Why We Need Change in Youth Ministry

Posted on: 11/24/08 9:41 AM | by Jonathan McKee

A couple weeks ago we launched a new podcast– one where my buddy Brandon and I interviewed Mark Oestreicher (CEO of Youth Specialties) about his new book, Youth Ministry 3.0

The discussion was fascinating, a much needed conversation about “why we need change in youth ministry.” Marko blogged about it yesterday, plugging the podcast and outlining the “7 Sins” he shared with us. He has started a Facebook group about the book, and several people on that page are plugging our podcast and talking about it (for those that like to listen to a recording, rather than read a book).

I haven’t really gone on record about the book yet, so I figured I’d share my 2 cents.

My two cents on Youth Ministry 3.0

First, I think the book is a must read for youth workers. It is one of those books that will stretch you- a needed stretch for most. It forces us to think out of the box when it comes to why we do what we do.

It’s a fact that many of us in youth ministry tend to gravitate toward a expected list of “do’s” in our youth ministry. In other words- when it comes to our specific ministry, most of us tend to think about “Wednesday night youth group, Sunday morning, our small groups, etc.” We’re very “program” focused. Marko’s book questions that kind of thinking, explaining why it might have worked decades ago, but doesn’t work now.

Even if you don’t agree with all of his conjecture (i know I didn’t), his history of youth ministry is fascinating, his insight into the needs of today’s teenager was perceptive, and the questions he raises are not only relevant, but necessary. It’s a must read for any youth leader, and a great conversation starter in youth ministry leadership circles.

How far do we take this?

I think the over-reactions to this book could be scary. I hope that people won’t abandon their “programs” all together. One of the biggest thrusts of Marko’s book is that today’s teenagers are looking for belonging. Many of our small groups and youth groups provide that for some of our kids. It would be a shame to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

“Programming” has become a bad word in the last two years in youth ministry circles. It’s actually pretty amusing. In my Connect Training, I try to help people understand this phenomena by introducing to “people,” Loni Lovem, and Peter Programmit. In the workshop I describe Peter and his extreme use of slick programming, focus on numbers, etc. Then I talk about how Loni Lovem emerged- really as a polar reaction to Peter. She wants to be anything BUT Peter, so she refuses to do anything with programming and tries to just go and “love kids.” Go where kids are at and just love em. But don’t try to organize anything, because that would be “programming,” and programming is BAD!

In this seminar I propose questions for each side. I ask Peter questions like, “Do you really know the kids that are coming to your programs?” and “If a kid is missing one week… are they missed?” I ask Loni, “How do you make first contact with kids? Do you stand out front of a high school campus after school in an overcoat and say, “Hey kids, do you want some candy?” and I ask her, “Where is a safe place where these kids can ‘belong?'” (you can hear me go through this whole scenario in my workshop at YS this year- YS sells mp3’s and CD’s of their sessions here)

There is not easy answer to this tension. The answer is obviously a balance. That’s why I like Marko’s Youth Ministry 3.0. A lot of people reside on the side of Peter Programmit. Marko’s book comes from the trenches of Loni Lovem and provides a needed extreme pull toward her side. I just hope that this “pull” doesn’t prompt youth leaders to drop existing venues where kids can connect right now (in fear that they are just “programs!”) These venues can be effective instruments in our toolbelt, that can help even Loni provide a safe place where kids can go once she makes contact. That’s the key. We need to be “going to them” (something Peter needs to learn) but also be open to being part of venues (something Loni needs to get over!) where kid can connect.”

That’s my quick two cents.

8 Replies to “Why We Need Change in Youth Ministry”

  1. wow, my head is spinning from that podcast. i totally agree with marko that kids need to belong, but i need some more practicality. (which is why i like your site so much btw) he said, “don’t have a (game night)to build connections, just build connections.” my connection wand is broke. and if you don’t schedule some things,even like fellowship time mentioned, they just don’t happen alot of times. i wanted the answer to the question you asked about at the skate park, where is the happy medium between “later, god bless” and “let’s all sit down for Bible study. a little to absract for this practical youth pastor. but overall i like the idea of impacting individual kid’s lives. thanks

  2. Jon… I hear ya, my head was spinning too! His book really made me question some “tried and true methods.” But I think that’s really good. We need that every once in a while so we don’t become to “routine” and stop asking big questions like, “Why are we even doing Wednesday nights?”

    About “connections.” Yes… I think we can build connections on Wednesday night(I say “Wednesday night” as a hypothetical- that could mean youth group night, hockey night, whatever), as long as we’re willing to admit that we’re only building connections with those who show up. There are so many more kids who will never show up to Wednesday night- how do we reach out to them? And what is our end goal with them?

    That’s where some of our “methodology” might begin to differ. “Loni Lovem” might think that we always need to go to their turf. I think that we need to be doing both. I think we definitely go to their turf (skate parks, football games, coaching soccer, etc.), but also have “safe venues” where they can come and connect. These are different tools that reach different kids.

    I would tell you to read more about this in my new book CONNECT, but it’s not out for another year! (Bummer! I hate waiting!) 🙂 But you can get the audio to that CONNECT training using that link to the YS workshop above. I touch on it just a little bit.

  3. I’ll shut up and let others comment, but this is so important and hits my ministry right in the gut, I need some answers. I try to go out of my way to use programs to acheive connections. when we set up for our halloween party, before we started we talked about the goal being to bring people to Jesus not to set up a fish toss. why can’t peter and loni have a sister named Michelle Means-an-end. i had heard you talk about “program” being a cuss word, but I didn’t realize how right you were. some people are so set on not programming that IT becomes a program.I know this subject strikes at the heart of what you’re doing here too, (Hilarious when you said “i’m the author of getting kids to show up)but please don’t quit doing what you’re doing. thanks Jon (peter 2.o)

  4. i didn’t hear the podcast and i haven’t read the book but have heard marko speak before about this very subject. i remember listening to him and thinking that what he was saying somehow made sense. as i reflected on what he said later i was kind of confused. i know that programs are just programs and that people are what we need to be worried about (in our case, youth). i get that concept and try to make my ministry about that. i want to have relationships with kids not with my program. and i think i work hard to cultivate those relationships; i go to games, i go to lunch, i hang out with them, i call/text them. i know relationships are greater than programs.

    i work in a small church that is pretty traditional (though we do have a praise band, which most of the congregation thinks is pointless – ironically my youth think they are the best part of church, but that’s a different blog topic altogether isn’t it…anyway), my church expects things to be done a certain way and they really value programming. though they may not realize it. being blessed to be at the same place for 7 years, i have a pretty good sense of what is important to the people here. i know they love youth and want to see youth know Christ but i think they’d lose it if i did something that would be “too drastic” in their eyes. so i guess i am trying to say is how do i help change the mindset of the congregation i work for as i try to make the ministry God has blessed me with more effective?

    there probably isn’t an easy answer to that. i guess i am not so much looking for an answer but some help. i understand we can’t just keep doing more programs, at the same time unlike a lot of people i know i don’t hate programs. i agree that a middle ground has to be reached with the proper emphasis on each area. i just don’t know how to make that happen right now. it’s a good thing to be thinking about. i just kinda feel bummed…i mean i want the ministry to be what God wants it to be. and i know i shouldn’t be concerned about what people think, though it is tough when they give ya a check every week. how can i do this stuff without creating too many waves? is there a gradual way?

  5. I find it interesting – it seems that the old keeps coming back with new marketing. Yea, calling it version 3.0 is a nice touch, but is it really any different? Or just a restatement of the old ideas (such as you mention above, love vs program)?

    Do you know what book I really want to see? A book on what teens, everywhere, always are like. Universal truths of how the sin nature and so forth affect teens.

    Instead of striving and being always two steps behind culture, lets shoot for unchanging truths and universal principles that are true in any society.

    Face it, by the time this 3.0 book is out, we are on 5.0 – so why chase the wind?

  6. Not to be simplistic, but I find that most of us in my age bracket (slightly older than Marko) tend to agree with the things that he and many other YS leaders speak of. YS has always been where I look for what’s ahead more than the latest trend, game or event and so it is to be expected that Marko will ask questions to help us think in future terms before we sit down and plan our year. When I was younger I was admittedly less concerned with the long term and so wanted the hottest trend in ministry to be part of what we did, but now that I have a couple of generations of former students it is VERY clear to me which aspects of ministry worked and which did not. Overwhelmingly when students look me up on facebook or run into me if I’m back in town, they talk about my presence in their lives rather than the things I planned. However, those events, retreats, and Sunday nights did provide me the place to be in their lives and so I can’t imagine just tossing them completely, but it was the late night talks of the retreat that held more impact than the planned stuff. Would those late night talks have happened without the thought process inspired by the details and planning? I’m not sure. If I’m being really honest, the truth is now I no longer WANT to put together the big event, but I’m really happy to participate with those either younger or more energized in that direction. Maybe that means a team of youth ministry people with the varying interests and planning gifts and goals make for the best mix?

  7. Great comment Karen. It’s great to hear how your relational ministry has really paid off over the years. And I like that you are asking questions like, “Would those late night talks have happened without the thought process inspired by the details and planning?” Those are good concepts to wrestle with. I think many of us need to discover a balance- seeking out relational times rather than the “perfect program” -but also engaging in/creating safe venues where we can connect with kids.

  8. Hey guys. My wife and I have been running a youth ministry for a year now and we have got 30 regular kids that come every week plus about 20 or so that pop in now and then. We are wanting to expand and find more youth leaders. Any suggestions on info about how to create and develop youth leaders?

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