Why Our Youth Ministry Looks Like It Does

Why Our Youth Ministry Looks Like It Does


Rick Holland (now Dr. Richard Holland) was a classmate of mine while in seminary at The Master’s Seminary in LA.  Rick has extensive experience in youth ministry and is recognized as an expert in this area.  I thought this article by him was well worth putting on our site and gives a good explanation as to why our youth ministry functions as it does — Norm Millar.

Artilce by Rick Holland Associate Pastor, College and Student Ministries Grace Community Church, Sun Valley, CA 

The worldview of the fourteenth century included the assumption that the world was flat. Nautical horizons were presumed to be the parameters of the earth and few questioned that these were, indeed, the rims of reality. But when maritime trade and exploration demythologized the flat earth theory, progress was unleashed and the worldview of the masses was adjusted. Yet, incredibly, some continued to believe in a flat earth, even after such thinking was corrected by truth (a “Flat Earth Society” still exists today!).

Unfortunately, there is an ironic parallel in the church. Our generation has assumed a perspective of teenagers that needs to be demythologized in the light of Scripture. This myth is called adolescence.

The concept of adolescence has become so commonplace that the few have stopped to challenge its definition or legitimacy.

Adolescence as a definite stage in human development has been accepted, almost universally, in secular thinking. But the church has swallowed the idea whole as well. So what’s the big deal? Isn’t the concept of adolescence true? And what would it matter if it were not?

An honest interview with many youth pastors would reveal that of the students under their pastoral care, those who are exhibiting an independent dependence on Christ are a minority. Why are so few of our teens “walking in a manner worthy of the calling with which they have been called” (Eph 4: 1)

For the answer, we should note some misconceptions associated with the concept of adolescence that have yielded significant consequences in youth ministry. A brief observation of current trends in youth ministry reveals at least four assumptions prevalent among the philosophies of many, if not most, youth ministries in our generation. Unfortunately, these presuppositions find no biblical support. A quick examination of these trends will help reveal what is perhaps the single most devastating misconception in youth ministry.

Four Wrong Assumptions in Youth Ministry

1. A youth ministry must entertain/amuse students to be effective.

The 1970s, 80’s, and 90’s were replete with conferences, seminars, and conventions regarding youth ministry. A common thread running throughout these resources was an emphasis on what it takes to “draw” a student into ministry. The common questions seemed to be, “What will it take to get kids to come to church?” and/or “What will it take to keep the kids we have?” It is obvious that these are the significant questions, yet the way they have been answered for the last twenty years in youth ministry circles is astonishing! Everything from $100,000 sound systems to dances and contests have been used and promoted as legitimate means for drawing kids in. The all-important principle to remember is that whatever you use to “draw” a student into a ministry is what you’ll need to “keep” that student coming. It is easy to see how many youth pastors bum out trying to keep their students entertained and interested enough to start coming and keep coming. There must be more to youth ministry than entertaining and amusing students.

2. A youth ministry must be activity-centered.

It is difficult to trace the development of youth activities as a focus in youth ministry. But no matter how it started most of us as youth pastors have inherited what could be called an “activities monster.” The most common question from students is, “What fun thing is next?” Holding youth activities is not necessarily the enemy, but when a youth pastor spends more time on planning hay-rides, afterglows, and fifth quarters than he does praying and studying the Word, something is out of balance! (Remember the emphasis of the Apostles in Acts 6:4.)

3. A youth ministry must be program-centered.

Structure is good. But over-structure is exhausting. It seems as though when a youth pastor identifies a problem or has a new idea, often times a new program is instituted to meet the need. It is not long before the issue in the student’s mind becomes “what’s happening at church.” Again, it’s not that programs are bad, but when the focus in a student’s mind is what’s going on more than Christ Himself, there is a problem. There is a constant pressure on youth pastors to crank out a variety of programs and to view simplicity as naive. The tragedy in this fallacy is that for every program or aspect of a program added, the youth pastor’s focus becomes that much more dispersed. We must ask ourselves if “spinning plates” is prudent in youth ministry.

4. A youth ministry must be focused primarily on the “issues of being a teenager.”

Again, we have been bombarded with “help” concerning running a youth ministry from a variety of sources and people. One over-arching theme coming from such literature and seminars is a perspective that to be effective in teen ministry one must consume himself with the needs of teens.

To a certain extent, this perspective is true in that the Scriptures teach that a shepherd must know his sheep. However, the imbalance comes when the shepherds know the sheep better than they know the Great Shepherd. Though teens do have special needs, a constant focus on these needs points a ministry horizontally (to man) rather than vertically (to God). We must ask if our job as leaders is to meet needs or to present God!

Why are These Wrong Assumptions Prevalent in Youth Ministry?

All of these fallacies, and many others, may be traced to one tragic misconception. Ministry to youth has assumed a presupposition that is based on a cultural myth rather than the Word of God. The cultural idea that must be exposed as myth is commonly called adolescence.

The Myth Called Adolescence

The age group that youth ministry deals with is commonly known as adolescence. Our modern ­day society has been identified as unique in history for classifying teenagers as a group of people called adolescents. To label a teenager an adolescent is to say that he is no longer a child, but not yet an adult. Note Webster’s definition: “the state or process of growing up; the period of life from puberty to maturity terminating legally at the age of majority.” This is a fairly vague definition for such a pervasive philosophical ideology.

Significant to note is that this state called adolescence is a twentieth-century, Western invention. Ours is the only culture in history to see three stages of development to maturity, namely childhood, adolescence, adulthood. All other cultures outside of Western culture and its influence, as well as history in general before the twentieth century, see only two stages in the development of maturity-childhood and adulthood. What we’ve done is to create an unnatural state called adolescence where a person is not a child, yet not an adult. From where did such an idea come?

David Bakan identifies three developments in American society that propelled adolescence into public acceptance: compulsory education, child Labor laws, creation of a juvenile justice system.[1] 1 This seems to be the ideological foundation that was laid in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. But the articulation of adolescence didn’t find the printing press until early in the twentieth-century.

In 1904 Dr. G. Stanley Hall published a book entitled, Adolescence: Its Relations to Physiology, Anthropology, Sociology, Sex, Crime, Religion and Education. This is the first known treatise on adolescence as a stage in a person’s life. In it Hall argued that the stages in a child’s development parallel in mankind’s development in history. The thesis of his book is that the period between thirteen and eighteen is a crisis and stormy period in a young person’s life. Hall concluded that these years almost always include extreme inclinations for a young person to be very good or very bad. It was his book and these expectations that were the basis segregating school children by age for educational purposes. At this point adolescence was invented. What should be made of such an arbitrary assertion?

Consider the history of Judaism. Since the days of the Pentateuch, the Jews have celebrated the passing of a boy from childhood to adulthood in their Bar Mitzvah Ceremony. In other words, the Jews have held for centuries that at around age thirteen a person should be fully accepted as an adult in the religious community. Jesus shows up in the synagogue as a twelve-year-old in Luke 2:41-47. It worth noting that no one seemed to be shocked by his presence there, rather it was the questions he was asking and the words he was saying.

The thesis of this study is that the teens to whom we minister are not adolescents; they are adults. Granted, they are “young” adults, but adults nonetheless. Physically, emotionally, and volitionally they have capabilities commensurate to adulthood. Yet, of all places, the church (through youth ministry primarily) retards the young person’s spiritual development by not allowing or expecting him to be spiritually responsible or challenging him to the extent of biblical expectations or examples. We are not too different from Saul and the rest of the men of Israel who looked at a young teen named David as an insignificant youth (see 1 Samuel 17:33 and context) just before he leveled Goliath. If God put such stock in a “youth,” why don’t we?

By creating this mythical state known as adolescence the teenager is in constant flux between childhood and adulthood since he is not fully accepted as either. This is a significant part of the teen problems in our society. It contributes greatly to the teen syndrome of seeking identity in peer groups, gangs, drugs, alcohol, and premarital sex. It also generates anger at parents and a general anti-establishment attitude. The problem is that in some contexts, the young person is patronized as a child, yet in others he is expected to act responsibly as an adult. And we wonder why teens are so confused!

The tragedy is that this tension is propagated in youth ministry. We try to keep our feet on both sides of the fence between children’s ministry and adult ministry by implementing elements of both while at the same time neglecting elements of both. The current assumptions and expectations in youth ministry have problems that must be corrected if we are to raise up a generation for Christ.

Problems With the Myth Called Adolescence

1. Adherence to the idea of adolescence promotes a low view of teens.

The reason our teens are not living Spirit-filled lives is because we don’t expect them to. Our view of teens and their effectiveness in ministry is embarrassingly low compared to God’s view and expectation of them.

As we consider Scripture, it is clear that the Bible does not recognize adolescence. Certainly no Greek or Hebrew term represents such a stage. And perhaps we need only consider the following brief list of the significance of teens not only as adults, but also as the heroes of our faith. Throughout the Bible we see God calling and putting teenagers at the cutting edge of His work and trust. Consider Daniel and his friends, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Joseph, Hezekiah, Ruth, Mary and Joseph, David, Josiah, and Mark. If God Himself put such great stock in teens, why don’t we? Because we don’t really believe that teens can be significant for Christ.

We must call our young people to the standard of following Christ that the Scriptures require and expect of any Christian. Maybe our whole discussion can be summarized by stating that God’s Word is not age-graded! Our goal must not only be to present Christ, but also to expect Christ-honoring lives out of our young people.

2. Adherence to the idea of adolescence promotes a low view of God.

Following on the heels of this first point, low expectations for the spiritual maturity of teens reflects a low view of the heart and power of God. Colossians 1:28-29reveals Paul’s passion for the maturity of the saints: “And we proclaim Him, admonishing every man and teaching every man with all wisdom, that we may present every man complete in Christ. And for this purpose also I labor, striving according to His power, which mightily works within me” (emphasis added). It is the heart of God that every man be made complete in Christ. The point needs to be underscored that the students in our ministry fall under the category of “every man.” To underestimate the spiritual capacities and capabilities of teens with regard to loving and serving Christ is to underestimate God. The Bible record is a testimony to the fact that God is quite pleased and capable to minister to and through teens. To back away from this emphasis is to back away from the heart of God. Either we believe God has the power to work through our teens or we don’t. The issue must be pressed to this point of trusting God at His Word. Buying into the cultural lie that adolescents cannot be spiritually responsible merely reveals a deeper problem, namely a belief that God cannot or will not use our teens to make an impact in our world.

Other pragmatic problems or dangers associated with a belief in adolescence follow as well. Since the “adolescent” is confused about his identity (he is accepted neither as a child nor an adult), a host of consequences ensue. Low moral standards become accepted, expectations for maturity are confusing, and little responsibility is required. Maturity is left undefined, so sexual promiscuity and substance abuse become an easy ways to “grow up.” In the area of finances, a responsible work ethic is avoided and selfish spending habits begin an undertow of debt.


In the spiritual realm, opportunities are wasted with a generation who needs to hear the gospel from its peers. Instead of organizing a army of “Christian soldiers, marching as to war,” we should be transforming our youth ministries into social alternatives for worldly options. Youth ministry is not to be the social alternative to the world-it is to be the staging arena for engaging the world with the gospel!

So what can we draw from these observations? Consider the following implications.

Implications for Student/Teen Ministry

1. Focus on becoming a “youth ministry” rather than a “youth group.”

The first step to changing our focus from “adolescent” ministry to teen or student ministry must begin with checking our philosophy of what we are about. In other words, we must decide if we are going to have a youth group or a youth ministry. By definition, a youth group consists of students who group together, period. In contrast, however, a youth ministry consists of students who minister together.

The subtle emphasis contained in what we call ourselves reveals much more than a title. We are either a group or ministry.
The weight of the direction of a given ministry ultimately gravitates to the leader. For this reason, it is clear to see why understanding the assumptions, expectations, and philosophy involved in what we do and why must be carefully thought through by the youth pastor/leader.

2. Hold students accountable to the biblical standard.

Just as a young Jewish boy was expected to obey the Torah after his Bar Mitzvah, we may expect that our teens can obey the truth of the Word of God. We can thus hold these young people responsible for how they deal with their time, money, and opportunities. This expectation also raises the bar for our study and teaching of the Scriptures.

3. Deal with students as adults.

The church should be a leading influence in these young people’s lives to grant them both the responsibilities and privileges of adulthood. We should help them understand biblically how to make decisions, allow them to utilize their creative energies for the Lord, help them find a place of ministry in the body of Christ, include them in evangelistic and discipling efforts, and let them be examples of Christian virtue (1 Tim. 4:12).
Could it be that the church has allowed the myth called adolescence go unchecked? Could it be that youth ministries have been operating with the wrong diagnosis? I am often asked what I think is unique about ministering to students. And I usually get look of shock when I answer, “nothing.”

First John 2:16 reveals that there are only three problems (rather, sins) with all people, including teens: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life. This diagnosis of man’s harmartiological hangover is not unique to any age group. And the sooner we apply this to our students, the sooner we will do youth ministry God’s way.

[1] David Bakan, “Adolescence in America: From Idea to Social Fact,” Daedalus 100 (1971),979-995, cited in David Alan Black, The Myth of Adolescence (Yorba Linda, Cal.: Davidson Press, 1999), 14-16.