It’s easy to become isolated when ministering to others. Your plate is often overflowing with people needing your immediate attention. Nowhere is that probably more accurate than in youth ministry. Who has time to read books or engage with youth ministers in other congregations when your phone is constantly sending you notifications about everything urgent that must be addressed right now?
Unfortunately, when we isolate ourselves from others, we can’t learn from their successes or discover that those supposed successes were actually a road to failure. Too many in youth ministry are relying on outdated or inaccurate information to make key decisions about the various aspects of their ministry.
At Teach One Reach One Ministries, we are exposed to ministries around the U.S. and in other countries. We are constantly examining research studies in a variety of fields and reading books about a number of areas that can impact a ministry – including education and brain science. What we have found over the years is that many youth ministries make the same mistakes. Mistakes that hamper their effectiveness in ministering to teens.
Instead of asking you to read a lot of research studies and books, here are the top 10 mistakes we see most often in youth ministry.
- Assuming unstructured free time builds strong, supportive friendships. This may be true for a small number of teens who go to school together or have a lot in common. For the majority though, unstructured free time is at best a time waster and at worst can provide opportunities for teens to feel excluded and unwelcome. True, healthy friendships are built on sharing one another’s hearts. This is usually best facilitated in an environment (often a Bible class or small group study) guided by an adult, so rough spots can be managed by someone more experienced.
- Failing to spend time teaching lessons covering apologetics and logical fallacies. Most teens don’t have a well developed filter for separating truth from lies when it comes to spiritual matters. They can be easily swayed by arguments against God and Christianity because they “sound” better and more logical. Teaching them how to filter anything anyone (including preachers and Bible class teachers) says or writes through God’s wisdom requires adding to their knowledge and understanding – not just of scripture, but also in the tactics people use to persuade others to agree with them. (Fair warning. Although Truth is in the Bible, Christians are not above resorting to logical fallacies themselves… which is why the ultimate decider of Truth should always be what God included in the Bible.)
- Creating poorly planned service learning opportunities. Service learning can be a great way to teach young people how to apply what they are learning in Bible class to real life. Every year, we have conversations with ministries frustrated because the youth groups serving them did not live up to their realistic expectations because of a lack of preparation. Even worse, most teens are poorly prepared to actually learn much of anything from the service projects and mission trips in which they participate. Our website and blog have tons of free resources to help you create service learning experiences that actually help you attain your goals, not just for the project, but for the young people participating in it.
- Using the “Socratic” method of teaching improperly. There must be some youth ministry book that encourages the use of the Socratic method when teaching teens, because we see people claiming to use it quite a bit. Unfortunately, most teachers of teens think they are using the Socratic method when they are actually hindering learning and encouraging students to hold onto inaccurate assumptions. The important thing to remember is that any inaccurate idea proposed by a teen in a Bible class environment should be addressed and the truth from scripture shared in a loving way. When adults do not challenge untrue ideas, other students may then believe they are valid. You may never change the mind of the teen who shared the idea originally, but you can help others avoid believing something that isn’t true.
- Failing to provide each teen with a well trained mentor. Being a teen has never been easy. Teens need supportive Christian adults in their lives who regularly make time to listen and guide them when necessary. If your ministry does not provide mentors for teens, please start. Anyone using mentors needs to provide training so they feel prepared to handle any issues that may arise – both theologically and practically.
- Isolating teens from those younger and older than them in the congregation and allowing them to believe it is healthy to do so. The Bible makes it abundantly clear that God’s people need to have those older and wiser than them engaged in their lives. They in turn need to be nurturing and supporting children younger than they are. Intergenerational ministry is the fancy term for what many may think is something that is new and different. It’s actually been recommended by God throughout time. Stop separating teens from the rest of the congregation at every opportunity. Stop saying negative things about “old people” or children. Teach them the value of being a spiritual family. Encourage them to value congregations with people of all ages – not just ones who are made up of mostly people their age.
- Trying to compete with technology. Technology has young people addicted to dopamine and cortisol. Your ministry should not try to attract and retain teens by designing experiences that give them even more hits of these addictive substances and encourage them to reject real life. Christianity should never be about entertainment and razzle dazzle. It also doesn’t have to be dry and boring. Teach them to appreciate being with God in worship and classes rather than being entertained. Have activities that are meaningful and hands-on …. they are ultimately more fun that activities that are fun, but shallow.
- Failing to listen to doubts and explain the “why’s” of God’s commands in ways they can understand. We say this a lot, but doubts do not destroy faith… unanswered doubts do. Likewise, it may not be abundantly clear to you why God gave us some of His commands, but most older adults have seen a lifetime of the negative consequences heaped upon people who disobeyed God’s commands. Teens don’t have that life experience and the wisdom that often comes with it, so share that wisdom with them in ways they can understand.
- Bringing adult spiritual baggage into Bible classes and other environments for teens. This one drives me up the wall! Having been raised in a moderate congregation, I have hardly any spiritual baggage from my childhood and teen years. Yet I hear adults share their scarring experiences in church with teens who do not attend a congregation with a similar dynamic to that the adult is sharing. Why are you saying negative things about Christians and the church to impressionable young people? Stop. If you need to talk about it, go to another adult or a professional. Stop undermining the faith of teens with your stories.
- Only exposing teens to people with cautionary tales. Based on the life stories heard by most teens in youth groups, it can be easy to believe that you are supposed to go off the deep end spiritually and live a life enmeshed in sin as a young adult. As if it is part of a rite of passage. I understand that you want them to understand the negative consequences from someone who has lived them, but they also need to hear it is possible to stay faithful to God during those years. Believe it or not there are adults who stayed faithful in their teens and twenties who actually lived exciting and interesting lives during that time period. Have them share their stories, too. Normalize making godly choices as an adult. Don’t make faithful kids feel like nerds because they aren’t enmeshed in sin.
Is your ministry making any of these mistakes? Make any needed changes as quickly as possible. Don’t continue to do what you have always done when it is hurting the faith of the teens to whom you are ministering. They are counting on you!