’re re-posted here with permission and the comments in between are my own.

5 Reasons the Church Needs Youth Ministry

1. Youth ministry is vital to helping teens integrate into the larger intergenerational community of the church.

The Church gets the tremendous honor and responsibility to create spaces for teenagers to transition from childhood to adulthood. The teenage years are choppy waters and can be difficult for students to navigate. Youth ministry gets to be the arm of the church (not a silo – off by itself) that gathers teenagers and their families under the banner of the cross as they seek to live these years well. Students will often hang with the church into adulthood to the level it hung with them through adolescence.

2. Youth ministry resists the status quo, helping a church stay relevant in a changing culture.

Youth ministry is fun, creative, and innovative. The Church as a whole can often look to youth ministry as a microcosm of where culture is and where it is going. When the church values youth ministry, it will see ways to stay fresh and engaging in an ever-changing world.

3. Youth ministry focuses on inviting those who are not already part of the church into the deeper narrative of God’s plan for humankind.

“Invite your friends!” As a student, I used to hate that phrase. It seemed like all of my youth pastors were constantly trying to get me to step out of my comfort zone and invite my friends to church…because they were. Their primary concern was not trying to simply draw a crowd. They all could have done that. Youth ministry is important because it is continually inviting in those who are outside the family of God.

Did you know that 85% of people will not change what they believe about God and eternity after the age of 13? Youth ministry gets to be apart of the most spiritually formative years of life and the invitation is always open.

4. Youth ministry reminds the church that teens are not marginalized members of the body, but are co-creators and conspirators in the divine work of the church, restoring life on earth as it is in heaven.

This might be my favorite. I love the language of “co-creators and conspirators.” Students are not the church of tomorrow; they are the church of today. If the Church refuses to acknowledge them it not only fails to love and lead them well but it tragically misses out on their contributions just waiting to be made.

P.S. This is not a “Hey some old lady needs her yard mowed; let’s call the youth!” This is real participation and real belonging.

5. Youth ministry helps the church focus on the way of Jesus, which goes beyond tradition, dogma, and ritual.

One of the great and terrible aspects of youth ministry is the turnover. Every single year the ministry changes by at least 20%. That can be a lot of fun because even in a declining church there’s always new students cycling in, even if it’s slow.

Lead pastors often get the blessing of walking through life multiple generations of life with the same family. Youth mnistry isn’t like that. You have a small window to impact a student’s life. If you do get to have a meaningful impact, don’t get comfortable because that leader will be in college before you know it. That’s heartbreaking, humbling, and exciting…all at the same time.

In youth ministry, we do not have time to waste on focusing too much on tradition, dogma, and ritual because we have a small window of time to focus on what is “of first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3-4). We have to focus on what matters most: JESUS.



Question: Do you think youth ministry is important? Why or why not?


9 Resources for Parents: Navigating the Digital Age

I’ve had several conversations with parents over the last few weeks about frustrations, concerns, and questions about how to lead and their love their kids well in the digital age.

These parents are caring, loving, and simply want some help in tackling the ever-changing frontier of cell phones, social media, sexting and pornography. See: You Can’t #EndIt and Keep Porn

As a childless pastor I do not yet have personal experience in this area. But that’s no excuse to punt. Just like it’s no excuse to bypass having these tough conversations with your kids. New studies show that the average age of exposure to pornography is now eleven. ELEVEN. That means if you’re waiting to have these conversations until then you’re too late. But even late is better than never.

Even if I had personal experience as a parent, I have no reason to think it would be particularly helpful. Pastors don’t necessarily make great parents. But I would love to pass along a wealth of practical resources from a source I know well and trust tremendously. These are not my work – but they are the first place I would turn for help if I were in many of the situations you find yourself as a parent of a kid with a cell phone, iPod, etc. etc.

The 9 resources from the link below include:

  • Trend Alerts: and the Bang with Friends app (can’t make this stuff up)
  • Parents’ Guides to Internet Pornography, Sexting, & Cyberbullying
  • Primers on Electronic Addiction, Social Networking
  • Family Digital Covenant of Conduct (If you don’t use this exact one, you need to be using something)

Find these resources and much more at the Center for Parent and Youth Understanding’s Digital Kids Initiative.


What the Next Generation Needs from the Church

Last week our home was filled with people just like it is every Tuesday. The living room was full of laughter, genuine friendships, good food, and authentic prayer and discussion rooted in Scripture.

Our home group is comprised of a somewhat diverse group of people.

  • Expectant parents
  • Parents through adoption
  • Single parents
  • Married without kids (yes, we still exist!)
  • Single people
  • Doctors
  • Carpenters
  • 21ish-32ish year olds

Our living room is filled every week with a demographic largely missing from the evangelical (whatever that means now) church.

We have intentionally kept our group fairly simple, centered around just a few main goals/ideas. Yet our group continues to grow, both in number of attendees and in significance. I am not at all saying that we have figured out how to reach the highly coveted 18-32 demographic (when did the church turn into an advertising agency?) but I am saying that we have accidentally stumbled upon what seems to be working for the next generation.

With that in mind, I’d like to humbly suggest:

What the Next Generation Needs from the Church (3 Things)


1.) Encouragement to dream BIG.

  • For most 20-somethings, we’re at a time and place in life where it’s okay to take risks. It’s not too late to change careers or move cities. New skills can be learned dreams can be pursued much easier now than later in life. We need a church that will encourage us to fan those dreams into flame and call us to think deeply about how those dreams connect with the kingdom of God. We need a church that can celebrate with us in the process of figuring out what we want to do and why, not just on the other side when we have more stability and resources to contribute.

2.) Purpose

The extended adolescence of our time has no doubt become a very real issue. Teenagers are turning into futon-crashing 20-somethings that turn into 30-somethings that never quite leave the house. Part of me wonders if this prolonged emergence into adulthood could be shortened if more 20-somethings felt like their life had more purpose. In 1 Corinthians 13:11, Paul writes,

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways.

Now obviously Paul did not move immediately from childhood to adulthood but it does seem like there was a more dramatic transition than some 20-somethings are experiencing now. One of my biggest fears as a pastor is how the separation of kids from “big church” coupled with the separation of students into the “youth room/building/get the heck out of my sanctuary” affects college graduates who have always had their own space that’s all about them but then fail to adapt to the real world. 20-somethings need the Church to remind them that their lives have purpose NOW. And that they might be missing out on some of that God-given purpose by mooching off Mom and Dad instead of getting a job and starting their own life.

The most important thing the Church can do to give the next generation purpose is to give them a faith with substance.

When the fog machine smoke from youth group fades and the endless “community” of college ends, has the Church given the next generation a real Christianity? Have we (the Church, not just its leaders) passed on the radically generous, self-sacrificing, compassionate faith of Jesus or have we been peddling a counterfeit faith that screams, “It’s all about YOU!”

3.) Belonging

Your first year in college you’re told over and over again to join a club, get involved, meet new people. It’s solid advice. I’ve given it before. (See: 4 Ways to Start College Right). The goal of joining so many clubs and/or activities should be that eventually you’ll find some like-minded people united around a common goal/interest who genuinely care about you and others. Enter: the Church. The Church has the ultimate thing 20-somethings are seeking…belonging. A place to call home. I lost most of my sense of belonging/home when I was 14 and didn’t really gain it back until just now, at 25. This is due in no small part to my group of like minded-friends (who I met at church), united around a common goal/interest (JESUS) who genuinely care about me and others.

To my 20s-ish friends: What else can the Church do to equip you to become a fully devoted follower of Jesus?

To my older-than-20s-ish friends: What advice do you have for the next generation of Christians?


Being a Youth Pastor Stinks

I loved being in youth ministry as a student.

But I had few reasons to. Our group was small. Our church was dying. Our ministers were leaving, and I don’t blame them one little bit. Yet God used each one of them in different ways in my life to show me more of his love for the world.

When I first felt a divine tug toward ministry it was toward youth ministry. My first two non-phone-answering-crap-intern jobs in ministry were as a Youth Pastor.

But can I let you in on a secret?

Being a Youth Pastor stinks.

Let me qualify: I love youth ministry. I love thinking, talking, reading, and doing youth ministry.

But youth ministry is hard. Few people respect it because unfortunately few people take it seriously, even among those who get the blessing of doing it for a living. It’s a relatively thankless job. Students often don’t let on how much they care about the youth ministries they call home. Parents often don’t understand or care what youth pastors do.

Church members ask you when you’re going to get a real job (I cannot begin to tell you how much I’ve heard this, thankfully never in my current context).

Youth Pastors are traditionally never more frustrated or discouraged during the year than right now. Students have gotten distracted, busy and have stopped coming. Leaders are worn out at best or already checked out at worst. Energy is at an all time low and summer trips that pull Youth Pastors from families are lurking just around the corner, the very same trips that nobody has signed up for on time!

The real truth is: being a youth pastor is awesome. It’s hard but fulfilling. Some of my most rewarding moments in ministry came deep in the trenches of youth ministry.

New to youth ministry? Nervous around teenagers? Not sure how to serve your youth pastor? Read these books. Buy these books and give them to your youth pastor. Commit to read and discuss one with him/her.

4 Recommended Books for Youth Pastors

#1 Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why Most Youth Ministry Doesn’t Last and What Your Church Can Do About It by Mark DeVries.

  • DeVries teaches a great life lesson too many churches/youth pastors can’t seem to grasp: sustainable, healthy growth doesn’t happen overnight and it doesn’t happen without complete commitment to the process. This book will help youth pastors and churches develop youth ministries that not only last, but make a life-changing difference.

#2 Your First Two Years in Youth Ministry by Doug Fields

  • Written by a 35-year youth ministry veteran as if you and him were talking about youth ministry over coffee, this book is Doug Fields at his best. Sustainable Youth Ministry equips youth pastors with the right way to think about youth ministry from a ministry philosophy standpoint and Your First Two Years helps put that philosophy into practice. It is amazing practical and thoroughly detailed with more resources than you’ll know how to use. The secondary title says it best: a personal and practical guide to starting right.

#3 Middle School Ministry: A Comprehensive Guide to Working with Early Adolescents by Mark Oestreicher and Scott Rubin

  • Marko has been the gold standard for over a decade in middle school ministry. Youth pastors, have you ever said something like, “Well high school students are just really more my comfort zone…” What a load of bologna. Just call it what it is: You, like me, just like high school students better because you probably understand them better. This book helps youth pastors and churches understand how to best serve and engage middle school students with the Gospel.

#4 Sticky Faith, Youth Worker Edition: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers by Kara Powell and Brad Griffin

  • Fuller Youth Institute has done extensive research in the area of youth ministry and teenage development. In Sticky Faith, the team at FYI presents youth workers with both a theological/philosophical framework and practical programming ideas that develop long-term faith in teenagers. Each chapter presents a summary of FYI’s research, along with the implications of this research, including program ideas suggested and tested by youth ministries.

Honorable Mentions: (All these books have been helpful for me in youth ministry in various contexts)

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