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Why Do Youth Ministries Struggle Financially?

Nearly 11,000 young adults attended the Rock the River concert in Baton Rouge on Saturday, July 11, 2009. | (Photo: Rock the River Tour - Franklin Graham)

If you were to ask me what troubles me the most of all the news I hear each day, it would not be the threat of nuclear war. It would not be the numbers of children starving in third world countries or the huge political divisions in this nation that I love, as saddening as all those things are. For me, a person who spent his lifetime both working in various youth ministries, while also at the same time, trying to raise support to keep those God called outreaches going, the saddest thing I can hear of is hearing another youth program somewhere had to be shut down for lack of support.

In a time when the needs of America's youth are so numerous and pressures to help teens are so gigantic, why is it that viable youth ministries struggle so to keep their doors open?

Numerous youth ministries have had to shut down. I could start with a multi million-dollar internationally known teen ministry birthed in the fires of revival. I could then end the story after story, all the way down to a local neighborhood skate park someone built with their bare hands, by raising money through bottle drives and spaghetti dinners. Although their stories vary there end is the same. Because support somehow dried up they had to close their doors.

I'm the last one to judge these works and it seems like one of the first one to hear others armchair quarterback evaluations, full of hindsight on how, "Brother so and so" should have done such and such differently. The truth, my friends is that if you are ever called to a Para-church outreach to teens of any kind, you sign yourself up for some end time, front line battles from the enemy like you have never seen before! Once the Lord spoke to my heart; "What I love the most Satan hates the most!" From the moment you open the doors, let's say, to your new "Youth Center", the enemy will be scheming to close you down.

In 1987 God called me to a lifetime of youth ministry. Over the years, I have been the Youth Leader/Pastor in several different churches. Simultaneously to running those youth ministries, I was called to start a teen radio show, which began in my living room on a cassette recorder. The show was eventually syndicated, covering most of the populated northeast. In addition, I worked in a special education program in New York State for over thirteen years. In all this I had one gnawing question. Why was it so hard to raise money for youth ministry?

In the middle of my question crisis I was asked to be the guest speaker at Syracuse Teen Challenge in Downtown Syracuse NY. They housed on average of 15 men of various ages and their working staff. The director, we will just call Brother Dave, pulled into the parking lot soon after I arrived in his station wagon. The back window was down and had logs sticking out of it. As Dave came across the parking lot to greet me, two laughing young men tumbled out of the station wagon behind him. I said, "Brother Dave, what is this? What are you guys doing"? He said; "Oh hi, Brother Nolan, this is just some more firewood for our big wood stove!" I soon found out that there were not enough donations coming in to afford to heat the building so they had installed a big wood stove. He drove up the mountain to public land almost every day, carting firewood back with his own station wagon. A team of men traveled out from that Teen Challenge every weekend, ministering and giving testimonies in churches.

As I traveled around for various ministry responsibilities and tuned into into whatever Christian Radio station was for that area, I would not have to listen very long to hear another nationally known ministry promoting their "Christian Cruises", or "Trips to Israel". I would catch fundraising efforts using the latest and greatest marketing skills with "donation matching" promotions and giveaways of big screen TVs and getaway week end packages if only you're the "5th Caller!" Or in a region that even the local churches are struggling to pay their bills. "If we can just get 8 more callers by the 7 o'clock deadline we will have reached our 1.5 million dollar goal!" It all seems sadly ironic.

As I listened, I was forced to ask myself "How many people are really seeking God concerning their giving any more?" or "How many people are truly led by the Holy Spirit regarding where they place their money?" Perhaps it seems easier to just succumb to the marketing efforts of the professionals because it's more fun?

News came this week that another viable youth ministry, which was used for many years, that touches hundreds of teens annually had to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Does anyone realize that there was someone who years ago actually heard from God a calling to start that ministry? Through the years possibly hundreds if not thousands heard a request to give to this ministry. The fact is that we are so inundated with the doctrines of self indulgence and self-gratitude that the "Grandpa God" that we have created for ourselves, lets us do and give whatever and wherever we want?

Is anyone noticing that while youth ministries die because of lack of support, a huge national and multifaceted teen crisis has crept up on us unaware? I personally feel that a pun written by Cartoonist Walt Kelly in 1971 best describes our situation with the youth in America. " We have met the enemy and he is us!"

From sea to shining sea our schools are struggling with troubled youth. In the meantime, giving to youth focused ministries is at an all time low. Isn't time to pray, "Will the Biblical Jesus please stand up"? Please forgive and start the change with me Lord!

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

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