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Roadblocks to effective youth ministry

Roadblocks to effective youth ministry

(Photo: Unsplash/Ben White)

A former Christian psychologist after over forty years of counseling experience and two earned doctorates in the field was once confronted by one of his teenage patients. The young man looked at him from across the room and said, “Sir, you are diagnosing my problem expertly, but you can’t fix me.” A few days later, recognizing that in spite of all of his learning and experience, this teenager was right, the Christian psychologist fell to his face in prayer. He got up realizing Jesus was the answer!

Recently I shared my heart for reaching America’s youth with a young professional woman at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester Minnesota. In turn, she told me something that caught my attention. “My boyfriend is a mortician and he was telling me the other night that their business is alarmed by the number of teen suicides that their local funeral home is seeing. I quickly interjected "It's true! Younger teens than ever are committing suicide. Junior High age children are taking their own lives at alarming numbers!” Her response was to me “Yes that is what my boyfriend said!”

As a veteran youth worker, I would like to list five attitudes that are detrimental to reaching youth. I believe every one of these longstanding attitudes is still in place today. If we can identify them and acknowledge them, perhaps we can pull them out with the roots and provide a pathway that will really make a difference. Not another “sit down and discuss” where we all pow-wow again like my psychologist friend about what the problems are to no avail, arm chair quarterbacking the mistakes of others.  Instead we must really go to work to identify the “bad seeds” of thought that have grown up and choked out the good things which produced strong character in teens of other generations. We need to be much in prayer, asking God for inspiration from Him, in order to be able to help un-teach, reteach, and springboard forward breaking through the roadblocks before it is too late.

The biggest hindering roadblock is, not coincidentally, the most negative one. Over the years, it popped up over and over. It is the “I made it, they can too” attitude. I have said for years “If you can judge someone, you can justify not helping them.” Unfortunately judging young people as adults is something that every generation of adults seems to do. We seem to think that because we made it as teens, that today’s teens can too. I am speculating, but ask any youth Pastor/Youth Leader. I strongly suspect that they will concur that probably millions of American church dollars never make it to the youth groups because of the people in decision-making positions who have this mindset.

Secondly is the “Us four and no more” philosophy. I realized having a fortress mentality — us and no one else — is a problem when a veteran youth pastor from New York City told me. “If about twenty percent of the congregation of your church is in your youth group, then you have a healthy number.  He went on to explain that, for example, if a church has one hundred people coming on Sunday morning then about twenty of them should be teens. If not, you do not have a healthy youth group. Let’s say ten to fifteen percent are church kids from the families who go there. Then there should be at least five young people in that smaller church that have drawn into that youth group by some sort of outreach. If your youth group is made up of only the teens already attending your church then you are not being effective in outreach.

The third deadly roadblock is the idea that you do not need much money to run an effective youth group. This attitude ensures that the youth group and the youth leader will have to run programs to raise their own support. Having worked in the public schools for over thirteen years, I watched state-funded school systems have the newest and the best of everything. Then we invite teens to our youth program. They arrive only to be met by scratched up pool tables, broken foosball games and sound equipment that was thrown away by an old rock band that just came off the road. If we do not give the teens what they are used to when they walk through our doors, then we will leave a very bad impression of our church in their minds. We seem to always have money for the thousand dollar choir mikes and the latest video equipment for our morning service but we have no problem telling our youth leaders that “We are sorry, but there is no money in the budget for that!”

The fourth deadly roadblock is the belief that you do not need either young people within their culture, or more mature leaders who are very familiar with the present culture to run a youth group. Pair this with “Youth ministry is a good place to start out in ministry,” and you are guaranteed to have “some” kids come. You will always be able to reach a few. But you will be pitifully ineffective in reaching the many-many teens that are in such great need of youth ministry in America.

In conclusion, the fifth and most detrimental fallacy of all is the attitude that you can build a youth ministry on fun and games and that somehow they will “catch Christ” in the process. Through the years I have watched many a youth group grow up and have many young people come to their meetings as they promote a youth group based on fun. However, If a church does not have a young man or woman or a married team that are spiritually mature incorporating the Word of God as the foundation of all they do, the fruit will be quick to die on the vine and the “catch Christ” concept again proven to be ineffective.

Rev Nolan J Harkness is the President and CEO of Nolan Harkness Evangelistic Ministries Inc. since 1985. He spent most of his adult life working in youth ministry. He also felt the calling of Evangelist/Revivalist and traveled as the door was open holding evangelistic meetings in churches throughout the Northeast. His website is