The mess we’re in and the culpability of youth specialties
Monday January 29th 2007, 10:46 am
Filed under: youth ministry, youth specialties, youth work

not too long ago, a blog commenter emailed me and wrote that he noticed i regularly hint at or outright rant about the state of youth ministry: particularly, our wrong-minded obsession with field-of-dreams attractional ministry (“if you build it, they will come.”). he politely asked if youth specialties senses any culpability in this, and, if so, if that has ever been said. i responded that i think i’ve regularly said on this blog that ys shares part of the responsibility for this, and i’ve said it in seminars at the national youth workers convention also.

but i’ve been stewing on this for a couple months. and I think it deserves to be said more clearly.

while youth specialties certainly isn’t solely responsible, i think it’s very fair to say we should bear the brunt of the blame. yes, youth specialties is primarily responsible for promoting – for decades – a model of youth ministry, built on a set of assumptions (mostly unstated), that elevated programming as the best path to successful youth ministry. and for this – i will speak for us, organizationally – we are sorry.

we may have said that other things – like relationships and service and the Bible and Jesus – are more important than programming. but i think we modeled something different. we did this naively and unknowingly, and – this may be the biggest admission – we did this without realizing the implications of the values were promoting. or, maybe we didn’t want to think about the implications.

some might say i have no reason to make this admission, or accept culpability, since i wasn’t around ys in those days. but that would be a cop out on my part. and, if i’m honest, i would have done the same thing if i’d been in leadership of ys in those days. saying i’m not responsible is like white people saying we never owned slaves – it doesn’t change what was or is, it only gives us the impression we’re off the hook.

the entire world of youth ministry (and church ministry in general) has changed, of course, in the past 30+ years. in some ways, i think we’ve grown up (in a good way). and in some ways, i think the church is in a deeper pile o’ mess than we’ve been in throughout the past 100 years. 30+ years ago we were merely blissfully wrong about some things. now, i think much of the church, and much of the youth ministry world, lives in active denial. i’ll take blissfully unaware over active denial any day.

youth specialties is trying to change. and i think we have – dramatically – in the past dozen years. but it would be a wimpy, spineless move to realize change (at least in our message) and, simultaneously, revise history to pretend that we’ve always been about the things we’re about these days (things like valuing small and slow and quiet, caring deeply about the soul-condition of youth workers because we believe good youth ministry flows out of our soul-condition, embracing humility and passion as more important than power or size).

i’m hopeful, however. it’s oddly paradoxical, i realize, for me to say i’m hopeful a few paragraphs after i say i think the church is in active denial. i guess i’m hopeful because i see such great stirrings of change, such wonderful experimentation, and such massive shifts in values. i’m thinking that maybe the ‘active denial’ is – maybe? – an essential piece of the change process, just as it is in the cycle of grieving.

this admission said, i’m heading forward, and i know so many youth workers who are in the same place, facing the same way, with the same hopeful posture. and our numbers are growing by the day (ha! Is that the numbers monster re-surfacing again?). i can’t wait to see what youth ministry looks like in 30+ more years. i wonder what we’ll be apologizing for then.

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There a moment in the ritual of confession in liturgical traditions that chokes me up every time. A human being, vested in the tradition & agency of a priest, says these words to another human being after they share their confession:

God, the Father of mercies, through the death and resurrection of His Son
has reconciled the world to Himself and sent the Holy Spirit among us
for the forgiveness of sins;
Through the ministry of the Church may God give you pardon and peace,
and I absolve you from your sins in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

The priest then says:

Pray for me, a sinner also.

Pray for me, Marko - for all the time invested in program & process, distracting me from the real life of following Jesus and living as a friend of God.

Comment by bob c 01.29.07 @ 12:21 pm

Excellent response Bob to a great post Marko.
Pray for me a sinner also.

Interesting that I wrote a sermon I thought I was going to use yesterday (and then was told I wasn’t going to preach. Sigh.) basically on the same subject. I’m going to post it tomorrow.

Comment by Jay P 01.29.07 @ 1:03 pm

Marko, my wife and I attended the cincy convention. We walked away feeling that through the seminars, speaking with others, and general sessions, that most people were pretty unhappy with where youth ministry is and that there is a lot wrong with youth minstry currently. However, we never heard anyone give any ideas on how to change into an effective youth ministry,even what an effective youth ministry would look like, or what needs to change. We left feeling that youth ministry in most churches seems to be ineffective and no one really knows why. Not just ys, but every youth pastors thing I’ve been to in the past 2 years. Any ideas on specifically what youth pastors need to be doing to be more effective?

Comment by Joey 01.29.07 @ 1:06 pm

Marko, one of the things that gives me so mcuh hope for our field is that people like you who are up in the front of it are willing to be so open about things like this. Thanks!

Comment by Isaac 01.29.07 @ 1:12 pm

We need to ask new questions.
Instead of asking “how can I be successful in my ministry” or “how can I make my church grow” we need to ask God “What are you doing and how can I cooperate with you”. We’ve bought into a worldly model of success and it’s lifeless. If we could hear God perfectly and then turn around and obey him perfectly… and as a result our church/ministry gets 40% SMALLER, is that success? Yes, I think it is. Thanks for your honesty.

Comment by Tom 01.29.07 @ 1:26 pm

Gosh…where to start? This is a fantastic subject with issues that can’t really be answered on a blog, but I like that the issues are at least being raised. a few thoughts:

- I don’t think youth ministry is completely broken or that we’re in a major mess. Sure, things have changed and we may not have kept pace like we could have, but I’m not ready to concede that all is lost.

- Joey, I’m saddened that the overall tone by youth leaders is a sense of despair. As a side note, and I’m sure I’ll get slammed for this one, I think it’s important to remember that a whole lot of the doomsday speakers and writers are highly educated, philosophical minds who haven’t done youth ministry in a long time. Youth workers who are in it every day see a ton of problems, but also see a whole lot to be optimistic about.

- It’s interesting to me that on one hand publishing companies and organizations that put on conventions seem to be beating the ’something must change because it’s all broken’ drum the loudest yet on the other hand still use a ‘build it and they will come’ model for their conferences. When I walk into a general session of just about any youth ministry conference, it’s a great big eye-candy show…despite what’s being said in workshops and side conversations about the fact that the model no longer works for ministry. I don’t get it. If we truly believe things are broken, why aren’t the biggest gatherings of our peers eliminating the very things we say have broken youth ministry?

- Finally, I don’t think the above statement is a challenge to YS, Group, Simply, and others as much as it is a defense. The reason these companies still produce resources and conferences that reflect this model (with a few subtle changes) may be because it still attracts an audience. Youthworkers must not be too sick of the model, or feel that it’s ineffective, because they still show up.

-Finally, I post on my blog and comment on others as a way of ‘thinking out loud’. These are just my most recent thoughts…not my final analysis on the subject. Like I said at the beginning, I’m just glad we’re talking!

End of book.

Comment by kj 01.29.07 @ 2:10 pm

Marko– very well said! Out of youth ministry– but still doing the speaking thing and such– and you know what? Lots of programs baby! Big, happening– like dry bones man! Yet, here I sit wanting to be part of the movement– I’m too friggen old and you are too out there go figure– adversity brings huge change– I like many am tired of the verbage and the list that makes things all smell the same, look the same and “smell” the same. keep, keepin on!
Seth sent me your deal.

Comment by don solin 01.29.07 @ 3:56 pm

kj — i don’t think i ever said, or ever have said, that everything is wrong. or that everything is broken. and you certainly know that i am anything but a doomsday sayer. i think there are wonderful things happening in youth ministry all over the place. in fact, there are wonderful things happening in youth ministry in churches that have horrible assumptions about what constitutes good youth ministry.

and, sure, we have programs and programming. programs are essential. but they’re not the goal. our neat stage at the ys convention isn’t the goal, or what we expect will actually make a difference in peoples’ lives. we know that people come to our events (or at least return to our events) because they were encouraged, not because they saw a neat show. i’m still happy to have a neat show, but, thankfully, it’s not the goal.

Comment by marko 01.29.07 @ 4:29 pm

i definitely agree that the program centered approach needs to change some. but i’m also thankful that God works through us even though we (and our ministries) are far from perfect.

that is an encouragement to me, as i keep striving to use my talents and gifts to be used by God as effetively as i can. as i seek (with God) to make our youth ministry better, i know that God will use my mistakes as well as my sucesses.

Comment by paul 01.29.07 @ 4:49 pm

Marco - thx for sharing your heart and your willingness to say sorry.

We have and are learning from our mistakes. I believe that what is next is by far more important than how we do it. But we need to have an idea of what is next. I propose that next is to change from “programming” to “life-on-life.” I know that this is way too simple of terms but it is, I hope, a start. If kids have a chance to see in the relationships they have with others (volunteers, pastors, teachers, peers, etc) God working growth happens. We become instruments in God’s hands to help kid’s grow in their relationship with God. Jesus came to this earth not to condemn but through Him save us (Jn 3:17). He did that by modeling for all of us healthy perfect relationships.

Comment by Mark Eades 01.29.07 @ 6:07 pm

Mark Eades, your comment:

we need to have an idea of what is next

really struck home with me.

I’ve spent almost 25 years as an adult in the Western church - about that much time in the corporate world, specifically marketing & tech. Both worlds - Western churchianity & the corporate world - thrive on what I often see as a myth of modernity - something’s next. We all seem to wander about with a divining rod, looking for what the new new thing is.

I am fascinated by the opening of the Didache (Διδαχὴ, Koine Greek for “Teaching”) - There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between these two ways. As friends of God, how to we unite on the way of life.

Comment by bob c 01.29.07 @ 6:18 pm

*** hit submit accidentally ***

What is it’s not about what’s next, but what’s our story, what’s here, what’s lost - where is G_d calling us. I can not imagine it is a new “program” or “operating system”, that has a SKU and can be sold. Instead, I can imagine the beloved community connecting with hunger that people - all people, no matter the age - have to live & find meaning.

Comment by bob c 01.29.07 @ 6:24 pm

It’s interesting that you would post on this today. One of my best friends and I have been having this same conversation for the last couple of weeks in regards to programming and discipleship. One of the toughest things to get people to understand(myself included) is that discipleship can’t be taught in a one hour a week program. It is a lifestyle. It is a daily following of Christ. The thing that the both of us have struggled with is how to move from the programming type fo ministry to a more relational based ministry. I look forward to reading more about this subject.

Comment by Sammy 01.29.07 @ 6:31 pm

bob c - thx and I see what you mean. The “next” idea seems to always be what we are asking. That is almost what I belive causes us to “program.” What is the next best thing? How can this next thing impact our group? The next time let’s do this…

I agree with you. Another “next” program isn’t what any of us need. But I do believe the idea that God is calling us to keep moving - towards Him. And we are called to do this with the kids. I think it happens through relationships, through life-on-life. I knew my thoughts were too simplistic but they are a start - again thx.

Comment by Mark Eades 01.29.07 @ 6:44 pm


Im curious….do you see the problems and issues in youth ministry as a microcosm for the church in general, or do you see them as totally different issues?

Comment by Jennifer 01.29.07 @ 6:53 pm

Remember, I’m just thinking out loud. Not trying to draw definitive conclusions…

I know firsthand that you aren’t a doomsday sayer. That comment as well as my ‘not everything is totally broken’ remark was more of a generic reference to Joey’s observation that most of what he’s hearing at training events is giving that impression, which makes me sad.

I agree with your assesment of why conferences run the way they do which was basically the point of my comment. YS and other organizations program that way because it is a healthy balance of ’show’ plus encouragement with the later being the ultimate goal, which is attractive and effective.

I guess what I find myself pondering is this: If that formula works well at events created for those of us who lead youth ministries, why does it seem like we’re pushing against it so hard in the ministries we lead?

Again, it wasn’t an attack on YS, Group, PDYM, Simply or other conferences but more of a defense saying: They do it because it works. So are organizations like YS culpable in the mess? Partly, but certainly no more so than youthworkers themselves.

My super simplistic, overly optimistic viewpoint: There are lots of ways to minister to students…always have been and always will be. As long as churches continue to look for ways to connect caring adults with the teenagers in their community good things will continue to happen.

An additional thought on ‘The Mess We Are In’:
Of course we find ourselves in a mess. Church work has always been messy, and perhaps nobody within our walls, or outside of them, is more messy than teenagers. So I’m sure we do, in fact, find ourselves in a mess…but what a wonderful mess we are in!

Comment by kj 01.29.07 @ 8:25 pm

I think we basically have said: 1. Programs aren’t bad, but they shouldn’t be the center of our ministry. If we stopped programming tomorrow most of us would be without jobs. 2.Relationships are key with students and disciple making 3.Mentoring and discipleship as a way of life, not a program, is the way to go. Most youth ministries I know would check yes to all 3 of those things, invest in them and still see lots of good students, not just fringe, walk away after their senior year. Is there something outside of these 3 things that we must change? Core values, philsophy, etc. Any thoughts?

Comment by joey 01.29.07 @ 8:33 pm

joey, this sentence is a fairly significant assumption:

If we stopped programming tomorrow most of us would be without jobs.

To paraphrase an adage, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

Comment by bob c 01.29.07 @ 9:01 pm

But being without a Job …would that be such a bad thing? I think the challenge is relooking, rethinking, and striving for how the church both in its institutionalised state and beyond can improve to be that of which God calls it to be. I think there are some naysayers that think youth ministry is the end all to be all. Those that say only 4% (the lie) will be Christians and so forth. I think offering hope, and giving a realistic view of how things are going and both the realities and offering hope. That is one thing I do like about YS - is its honesty and vulnerability to strive to help serve youthworkers and the youth they love.

Comment by Gman 01.29.07 @ 9:19 pm

Marko- Great thoughts. I think you are (or have been for a while) entering into a realization that the way we have done it needs to be transformed. Or, more to the point, we as youth pastors/workers need to be transformed. Many of (pointing the finger at myself) have gotten used to the way we do things and we like it because it allows us freedom. Having students “come to us” is freeing because it allows us to point the finger at them if they don’t want to come. Suddenly our ministry mentality is that if they don’t come it’s because they don’t care or they have other greater priorities. I have a number of friends who work for YWAM and I am always inspired by the way they raise support and hang out on skid row immersing themselves in the world of the homeless. Not safe…..but then again freeing.

Comment by Lars Rood 01.29.07 @ 9:31 pm

Jennifer - microcosm is a pretty big word (or small word) for a simply jr hi guy like myself. Thanks for reading my simple thoughts.

I just think that if we are going to have an impact on kid’s life (and in any ones life) it has to happen in a way that they can actually see it and know it to be true. Life happens - and if a youth sees life happen in front of them and we are still following after Christ I think we are doing what we are called to do. If we do it on a retreat or our weekly youth time or if we just take a kid with us to go shopping for the family – let them see Christ in our regular lives. I hope this is of use to anyone.

Comment by markeades 01.29.07 @ 11:57 pm

Question; you say:

the entire world of youth ministry (and church ministry in general) has changed, of course, in the past 30+ years. in some ways, i think we’ve grown up (in a good way). and in some ways, i think the church is in a deeper pile o’ mess than we’ve been in throughout the past 100 years.

Church ministry has been around for 2000 years, what made it so immature as of late that no we can grow up?

This is an honest question, it’s interesting how we talk about churches now growing up. Does this mean they weren’t for 1970 years or did they immature at some point?

Comment by Mark 01.30.07 @ 6:49 am

For many of us old timers, YS gave us direction at a time when youth ministry was little more than babysitting teenagers. It is easy to look back now and say “we should have done…” But as was suggested above, the church and its ministries have been constantly evolving for over 2000 years, and those of us in youth ministry over the past 30 years have been part of the evolution. We learn. We grow. And we SHOULD change as those things happen. Thanks Marko, for keeping YS where it belongs- on the lead edge of ministry. Where ever that edge may be.

Comment by Carl 01.30.07 @ 9:10 am

Much like KJ I’m thinking out loud…

I’m a new timer to youth ministry but an old timer at life (kinda) In the last two years that I’ve been to NYWC (cincy and nashville) I’ve come back refreshed and energized to continue on this journey that God called me to. Marko in Cincy you made the statement to set our “crap-o-meters on high” so along my journey I’ve prayerfully ( adjusted my crap-o-meter) considered what is necessary for “my” students to see Jesus more clearly and follow him more closely. For some of my students they need a solid program to help them in their walk for others they need a solid friend in their walk and still others a solid performance to help in their walk. All that to say that I’m not so certain that culpability can be assigned to Group, Simply, or YS that theres one right answer on what’s necessary for ministry to be effective.

So with that I say “Thank you”…For faithfully serving us and trying to equip our ministries with better tools to keep fighting the good fight.

Comment by Chris 01.30.07 @ 9:59 am

Hey man. Gutsy post. Nice work. Excited to see YS turn more and more corners and help lead the way in the revolution.

Comment by Ryan Sharp 01.30.07 @ 1:28 pm

Great post, Marko!

I’m still a rookie in youth ministry and I certainly don’t know it all…not by a long shot. I’m going into my 4th year as a full time youth minister and I’m hoping that this year will be revolutionary…not only in my personal life, but in my ministry as well. I get discouraged when I realize just exactly what all of us youth ministers are competing against. When I was a student involved in youth ministry (mid-90’s), we didn’t have the overload of entertainment technology that we do now. No wonder students are UNENTERTAINED by our youth ministries…we can’t even compare to everything else out there!!! BUT, I’ve come to realize that my youth ministry will forever be ineffective if I seek to entertain. I’m not called to be an entertainer…I’m called to be a minister to students. My ministry goal for 2007 is that all of this entertainment crap will be left at the door. Sure, we will still have fun, but I’m hoping and believing that Jesus (yes, just Jesus) will be enough. Maybe I’m being ultra-simplistic, but it has worked before and I believe that it will work again.

Thanks Marko for running a company that has always been fun and encouraging to me and my ministry.

Comment by 01.30.07 @ 3:47 pm

In reading through the above posts I’m struck by how often the word “effective” comes up. Someone wanted to ask when the church became immature. My answer is anytime it assumes that Christ and the dominant philosophy of the culture are the same thing. North American evangelicalism buys into the dominant culture of pragmatism, the drive for effectiveness, so much that we can’t imagine a future where it is not the main criteria for evaluation.

Where Marko is maturing is that he recognizes, at least in my opinion of him, that YS started very pragmatically - what did it take to get a kid to convert? Now do it. - but has discerned that God does not call us to be effective. Of course YS is still a business and still functions within a world where pragmatism dominates and so it feels a tension. Like any organization which feels a tug in a new direction, YS makes compromises with its constituency. That is what makes them a leader from within rather than a lonely prophet. In Marko’s confession, I hear his acknowledgement that YS was captivated by culture but has now decided to move culture in a different direction. Count me in on that new direction.

Comment by Blair 01.30.07 @ 5:16 pm

Blair - good stuff - question:

What is “that new direction?”

Comment by Mark Eades 01.30.07 @ 6:57 pm

Blair I echo Marks sentiment.

But another question: What other avenue do you suggest for evaluating ministry? If it’s not effectiveness (in spiritual growth terms) and it’s certainly not numbers what do you suggest that we should measure the quality of our ministries? I question your assertation that God does not call us to be effective.

Comment by Chris 01.30.07 @ 9:00 pm

I love you Marko

Comment by Mike 01.31.07 @ 12:40 pm

uh, thanks, mike. that could be taken many ways (romantically, affirmingly, oddly, sarcastically) when written as a little four-word comment on a blog, mike!

Comment by marko 01.31.07 @ 12:47 pm

Effective ministry - seems like an oxymoron to me. My favorite monk always reminds me that we follow someone who started with 12 guys, most of whom we would not allow near a church board. One of them betrayed him. He ended up with 11.

How about thinking more about the vitality of ministry, the communal Christian practices and congregational vitality. While vital churches may be successful or may attract new members, I wish we spent more time looking at less traditional data indicating congregational health and wellness—such as spiritual depth, clear vision of congregational identity, a sense of connectedness to God and others, engagement with the world outside the church’s doors, a willingness to take risks and change, a disposition of learning and mentoring, and deepened awareness of the Christian story in relationship to life and work. How revolutionary would it be to see a community “measuring” congregational vitality through a set of thematic markers: coherence of practice, authenticity of practices, and transformation through practice.

Comment by bob c 01.31.07 @ 1:42 pm

Great words of truth and thought for all of us who are ministers to students. We are forgiven sons and daughters of the Lord of heaven and earth! For that we should be very grateful we have been allowed to love and serve students, warts, zits, imperfections and all. I love the thoughts about Jesus and the 12. Thanks for the truth and for the accountability.

Comment by Gordon 01.31.07 @ 5:23 pm

I just entered youth ministry a month ago. That is right, I am fresh blood. Also, I grew up in the “if you build it; they will come” model. I have a 4-year degree from a Christian University, and we used most of YS’s material from which to study. I walked into my first youth ministry/student ministry job with 2 years of internship experience, one YS confrence, and several other “eye-catchers” on a resume, and I found out one thing:

After all the talking about youth ministry (the philosophy, theology, pstchology, counseling, ministerial roles, and legal roles), I need some how to’s every now and then.

Yes, I am called to this ministry. Yes, it is my passion and what fills me up. Yes, my heart jumps when one teen says that he read something in his Bible the other night that impacted him. Yes, I know this is where God wants me to be.

But, I am clueless about most of the practical aspects of youth ministry. Again, I am not tooting anyone’s horn or preaching for marko’s job security. I need this resource/ministry of how to’s. Because it is easier to get overwhelmed by the hows than the whys. At least, that is my opinion.

Comment by Roberto 01.31.07 @ 5:43 pm

I was there in those early years and I am here now - we all bear the same responsibilities for the places we screwed up, and also for the countless lives we somehow touched in those over programmed years. Even those in youth ministry now who are completely at peace with their role, balancing spiritual depth, relationship and personal growth will still mess up, will still miss a student who needs us most, and will still wonder years later if any difference was made. It is a part of life, let alone a part of ministry, to grow as we experience both joys and failures. Church reform is slow, as is educational reform, and one thing I think YS should be lauded and applauded for is the fact you at least get us started on the conversation. One of the responses was from a couple who attended in Cincy and wondered if anything is being done about this state of discontent, and I have come to find rest in the knowledge that maybe, for such a time as this, our role is to wait as much as it is to fix. I don’t teach or lead the same way I did 10 years ago, and I certainly have to work harder to connect with students than ever before, and so as I wait for what God has in store for ministry down the road, I feel it is ok to revel in this time He has provided now, even if I don’t always feel successful or “finished”. I thank you guys for that - I do not feel alone in this - and hope that along with your confession you also sense a spirit of all that you have done very, very well. Peace, Karen

Comment by Karen Norval 01.31.07 @ 5:55 pm

I think that YS has done a pretty good job NOT promoting the attractional ministry approach; at least for the last 10 years (I can’t remember much past that…it’s all a blur). Really, in approaches recommended and resources offered, I think YS has been doing a good job. As Marko mentioned, the error may have been more in what was modelled than in what was said. I agree. I think another way the attractional model or a “bigger and better” approach has been learned through YS is by who they champion, who they put before us as speakers, etc. Although, I must admit that there has been more of a balance lately, and I appreciate that.

Comment by Richard Jones 01.31.07 @ 6:03 pm

Isn’t this kinda like saying the jews were responsible for Jesus’ death… when in reality we are all responsible? Perhaps God will redeem our mess of programs and bring good. I totaly respect your humility Marko.

Comment by Topherspoon 01.31.07 @ 6:18 pm

Marko: As a parent of a 13yr old son and 14 yr old daughter I have one comment on your statement:
“we may have said that other things – like relationships and service and the Bible and Jesus – are more important than programming. but i think we modeled something different. we did this naively and unknowingly, and – this may be the biggest admission” Relationships is something I’ve noticed significantly in this generation of youth. Its detailed very well in Chap Clarks book, Hurt, which I’ve read and highlighted and and bookmarked significantly. Maybe its not so much how much the ministry approach has changed but how much the audience has changed in terms of what they (the youth) expect from their leaders, pastors, and parents; authenticity and true relationships as one leads one life with ones faith clearly in view.

Comment by Roger Lauricella 01.31.07 @ 6:38 pm

God doesn’t ask us to be successful, God asks us to be faithfu

Comment by bob c 01.31.07 @ 7:11 pm

Wow, a great blog Marko and some interesting response to it from all over the place. Honesty is a tough thing, don’t know why cause it has worked out well for you here! I wonder though, what does that do for the books etc that YS have published? What does it do for everything that has been published in the field of youth ministry philosophy etc? Have a look at your earlier post about the top ten books that have impacted youth ministry, some of them really are attractional models of ministry… in fact much of what has been published and is popular among youth workers is a variation of this same theme. PDYM, Duffy Robbins, Tim Hawkins (if you have heard of him over there), certain aspects of ‘relational ministry’ is simply a new (or not so new now) attraction, even maybe Family based ministry Mark DeVries is another attractional method. It seems we can’t live without some sort of attraction. Much of the response is asking what do we move onto if move from the bigger is better atractional model?

Perhaps we need to move on to the narrative of Jesus Chrisat… the Story as it is told in Genesis to Revelation. It’s the greatest attraction ever if we would just put it at the centre of our youth ministry and train ourselves to package it and repackage it in creative and interactive ways without compromising the narrative. Think about it… C.S. Lewis and Narnia, Tolkien with Lord ogf the rings and now also Jackson with the movie, Mel Gibson with ‘The Passion’ and recently the creators of ‘Nativity’ the movie, the creators of ‘Prince of Egypt’ the cartoon, are all repackaging, creatively, the same story or sections of it. I would suggest that this one of two key tasks opf a youth worker. And unless your attraction is based around that story it is a waste of time. Incidentally the way we live our lives is also a repa ckaging of the same story. (I may write some more about this on my Blog). Just gpot a phone call and I am late for a meeting I have to go to. (Another necesary evil)

Comment by Dave Wells 01.31.07 @ 9:08 pm

After attending 14 YS conventions and being in full time youth ministry for a little longer than that, I too have grown tired of the attractional model of ministry. And, after leaving the Cincinnati conference last fall my thoughts were,”this is the last YS convention for me.” Not that I’m no longer a YS fan; I can’t begin to describe how grateful I am for the support and encouragement through the years! My first thought was, “maybe I’m just getting too old.” (I’m 38) But even at the conference I was observing people of all ages seemingly underwhelmed by the bands, the lights, and craziness that really got me and others excited years ago. Sure there was still a little pack of people up by the stage during Jars of Clay; but from the back of the room you could see the vast majority sitting in their chairs and yawning. Maybe there are other people like me who are thinking, “I’ve done this before… and it’s been great! But what really has it changed?

I asked the same question of my own ministry a few years ago. We had done the “traditional” youth ministry program with lots of students and adult staff. And we even had a “successful” small group ministry as well. But as long as the “big” thing was happening, that got the most attention, because it demanded the most. I realized a huge change was needed. Our youth group now meets in smaller (what I call Underground - and yes, it’s a term I used before YS had their Underground!) groups three weeks each month and then come together as one larger group for the fourth week of the month. These smaller groups are co-ed and would look very much like a “home church” (though I would think there are still some major differences). After two years of doing this, I have seen students grow so much in their faith. There is more opportunity for people (staff and students) to use their gifts and really get into each other’s lives. And students have been more comfortable inviting unsaved friends to this format as well.

I fully endorse change a new ways to think through things (though I know nothing is ever really new).

Comment by Rick C 02.01.07 @ 11:59 am

gosh, rick — i was “done” with the bands at the convention years ago (i’m 43, so maybe it was when i was your age!). but i don’t think i ever really went for that. i sure hope you can find all the other stuff we’ve added that’s NOT flashy, and skip what doesn’t work for you (like we always encourage everyone to do): prayer room, labyrinth, morning prayer, mid-day prayer, verspers, late night discussions and book groups, conversations at a coffee shop.

Comment by marko 02.01.07 @ 12:46 pm

Thanks for the honesty. Since my first YS event over 20 years ago I too believe we simply had it wrong. We need to move from SUCCESS to SIGNIFICANCE, from PIED PIPER to FATHER, and from PROGRAM to INCARNATION. BRAVO!

Comment by Chuck Reischman 02.01.07 @ 12:59 pm

I just have to agree with KJ…….(many posts above.) I have only been able to attend one YS convention (Charlotte - 02) as I am a volunteer…..called to minister to youth, without being a youth minister. The most meaningful part of that convention for me, is I think, an indicator or what today’s youth need. While the “show” was great, uplifting, energizing……what changed my life was the sense of belonging…..of being supported and, finally being understood and appreciated.

Our youth can have the energy-fun-show- entertainment from a variety of places. We must provide them with genuine relationships with adults that will enter their lives with intentionality and a sense of responsibility. I have seen kids disillusioned by adults who “serve their time” and then don’t maintain the relationship. (if they created much of one in the first place) It is essential that we provide avenues to foster those relationships. We have to cultivate those leaders and explain our expectations clearly. How many Sunday School teachers will go to a ball game to watch “their” youth? How many “forget” them when they are promoted to the next grade, to focus on their “new’ students? It takes time to build trust….and a teenager will carry the hurtful experiences into their next interactions. I see this generation of teens as wounded and cautious. The expect to be judged, misunderstood, and mostly ignored by adults. (But they are so hungry for that connection)

While this type of ministry will not be easily measured………it’s success will become evident as these students grow into the adults that invest into the lives of the next group. The youth ministers will have to be willing to share that position of “favored adult person” with others. And it has been my experience that YM’s are frequently control freaks! :) But this will be an opportunity for many to use their gifts, and for the YM to share the responsibility as well as the rewards of working with teenagers.

YS—– you are awesome. I needed to know that I wasn’t the only “grownup” out here who thought teenagers were fascinating and fun. As you know, “normal” adults frequently don’t “get” youth ministry type people! If your only contribution was the encouragement of YP’s you would totally rock! But you have done and are doing so many worthwhile, important things. You are a blessing and I pray for your wisdom and direction in the future.

L. Green

Comment by lee 02.01.07 @ 2:43 pm

I have been in YM for about eight years now. I have attended 3 YS conferences; I have loved each of them. I have never gone to a YS conference because of the bands; frankly as a black youth pastor there really isn’t all that much that appeals to me. However, I am going to attend the next one because I love the fact that I am surrounded by people who get me. People who understand who I am and what makes me “tick”. For me, that is what the NYWC is all about. I am surrounded by people who give it their all for youth because they have been convinced that that is what they were born to do.

YM is all about trying what works. I know personally that within my YM , as is true in education, I have to appeal to multiple styles of learning. I am all for the model of youth ministry that has the flash but I also understand that there have to be small groups and discipleship programs as well. A motto for success in youth ministry that I have adopted is: “When they graduate college with their faith in tact then maybe they have gotten so far as it concerns a relationship with Christ.”

In short, we can employ a myriad of styles, formats and techniques so long as remember that at the end of the day it’s the Holy Spirit’s job to woo them and sustain their walk; not ours or our programs.

Oh yeah and Marko, I love you too! :-)

Comment by RayMack 02.01.07 @ 4:09 pm

Hey, I’ve been there with you for 25 of the past 30 years… This almost fits the political rhetoric of “if I knew then what I know now…” But oh how the youth culture has changed. I see that we need to properly balance the ministry that we do. There is a time to draw a crowd, and there is a time to sit down, 2 on 1 (since one-on-one is dangerous) look them in the eye and let them know that I care. Early on it seemed like kids just needed a place to go, someone already cared for them. Now, they need someone to care - and they certainly don’t lack for a place to go.

Let’s not forget where we have come from, but rather, let’s change so that we can continue to meet their needs, (after all, isn’t this where the traditions of “the church” stood strong as the doors opened and the people walked away?).

So, don’t apologize for what we didn’t know about the past, and let’s launch into a future that reaches out to the needs of kids and points them in the direction of Savior that loves them and in my opinion is ready to slide a whoopi cushion under them just to see ‘em smile.


Comment by S.W. Mac 02.01.07 @ 4:56 pm

I am a recovering YSer. I fell into the cult of adoring everything YS. Back in the day I bought it all– hook, line, and sinker. I tried to be cool. Problem is, I’m not. Never have been, never will be. I tried to be relevant. I tried to put on the show. Bigger, better, more incredible. I tried to do everything YS told me to do. I tried to do everything I learned in the conventions, read in the books, and saw on the videos. And I failed. Man was it awful. I did everything I thought I was supposed to do and nothing remains. Kids I worked with and “ministered to” using the programs and formulas I learned in Cincinnati and Dallas, at the Core in Little Rock, in the YS Journal I subscribed to every year I was in youth ministry, are no where to be seen. No change of life. No difference made. Ultimately no Jesus.

I’m glad lots of folks go to the NYWC and feel that they “belong.” Not me. All it did was reinforce how terrible I was in youth ministry and how I was doing it all wrong.

I thought I was a loser, failure, and pretty useless in the kingdom of God. And I really was. I quit youth ministry because I thought “I’m not like those awesome YS people. I just need to get out the way.” And so I did. I’m still in ministry, just not with kids. But for years now I have struggled with trying to get over my days when I was a YS believer.

I appreciate your comments. They are for me… rehabilitating. Today, I don’t care about programing, I have quit trying to be cool, hip, relevant, up-to-date. I don’t try to relate. I just want to love Jesus and love people, young and old. I pray, read the Bible, and often times fail at doing what it says. And that works for me.

The lesson I have learned is it is not about the “Jesus Junk” publishers are selling or the “Christian Crap” that promises to fix all the problems of the world in 12 easy steps or 40 glorious days or one little prayer prayed over and over again. It is about Jesus. Period. Love God, love people. That is ministry, for youth, adults and little green men from Mars.

I guess you could say, like YS, I grew up, or rather am growing up, too.

Please, don’t misunderstand me. I think there are a lot of wonderful people associated with YS who love Jesus and want to serve. Mike Yac’s books are still on my shelf and I pull them out every so often and read them and they minister to me deeply.

But I left YS a long time ago. Sounds like YS is joining me on the outside.

Comment by Youth Ministry Failure 02.01.07 @ 5:27 pm

The last post breaks my heart and I’m not sure how to respond pastorally beyond wanting to take Youth Ministry Failure out for a beer to hear the full story. Dude, if you’re in Toronto then supper is on me.

Someone asked what youth ministry that wasn’t measured in pragmatic terms might look like. Off the top of my head the words “counter-cultural” and “practices” jump to mind. This isn’t all that new. Christian Smith’s advocacy for reclaiming distinctive language and practices as an antidote to moralistic therapeutic deism would fall into this category. Maybe guys like Shane Claiborne and Tony (and Bart) Campolo with their experiments in alternative communities. When the church needed renewal and a pry bar away from culture in the past, the monastaries provided that force. Interesting that a “new” monasticism is on the rise now. I know that YS publishes him ( I don’t profit from shamelessly plugging him )but Shane Hipps asks some important questions about the role of media in our lives. He’s pretty accessible but academics like Romanowski and Twitchell have also asked quesitons of evangelicalism relationship with the dominant media of our time. Mark Yaconelli’s Contemplative Youth Ministry (another shameless YS plug that I don’t profit from) should turn your world upside down (at least it does mine). I’m a huge fan of Kenda Dean’s reclamation of a doctrine of atonement that isn’t simply substitutionary (although it is that) and her connection of the Passion of Christ to practices. You can’t buy the book yet but Andrew Root who teaches at Luther will change the way that we view “relational” youth ministry when it comes out. In short, practices which have inherent value and evaluatory criteria are the best antidote to pragmatism.

Comment by Blair 02.01.07 @ 6:08 pm

“YM Failure”, bro I am giving you a virtual hug. Youth minisitry, strike that, ministry in general is all about Christ. We mere mortals can only present Christ and leave the results to Him and Holy Spirit. I learned a while back from my YM mentor, Frank Bishoff, that we can only do what we know to do and leave the results to Christ. Brother, (or Sister) we take on a burden when we aassume the role of Holy Spirit in the lives of our youth or any other person to whom we minister.

Remember, “The one who calls you is faithful and he will do it.” 1Thess. 5:24

“YM Failure”, I love you!


Comment by RayMack 02.02.07 @ 1:13 pm

I don’t agree. Youth ministry is not broken. I’ve been in youth ministry since 1992. I’ve seen ebb and flow to it the whole time. My focus is always to touch the hearts and lives of kids. The first 10-12 of my youth ministry years were spent working within a more formal, church directed context. For the last 2-3 years, I’ve been doing it differently. My main method to reaching kids has been through coaching wrestling for the last two years. I’ve actually found this to be extremely effective.

Don’t get me wrong, I still believe in having a youth ministry as part of my local assembly. B3ing under authortiy is crucially important for my own spiritual growth. But what I’ve found is that I reach a larger segment of the lost audience by being outside the walls of the church. Inside the church walls, it’s now more about discipleship and spiritual growth. Outside the church walls, it’s about the great commission, the outstretched arms of Jesus meeting needs, and the example of what a Christian looks like in “real life.”

I think some of the current terminology would call this a “missional”. I don’t care about the label. All I care about is that I am reaching young people with the love of Jesus. Yes I can show that Jesus loves you by slapping a half nelson across your neck and feel good about how God is using me to touch lives.

What I sense going on in youth mininstry at the moment is a realignment or a re-balancing. We have been too focused on number and programs. It’s the kids that count! When we star using this principle as our motivation, then I think the sun will shine again.

Just the meandering thoughts of soon to be middle-aged youth leader for life.


Comment by JayS 02.02.07 @ 1:58 pm

Marko, Hey first off I just want to affirm you and your ministry and Youth Specialities. No need to apologize because in so many ways YS has moved youth ministry into forefront in ministry and paved the way for many of us to serve along with bearing much fruit even if it has been through a season of program focused ministry. Let’s not forget to remember the good as we move forward into a new era.

In Pursuit,

My thoughts on this new move in youth ministry….

I feel like we again are just beginning to develop another approach and model to youth ministry that is dangerously close to what were are used to…..that is we dream big, get people to follow us (a “collective” if you will) and then roll out the next model of ministry that may work and be used by God. This ultimately loses its effect because of the rapidly changing nature of our world and youth culture. You see we always swing to extremes in the church, throwing the good of one approach due the bad we see within it. The pendulum continues to swig and yet we live in an era of discontinuous change that calls for leadership (youth and adult) that looks more like this

Future leaders that:
o recognize what it means to discern the activity of God in and around His people (Divinity Detectives if you will)
o live in a state of prayerful discernment amidst change looking for God’s leading in their context
o think and live like a missionary seeking to speak the language God’s love in the language of the day
o leads in the time and place that they serve, and continue to be focused on people not programs.

Can our programs be used by God? Absolutely, and they will continue to be used by God, but we also need to develop a posture that understands that they are just a means to an end which is helping people grow in their love for God and love for others. My question would be how can any group, at any time, that is connected only virtually ever really come up with a “preferred future” for youth ministry? Youth ministry and ministry in general needs instead to have a collective vision for missional activity in our world….what that looks like will be different in each and every context and possibly even day by day. My prayer is that we realize that we our all missionaries and in this together for people, and specifically for youth, let’s join in sharing the mission and pool our prayers, ideas, insights, etc. A “missional learning community” if you will.

On ward, upward, and outward!

Comment by Brian 02.02.07 @ 4:00 pm

Touche’ Brian, touche’.

Comment by RayMack 02.02.07 @ 6:28 pm

[…] Marko’s powerful post: an apology from YS and a huge discussion. Must read for Youth pastors. […]

Pingback by Jesus Creed » Weekly Meanderings 02.03.07 @ 2:05 pm

I want to thank all of you.

Until this post (thanks Scot McKnight), I really thought I was alone in my disillusionment regarding Youth Ministry. I now realize it is God moving us.

I received my BA in Youth Ministry in 2001. I haven’t done anything since.

Why? All I saw was more and more kids leaving with no change whatsoever. And all we could do was talk about how to do it better next time. Meanwhile, the kids lived another week between meetings… while we planned. I took it personally. It turned me off. Completely.

At the age of 14, I became a Christian and for the next 4 years no one took the time to ask me how it was going. I didn’t see much difference in the way we were doing it either. Oh, I tried. But I failed. (Four years to start discipleship?)

In those four years, the thorns had done their work… I had gone through more bottles of rum and unhealthy relationships than I ever imagined and no one knew… no one asked. This continued for the next seven years.

Mr. Oestreicher, you’re right: it isn’t about the programming. It isn’t about how shiny our new gym floor is or the fact that we don’t even have a youth room. It isn’t about how dynamic we are or aren’t. It’s about asking people how they are doing… and waiting around for the answer.

The one thing God used in my life was not a huge Christian concert, youth rally or a Spirit-filled small group, it was one man putting his hand on my shoulder and asking, “How’s it going?” when he knew how it was going.

He didn’t preach or dance or juggle hamsters. He loved me. And I knew it.

I appreciate your post; what you wrote is true for all of us. It isn’t the fault of YS by any stretch of imagination, you have been used by God for his glory during your best efforts (and despite them)… as have we all.

“Our Lord calls to no special work: He calls to Himself.” -October 16, My Utmost For His Highest

Comment by hurt but healing 02.04.07 @ 5:12 am

It is good to think about what we are doing in youth ministry in the church. We like the church as a whole go through cycles. But we must also realize that youth ministry is not that old, at least compared to the church. There really was no adolescence before the 50’s so to speak. Now the church on the other hand has been around since the book of Acts and it still does not have its act together.

So what should we do? First understand that the latest craze is just that, the latest craze. Second, befriend parents, they are the ones given the charge of bringing up their kids in a godly fashion. Third, keep the main thing the main thing, that is discipleship making and training our students to do the work of the ministry.

What we want of the other side of adolescence is a mature thinking young person who believes in the Jesus of the Bible and allows him to be Lord over that young persons life.

Rick H

Comment by rick h 02.05.07 @ 12:45 pm

Youth Specialties and Attractional Ministry

Trackback by JOLLYBLOGGER 02.12.07 @ 6:08 pm

As an outsider what I see is that the message is getting lost in the methods. Kids especially those in jr and sr high can detect horsepucky a mile away and then simply tune it out. Going through this thread that’s the theme I see. Now my path is going to be a bit different as I’ve gone back to school to become an English teacher, but the goal is the same as yours, to help mold kids into adults.
One of the problems that I face is making sure that Christianity gets a fair shake in my classroom. Obviously I can’t favor it but I won’t ignore or disparage it either.

Comment by Greg 02.20.07 @ 3:54 pm

[…] the other website is a fun little project of scott’s called “inside the youth minister’s studio.” it’s a podcast site, with interviews fashioned after the tv show “inside the actor’s studio.” today, the podcast interview with me went live. it was an interesting conversation with scott (really, i’ve come to believe that a good interview worth listening to has much more to do with the questions than the answers), and i’m honored to be the token non-catholic interview for this podcast. i also enjoyed the summaries scott pulled from the interview, which i’ll copy here: Wednesday, February 21, 2007 BIO: Mark Oestreicher (Marko) is the president of Youth Specialties. For over 30 years Youth Specialties has worked alongside Christian youth workers of just about every denomination and youth-serving organization by providing publications, training, and leadership. Marko has a thoughtful, well-hyperlinked, funny/rude, personal blog which is found at QUOTE TO NOTE: This is an area where a lot of youth workers and churches, in general, go wrong in terms of discipleship and that’s they just treat it (discipleship) as a program or a component of their youth ministry rather than the goal of the ministry. The command of Christ is that we go into the world and create disciples. And that’s what the whole point of youth ministry is about. . . . Discipleship is what we should be all about. OBSCURE FACTOID: During the conversation, Marko talks about the challenges of “attractional” ministry. Since the taping, he expanded on these thoughts in this blog entry. Days later, Dr. Leonard Sweet also addressed this theme at Baylor. This line of discussion should NOT be obscure in any youth ministry field, let alone Catholic youth ministry. BEHIND THE SCENES: Ahhh, an editing confession - When this was taped, my Baltimore Ravens and Marko’s home team, the San Diego Chargers, both looked as if they were might be NFL playoff rivals. Therefore, the call started off with some trash talk, mostly on my part. Unfortunately, both teams lost their home games during next weekend. BLOG REFLECTION: MARK OESTREICHER IS “INSIDE THE YOUTH MINISTERS’ STUDIO” Marko, I do believe, is a little jazzed about being considered a “Catholic Youth Ministry expert” as he becomes the latest addition to the pod-cast series. Of course, we Catholics understand “the word ‘catholic’ means ‘universal,’ in the sense of ‘according to the totality’ or ‘in keeping with the whole.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, #830) Further, “those who believe in Christ and have been properly baptized are put in a certain, although imperfect, communion with the Catholic Church” (CCC 838) Soooo, recognizing we ALL have lots of work to do in addressing imperfections on all sides to get closer towards this totality stuff, It’s a honor to have Marko in the studio. Why? Youth Specialties and Marko believe in CHURCH- yours, mine, ours. They would acknowledge that “it’s flawed, inconsistent, institutional, bureaucratic, even embarrassing sometimes. Yet it is also incredibly heroic at other times. Whether we like it or not, want to attend it or not, we’re stuck with it.” So, Marko, keep on doing that catholic thing of yours. . . because we’re stuck with it, we love the kids, and we all know that the Spirit and young disciples have the possibilities heroic differences within them. No Comments so far Leave a comment RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URI Leave a comment Line and paragraph breaks automatic, e-mail address never displayed, HTML allowed:


Pingback by ysmarko 02.21.07 @
4:09 am

[…] I note that even Mark has recently written an interesting piece titled “The mess we’re in and the culpability of youth specialties” and, while YS might have accidentally sent a similar message to youth workers here in Australia we have had many many other organisations, groups, para church organisations and consultants who, for years and years and years have (accidentally or on purpose) promoted program based ministry over presence centred ones. […]

Pingback by planet telex » Presence Based Ministry “It’s a Nice Idea But…” 03.08.07 @ 9:53 am

I have been involved in Youth Ministry for almost 14 years. I have used some YS materials but I recognized the “programming” or activity-based focus that you mentioned above. Unfortunately I now no longer use or recommend YS materials of ANY kind. In my estimation YS has veered (rightly so) from its activity based programs and plunged headlong into the murky waters of the emergent village.

The focus of my ministry has been the supremacy of Christ in all things and the sufficiency of His Word. When I point our teens toward embracing the Christ of the Bible… to genuinely follow Him and to align their lives to His Word then we see real growth, real Christlikeness, real outreach, and real community among our teens.

Its certainly not because I’m much of a teacher, and our church isn’t “cutting edge”, BUT God is Good and He is faithful and when we offer our meager attempts to be faithful to His Word then He is abundantly gracious to us.

In my humble opinion if you really want to impact youth for Christ and you really want to help youth workers do the same, then encourage them to go deeper in their pursuit of Christ and deeper in their knowledge and application of His Word. To send them off toward the emergent philosophy is to abandon the power of the Gospel, to abandon the penal substitutionary atonement at the Cross, to abandon truth, and essentially every major doctrine Gods people have held dear.

If you truly desire to “repent”, and I believe you are sincere, then repent of not just of promoting activities of Christ but of promoting anything over Christ and in seeking a correction seek a new commitment to the in inerrancy and sufficiency of His Word.

Comment by eric 11.19.07 @ 1:35 pm

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