Tuesday, March 6, 2012

What is a Successful Youth Ministry?

This is the first in a series of posts exploring the biblical foundations of a successful youth ministry. In this first post I consider the important question of “What is it that makes a youth ministry ‘successful?'”

In answering this question I believe Christians today face a real temptation to judge the “success” of a youth ministry by the wrong criteria. First and foremost on this list would be the “Numbers criteria” - how many youth show up? Closely related is the “Program Criteria” - how many different programs does the church offer for the youth? These two criteria can often dominate the discussion when a youth ministry is being evaluated. The more kids that show up routinely to youth group and the more “stuff” the church is able to provide for the kids, the more “successful” the ministry is perceived to be. Larger churches that can boast of separate youth centers, state of the art equipment, and large numbers of youth packing the house weekly are considered the epitome of “success.” On the flip side, smaller churches which lack financial resources and have smaller numbers of youth are considered sub-par in their youth ministry. As a result, parents, parishioners, and pastors in smaller churches often operate with a perpetual sense of failure and are tempted to be envious of the large church programs down the street - “If we only had the resources that “X church” does, then we could really do something!”

But surely this is the wrong way to go about evaluating the “success” of a youth ministry. Numbers and programs are not unimportant, but they are too shortsighted to be the criteria by which a youth ministry is judged. A much better (and more biblical) criteria is that of equipping. I believe that the ultimate goal of any youth ministry must be to assist the parents and the church (more on this later) in leading youth towards maturity in Jesus Christ (Col 1:28). A “successful” youth ministry is one that equips youth to make the transition into mature Christian adulthood, one that lays a foundation which endures the test of time.[1] A youth ministry that has 200 active youth may appear impressive, but if it turns out that 60-70% of these students leave the church once they enter college, has it really been ‘successful?’[2] The point is this: we must not judge the success of a youth ministry program by how many kids are involved and show up on a weekly basis. Churches need to look beyond these short-sightedness goals to the long term results of their youth ministries. What is happening to the youth once they leave? Have they been equipped to make the transition to maturing Christian adults, or were they merely entertained? Over the next few posts I will lay out the defining characteristics of a youth ministry that is focused on equipping youth.

[1] I am indebted to Mark Devries for this definition from his book Family-Based Youth Ministry.

[2] These statistics are unfortunately very accurate according to many recent polls. For one example: http://www.christianitytoday.com/le/2009/summer/istheeraofagesegmentationover.html?start=1.

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