Who benefits from youth ministry?

After all there’s got to have been a point in persevering with it hasn’t there?

Continuing the easy youth ministry critiquing this week, though I cant believe I’m about to write my fourth blog on the subject. Next week ill promise not to, though its almost too easy. But following on from Ali Campbells blog ‘How to grow the church’ which is here, and various discussion about the subject, I was out and about walking from the DYFC office this morning, reflecting on the question above: Who is actually benefiting from youth ministry?- and in a bit of systematic way here are some reflections;

  1. Do Young People benefit? – in the short term possibly they do, some positive social dynamics, space to meet, chat and be with their friends. Maybe opportunities to go to other places, like camps, festivals or weekends away, these might be good for the memories, good for social development, friendships, might help them avoid ‘other temptations’ (statistically unlikely, it just delays it)  might be good in the short term, and might influence choices about faith, and maybe even for some provide opportunity for calling into full time ministry. That’s why this might be a maybe, maybe because the young people in the main who stay the course become leaders. So leaders are good, right? – well if the pay off for a few leaders, is that many other young people don’t explore faith, don’t fit into youth ministry and never come back to the church, that’d be not as ok wouldnt it, oh maybe not then. After all, the good shepherd focussed on the one, so that 99 could lose themselves in the field, that’d make for a good parable. And itd be the sheeps fault for wandering off.

2. So if its questionable that young people benefit, what about the church itself? As I heard recently “youth ministry at its best, temporarily attracts or keeps a few young people in the church”- the church growth survey of a few years ago (quoted in Ali’s blog) suggested that church growth occurs when a youth minister, and  a full time vicar are present in a church. So that’s ok then, the church benefits if there’s youth ministry. But no, that’s not quite the case, because of the above, the youth ministry might thrive as groups, activities and camps, but is the church actually benefiting? not just in the short term but are young people staying in the church beyond the time that they’re in youth ministry clubs and groups? beyond university, and into their 20-30-40’s? not many do.

Actually what could happen is that families are attracted to the church, who then stay, because their own children/young people are involved in youth ministry, this certainly can happen, though it requires that the youth ministry itself is catered to accept, accommodate and be flexible enough to accept the non church going young person ( in the ‘inside-out’ model), and for the church to welcome the family. So a benefit of youth ministry might be that a family attends. ok, fair enough, a potentially decent local strategy, if with a bit of effort. It could only be ‘like attracting like’ though – people with similar interests/outlook on life/education. Its not a bad thing, just its the most likely situation for it to be fruitful long term.

3. Youth Ministers themselves. Yes, they must do, all that thriving around, busying, organising, being cool, being dynamic, excited, amazeballsed, challenging, all those young people to feel young around, playing table tennis, watching Nooma DVDs, reading youthwork magazine, taking young people to soul survivor or drinking coffee, watching movies and getting paid for it. Not to mention the conferences they go to, they must love it, and get to spend ages sourcing you tube clips for the youth group, what a life!

Yes they must, they really must be loving being in a vocation, feeling called to a ministry, where the pay is dependant on the parents of young people in the church contributing financially, and benefit even more when people in the church have many ideas about the youth ministry and ask why the young people the youth minister does a CU with aren’t already in the church. when the expectations that they’re the pied piper that will blissfully lead armies of young people to the youth group, to the church, or even to the weekly prayer meeting.

When theyre always asked about when they might become clergy? When their vocation is linked to a place of employment that might not provide great management, or spiritual guidance for them, or where there might be conflicts of power between them and the clergy, PCC or direction of the church. Then there is limited back up, actual support for them in a church in a conflict situation. Doug Fields (your first two years in youth ministry) * encourages a submissive attitude from the youth minister to lead clergy- yet this might not be fully healthy, but a compromise to keep the peace. (see my reflections on management & youth ministry). They must benefit too when they struggle, start facing burnout, and feel like the lone ranger in a church, and they run out of ideas.

But then, because they’ve always wanted to be a youth minister, and their identity is such, and they’re qualified as such, where do they go next, if one church employment hasn’t worked out, or damaged them – where to next? – do they even go back to church? maybe not for a while. Yet this wouldnt be the church’s fault, or youth ministrys fault, oh no!  the story told of this particular sorry tale wont be that the youth ministry is deficient, or that the church couldn’t manage,  but that the youth minister didn’t fit, wasn’t ready, wasn’t resilient, and the youth ministry carries on the same way regardless. Youth ministry lives on! whoo hoo! – youth minister needs new calling, job/ career, spiritual home, and like a wounded dog, they go back for more, find another church and start all over again, hoping beyond hope that things will be different, and actually they must and will be.

So, with the high burnout, mental health problems of youth ministers, id say they dont benefit, and if they do its because they’ve found, or learned to cope within a structure and church and compromised. Or they over invest in the young people to their credit, despite limited support from the church.

What about the year out youth leaders, or student placements types, oh yes they must benefit. As a taster to, or launch pad for future ministry again they probably do benefit, though in many cases they have paid or raised considerable funding to do a year or two in a church, usually with limited training, professional youthwork/ministry supervision, and can be left to get on with it in a church setting with the same problems as above such as management, understanding local contexts, families. and at the year out they might have worthy but limited accredited certificate, a years experience, and a smaller bank balance. And once they do work all that out, its time for them to leave. As someone who has done 2, 1 year stints in churches as a volunteer I only hope that I didn’t make too many mistakes, or damage too many young people. And if the year out volunteer only benefits slightly in this scenario, its unlikely that the church or young people or community will get a huge benefit from someone turning up, and doing some ministry for a year and then leaving, its hardly relational, but then youth ministry doesnt need to be does it? not from the volunteer leaders perspective but from the Young people it is, they might have to trust many volunteer people year on year, and that cant be good.

4. The Youth Ministry Organisations, do they benefit? I guess they must do. They must, I guess or it wouldn’t be worth them maintaining it, and feeding it. It must just be the organisations who have ministries that involve young people. Im not going to name names. The big ones that have their week long festivals, or gap year students or dance school crews. The ones who are optimistic about its future, when in the bubble of it there can be no alternative.

5. The people who run the conferences, make materials, speak at events, write books. They might benefit they probably dont make huge amounts of money from it all, (not that its about money) . Though the tide is turning with conferences shrinking (for reasons i do not know), and the books are few and far between, and no one makes any money from writing books, or blogs for that matter. The Americans, yes the proponents of Youth ministry big time, in that culture and context, and those who pay for its maintained existence in the UK.

6. The Academics and researchers into youth ministry. Ha! Dont be daft, the courses are shrinking. And if they do benefit, its not a great indictment of youth ministry that its main beneficiaries are academics and researchers. Do they thrive on youth ministries continuance? i doubt it.

7. Society benefits.  Oh yes, if lots of young people from church going households, all travel in their cars to an morning/evenings fun and games in a church, that is going to reduce crime, increase school attendance, reduce oppression in the local community around the church, in what might be a ‘dodgy’ area. Hmmm. Yes but if our youth group is on some of these young people in the dodgy area will come. Yes and when or if they do – what happens then? the church kids get defensive and cliquey, the cultures clash, parents of church kids pull them out, and the young people from the local estate leave, because they only went cos they fancied the vicars daughter in the youth group anyway. And thats only just before they got banned for not adhering to the tuck shop rules. Has society benefitted? – and what about the relationship the church might now have with the local young people and their parents? that might have been a mission opportunity wasted. The kind of young people who are part of youth ministry in the main will thrive at school, with a bit of assistance from a youth minister, not always, but mostly. If anything the youth ministry suffers because of over pressurized academic young people – who arent able to attend the groups…

7. Parents; yes parents benefit from youth ministry, having the teenagers out of the house on a Sunday evening, ‘at least they’re going to church’  or even better away for a Saturday festival or weekend. Bliss, an empty house with no moaning teenagers. Having the offspring at youth group instead of out on the streets (yeah as if thats where they would be anyway)  and having them go to a space where the parent needn’t bother doing the faith conversations at home. The parents can default the teenagers that only grunt, to the youth minister who sees them for 2 hours once a week in a large group can do it now. Oh yes parents benefit. Hands up, personally guilty as charged at times.

8. The blog writers who criticise it. Ok fair cop. Most of which have either been a young person in it, a youth minister who’s been damaged by it, or an academic who is thinking critically of it from theological, sociological and psychological approaches. Yes they might benefit from being critical of it, and this might not in the short term be helpful for the youth ministers, or volunteer year out leaders in post, but its as much to encourage those who are within it, the churches who want to engage criticially in the ministry, the organisations that maintain the narrative of it, or the conferences and festivals that benefit from it. To think about what it is thats going on with young people as they navigate the culture of youth ministry. So there might be benefits to those who are critical of it. Its no real recommendation for youth ministry though.

In reality then, those who benefit from it might want it to be maintained, and for it to be the dominant method of working with young people to transform them, or at best only tweak youth ministry around the edges. Those who benefit the most garner its success and narrative. But it barely matters to critique it, as its practice will just continue.

This blog might only be read 100 times at the most, and those who engage in the conversations about approaches theological, practical and spiritual of youth ministry, are those already acutely aware of its fallibility and have sought to bang the drum for a while. a long while. They’re often the ones that the people within the church and youth ministry put down as ‘academic’, or ‘liberal’  or ‘cynical’ or ‘a moaner’ – thats the easy way out from within, curse the critics for their attitude or belief, so that their argument is maligned, demeaned and ignored.  Too much must be at stake for those who benefit the most from it who for too long have closed the door on changing it from within.

So – who benefits from Youth Ministry? maybe only Youth Ministry actually benefits from Youth Ministry. Is it an industry that benefits largely only itself in the long term, regardless of its own rhetoric that suggests otherwise? – all good intentions about youth transformation, church growth, generational change, cultural shifts – but the evidence is barely existent that any of this is going to happen in this way. God in it or not.

(*a book i might not agree whole heartedly with, but one that has influenced many in youth ministry in the UK, and thus many youth ministers in their relationships with clergy & ministerial colleagues)

Author: James

Currently I work part time for both Frontier Youth Trust (www.fyt.org.uk) and Communities Together Durham (www.communitiestogetherdurham.org) , though this blog is my own personal views. I am also self employed and do various aspects of youthwork consultancy, including training, writing, lecturing, seminars and written pieces, including organisational consultancy, community profiling and detached/youthwork training. Please do get in touch if I can be of help to you in your church, project or organisation to develop your youth and community work. I have contributed to 'Here be Dragons (2013), and two recent articles in the youth and theology journal and 'ANVIL' the CMS online journal. My recent employment includes, working for FYT as a youthwork development adviser, being the centre director at Durham YFC, and before this I was known as 'Mr Sidewalk' as I was the project coordinator for the Sidewalk Project in Perth, where I facilitated the delivery of 5 years of detached youthwork on the streets, schools and communities to engage with young people , and support through alcohol misuse issues. In 2017 I completed an MA in Theology & Ministry at St John's College, Durham, and in 2008 graduated from ICC (now NTC Glasgow) with an honours degree in youth work with Applied theology.

5 thoughts on “Who benefits from youth ministry?”

  1. Thanks for taking the time to write these posts about youth ministry. You seem to be going through a bit of a ‘disturbance’ as you process some of your thoughts about this topic.

    In regard to the above I think you’ve outlined a host of people and organisations that benefit from youth ministry. However, I wonder whether it would be good to put them in priority order. This will obviously change depending on who you are but I would have the strong conviction that youth ministry should ultimately benefit the church, the church as a whole. If a youth ministry isn’t doing this then I’d question what’s going on. Through all the activities, event, programs and conversations hopefully the Gospel is going forth and Jesus is being glorified and as a result the Lord is growing his church in breadth and depth.

    That’s my two cents anyway. Thanks for sharing.


    1. Thats a really interesting point that you have raised, if youth ministry is to benefit the church – what does that mean for the young people ? And is youth ministry a ministry that occurs as people are called to perform it, ie “‘youth ministry’ is what i do, after all i am a youth minister”. But from the point of view of young people are they merely recipients of a service (to put it harshly) or valued as part of that process and how that enables their spiritual flourishing. This then at this point then distinguishes youth ministry from anything that would deem itself to be youth work which would have in its value and philosophy base a conviction to put young people at the centre of the action, (rather than serve (however well intentioned) the organisation structures of church first) to learn from them – whether this always occurs is a mute point.


      1. True. That’s one Nigel to take from my comments. I suppose I was taking about the church universal, big C church. With this being the case the youth ministry doesn’t centre itself solely to young people but becomes a strategy of a local church to grow the wider church. After all many of those in the youth ministry will also be members of the universal church and that backs up my first point, youth ministry is a structure to help the Church. Hope that makes sense.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. yes it does, and thanks for the clarification, i wasnt sure. If youth ministry is a structure to help the church – how on a broader level might that actually occur- and might the reverse also be the subliminal case that the ecclesiology of the church inadvertantly shapes youth ministry and so its space to re-create the wider church is limited. Has it been the case that the wider church adopted youth ministry practices of 40 years ago (big events, worship meetings) that mainstream church has adopted (and taken away from ‘church youth culture’) – and so where might new creativity of youth ministry shape the church in the future..? (oh so many questions and thank you for stimulating them..)

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Ha, no worries. They’re good and important questions to ask.

    On a local level I think the youth ministry most certainly has to adopt practices/ecclesiology of the church it stems from. But I like to think that there needs to be the freedom to express faith in a different way to what has previously been the case. I call this ‘framed risk’, whereby the youth ministry gets its vision and mission from the local church but pushes the boundaries in its expression and mission. After all, it is young people who are more inclined to push boundaries and begin thinking of new ideas, the question is how to foster this so cynicism doesn’t build up by either the young people themselves or the older people of the congregation as they see what’s happening. My thoughts anyway.


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