I’m regularly surprised that almost everyone I talk to, regardless of their background, knows something about youth ministry. When I tell people that I work with high school students at a church, they almost always say, “Oh, so you’re like a youth minister?”
But, through many of those same conversations, I’ve learned that there are a lot of misconceptions about youth ministry. When I talk to some people, they seem to think that youth ministry boils down to entertainment and games. According to others, it’s church for teenagers. And, still others think it’s glorified babysitting or a thing of the past. Sadly, many of these ideas have even invaded the minds of teenagers and parents in the church.
So, I want to clear up some of the confusion by addressing four common misconceptions about youth ministry. Along the way, I’ll also offer some concrete suggestions for how youth ministries can avoid perpetuating them.
Misconception #1: Youth Ministry Is Entertainment
If you watched a typical youth ministry meeting, you’d probably see teenagers playing games, hanging out, and laughing. So, it’s not a surprise that many people believe youth ministry is entertainment. Like everyone knows, the thinking goes, church is boring for teenagers, so youth ministry exists to keep them interested.
But faithful youth ministers set their sights on biblically defined ministry goals, not entertainment. While entertainment might build energy or increase attendance, proclaiming Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit results in spiritual maturity (Colossians 1:28–29). While youth ministry isn’t entertainment, teenagers have an appetite for fun, and this can be leveraged for authentic ministry. At the church where I serve, foam bows and arrows, 28.8-ounce bags of sour gummy worms, and funny illustrations (by my standards) are staples, but they are being leveraged to promote biblical understanding and Christian community.
In youth ministry, priorities are often revealed in the way gatherings are structured and staff hours are allocated. While games and humor can be a legitimate part of youth ministry, God’s Word should be supreme, and the time given to each should reflect it. Likewise, staff hours should be poured into teaching preparation and meeting with students for relational discipleship, while planning for games or events takes a backseat.
Misconception #2: Youth Ministry Replaces the Family
Usually, if parents want their kid to get an education, they send them to a school where teachers take responsibility for it. When it comes to sports, parents entrust their kids to coaches. When it comes to music, a music teacher takes the job. So, it makes sense that parents would delegate the spiritual growth of their kid to a youth minister. But, while parents can rely on someone else to instruct their kid in calculus, weightlifting, or piano, they play an indispensable role in discipling their child.
In most cases, a youth ministry will engage with a teenager for a few hours a week, but families spend hours together each day, which means that the opportunities for discipleship are exponentially greater. Most importantly, families have received a divine mandate to disciple their kids (Ephesians 6:4). Youth ministry, therefore, is a supplement to family discipleship, not a replacement for it.
In many contexts, communication is an excellent and simple step toward promoting family involvement in a youth ministry. Whether parents realize it or not, it’s important that they know the youth minister and are aware of what their teenager is being taught, so youth ministers should look for ways to loop them in through communication. Also, youth ministers should reinforce parental authority in their teaching and conversations, not undermine it.
Misconception #3: Youth Ministry Is Church
In a typical youth ministry gathering, you might see a lot of things—preaching, music, and prayer—that resemble congregational worship, so it makes sense that many people think that youth ministry is church for teenagers. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. According to the Bible, the regular congregational gathering of Christians is required (Hebrews 10:24–25) and is made up of people of all ages (1 Peter 5:1–5). Youth ministry, therefore, shouldn’t be confused with the regular gathering of the local church.
When teenagers fall into the misconception that youth ministry is church, it can be harmful. In general, youth ministries are tailored to the needs of teenagers, which can have an unintended effect: teenagers can develop a taste for bespoke church. To avoid this, youth ministries should push teenagers toward meaningful involvement in the broader life of the local church through membership and service.
At the most basic level, youth ministries should plan their activities in a way that complements the regular gatherings of the local church, as opposed to competing with them. Also, youth ministers should encourage church membership and highlight the importance of the congregational gathering. One practical way to do this is to incorporate application-focused discussion of sermons from the congregational gathering into youth ministry gatherings.
Misconception #4: Youth Ministry Is Outdated
Today, most teenagers are faced with a dizzying number of opportunities in the athletic, academic, work, and social spheres. In many cases, teenagers feel like they have more to do than they could ever get done, so it’s not clear where participating in a youth ministry fits in their lives. Also, any teenager with a smartphone (which is almost the same thing as saying any teenager) has access to their friends, entertainment, and biblical teaching at their fingertips, so why would they need to participate in an in-person youth ministry meeting?
Honestly, it might seem like youth ministry is outdated. It can’t compete with the addictive entertainment provided through social media or streaming, and faithfully being a part of a youth ministry probably won’t get anyone a college scholarship. But that’s exactly why youth ministry continues to have a vital role in the lives of students, because it doesn’t simply offer a social life or a stronger college application—it offers the gospel. Today, teenagers need more exposure to the Word of God, not less. They need more exposure to godly adults and peers who love, challenge, or mentor them, not less.
In fact, if a youth minister wants to maintain relevance, a biblical vision for youth ministry is the most important step. Youth ministries that build themselves on entertainment, attempt to replace the family, or function as a church are already outdated. But, youth ministries that teach students the Bible, partner with families in discipleship, and prioritize the local church are as relevant as they ever have been.