Some churches are doing a great job of reaching young people. Other churches are putting forth a lot of effort but not seeing much result. One observation that I have made as I sought to determine why some churches are doing so well in this area while other churches are not, is the difference in whether a church has a youth MINISTRY or a youth PROGRAM. Churches trying to reach young people in any fashion are to be commended. But in my travels I have found that churches with a youth program are not reaching many young people for Christ, while those with a youth ministry are much more effective. What is the difference between a youth program and youth ministry?
A youth program is something that the church sponsors once or twice a week. It begins and ends at a specific time and is very structured in the way it functions. Youth programs often have a small core, mostly of teenagers whose parents are part of the church. That core takes part in the youth program when their schedule permits, but it is not unusual for them to be absent from the program if they have something else going on. They seldom bring their friends to such a program. It is not unusual for teens in youth programs to not be very active in the overall life of the church. Many adults in the church often see the youth program as a drain on the budget but they invest the money anyway in hopes of keeping the parents of the youth from going to a nearby church. A significant number of teens who participate in youth programs will drop out of church during their college years. Many of them will never return.
A youth ministry on the other hand, is quite different than a youth program. A youth ministry emerges from a passion that a church has for reaching young people with the Gospel. While a youth ministry probably does include some structured times, it also includes a lot of impromptu events. Teens and their adult chaperons that are a part of a youth ministry spend a lot of time together. It might be over a hamburger at McDonald’s, or over ice cream at the local ice cream shop, or it might be playing cards or Wii, etc. They know each other, encourage each other and are involved in each other’s lives. Teens that are a part of a youth ministry often come from outside the church and may take part in church without any support from their families. Their adult chaperons look for ways to include these teens in the overall life of the church. The adults in the church see them as a little unruly, but are so excited about the changed lives they see in these teens, that they are committed to helping those teens despite the occasional frustrations the teens bring to the church.
In my experience, churches with youth programs never get much beyond the core group. Churches with youth ministries can hardly find places to put all the teens who respond. Churches with youth programs see these programs as a duty they should fulfill so they can have a church in the future. Churches with youth ministries see them as a natural expression of their faith as they build the church of today.
In my experience, churches with youth programs seldom see unchurched teens come to a life changing experience with Christ. They may see a lot of teens who pray the “sinner’s prayer” at a special function or youth event, but it seldom translates into an actual life change in the lives of teens. Churches with youth ministries see many unchurched teens completely transformed as they turn from the way they were living and find new life in Christ. Interestingly enough, churches with youth programs often have paid staff members and invest larger quantities of money in the programs run by those staff members. Churches with youth ministries may have a paid staff member responsible for reaching teens, but the bulk of the work is done by lots of volunteer workers who often operate on shoe string budgets.
As you consider your own church’s efforts to reach teens for Christ, which do you have, a youth program or a youth ministry? You may not be able to change what has been done in the past, but you can impact what type of youth ministry your church has in the future.
Learn more about reaching young people in Dr. Terry Dorsett's book, Mission Possible: Reaching the Next Generation through the Small Church.