October 21, 2020

Post-Evangelical Youth Ministry: Some Incomplete Thoughts

BHT fellow Alex Arnold asks what a post-evangelical youth ministry looks like.

Post-evangelicalism is asking what the church itself looks like when it draws its identity, substance and focus from the larger, deeper, wider communion of the church catholic.

Nothing is more typical of evangelicalism in both its strengths and its weaknesses than youth ministry. Many of us would say that the existence of what can be called the post-evangelical impulse is, to some extent, the result of the triumph of youth ministry as the primary model in almost every quarter of evangelicalism.

It was youth ministry in evangelicalism that applied the double edged solvent of cultural relevance and results oriented pragmatism to the church’s primary discipleship and evangelistic ministry. Those solvents were initially respectful of previous tradition and the multi-generational mission of the church, but as youth ministry took on more and more of an identity of its own, tradition and generational diversity became enemies to be slain.

The results have been immense success for youth ministry as a shaping influence in evangelicalism. But a growing segment of evangelicals began to see youth ministry as undermining evangelicalism itself in producing disciples who were committed to the message and mission of the churches that invested the most in youth ministry.

For a post-evangelical, the value of youth ministry as a missional calling of the church is obvious, but there are grave doubts about the continuation of what is, by any measurement, a movement that has been corrosive to much of the church’s identity and connection to its own history.

The overall framework will be this: While remaining distinctively evangelical, a post-evangelical approach to the church will choose how NOT to identify with contemporary evangelicalism and where to identify with the both roots and renewal movements beyond the contemporary evangelical wilderness.

So while I cannot describe a post-evangelical youth ministry, I can suggest some aspects to what a post-evangelical Christian community might determine in regard to its missional ministry to its own young people.

1. It would be very open to the “Family centered” model that puts youth ministry firmly in the ministry of parents, and would utilize “youth ministers” only as a supplement and facilitation of that model.

2. It would never separate young people from the multi-generational nature of the church, but would instill in them an appreciation for the Christian tradition, and the compromises and gifts of the multi-generational model.

3. Age segregated Bible study would most likely be de-emphesized, if not eliminated as much as possible.

4. Mentoring and “AA” type community would be the focus of community life, with a conscious effort to work against the consumerist impulses of evangelical youth culture.

5. One important emphasis would be participation in broader community ministries and worship opportunities that would emphasize being part of the larger body of Christ, including all traditions.

6. Relationships and ministries with the church among the poor and the persecuted would replace the creation of envy of megachurch facilities and a menu of specialized large events.

7. A conscious effort to define discipleship in terms of teachable processes will bring about an investment of time and relationships in learning specific disciplines from particular people, and then passing those discipleship processes on to other young people.

8. The heart of post-evangelical youth ministry would be the church’s own growth process into a community discovering the church as the movement Jesus started, imitating the best models of the past and connecting to other traditions.

9. This does not mean the elimination of “youth ministry,” but it does mean that any specific ministry will find its definition and direction from the overall character of the community to which it belongs. Whatever activities, actions or processes occur, they will be evaluated by the whole community and not by separate standards derived from “youth ministry” as a self-defining parachurch movement.

Obviously there is lot more to be said, but this does get at some of my current thoughts. A very good question. Thanks for asking.


  1. Amen! We left our former evangelical mega-church when our kids were in 5th and 7th grade. I was alarmed at the lack of depth of Christian education and the generational separation of the very large and very well-known youth ministry. We left for a much smaller church that espouses many of the aspects you mentioned. Ironically, though, a few people who’ve been in this wonderful church for years occasionally suggest that our church should take a cue from our former mega-church youth ministry program. I have managed, thus far, to wait until I get to my car to scream silently in frustration. 😉

  2. Scott Miller says

    Excellent points.
    I believe that one of the reasons that young adults leave the church when they have the chance to go out on their own is because of youth group ministries. In an attempt to become culturally relevant they dumb down the gospel or let anything go when it comes to sin. There also is usually no transition from youth group to regular church services.
    In addition, my daughters used youth group as an excuse to “date” when they weren’t old enough to date. Then the boys (some much older) would call them up afterward.

  3. I agree with all nine points.

    As a father of five children . . . getting nearer and nearer to the “empty nest,” I have to speak in retrospective terms.

    I really think the greatest challenge I’ve had, as a parent, was not the issue of protecting my children from the secular (non or anti-Christian) culture but not protecting them from the Christian “youth group culture.” If I had it to do over, I think I would have never allowed my children to have been involved.

    We had good intentions. We went to a total of about 5 churches during their up-bringing. Each Church choice had their interests at the center of our choice. But, there was (looking back again) a comprehensive flaw in the way Evangelicals approached youth ministry.

    My Saturday morning Starbucks sessions (book reading, discussing philosophy, their life issues etc) have been far more valuable in their lives.

    The problem with their youth group experiences, which I am now left to de-construct include the following:

    1) Creating a culture of emotional/ intellectual dishonesty that is presented as the Christian “norm.”

    2) Being taught a very precise theological dogma that was based on ice-thin scriptural or rational support. This left the impression that social coercion, group (or denominational) conformity is more important that seeking real, honest truth.

    3) Using guilt manipulation to control the children’s behavior. “God is disappointed in you doing X (something that has no scriptural bases for being sin . . . such as getting a tattoo or not being back to the trip bus precisely at 9).

    4) Being taught to bury as deeply as possible any question or thought (no matter how real it is) that is offensive to the leader or the most legalistic person in the group. Questions like, “How do I really know God exist?” Why can’t I have sex with my girlfriend, then ask for forgiveness in the morning?

    5) Being taught, by example, that dishonesty is okay or even highly regarded if it is spiritualized. For example, telling a lie about the car being out of gas (when it was on a ¼ of a tank) and praying and God did a miracle getting you home (20 miles). In this context miracles become very cheap.

    6) To not authenticate my kids real-life interests or joys. For example, deeply enjoying the artistic works of JK Rowling in her Harry Potter books . . . but being told that joy was evil because the books were “Satanic.” So they had to read them in the privacy of our home . . . and never mention them to their Christian friends.

    I could go on and on. But, I pray by the mercy of God that he will not allow our mistakes to have permanent harm on the lives of our dear Children. I am thankful that I did come to my personal senses before my kids were out of the house and I had a few years to try and redeem the situation.

  4. iMonk,

    At Wheaton in 1992, I was laughed out of my youth ministry class when I proposed nearly identical solutions as you list here.

    It’s good to see that I wasn’t the only one who saw that youth ministry was broken and not achieving its stated goal.

  5. Nothing is more typical of evangelicalism in both its strengths and its weaknesses than youth ministry. Many of us would say that the existence of what can be called the post-evangelical impulse is, to some extent, the result of the triumph of youth ministry as the primary model in almost every quarter of evangelicalism.

    Are these the same Youth Ministries that have a near-zero retention rate once the kid ages out of/outgrows them?

  6. J. Michael,

    Thanks for speaking up. I had similar experiences with my now college-age children and youth group. Thankfully, I never pushed them to go too much. They told me that mostly it was a social scene much like middle/high school, where only the hip survive and thrive, and the less cool are cast off and ignored. Generally, the leaders were the formerly hip and cool, still trying desperately to be so, and the main focus was that everybody appear to be having a good time. The assumption seemed pretty much to be that teens were only interested in sports (mainly volleyball) and Christian rock. My kids weren’t terribly interested in either. They weren’t called to task for reading Harry Potter; but pretty much looked at askance for enjoying literature at all. The goal never seemed to be in-depth discussion of scripture, or much of anything about God other than a few quick prayers, but having a good time, being hip, and keeping the youth from getting bored with church until they grew up. Now, we are discovering, that when they grow up, they leave anyway, and I have to think it’s because by then, they know so little about the purpose of the church and the message of salvation and they’ve been left them with the idea that a church that isn’t fun and cool is useless. I’m with you–my kids got much more out of our discussions over coffee, or ice-cream, or tea, or just on a trip to the grocery store.

  7. Those are some great thoughts.

    I think you make a great point that youth ministry has shaped evangelicalism.

    Good stuff to chew on.

  8. They told me that mostly it was a social scene much like middle/high school, where only the hip survive and thrive, and the less cool are cast off and ignored. — TeeDee

    You know, I’ve spent over 30 years of my life trying to get away from what I had to go through in high school. If “youth ministry” is “Just like high school, except CHRISTIAN!”, it explains a LOT of the near-zero retention rate.

    Generally, the leaders were the formerly hip and cool, still trying desperately to be so, and the main focus was that everybody appear to be having a good time. — TeeDee

    “They have never left high school.
    They will never leave high school.”
    — Anchoress
    “And they will NEVER let the rest of us leave high school.”
    — My comment to the above quote

  9. Thanks, Michael, for this post.

    Our church is going through this right now. Most of the teens go to other church’s youth groups, which is troubling as only a couple years ago this church had over 50 kids a week attend. I think much of it had to do with the attraction to the youth leader–but that’s another story. We just started a sunday school series for all family members(in the same class).

    My question: What are some good outreach activities that could involve the whole family? Many activities are teenage or up–targeted (summer missions, etc.) I’d like to take my elementary-aged kids and get them involved now. Sometimes they can be more of a distraction(which often leads to separation programs like you described.)

  10. This post got so many thoughts going for me that I’m not sure where to start. First let me say that until two weeks ago, I was a youth pastor. I’ve been working with youth in some capacity for about 10 years. I’ve made mistakes, taken some lumps, and by God’s grace, I’ve made a few good calls too. I happen to agree with the points that you’ve made, Michael, and have done what I can to have that sort of youth ministry with mixed success. Our church is not “mega”, and doesn’t want to be, so this sort of ministry has been easier perhaps. Still, I can’t help but recognize, that when topics like this come up, it’s real easy to play “kick the youth pastor”. I happen to think that there is plenty of blame to go around.

    J. Michael Jones’
    When I read your response, I was reminded of the youth group that I inherited. My predecessor was guilty of most of the things in that list. Let me tell you, if you think it’s easy to change that sort of culture, you are mistaken. Why is it so difficult? My experience has been that for every engaged/concerned parent, there are ten parents who like the status quo because it lets them off the hook. They spoil with material goods, make sure their kids are playing five sports, and hand them off to the youth pastor like they would hand them off to a soccer coach. No muss, no fuss until their kid thinks that youth group is boring, or until a Joel Osteen/Benny Hinn church moves in down the road. “I don’t want my daughter to learn bad theology, but it’s your fault for not being fun enough. At least she’s in church.” I think I could rant forever on that one. Numbers have never been my guiding influence, but I tell you, when you inherit a ministry of 60 kids, and within 1 ½ years you’re down to 25, it’ll cause even the most stout hearted to question himself (and to question whether or not he’ll be feeding his family for very long). I had a seminary prof who used to tell us that in America we worship our children. Now I know what he means.

    There is a price to be paid, both personally and numerically, when a youth minister tries to grow disciples. Let’s not kid ourselves about that one. We recently hired a new youth pastor. I was chair of the search committee, so I made sure he was on the same page in these matters. He won’t have the problems I had, he’ll only have to clean up my messes. He’ll be a better youth pastor than I ever was. I’m now going to minister to (or kill) the parents that have been driving me crazy. 🙂 The sort of change that you’re talking about has to be systemic; it can’t simply rest on the shoulders of an over-worked, under-paid youth pastor.

    Great post Michael. Sorry to write a book. I just got a little fired up.

  11. I’m not going to disagree with the nine points. However, the particular youth group at my current church embraces many of these characteristics already, and still there is a high percentage of dropout when youth translate to adult age. I’m not sure that isn’t inevitable, but there are some things I think could change in the church as a whole to help. I am certain that our youth ministry is very sound when it comes to scripture and doctrine in what is being taught. There are many activities and opportunities for ministry, as well as teaching, discipleship, and fellowship taking place. I’m afraid that as our youth transition into adulthood, they feel the church no longer has anything to offer them. Other than Sunday school and Sunday services, it’s either go into youth ministry or be relegated to Wednesday night prayer meeting (which very few adults show up for). I think part of the problem of the problem lies 1) with the church’s lack of reaching the 20-30ish group of young adults, and 2) the youth’s impression that church is something fun to do; as in their looking at church in terms of what they can get out of it.

    No matter how good the program is, there is going to be a retention problem. That’s part of the nature of youth ministry. Many youth are active in the church only while living at home. Children and youth are actively sought out by the church in ways that adults are not.

  12. Eric R,

    No I certainly don’t think it is easy to change that culture. I didn’t want to take up time in my rather long post describing the times I’ve personally have attempted to take a leadership role in various youth groups (the last being this past year). As you have put in very clear terms, the culture of the parent’s expectations makes it a hair-pulling experience.

    This last year, when I attempted to take over the group, I wanted to model it after the experiences I’ve had with my own kids. Rather than preaching for an hour then just going to water parks . . . I wanted to go out for coffee and talk about where they really are honestly. I wanted to watch their movies with them, and listen to their music . . . but in a thinking way.

    I had the kids pick their favorite TV show . . . which was LOST. I did a lot of homework about the writers, producers and story line. I came up with a list of very provocative questions (like the Eastern-panthestic vs Christian view of morals etc.). Then we watched three episodes (on DVD).

    Then I get approached by the pastor that some parents think it is inappropriate to expose their teens to secular TV shows(and each teen already told me the many, many hours they watched it at home). I was quickly replaced by the pastor himself, who preaches to the kids about the evils of tatoos etc. . . until all of them stopped showing up, but for his own kids.

    I give you a lot of credit as a youth pastor. I know that I can’t do it.

  13. J Michael

    I wasn’t trying to imply that you thought it was an easy culture to change. I was trying to speak with a very generic “you”. When I reread the post, I realized that I sounded a bit pointed. Not intentional, I assure you. I apologize if I was too strong.

    I’m sorry about your experience with the youth at your church. Your story is all too common. Pastors too often make decisions out of fear. That is the worst way to live and minister. I’ve done it. I know what I’m talking about. I’ve had the same complaints made about what we’re doing with our youth, but the difference is that my senior pastor agrees 100% with what I’ve done. I’ve been blessed to serve with the man that I do.

  14. I totally agree that it is very difficult to change the youth group culture, even if, like my church, you don’t have a youth minister, just volunteers to supervise. It’s so true that many parents view youth group not as a supplement to their teaching and mentoring, but as a replacement for it. Too many parents see youth ministry not as a way for their children to learn and grow in the faith, but as a way to keep them from having too much time on their hands and off the streets, doing anything immoral or illegal. But as my children informed me, they do that stuff anyway.
    I wish I had a solution. I have been tempted to get more involved, but haven’t because, as Mr. Jones experienced, I fear MY idea of youth group will bring forth nothing but ire on the part of parents and their kids. If nothing else, I see it as a good sign that churches are beginning to rethink the whole idea in light of new studies showing that youth group attendance doesn’t often lead to adult involvement.

  15. 2. It would never separate young people from the multi-generational nature of the church, but would instill in them an appreciation for the Christian tradition, and the compromises and gifts of the multi-generational model.

    Good luck with that. It’s going to be extraordinarily difficult to get teens interested in older generations than their own when the adults of authority, in both the church and the wider culture, are trying desperately to avoid aging.

    Has it occurred to anyone else that the whole notion of the church needing “revival” is in some ways antithetical to the concept of graceful aging?

  16. I was in the “industry” for nearly 16 years…many of your criticisms are very legit. From the other side of the fence you could also have found yourself developing a community of disciples, who were on a collision course with the machinery of evangelicalism..I had a bit of an epiphany myself when I finally realized the people paying my salary really thought my job was to turn them into what the church was now ( and perhaps in 1975) when I thought I was supposed to be getting them ready to be the disciples they would need to be to carry on the mission of the church. I smelled a train wreck…I had believed we were sort of on parallel tracks but figured out they were going to cross in the not so distant future. I can happily report however that kids from the near 8 years in that last example ma not have been “retained” by the church where the group happened… however a great number of those kids are serving God in great ways all over the place.
    Too often the “retention rate” is only alarming because they aren’t sticking around in our own church enhancing our people collection.This does not mean they are not doing kingdom work in other Christian communities sometimes healthier ones!

  17. Christopher Lake says

    Thank you so much for this post, Michael. It is definitely needed! At 35, I’m obviously no longer a “youth,” but I am blessed to be able to say that at the church of which I am a member (Desert Springs Church, Albuquerque), much of our youth ministry is deliberately intergenerational. Parents are encouraged to attend classes along with their sons and daughters and are even involved in the teaching process. At the moment, the youths are going through the Heidelberg Catechism (we’re a non-denominational church that leans toward Reformed theology). They are also increasingly encouraged to be involved in the larger life of the church.

    Honestly, I haven’t been a member of the church long enough to see if this wider, deeper, intergenerational emphasis is bearing lasting fruit, but I do know that our youth minister on staff has a real heart for apologetics and tackling the hard questions of life (as opposed to saying “Don’t ask! Just believe!” or “Let’s have fun, fun, fun!”). Hopefully, he’s giving our young people some real meat to chew on, rather than merely baby-sitting them, or worse, excusing their sin, as some people have written about in other comments here! (From what I know of him, I trust that he is using his gifts well.) Thanks again for the post. I thought that you might be encouraged to hear of one church’s youth ministry that is trying to embody and implement at least some of the points that you have outlined here.

  18. Great post, Michael. Your points raise some really good questions. If we start having this kind of conversation in our churches, I think the Spirit might spur us on to some creative ways of “being church” and connecting with the mission of God (rather than just trying to do the old methods “better”, or imitating another church that seems to be “successful”). And not just for youth; rather an intergenerational experience.