How I Failed My Youth Group
Jimmy davis | SEPTEMBER 11, 2019 | 3 MIN READ
As a youth pastor, I have to admit that I often measure my worth in God’s eyes based upon the effectiveness of my ministry to this generation of middle school and high schoolers. If you’re also a pastor or a youth worker, maybe you understand me when I say, “Sometimes I believe that to fail my students is to fail God.”
Now, I know what you’re going to say: “Your worth is in Christ and not your works, including ministry!” And I wouldn’t disagree with you because this is at the core of the Gospel message.
But let us not take lightly when the Bible says, “Let not many of you become teachers, my brothers, knowing that as such we will incur a stricter judgment” (James 3:1). Whatever hermeneutical approach you take, we can at least conclude that it isn’t a job to be taken lightly.
So yes, praise God: For when there is failure, there is even more abounding grace. But a wise person once told me, “It’s a good thing to learn from your mistakes. But it’s an even better thing to learn from the mistakes of others.” So how did I fail my youth group? And how might you learn from my mistake?
Recently, two scholarly experts of Generation Z, Sean McDowell and J. Warner Wallace, published a book So The Next Generation Will Know, in which they discuss practical “how-to’s” of passing on the Christian faith onto the next generation. Their book is based and backed up by extensive research, and it is a resource any youth worker or parent should read.
One of their biggest findings of Gen Z was the discovery of their two greatest needs from youth workers and parents: truth and relationship. In today’s internet culture, “truth” is being declared from everywhere, and the students are asking, “How do I know that’s true?” The slightly foggy faith or cross-your-fingers faith will not fly with this generation. They want truth. They’re hungry for truth. And as Christians, we are gifted with the “Spirit of Truth” (John 16:13) to be speaking the truth in love (Eph. 4:15, 25).
Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute, is famous for saying this about Generation Z: “The biggest hindrance to [students’] faith isn’t doubt. It’s silence.”
Let me be blunt: your students have doubts. Maybe you have doubts. Historically, the church has taken one of two responses to doubt: (1) Real Christians don’t have doubts or (2) Just don’t talk about it. Sadly, Dr. Powell’s research has shown that the church’s silence on truth has been the main reason why high school graduates leave the Christian faith.
So what do you I think I did? I taught truth! I taught my students how to argue for the existence of God with the Kalam Cosmological argument, biochemical argument, the fine-tuning argument, the moral argument, etc. I walked them through controversial issues such as pornography, homosexuality, abortion, etc. I taught them all the Christian essential doctrines such as the Trinity, the hypostatic union of Christ, creationism, sanctification, second coming, etc. When it comes to knowing stuff, let me just brag and tell you: I have some very, very smart kids.
So then how did I fail my students? I forgot about the second need of Gen Z: their need for relationships.
See, I made the mistake that many churches are currently making: Church is a knowledge hub but not a relationship hub. Ever hear people say “Oh yeah, I’m really getting fed at my church?” Most of the time they’re talking about the sermon, not their relationship with God or with one another. Youth students aside, Christians may be becoming rich in knowledge, but they are bankrupt in relationships.
How did I notice that I failed my students? They stopped coming. They stopped coming because I wasn’t giving them something they could only find at church: a relational connection with God and with one another. Instead, I was offering just another lecture, as if they didn’t already have their fill of that during the school week.
Don’t misunderstand me; teaching truth is important (See Need #1). Without the teaching of truth, this post-modern world will succeed in it’s “what’s true for you is true for you, so just do you” mentality. But please, if you’re going to take away anything from this, do not create youth students with a faith of the neck up. Don’t continue the current church culture of creating knowledge hubs, but rather create your youth group to be what it’s meant to be: the family of God. It’s meant to be rich in relationship with God and with fellow brothers and sisters.
The wisest piece of pastoral advice I ever got was: “People will never remember what you said. But they will always remember that you were there.” Truth is necessary, but relationships help faith stick. So be at the soccer and basketball games. Be at the dance and music recitals. Grab lunch or boba often. And finally: pray. Pray FOR them. Pray WITH them.
Failure isn’t final. Failure is an opportunity to learn. Failure is how we know NOT to do something. So don’t be afraid to fail. But take my experience for what’s it worth, and evaluate: How are you doing at providing your youth with both truth and relationship?
Jimmy Davis serves as both youth and associate pastor at Jericho Road Church in Irvine, California. He received his B.S. in Applied Mathematics from the University of Arizona and His M. Div. in Evangelism and Discipleship from Talbot School of Theology. He is an ordained minister under his local church body, and he has been serving youth and college students for ten years. He is happily married to his wife Frances, and he is unashamedly addicted to coffee.