The Failure of Youth Ministry

Below is an article by Mike Yaconelli who was with Youth Specialties and the old Wittenberg Door gang. I loved his book Messy Spirituality. And I think he tells us when the emperor is naked. To follow through on Mike’s thoughts you might want to read Family Based Youth Ministry. I think churches can’t feel good about themselves unless they have a full-time youth minister. The parents demand it and the power of programming feels so good. But is there really a direct correlation between youth minister and youth programming and children/youth who become adult Christ-followers? The honest answer is no. Do children/youth who make a commitment to Christ become Christ-followers? The answer is yes. But perhaps not the way we think.

The Failure of Youth Ministry
by Mike Yaconelli

(See related apology down below after you read this article. )

What is the most important function of youth ministry?

A) Introducing young people to Jesus
B) Providing healthy activities
C) Involving young people in service
D) Abstinence pledges
E) Good theological training
F) Worship

Answer: None of the above.

The most important function of youth ministry is longevity. Long-term discipleship.

It’s my contention that the vast majority of youth ministries focus all of their time and energy on the none-of-the-aboves and very little on longevity. How do I know?

Look at the results.

Attend any youth group in this country and notice the “ageing effect.”

Attendance is directly proportional to age. The older the students, the fewer are likely to attend youth group. Typically, there are more freshman than sophomores, more sophomores than juniors, and more juniors than seniors.

I’m sure there are many reasons for this phenomenon. Older students are more likely to work, more likely to have a car, and more likely to be extremely busy. But the real reason is that older students are much more likely to lose interest in Christianity, lose the desire to stay close to Christ, or don’t lose the willingness to pay the price of commitment. In the everyday battle for the souls of the older students, the lure of the secular is just too strong.

Almost every study out there shows that when it comes to moral behavior, there’s no difference between secular and Christian students. They drink as much, screw as much, have oral sex as much, and party as much.


Youth ministry doesn’t have any staying power.

Young people flock to Christian concerts, cheer Jesus at large events, and work on service projects. Unfortunately, it’s not because of Jesus; it’s because they’re young!

The success of youth ministry in this country is an illusion.

Very little youth ministry has a lasting impact on students.

I believe we’re no more effective today reaching young people with the gospel than we’ve ever been. In spite of all the dazzling super stars of youth ministry, the amazing array of YS products, the thousands of youth ministry training events, nothing much has changed.

Following Jesus is hard.

Faith is difficult.

Discipleship requires a huge investment of time. Most of us don’t have the time. Or we chose not to take the time. Or our current models of ministry don’t allow us the time.

So let’s be honest.

Youth ministry as an experiment has failed. If we want to see the church survive, we need to rethink youth ministry.

What does that mean? I don’t have a clue. But my hunch is that if we want to see young people have a faith that lasts, then we have to completely change the way we do youth ministry in America.

I wonder if any of us has the courage to try.

An Apology
by Mike Yaconelli

I have an apology to make.

In my rush to make deadline my last column communicated the wrong message.

What I thought I said and what many people read were two quite different things.

I was hoping to throw some cold water on the high profile ministries out there that give the impression they’re attracting gazillions of young people to their ministries and changing the lives of gazillions more.

I was trying to level the playing field by introducing a dose of reality.

My hope was that the person in Podunk, Iowa would be encouraged. My hope was that the majority of us who have smaller ministries would realize that no matter how much press a particular ministry gets, the results are the same for all of us. According to Jesus and his parable of the seed, the best we can hope for is about 25%.

At least one reader, Ken McDonald, a volunteer youth worker from Texas, heard me:

I’ve been a volunteer youth worker for pushing 10 years. I eat lunch with the students every day. I go to their ballgames and soccer matches. I’ve been to countless funerals for their grandparents, parents, and friends. I spend hours each week talking to them online. I’m an elder and I’ve tried to incorporate them into the life of the church. I pray for them, send them birthday cards, and take them sailing to scare the hell out of them. But this year, the students I’ve spent the most time with, prayed hardest for, and lost the most sleep over are seniors. In a few months they’ll be gone.

Taking stock, of the 5 to 10 closest students, only one of them is regularly in church or youth group. The others got their driving licenses and never came back or just faded into oblivion. These were students who wrote passionate poems about Jesus and his love, cluttered up AOL’s trunk lines with hundreds of forwards saying, “if you love Jesus you’ll pass this on,” built porches on mobile homes in Appalachia, worshipped at “Fun in the Son,” rang handbells on Sundays, and crawled under flooded homes to install insulation. But one-by-one they disappeared.

Ken understood my point. All the hype about youth ministry simply hides the painful reality that no matter what we do, most of the kids we work with “disappear.”

But what most of you read was, “Youth ministry is worthless, useless, and not worth doing.” I apologize. The last thing I want to do is discourage youth workers.

What I intended (and didn’t accomplish) was to un-intimidate those youth workers who were discouraged because of all the “successful” ministries who were implying results different from the rest of us.

Luckily, like most of you, Ken McDonald understands youth ministry. And, like you, he’s the real deal. He concludes his letter:

So it feels like time to throw in the towel. Pull off the river, dump out the raft, and head for home. Take up gardening and try nurturing plants for a while instead of young people.

There’s just one problem. God won’t let me do it.

The Call remains.

The bat-infested, apathetic place I call church is my lot at the moment. Those seniors are my seniors, and God has placed us together for some weird reason.

Maybe the institution of youth ministry is a failure, but it hasn’t failed all young people.

Maybe techniques and programs don’t work very well, but they work for some.

Maybe many of the young people we work with don’t make it, but some do.

Maybe our programs aren’t effective for all, but they are effective for a few.

Maybe our programs aren’t changing the world, but they are changing some.

Maybe most kids disappear, but not all of them do.

Maybe we don’t need a revolution in youth ministry; maybe what we need is what we’ve always needed—a few adults who are willing to follow God’s call to love young people into the kingdom of God no matter what the result…like Ken McDonald…and like you.

12 thoughts on “The Failure of Youth Ministry

  1. I know this is an old entry, but are you still thinking about this? Have you written any more about it? Do you have any answer? I’m at the Nat. Youth Workers Convention right now, still looking for answers. (I’m the guy who wrote Mike in the article you reference.)

  2. Interesting, I have felt for awhile now that our current way of doing ministry is less than adequate. Why do we settle for a few students “getting it and keeping it”? Personally, I think that we have been putting band aids on a gaping wound. My question is “What are the core problems with youth today?” I believe that we need to reach parents and strengthen marriages, giving stability back to the family. Yes, we need to teach as leaders and be connected to students. But, just because statistics show that parents barely have influence on their students anymore doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t.

    Searching too…

  3. Kyle

    I agree with you. It makes me cry just reflecting after reading this article. Sadness that the world is such a depraved place, yet it has a beautiful and wonderful Saviour. Sad that as hard as youth leaders try, the problem is so big, and a big part of that is the brokenness of the family, specifically, the brokenness of the individual called dad, and the individual called mum. Their kids need them to be their heroes here on earth. People they can honestly call their friend. People they can learn how to remain committed to almighty God. My sadness is God’s strength, because it’s in these sadnesses that His grace prevails and testimonies are born. I pray that youth workers don’t look for perfect ministries, but simply continue on doing their best and helping the church to heal families. We are only one part of a youth’s life. Our role is to point them to Christ, teach them to hold onto that rope as hard as they can, teach them to trust that if they fall, God’s hand is cradling right underneath them… all the things parents need to do within the home and family life.

    The revelation is that youth ministry *is* a family to many youth, sometimes their only family. That’s why youth ministry is important and the reason we must keep on going.

  4. I am not sure youth group can be a “family.” It is a place to belong for a time. that makes it very different from family. Youth must leave that group very soon and never to return. And that changes the youth ministry mission in definite ways. What are those ways? The youth ministers answer to that question really matters.

  5. I agree with the thoughts that we must keep trying, we must keep going. I also think that there must be some patterns of success. I have a degree in Organizational Leadership and through my studies I have learned that while people and their relationships are complex, there are patterns in the complexity. Looking at everything from Myers Briggs Personality types (, to types of communicators, to leader follower situation models of leadership, each has an avenue of understanding that helps leaders lead. Throw in some community, congregational, and personal relationship variations (i.e. small town, large city, private school, public school, home school, child of single parent, etc) you can se how complex it can get.
    In the business world we talk about configuring the job to the person or fitting the person to the job. People who like to work independently and who are self starters are good at certain jobs and bad at others. People who are quiet and dislike change are a better fit for some jobs over others.
    We have so much experience has anyone tried to find the patters? Is there a resource out there? I agree with Ken that prayer, communication, involvement are and will always be key elements of dedicated youth workers. It is given for some to plant and some to water, but God gives the increase. I just wonder if I could do a better job of planting or watering.

  6. just read the article, and yes, I can also relate it to our own ministry. Though I have to agree with Mike in his last few bits in the Apology article. our ministry, like any other ministries, may not be effective to all, but they are effective to a few. And those few can make a difference. Though for me personally, I don’t think “success” is measured by the quantity, but the quality of the “few” that sustained.
    It reminds me of the verse in Matthew 22:14 “Many are called but few are chosen”. Each one of us are invited to God’s kingdom, many of us hear God’s call. But only a few understands the invitation, only a few are dressed up to the feast, only a few will respond, only those who really hears.

    I guess it’s a call for us as leaders to help our members to listen and not just hear God’s call.

    • What if a Family Life Youth Minister comes into a Church like mine and start ordering Volunteers around acting like they run the place. We had a Youth Minister that left 2 years and after they left me and 2 other volunteers have been in charge of everything and we all came together doing very fun uplifting events. September is when they hired a family life minister. There are allot of problems now they made 3 people quit and they have ordered me around also. Im a type of person that will not give in to what they want me to do. They told the Volunteers that we don’t have time to do that event because we a are too busy. They said their focus is on the Church and not the Youth Group. Also the regular youth minister is giving them all this crap to do and they are not focused at all on the Youth Group or the kids. they say in Family life o ya making connections with the kids and heck they are not even doing that.

      What should be done in this situation?

      • I Think a Youth Minister needs to Focus on the Youth group instead of hiring
        a Family life minister at our church that does not even connect with any of the kids and worries about the church more than WORRYING about the kids. As a Volunteer I was told that I have to do what they want me too and I told them no I don’t have to if I don’t want too and then he said im not asking you im telling you that you will do this. The Children’s director which is his wife said if its not my way were not going to do it. What the heck is that about?? not just me upset its 10 other volunteers. they do not contact any of the kids ever.

        They hired the wrong person in our Church and they just hurt the kids of our Youth Group by hiring these couple.
        Anyone is welcome to comment on my post and please be honest because I don’t know what to do?

  7. Wow, as a minister of 10+ years I could not disagree more. I think that youth ministry should be modeled as all great ministries are modeled. Focusing upward towards the Lord, then towards each other, and then out into the community. Every church I have ever been a part of that focused on filling the seats long term failed miserably because it never connected spiritually with needs. In my humble opinion, I do not believe that “90s” youth ministry failed so much as the church had nothing to offer them and were too rigid to think about new ways to worship. I am a part of a church that has around 150 attendance on Sunday mornings, and we have a youth group of 100+ which identifies at around 75% non-Christian. It has been an ordeal to connect them to Sunday morning, because on the whole, Sunday morning is not built for them but for our fifty plus-ers. That is the sad reality of many churches. I have a group of kids who aren’t even sure about Jesus yet, but who would come every Sunday morning to talk about Him if there was something worth coming to. I created a Sunday morning Bible study to prove just that and it has around 75% attendance from youth group. And my church has been trying to move toward family ministry, which has done nothing but put families who home school on pedestals, and discourage single parents and non-traditional families. We also have to realize that family ministry is geared toward an upper middle class section. My lower class kids continually feel left out as father/son hikes or mother/daughter weekends come up (which incidentally are always too expensive for most families). I think it is way easier than all this. Love God, love each other, and go love the world. And if you offer a genuine place where people feel that they matter and they are free to ask questions without fear of condemnation, they will come in droves.

  8. Wow Brent, your youth group is larger than my church growing up! You could just start your own church…well…except for that finance thing. Those 50 something’s are good for funding the church aren’t they.

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