From Where I Sit: The Challenges and Joys of Youth Ministry

This week we wrap up our series on the challenges and joys of youth ministry. If you’ve missed any of the articles, check them out:
Now, Terry Dittmer, director of LCMS Youth Ministry, offers his thoughts:
So, what do I think about the joys and challenges of youth ministry looking at it from the vantage of a denominational national office?
Well, first, I believe God has blessed us with some of the brightest youth workers around, evidenced by the thoughtful responses from Jacob Youmans, Leah Abel, and Steve Meyer. You can sense the love of Christ in their lives and ministries and you can tell that they love the youth with whom God has blessed them. I wish every youth had a youth minister like these three. According to a poll from the Fuller Youth Ministry Institute, the number one thing that kept youth connected to the church through high school, believe it or not, the number one thing was their youth worker, someone who cared about them, shared Christ with them, prayed for them, connected with their lives.

When it comes to the biggest challenge facing youth and those who minister with them, I’ve got to say it is what Christian Smith has identified as “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” (MTD). From what he gleaned from the data in the National Study of Youth and Religion, most teenagers seem to believe in a God who is good, friendly, forgiving, looking down from heaven but really not much involved in the lives of people unless they are absolutely desperate. God is a nice God. And, He wants you to be happy.

We live in a culture where religion often makes people uncomfortable. To confess what you believe, to have a conviction, a confession of faith — these are circumspect in today’s world. It’s okay to be “spiritual,” whatever that means. But to be a person of faith and to believe in God and His truth — that’s not so cool. You might end up offending somebody. So, we create a kind of wussy God who really doesn’t get in the way much.

Even in the best youth programs, teens can fall prey to MTD. Our biggest challenge is to share the Gospel with them, to share God’s truth in Jesus Christ and to equip them to live as God’s redeemed people in this crazy, time-warped, entertainment-biased, celebrity-oriented, technologically-exploded, relationally-dysfunctional, everybody-feel-good world.

I think one of the big challenges for a youth worker is the question of whether people can tell who I am as a Christian. As I write, I’m looking around my office and trying to answer that question. Can somebody tell who I am or what I believe from my office? In just looking around, what is the evidence I love Jesus? Can people tell — that I believe? What’s on the wall? Where can you see my faith? What’s in my heart? I think my office is pretty clear but what about my life and my confession? What about the me you might meet in the mall?

How do we help teens understand what God’s truth is? How do we help them stand for something, namely Jesus? How do we help them see that the Christian faith makes a difference?

There’s a lot of stuff in Jacob’s, Leah’s, and Steve’s responses that can help get things started…

  • Being a good steward of time. What time do you waste? How much time do you allow for your family? What about study and personal growth? Hobbies? Your youth? How about time just for you?
  • Care for your teens. Get to know them, their world, their schools, their friends. Introduce them to other adults in the congregation. And make sure their friends are welcome.
  • Planning good times is a good thing but won’t solve the problems/challenges of youth ministry. What teen needs another pizza party? Does anybody do a hayride much anymore? And yet, events can provide a place for growing and nurturing relationships / friendships. So, we don’t abandon events but our ministry is not about the program per se.
  • Enter their neighborhood — what Jacob refers to as “bringing the church to their friends.” Don’t try to be their peer. You don’t have to be the buddy, their BFF. But, show that you care. Spend some time with them.
  • Help people meet Jesus. But, don’t bash them over the head with the gospel. Don’t begin by threatening them with eternal damnation. I really liked Steve’s statement, “meet them on their level. Jesus ate with sinners, youth leaders in the 70’s picked up guitars and youth leaders today need to text and use facebook.”
  • I like Jacob’s thought about embracing the idealism of youth. Provide your support in helping them see that they can make a difference.
  • Leah offered some solid advice when she said we need to be listeners and learners. Sometimes people just need to talk and they need to know somebody is listening — they need to give voice to their issues and struggles and to know we are not going to come down on them because they have those issues.
  • Leah also notes that you can’t go it alone. Indeed, we should be equipping our whole congregation to be youth ministers — people who know children and youth by name, people who welcome them at church events, people who acknowledge the teens when they meet them at the mall or grocery store, people who pray for them. People who help with the tasks of youth ministry. People who are committed to the relationship they promise with the baby in the baptismal liturgy.

Equipping teens in the faith. It seems so obvious but it is such a challenge. Help them be Christian. Affirm them in their faith. Walk with them as they share the faith. Nobody wants to say their friend is wrong. So, how can we help our youth understand that showing what is right is the best way to be a friend?

Let’s begin by creating a context of thanksgiving. Give thanks that God sent Jesus to save us. Give thanks that God sent His spirit to give us faith and equip us for live. Give thanks for the children, youth and their families who are a part of your church. Give thanks for their friends and for the opportunities to share Christ. Give thanks for the opportunities youth ministry brings you. And, all three writers referenced this last point — Give thanks for all those times that “the light bulb goes off” and they get it, they are connected.

Youth Ministry is a noble calling. C.F.W. Walther, first president of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod once said to his seminary class, “You cannot use your time to better advantage than by serving well the young people of the congregation.” How humbling to know that God can use you in that capacity!

To God be the glory!!!

Published November 12, 2010

About the author

As the Director of LCMS Youth Ministry, Terry Dittmer seeks to advocate for young people and to empower young people to be God’s people in the world and to empower people to “confess” their faith in celebratory and expressive ways. Terry and his wife, Cherie, have five adult children.
View more from Terry

Related Resources

Why Build Resilient Youth in Youth Ministry?

Why Build Resilient Youth in Youth Ministry?

What is a resilient identity in Christ and why is it important for a healthy youth ministry? Check out this blog from the Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry to find out more.

The Habits That We Make – Fundraising

The Habits That We Make – Fundraising

Should youth ministry, or any other ministry for that matter, rely on fundraising to significantly support their ministry functions? Sometimes the habits of fundraising get youth ministry into trouble. This article is designed to help you think more strategically about fundraising.

The Habits That We Make: Parents

The Habits That We Make: Parents

We all have harmful habits, even in our churches. This article helps us think about how we might have habits where parents are not growing in their own Biblical education or even expecting the church and its workers to be the primary teachers of the Christian faith for their children. By identifying these kinds of habits, we can see how we might change them.

The COVID-19 Pandemic: Change or Experience?

The COVID-19 Pandemic: Change or Experience?

As youth workers, we need to remember that this cohort that experienced the COVID pandemic during their younger years experienced it differently than adults. Through research, Dr. Tina Berg has been able to identify key learnings that can help us care for young people, particularly confirmands, in the wake of the pandemic.

The Habits That We Make – Isolation

The Habits That We Make – Isolation

We all have habits, some intentionally developed and others not. Knowing our habits in ministry can be important. For example, we may tend to isolate kids and/or youth from the rest of the congregation. This article talks about how to identify this habit and push against it.


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

How do I know if our youth ministry program is healthy and properly caring for our teens?

Discover how you can enhance your youth ministry and serve the youth in your church with Seven Practices of Healthy Youth Ministry.

Share This