Contemplative Youth Ministry
Gunton's Theological Heroes

Should churches employ youthworkers?

The accepted answer is yes. The number of trained youthworkers is increasing. The Baptist Union now recognises youth specialists as an accredited form of ministry. Churches without a youthworker are slowly becoming the minority. I am myself employed as a church youthworker. However, recently I have found myself wanting to question the whole enterprise of youthworkers and youth ministry. I am unsure that the positives of having a trained youthworker to work with young people outweigh some of the negatives that often emerge from this type of youth ministry.

The notion of youth ministry is something that in many cases develops into something separate and outside of the church. A growing youth ministry will in most cases result in a lack of integration of young people into the church. An employed youthworker will be given the responsibility of discipling young people and the church finds itself (often happily) uninvolved. An employed youthworker gives the impression that the world of young people is foreign and strange and that one needs to receive education to understand and be accepted by young people. Discipling young people requires a professional. An employed youthworker gives the impression that who we are and what we do as church is either irrelevant or inaccesible to young people, so we need some to be a bridge into church or to develop 'revelant' and 'accessible' forms of church that engage young people. Often these forms of 'church' involve lots of entertainment.

Do we need youthworkers? Do we need youth ministry? Does the development of youth ministry hinder the discipleship of young people in the life of the church? By taking young people out of the church - separate bible groups and social events - encourage them to think church is not for them? Mark Yaconelli in Contemplative Youth Ministry argues that teenagers make adults anxious and in response he says

most congregations create youth ministries that are about control and conformity ... this means most adults want programmes and professionals. Church leaders want experts and predictable systems that will remove the doubt and ambiguity that surround most interaction with young people ... The youth are quarantined. They're placed at the margin - incubated in basements or gathered off-hours when  the congregation won't be disturbed ...
     Some youth ministries are created in response to adolescent anxieties. Noticing young people's discomfort with adults forms of faith and desperately seeking to keep youth engaged, some churches develop ministries of distraction ... ministries of distraction keep young people moving from one activity to the next: rafting trips, pizza parties, game nights, ski retreats, beach fests, music festivals, amusement parks, taco-feeds, scavenger hunts, crowd-breakers, raves, skits and whatever other activities attract kids. This is the Nicklodeon approach to youth ministry, appealing to kids' propensity for fun and recreation. This is how churches respond to young people who cry, 'Church is boring!' It's the ministry of excitement; discipleship through fun, culture-friendly, 'Christian-light' events. Like parents of a toddler who pop in a video when relatives arrive, the idea is to keep the young people from running out, keep them in the general vicinity of the church, keep them happy until they're mature enough to join the conversation.
    Ministries that simply respond to adolescent anxieties often become ministries of diversion, providing virtual environments with virtual relationships that keep youth distracted from the deeper rhythms and practices of the Christan faith. Programmes and activities are often chosen on the level of excitement that's generated. No one wants to act like an adult for fear of scaring the kids. Leaders become hesitant to engage youth in any activity that is in contrast to the consumer culture. Prayer, spiritual exercises, theological conversation and spiritual disciplines that challenge the status quo are dumped, fearing youth may cry: 'This is like school! or 'You're just like my parents!', or worse: 'This is boring.' And so the ministry never addresses the deeper needs of the youth, never challenges young people to explore the alternative way of Jesus ... (pp.23-24)

That was a long quote, but so close to the way we do youth ministry. What would happen if we got rid of it all - no more youthworkers, no more youth ministry? Would we see churches empty of young people? Maybe and in some cases, probably, unless the whole church took responsibility and risks. We do need people who understand and can communicate with young people, but I'm not sure we need them so visible, that they become the only means in which the church engages with and seeks to disciple young people. The pressure on youthworkers means too often they become experts in entertainment ministries and running amazing acitvity-filled programmes. Because of this, and I speak from my experiences and observations, I believe that our young people (and let's also say most of our adults!) never encounter and never explore the alternative way of Jesus. And as Pete Ward once said in one of my lectures the danger with youth ministry is that when and if young people grow out of what we offer they will grow out of following Jesus. We need to reimagine youth ministry, which I think we need to reimagine church.


Pete Lev

Good thoughts. Maybe I'll comment more after another read.


challenging post and I find myself saying amen quite a bit!


Hey Andy, great post. Thanks.
- I haven't read Contemplative Youth Ministry yet, thought it's sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read. I have a few other hefty things I want to get through before I get round to that one! I have read his other books though and have to say he was a GREAT writer. Yaconelli however, talked about youth ministry from a middle-America lens. I don't think the quote you cite here accurately describes where youth ministry in the UK is at! Ok, so many Churches reflect the 'segregation' of young people from mainstream Church, but that doesn't mean all do. In my COE Church young people meet in age/need specific groups during teaching time, but spend time with the rest of the Church family for practically all of the other times...of which there are many! Also, often when people comment on the youth ministry segregation issue, they fail to mention the fact that Children, Men, Women, Seniors etc may all well attend age specific Church programs in a typical UK Church...just like young people do.
- You got me little bit confused by using two different terms 'Youth Work' & 'Youth Ministry' at different points in your post. As you may well know, in the UK they mean different things (unlike in America). I am assuming you are talking about youth ministry?
- There was a thread called 'Is youth work part of the problem' at a while back. Here's the link Some interesting thoughts there, similar to some of the questions you raise regarding the need for youth workers and ministers in Churches today, and the positive/negative implications of such ministries.
- I have been reading more and more blogs within the 'Emergent' Church community which seem to suggest that although Emerging Churches have no need for paid staff (Senior Ministers, Youth Ministers etc) there however still remains a need for such roles to be fulfilled by others within the community.


Pete Greig once said somehting along the lines that people who complain that seperate youth ministry and even seperate youth congregations are segregating the church need to realise that the kids sitting in the back rows, bored out of their heads during the service are by no means included and integrated.

Pete is right here, that young people have often been on the very peripheral of the church, and all too often fallen away. However, he is also wrong in his assumption that seperate youth ministry or 'youth church' are a solution to the problem.

Proverbs 22 tells us 'Train children in the right way, and when old, they will not stray.' I think this should be the test and the plumb-line of our youth ministry: if young people grow out of church when they grow out of our youth ministry, then the ministry is flawed.

If they grow from our youth ministry into the adult stage of their faith journey, then perhaps we are doing something right (although this is no cause not to examine).

I think what we should be doing is discipling and encouraging our young people in their walks with Christ. This is immensely difficult, actually, but wholly necessary. I know from my own experience leading young people, it is often far easier to stick on a video than it is to try and teach them something meaningful and helpful to their lives and their faith journies.

I suppose much of this is to do with our view that we are a collection of individuals, and not a community of people. I think the task of the church is to fully integrate everyone who comes to us into our community, growing and morphing and changing and adapting as we grow together and walk our journey together.

Jon Bishop

This is indeed becoming an interesting thread. I have heard it discussed a number of times before and I have also been spending some time thinking on this issue as I am in the process of leaving one church and moving to another. I am not really sure I have an answer or any specific conclusion, but I do have a few observations I'd like to make. To begin with I'd like to respond to Andy's blog and the comments so far. I too am an employed youth worker for a church and even employed by the Central Baptist Association to aid and support other workers and volunteers and I can see from first hand experience the benefit of having someone committed and dedicated to the young people connected to the church. I use the term connected because like all areas of ministry there are people at the centre of what is going on, people at the edges and people far beyond the fringe. In my role I see the importance of reaching all these people and meeting their needs.

I think, if we are all honest, we can easily see the benefits or positives of having such a person(s) who's "job" it is to work with young people. But that is not the question. The question is do these positives out-weigh the negatives. Not meaning to be negative, but here are some of those negatives. 1) The work begins centred around one very lively and out-going (bit of a generalisation - sorry) youth worker. When then the young people grow out of them, or the worker leaves then the young people loose their connection and drift away. 2) The church sits back and says, we are paying someone to do the work for us so we dont have to. This naturally increases the gap between adults and young people. 3) Volunteers feel pushed out and no longer part of what is going on. More division. 4) The youth worker has a thriving ministry, which the church naturally blesses but it only seems to work when neither the young people or adults connect. Again more segragation. 5) Young peoples lives become modelled upon the youth worker and not on Christ, (bit of a biggy!) Given more time, I could probably come up with many more, but this is not the place.

Returning to the thread, youth workers/ministers and youth ministry can be, I think, as much at fault as no ministry towards youth at creating and widening the segratation that we are all very much aware of and afraid of. My own observation as I prepare to leave a post as youth worker which is not going to be filled by another paid person is that I have perhaps created a ministry that revolves around me being there. Almost all of the activities involving young people I am part of and whilst this is going to make it difficult for the church to pick up the baton when I leave, I do think this committed involvement is the right thing. Young people lack commitment from adults and in an ideal world we as the church should be the best model of committed discipleship there is. Unfortunately that is often not the case and as a result youth workers are employed to fulfill that role.

Ultimately I think that the issue here is not whether we should have youth ministry or not, but what should the youth ministry be like. As youth worker tim pointed out, if we look at the wider church makeup we see "specific" ministries all over the place. One could argue that having another paid worker is maybe not the best way to do youth ministry and the money/resources could be better employed equipping the volunteers, but how many volunteers would be free at 4.30pm to run a project after school? Or how many volunteers would be able to go into those schools and be a part of the process? My observations have lead me to feel that we need to certainly rethink the models of youth work/ministry - something I think we should be doing continually - but that there is a role and place for specific people to be "youth workers/minsiters" - whether paid or unpaid.

For me, I think the issue comes down to how we model Christ and how we do that long term. I have alway felt that those who commit to disciple young people need to do so for the long term, not just for an 8 week course. Sometimes that is done by a paid worker, sometimes that is done by the church as a whole. I think the best means to achieve this is to have both. Discipling young people needs to be a whole church activity (involving "specialist" and volunteers who are skilled and gifted in so many ways that I would be lost without the volunteers I have!)

Sorry this has become so long! I wasn't going to say much, but it just flowed! For those of you who have got completely lost in my rambling - I believe there is a place for youth ministry in churches, but the shape of youth ministry needs to be the shape of the whole church - not just a single person within that structure - and that the shape of the church needs to be a copy of Christ.


I'm thinking now of the role perhaps needing to be more a co-ordination than anything else. Maggi talked a while ago about the need to delegate: it is often easier and quicker to do it ourselves, but actually we may be depriving others of oppourtunities to flourish.

One exciting thing that's happening at my home-church at the moment is a mentoring thing for the young girls. A couple of ladies volunteered to help out at the main youth club, and are building posative relationships with the young people. We have one lady who is 'elderly' and one who is just under middle-age, along with our youth worker, who is in her 20's. And both the young people and the adults find it a thoroughly rewarding relationship.

I think this is something which should be explored as one way forward.

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