For 13 years I worked as a youth pastor in the local church. That’s 13 graduations. It was more than enough time to have learned all sorts of things about youth ministry, and about myself. When I look back on those years, my memories are mostly positive. But there are also memories of things I wish I had done differently, memories around mistakes I made. Here are my top five:
One: Confusing Involvement With Faith Trajectory
I think we all make this mistake, the tricky allure of attendance patterns among students. In its most simplest form, it goes like this: if a student is really involved in my programming, they will continue to be involved in the life of the church and faith following graduation. This is, of course, not always true. Attendance patterns have more to do with parental involvement than anything else. Yes, there are the outliers who drive themselves to youth group every week without any support from their parents, but this is not the norm. Show me a youth group of 50 kids and I’ll show you the parents who encourage their involvement. There are also parents who force their kids to attend, and these students are even less likely to stick around once they are on their own. Just because a student is there every time the doors are open doesn’t always mean that church is in their future. I saw the opposite happen quite often, where kids who were almost never around went on to really develop their faith and involvement in a church well after graduation.
Application: Try your best not to read the attendance trends as indicators of faith maturity. They really aren’t. And I recognize that in many churches this can be a hard stance to take, as leadership may want to see a better sense of consistency among students within the youth group. But it’s really out of your hands. It’s more important to allow students to come and go as they please, and to maintain a culture of acceptance in which there is never a tone of insider versus outsider based on attendance. Every student, regardless of involvement, needs a chair at the table. I wish I had practiced this more.
Two: Misreading Growth As A Sign Of Health
Somewhat related to the first, this second mistake involves the misread of growth as an indicator of health. It’s not uncommon for pastors of all types to make the connection between church health and numerical growth. The belief that God is “working” because there is numerical momentum is not always the case, and youth pastors should be cautious to frequently draw that conclusion. In most youth groups there are stretches of growth and decline, and both are not indicators of either God’s presence or absence. But again, I recognize that this perspective can stand at odds with a leadership that not only desires growth, but one that connects it to overall health. But it’s important to understand this dynamic of ministry and to seek out a wiser perspective. I remember Doug Fields (Saddleback Church Youth Pastor) addressing this very issue, saying, “You don’t talk about your family in this way. ‘How’s your family?’ ‘Oh they’re good, there are 6 of us.'” I’ll never forget that story. It saved me from this never-ending pursuit of something larger and greater, but I didn’t realize it until I was almost done with my career in youth ministry.
Application: The health of a youth group is measured by more metrics than just growth, so it’s crucial to know what those are. I would also recommend seeing growth as an unexpected grace instead of the result of your levels of leadership and spirituality. So much of this is not in your hands. And keep your eyes on percentages as well. Youth group numbers tends to fall within a percentage of the overall the church family (it was around 10% when I was in the role). The pursuit of numbers can also edge out your touch with students who already are within your care, many of whom need attention and help and love. And if you’re focused too much on the next level of growth, people start to get lost.
Three: Neglecting To Build More Space For Doubt
This one was surprising to me as I am someone who approaches faith from the place of doubt. I come at the Bible with questions. I’ve been this way for most of my faith experience. And yet, when I look back on my leadership as a youth pastor, I did not build enough space for the doubts that many students carried into the building. I didn’t shut doubts down, necessarily, I just rarely gave them the attention and the grace they needed. One of the pitfalls I’ve seen is when youth pastors take questions of doubt in a youth group setting and then set out to answer them. It’s not that trying to answer any and all doubts is bad, it’s not; the greater danger is in how many of us were afraid to say, “I don’t really know” to some of the questions. Apologetics as a practice can be somewhat creepy because it gives the impression of a faith without cracks, which isn’t possible. We struggle to be honest with students regarding our own doubts (or simply things that we just don’t know) and we end up accidentally constructing a culture of certainty. And in a culture of certainty, the questions will soon disappear because they learn they are not always welcome.
Application: Learn to leave room for questions. I would recommend learning how to leave lessons open-ended. Allow students to leave with more confusion than certainty, giving them the freedom to wrestle with these things on their own. This seems obvious, but I also recommend learning to hear their questions and doubts with grace. Also, be willing to say, “I don’t really know, and to be honest with you, the long history of Christian tradition has struggled with this question, too.” Perhaps host regular forums for questions and discussion. And in those settings, resist the need to always provide a precise answer, especially when none exists. And remember this: the resurrection announcement from the women disciples to the men was not received with faith, but with doubt; it was confusion that caused the men to run to the tomb, not certainty. Let the kids run.
Four: Trying To Build A Church Within A Church
This one is so easy to do because the youth group does function like a small congregation. There are classes, small groups, worship settings, retreats, and so on. Structurally, it can live as a church within a church. But it is crucial for the youth pastor to be hyper-aware of the implications of such a model. The obvious risks are separation and otherness. If the youth pastor is unaware, the group will drift into its own world and cease to be connected to the larger body in any meaningful way. I ended up in this place many times. When I pastored a larger youth group, it was easy for me to build a mini-church of my own: we had a student band, lots of small groups, our own missions programs, worship settings where I “preached”, and so on. Many times I failed to remember the importance of generational fusion as an ecclesial value. While I saw (and still see) the benefits of students having their own settings to work out their faith, I missed some opportunities to integrate students into the larger church.
Application: Find ways to get students involved beyond youth group. Trim back some of your programming in order to make room for more integration. When you think of serving environments for your students, include the overall church in those plans. Work it out so that students can be greeters, band members, nursery and kids workers. Can the sound guy train a tech-inclined student to run the board? Of course they can! All of this requires intention. Sit down with your team and ask the question: “How do we keep from becoming isolated from the rest of the church?”
Five: Taking Graduation Too Seriously
A mistake all youth pastors make is believing that they must lead students through a checklist of spiritual milestones before graduation. They are convinced that a student’s future in faith is dependent upon a set of spiritual objectives and goals that exist within a ministry system. I found myself making this mistake often. My programming reflected it. We tried to build certain tracks that students would take over the course of their time with us, ensuring that by graduation they would be “ready” for life beyond youth group. What I learned, however, was much different. There really isn’t any way of knowing what a student’s faith looks like after graduation, and worrying about how a ministry system takes students to that point may not be as important as we think. We all know that faith takes many turns in a person’s lifetime, and faith is rarely a straight line for anyone. Discipleship moves forward, backwards, and sideways. Some students walk away from it altogether. Putting all of our programming hopes on where a student might be come graduation is a weight we don’t need to carry.
Application: Hang a picture of yourself in your office from when you were 18 years old. Remember how in-process you were then, and how much you still had to learn. Chart all the changes in your faith since high school. Remember your own evolutions along the way. Remind your volunteer teams of their own faith process and how no one is ever really finished with this. It takes a lifetime to be a disciple. Stay away from language about college being a testing ground and how your students could lose their faith if they don’t get serious about it while they’re still in high school. While it is true that many students experience this shift in college, it isn’t our job to scare them with such a prospect. And more importantly, who are we to say that such a time isn’t beneficial to a faith in the long run? If there is anything you want your students to remember upon leaving high school, it is this: they are loved, they are never discounted, and there is always room at Jesus’ table.
What are some of yours?