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4 warning signs your youth ministry may be headed for trouble (and what you can do about it!)

Picture of Greg Stier
Greg Stier

Trouble Ahead!Every year I have the awesome privilege of connecting face-to-face with thousands of youth leaders across the country. During this time I have had several gut-level conversations with youth leaders and have noticed a pattern in the majority of youth ministries that are headed for trouble. There are at least 4 clear warning signs.

But, in addition to sharing these warning signs with you, I want to suggest an immediate corrective action that will help you to begin moving in the right direction. So, without further adieu, here are the 4 warning signs:

Warning Sign #1:  It’s internally obsessed, not outwardly focused.

Youth ministries that tend to be all about what’s happening inside the four walls of the youth room become spiritually inbred and culturally impotent. True disicpleship entails sending teens on mission every single day to their friends, classmates and teammates and not just teaching them God’s Word. Because it’s during these Gospel conversations where many teenagers begin to truly know and own their faith. 

Think of it this way, if you pour milk into a sponge and don’t squeeze it out, the milk will sour. In the same way, if our teenagers take in the milk of the Word  (1 Peter 2:2) but never pour it out to their peers, they too will spoil.

Corrective Action: Train your teenagers to share their faith and get them doing it right away. Check out Shine for a simple, effective and fun training resource.

Warning Sign #2:  It’s built on human strategy, not divine wisdom.

“For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom….”  1 Corinthians 1:25

Far too many youth ministry programs are built on a human tradition rather than a divine wisdom. Blaring music, goofy games and superficial sermonettes tend to dominate the youth ministry landscape. While it’s great to have fun, there is often not enough focus on prayer, the Word, deep fellowship and relational evangelism (along with a game of dodgeball from time to time!)

Youth leaders are inundated with curriculum and programmatic choices. It’s tempting to choose what may seem to keep our teens entertained and in their seats for the next 4-6 weeks rather than what they really need to hear and experience.

Meanwhile the greatest youth ministry book of all time (the Bible) and the greatest opportunity to gain divine wisdom (prayer) lay covered in proverbial dust in the corner of our youth rooms.

Corrective Action: Read the book of Acts and ask yourself what were the elements that kept the early church excited and thriving and how can you begin to apply those elements in your youth ministry culture?

Warning Sign #3:  It’s about attendance, not percentage.

Bigger is not always better. Jesus proved this true when he dispelled the gawking crowds and settled for his youth group of 12 or so in John 6:60-69. For Jesus, it was about percentages, not attendance.

It  was about two primary percentage numbers:

First, it was about the percentage of commitment in his followers’ hearts. Jesus demanded 100% commitment. Sure joining “Team Jesus” was free, but getting on the starting squad required everything. If you don’t believe that, re-read Luke 14:25-35. In the same way we should judge part of our success as youth leaders by how many of our students are all in for Christ and His Cause.

Secondly, it was about the percentage of new disciples plugged into our youth ministries as a result of the Gospel being advanced. This is true, not just of Jesus and his fishy band of disciples (Jesus reached Andrew, Andrew reached Peter, and so on), but of the early church as well. In Acts 2:47 God “added to their number daily those who were being saved.” The early church grew, not due to transfer growth, but explosive new conversion growth.

How is your youth ministry doing in these two areas? What would you guess your percentages to be when it comes to full commitment and new conversion growth? If both numbers are low then your youth ministry may be headed for trouble.

Corrective Action:  Beef up your teenagers’ commitment to THE Cause by taking them on a mission trip, evangelistic outreach or a deeper level training event like Lead THE Cause.

Warning Sign #4:  It’s personality led, not value driven.

“I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us.” 3 John 1:9

What was true of the early church (a dynamic leader wanting to be the center of attention, decision-making and everything) is also true of modern youth ministry. Bake a youth ministry with the main ingredient being a youth leader’s winsome personality, then, when the sizzle fades, you’ll find out there was no steak after all. But if you make and bake your ministry with Biblical ingredients then whatever you cook will taste good (although it will give the Devil indigestion!) 

With this as a backdrop there are two primary types of youth leaders I’ve met. There are the flexers and the grinders. The flexers, like body builders posing, flex their sense of humor, vast ministry experience and winsome personalities to get a crowd of teenagers. This brand of ministry can seem to work for awhile but, in the end, it will crumble when the leader leaves or falls.

The second type of youth leader I’ve met are the grinders. They are the ones who grind the values of God’s Word deeply into their lives and into their programs day in and day out. They may not be the flashiest or the funniest but they are often the most fruitful. Why? Because they’ve made their youth ministries about Jesus and his values, not themselves and their personalities.

Corrective Action: Take the Gospel Advancing diagnostic to see which of the seven values you are strongest and weakest in when it comes to your youth ministry. Then choose from the menu one best practice/resource you can use in both your strongest and weakest area.

What are some other warning signs of a youth ministry headed for trouble and what are some corective actions a youth leader can take to avoid it?


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