For seven years I served as a youth pastor and sadly today I only know of a few of the students that I worked with who are still walking with the Lord. Now please don’t misunderstand my post here. I am not beating myself up. In fact, I want to share with you the errors I made in youth ministry so that you too can see the errors that we so often make when it comes to evangelism and discipleship and hopefully prevent them in the future from repeating them. I believe the errors I made are far too common in the Church and this doesn’t just include youth ministry but nearly all ministries. The errors I made are largely due to the training and leadership often given in youth ministry and the evangelical church at large.
The Poor Foundation of Youth Ministry
My errors begin with the poor foundation that is often laid in youth ministry. Bible colleges often fail to train youth pastors (and many other future church leaders) on the fundamentals of the faith. Sound doctrine has been replaced by pragmatism. Exegesis has been replaced by goofy games. Prayer has been replaced by seminars. Spiritual growth has given way to camps and conferences. The passion for the souls of teenagers or even God was largely not spoken about. There were a few Bible verses thrown here and there to keep it spiritual but when I was in Bible college, the men who later would be emergents were building Youth Specialties and we often studied their approach to youth ministry.
This “emergent” foundation of youth ministry was focused on being cool, being hip which often meant spending time studying the movies, television programs, and music that the generation was listening to. However, you are what you eat. Bear in mind that the Bible says, “Whoever walks with the wise becomes wise, but the companion of fools will suffer harm” (Proverbs 13:20 ESV). I knew youth pastors who could do skits from every popular movie and song that teens knew but they could not quote one passage from the Bible. I knew youth pastors who would spend hours watching movies from today’s media but they didnt’ spend five minutes on their faces in prayer. We were often taught to become like the teens to reach them often twisting Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 to justify our acts. We needed to be cool to attract teens to our youth ministries (more on this later).
Oh for a youth ministry that was based on the Bible! Oh for a youth leadership that was based on prayer, repentance, holiness, and integrity! Oh for Bible colleges that would train future leaders on how to pray, how to share the gospel with power, and how to walk with Jesus!
And Errors Breed Errors
I entered youth ministry in 1997 thinking that the way to build a successful youth ministry was to attract teenagers by being relevent, cool, and water down the gospel. Because I knew that I wouldn’t water down the gospel, I tried being the first two. We built a skate park and attracted skaters to the church. The only price they had to pay to skate was to come to a Bible study. They did and I tried to preach the gospel to them but they rejected the message because despite the fact that we were cool for building a youth ramp, the message was a message of radical repentance and death to self and that flies in the face of modern man (1 Corinthians 1:18).
My other failure in my first stint as a youth pastor was thinking that I could actually preach on holiness, repentance, and peserverance in the faith without offending the adults who merely wanted numbers. The deacon board of the church I was at wanted results. The bottom line was money. The lost parents bringing their lost teenagers wanted me to straighten out their rude teensagers without asking any price to be paid by the parents. The church board wanted pizza parties, camps, lockins, and retreats aimed at having fun and keeping the parents tithing.
So I quit.
To make a long story shorter, I took another church as youth pastor and tried to improve on my methods but to little avail. Where did I go wrong?
So now more than ten years later, what errors did I make in youth ministry and in ministry in general?
1. Proper Biblical Evangelism – Evangelism must begin with the law of God and not the love of God. As Ray Comfort points out in his book The Way of the Master, “Can you imagine starting the gospel with: God has a wonderful plan for your life and it is that you will die and go to hell if you do not repent? Most would be offended by such a message and would not see the wonderful aspect of it. We must not begin with the love of God without first showing the person that they have broken God’s righteous Law and are dead in their sins apart from His grace.”
I often begin evangelism by trying to show how Jesus would fill the void in one’s heart or how we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. But what I failed to show was the person’s sin. If we tell people that their debt for their sins are paid without first showing them their sinfulness, they will never see the power of God’s love and grace. Romans 7:7,14 makes it clear that the Law reveals our sins. Romans 3:19-20 reveals how the Law of God shuts our mouths before a holy God as we often try to justify our behaviour or our self-righteousness (“I may be bad but I am not as bad as so and so”).
2. Sound Discipleship – Matthew 28:19-20 instructs us to make disciples and teach them to obey all that Jesus has taught us. 2 Timothy 2:2 instructs us to have godly men pass on their knowledge to other men. Discipleship is not just about reading a book on theology or even a book on discipleship but discipleship is about disciples making disciples.
The best book I know of on discipleship training is Robert Coleman’s The Master’s Plan of Evangelism. Coleman shows how Jesus made disciples. Discipleship is more than just passing along knowledge to another person but its about passing along life.
How do you teach someone to pray? By reading a book on prayer? It might help but the best way to teach someone to pray is by praying with them. Jesus both taught on prayer and demonstrated it by praying (Luke 11:1-13).
How do we teach someone to evangelise? Reading a book on evangelism is good but taking a person out to share their faith is better.
3. Prayer – I should have spent more time on my face in prayer not only for the teens in our youth ministry but those we were trying to bring in as well. Further, I should have trained my teens to pray with passion and fire. Prayer is not just talking to God but its relentless warfare, its sweating, its weeping, its hungering for the presence of God, its longing for God to demonstrate his power to glorify his Son.
I know I taught on prayer and we may have even read some books on prayer but nothing beats getting together with other disciples and praying in the Spirit (Romans 8:26-27; Ephesians 6:18). I should have raised up a generation that prayed.
How many youth ministries do you know that are built around prayer? I know that many youth pastors say “prayers” but I am talking about true intercessory prayer (1 Timothy 2:1-7). Where are those who would cry out for this generation? Where are those who would stand in the gap for the lost of our time (Romans 10:1; 2 Peter 3:9)?
4. Holiness – I remember hearing a godly youth pastor once say, “My teenagers respect me more because I don’t know what movies are out there, what songs are popular, and what is the ladest fads.” They respected him because he was not like their generation but was like Jesus.
Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (ESV). Without holiness we will not see the Lord both personally and without holiness no one will see the Lord in the Church. 1 John 2:15-17 makes it clear that we are not to be like the world.
Someone once wrote, “I went looking for the Church and found it in the world. I looked for the world and found it in the Church.” How sad that this sums up the modern Western Church.
What attracts people to the gospel is the gospel. The Spirit of God must open their minds and hearts to hear the gospel to be saved (John 6:44). The gospel doesn’t need our help for it is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). The Word will go forth and will not return void until it accomplishes what God sent it out to accomplish (Isaiah 55:11).
I could write much more. Obviously as a fallen human being I have made (and will make) many mistakes. The only way to learn to make good decisions is by learning from the bad decisions. You learn from your mistakes. I want to be more like Jesus in leadership, ministry, and life (Ephesians 5:1; 1 John 2:6). I want to be able to say with Paul that others can imitate me as I imitate Christ (1 Corinthians 11:1).