A Return to Youth Ministry


Forward Leading | Mark DeYmaz

Mark DeYmazFrom the 1940s to the 1960s, many of the “best and brightest” entering vocational ministry began to focus their careers on young people. That’s where the action was in terms of excitement, creativity, and disruptive innovation. Among other parachurch ministries, Young Life and Youth for Christ were formed to reach junior and senior high school students, while organizations like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA and Campus Crusade for Christ focused on collegiates.

Validating the trend, Francis Schaeffer said, “Youth Ministry is perhaps the most important ministry of the church and it is essential that we are willing and committed to reach students for the Christian faith before they enter college.”

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, then, an increasing number of local churches entered the game. No longer relegated to the many duties of an “assistant pastor”—a position widely understood then as a stepping stone to the senior pastorate—full-time youth pastors were hired to focus specifically on junior and senior high school students. Soon interns were added, dedicated spaces were established, and vibrant programming abounded.

The result?

By the early 1990s a relatively large number of young people growing up in these ministries took personal responsibility for their faith upon graduation from high school. Their enthusiasm and commitment to Christ catalyzed documented revival on college campuses throughout the country at schools such as Wheaton College, Asbury University, Bethel University and Taylor University. More than that, a pipeline of future vocational ministry leaders was well-established.

By the mid-90s, however, things began to change. Increasingly, the “the best and brightest” were losing interest in ministering to junior and senior high school students and turning their attention, instead, to collegiates.

In part, this change was driven by the recession of grunge and the rise of alternative rock/indie bands like the Dave Matthews Band, Hootie and the Blowfish and Caedmon’s Call—whose acoustic-driven sounds were characterized by catchy melodies, accessible lyrics and a blend of rock, pop and folk influences. Indeed, the acoustic guitar was back. And that made everyone and their mother on the college campuses a worship leader. During those years, a plethora of indie Christian bands proliferated, as did powerful nondenominational Bible study movements at schools like Baylor (Passion), Texas A&M (Breakaway) and more.

Yet collegiate ministry leaders would soon recognize that a maximum of 4–5 years is all they would have with their passionate students. And by the late 1990s, they did not want to say goodbye to their students.

The solution? Plant churches with and for these young adults. Young adults that would soon marry, give birth to children, and require resources including people, buildings and budgets. Coupled with the development of the multisite model adopted by megachurches around the year 2000, legitimate concerns created an urgency to identify, recruit and launch church planters or campus pastors far too soon in their ministry careers: That is, long before they had time to learn who they are and who they’re not, hone gifting, gain experience, navigate nuance and prove themselves effective.

All to say the “best and the brightest” were by then focused on adult ministry—as they have been since that time.

While, admittedly, a very brief and overly simplistic review, the point remains: We should recognize that it’s long past time to address the unintended consequences of an otherwise well-intentioned 25-year emphasis on church planting and local church campus expansion. Among the consequences, there are at least three:

  • The Pipeline Has Been Broken
    Far fewer young people today are growing up in vibrant youth ministries than before the turn of the century. This means far fewer are choosing to attend Christian colleges, seminaries and/or prepare for vocational ministry careers. Of course, there are many more ways to serve the purposes of God than full-time vocational ministry and many unique expressions of ecclesia today. Even so, the problem is real.

  • The Position Has Been Discredited
    In effect, the youth pastorate has once again become a stepping-stone to broader church influence and increased pay. It’s not only young people that are negatively impacted (as they watch leaders come and go) far too often leaders, themselves, become disillusioned with their situation by unrealistic demands, expectations or a lack of resources and support, etc., leading to burnout or dropout of ministry altogether.

  • The Preparation Has Been Impeded
    Like fine wine, maturity for senior leadership must be nurtured over time. Yet when well-meaning organizational leaders set arbitrary numeric goals and then set out to meet them, short-term wins can yield long-term losses. With this in mind, there is no better way to mitigate risks or to prepare for senior church leadership in the future than by serving as a Youth Pastor for 7-10 years in one place, wherever possible.

I remain strongly committed to church planting. I’m a church planter, myself, and continue to coach church planters throughout the country. That said, as a youth pastor for 18 years prior to planting a church in 2001, I am concerned and believe as Schaeffer that youth ministry is perhaps the most important ministry of the church.

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Mark DeYmaz
Mark DeYmazhttp://www.markdeymaz.com/

Mark DeYmaz is the founding pastor and directional leader of Mosaic Church (Little Rock) and co-founder of the Mosaix Global Network. He is the author of eight books including Building a Healthy Multi-ethnic Church, Disruption, and The Coming Revolution in Church Economics.