An Open Letter to Youth Workers

Posted: March 7, 2021 in Uncategorized

Let me start with a confession. I am not currently a professional youth worker. I am a senior pastor. That being said, before COVID I did quite a bit of youth speaking, I still create youth ministry resources, and I love youth ministry and youth ministers. I also know that a lot of people interested in creative arts ministry are involved in working with youth, In short I started my ministry as an unpaid youth pastor (the primary youth leader in a church that could not afford a youth pastor), I’ve had the privilege of meeting and encouraging hundreds of youth workers. I “cut my teeth” in youth ministry and it remains a passion for me. 

I’ve also seen the ugly side of youth ministry. I’ve had many dear friends who have been treated horribly by their churches, fired for no good reason and generally mistreated by the church, yet somehow they continue to serve the Lord in this way. The average tenure for a youth pastor is about a year and a half. Often that has little to do with them, but occasionally it does. I’m writing this as a plea to youth workers out of a heart of genuine love. You have a ministry, many would struggle with and in the process you have been entrusted to work with a group of people at the hardest part of their lives. 

I’m aware that what I am about to write will be disregarded by many. You will no doubt look at this as the rantings of a cranky old pastor who has lost touch. I don’t believe that is the case, but I know that our blind spots are often better seen by others. I humbly submit this for your consideration. Yesterday, I saw a post on a youth ministry Facebook group, asking for suggestions on foods to use in a game of Fear Factor. My first reaction was “Here’s an idea,  don’t do it.” Yes, I know I need to repent of my snarkyness, but this post genuinely hurt my heart. You see, I was an unchurched teen and I was bullied mercilessly. This has colored my responses to youth activities. I try to imagine walking into a youth meeting as a teen and what would have sent me running for the door. This is also why I hate dodgeball. “Great someone wants to let me be a literal human target another hour a week, just like gym class, only I don’;t have to be here. BYE!” 

The original post was followed by a multitude of suggestions, including one particularly delightful suggestion of challenging the students to drink a GALLON (as in eight pounds) of milk and the one who can keep it down the longest “wins.” This suggestion was followed by an equally delightful video of students vomiting milk into trashcans. I assume this was a trophy. For me it would have been used as evidence in said youth worker’s dismissal, or at the very least the “that never happens again” meeting. Forget for a minute the possible physical damage consuming that much milk in such a short period of time and let’s look at the disruption factor. I assume this “game” was meant to be a warm up, so let’s consider how an activity like this will effect the rest of the meeting, as this milk finds various ways of leaving the body. Not only will the student himself miss everything while they are focused on keeping what is inside in, but those around him can’t help but be distracted as well. 

I would ask myself what is the spiritual purpose of this activity and how will it effect the important message I am hoping to convey? I mean let’s face it. We get students about three hours out of their 168 hours of life each week, and that’s only if something “more important” doesn’t come up. In those three hours we are supposed to be sharing with them truths that will impact where they spend eternity. Are games like this really worthy to use up part of that time? Remember you, as a youth worker, have been entrusted with God’s precious children at the most difficult time of their lives. When they leave your ministry, they will be thrust into either the work force, which is no picnic, or, more likely into a college or university, that often will not foster their faith. 

Please ask yourself, “Will this activity lead to the message the Lord has entrusted me to convey?” You have three hours, and maybe a lot less, to present the truth that sets people free. So please ask yourself “Is this really the best use of that time?” And one more thing. I know the temptation is always to reach the cool kid, but please consider the fragile kid—the one walking into your ministry looking for a safe place to fit. They have value too. What you do is of immense Kingdom importance. I love you and respect you, but please be careful. There’s so much more to say, but that’s enough for now.

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