Cutting Edge Youth Ministry

Five of the nation's top youth ministry leaders on what's hot, and what's not, in ministering to youth in the 21st century
Editor's Note: Eric Wilbanks, managing editor for, sat down with five leaders on the cutting edge of youth ministry and asked them to describe emerging trends and important essentials for youth ministry in the 21st century. Here are their insightful comments.





I am observing the following trends in working with and teaching youth:

An openness to spirituality. There is definitely more openness to the spiritual world. The average student is a person with a spiritual component to his or her life.

Their first choice would be to have an unexplainable solution, rather than an explainable solution, to life. If they have a headache, they would rather have someone pray over their headache and have it go away rather than to take an aspirin. Youth are gravitating toward the inexplicable. It's definitely an open window. The problem is we have a modern church that has a pretty explainable, systematic, boxed God.

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'Value tribes' in youth culture. I think that we, for the last 10 years, have had sociological divisions of people by generations. We now are becoming more diverse than that. I think you could actually discern "value tribes" within the United States.

A value tribe, for example, can be made up of traditionalism, individualism or community. It's not just values, but people who are willing to do a particular activity at any cost, such as the extreme sports value tribe or the thrill-seeker value tribe. In our lifetime there isn't going to be a "worldview" again. I think the tribes are here to stay.

The reality of change. We need to learn how to tell the gospel in the "right now" language of youth rather than a "tomorrow" language.

Saying that "someday you will die, and you want to go to heaven" is a tomorrow gospel. If you were dating somebody and you said, "I love you" to that person, how would you want them to respond? You certainly wouldn't want them to say, "I believe it."

That's almost the pitch we have on the gospel. Proposition A: There is a God. Proposition B: You have sinned. Proposition C: Jesus has died so that your sin will not keep you from that God. Are you willing to believe it?

All of those propositions need to be told in the idea: "God loves you. Christ loves you so much that He would die for you." It's not, "Will you believe it?" It's, "Will you love Him?"

That's what the gospel is. It's God saying, "I love you."

The need for teen arguments, not adult ones. One thing that youth workers have to learn how to do is reevaluate whether they are talking to kids about when they become adults, or whether they are talking to kids about who they are now.

Usually when they become adults, they've stopped doing what we've asked them to stop doing as teens. So we can't use the adult arguments to talk with them. We have to use teen arguments.

Expecting immediate youth gratitude is unrealistic. In youth ministry, you are putting into kids, and you are not going to see that return for 12 years. If you need to have somebody come up to you and say, "Thanks so much for what you did in my life today," then you are in the wrong business working with youth.

Involving youth in ministry. For young people to get involved in ministry, they have got to see a side of a building painted or a hungry person fed. They need Nintendo-type feedback to their activity.

So youth workers have to be able to design missions projects or service projects or even a Bible study to give immediate feedback and application--immediate obedience and repentance. There can't be a delayed challenge.

'Now' Evangelism. In the evangelism process we have to see it as a "now" challenge because evangelism has traditionally only been reaping, which is a tomorrow challenge. So if a teen has an unsaved friend, then that teen needs to be challenged now to invite that friend to follow Christ.

Interactive teaching of Scripture. Bible teaching has to become a lot more interactive and involve discovery. It can't be presentation and lecture. It must be hands-on involvement. Youth also need leaders who are transparent and who live the Scripture they teach.

Pastoring youth. I often ask youth, "Who is the pastor of your students?" They say, "Oh, that guy," and they point to their youth pastor.

In part, that's the wrong answer. The senior pastor is the pastor of the whole church, not just the adults. The senior pastor needs to see himself or herself as pastoring people of all ages, not just certain segments of the congregation.

Senior pastor, are you pastoring all your people, including youth?

Here is one simple litmus test: Who do you ask to pray for your message preparation and delivery? Many pastors say, "My intercessors." Others reply, "My leaders." But very few reply, "My children and youth."

Think about it. Do you include youth in your inner leadership circles? Are they equipped as spiritual leaders of your congregation alongside adults? Do you value their Spirit-led input?

Very few pastors have recruited teen-agers to pray for them in the preparation of the message, but then they wonder why their messages don't apply to teen-agers.

Teens are going to pray: "Oh God, please heal him. Make him real. Let me get one thing out of it today." So they are going to pray for him to be more relevant.

A senior pastor needs to realize that, for the most part, a high school is a mission field. Students are really ready to step up to the plate.

The Assemblies of God does commission missionaries. For example, Challenge 2000 has said, "We are going to commission students as missionaries." Will your congregation equip, train and commission your youth to go to the mission field of their local school? That mission field is as critical to the harvest as sending adults.

The pastor needs to see the youth pastor as his co-worker. The youth pastor does not have authority over the church unless the church has somehow tweaked it in a unique way.

So the youth pastor needs to understand the difference between his authority and his influence. He may have more influence over the teens than the senior pastor has, but he doesn't have more authority over them.

Revival and spirituality. We are at the place where revival could sweep across our youth in this country in a shallow way, without changed lives. But if we just have freedom, I have a feeling there is going to be a profound awakening. I believe it is going to come as the answer to the prayers of the other nations for us.

I believe there is a persecuted church in China, for example, that says it is easier to follow Christ in the midst of persecution than in affluence, and they are praying like crazy for us. They are not the needy ones right now.





Internationally, our vision at Sonlife Ministries is to see the church multiply itself personally and corporately. If the church would really do its job, the unreached people groups and all those issues that we talk about in missions would be nonissues because of the system God created for us. We want to be part of the system. We don't want to create some new system in place of it.

Half the world's population is under the age of 18. Though that statistic would be enough reason to motivate us to evangelize, add to it the fact that some of the most aggressive church- planting movements in the world are happening through the lives of young people. Then it becomes a no-brainer.

A global youth culture. The global youth culture emerging is certainly unifying youth to a new level. In no way does that mean we have to approach youth in all cultures the same way, nor can we.

In India, I found youth who were very different from the youth I see in Chicago. But MTV is giving them a lot more in common with one another than they have had in the past.

Many have said it is easy to see that two young people from two different continents could have more in common with each other than either of them do with their own parents. That brings us to the need to address some of the unique issues global youth have.

Then we look at the fact that everybody is going after youth. In doctoral classes at Michigan State University, my colleagues have been sent from different parts of the world to be trained to figure out how to go after youth to get them to be the leaders of their countries.

Fortune Magazine reports how the youth who live outside the United States are their most lucrative market. The Mormon Church is going after youth in a big way, building large youth centers worldwide.

Meanwhile, a lot of evangelical circles have spent the last 10 to 20 years saying: "Well, I don't know. Should we really go after global youth? Is that the right way?" Everybody else is going after them. Again, I am not saying that we do it as an end-all, but as a means for going after the church as a whole.

The need to contextualize ministry. We must really figure out what is and isn't Christ's strategy. How does cultural, regional or parochial bias affect youth ministry? Is what we are doing part of Christ's strategy for reaching youth today? How do we become more passionate than ever about the things we are convinced were part of His process?

The mobilization of younger leaders in youth ministry. The second value that runs through youth pastors' DNA is to see younger leaders mobilized. We need to include youth in ministry to the entire congregation.

We want to say, "Is there a way that we can pour into younger leaders to go after the entire population?" So, it's about going after younger leaders as Christ did because of the long-term potential for multiplication.

The multiplication of local church youth ministries. We are seeing the local ministries multiplied. The local church is key to youth ministry. There is a place for parachurch ministries to partner in youth ministry, but the core of youth ministry is the local church.

Those of us in parachurch youth ministry must ask, "How can we help the local church develop the plans for everyday life to go after reaching the people in their community and in their culture?" So, working in and through the local church is nonnegotiable to us.




I work for the National Institute of Youth Ministry/Youth Builders. We're changing our name on June 1 to Youth Builders.

We are a ministry that has existed for 15 years. We come alongside youth workers, and we train them and equip them. We support them and pray for them. We encourage them and come alongside them.

Part of our youth ministry is changing. It's now called Family-Based Youth Ministry, which focuses on how to help families succeed.

We go in front of a million people a year. We have 500 trained associates here in the United States who do our training for us. We are in 14 countries and 23 ministry centers.

Our largest ministry center is in Quito, Ecuador, and our second largest work is in Eastern Europe. So we have focused on areas outside of this country.

Then, recently, we have been doing things more and more in the United States. We train youth workers, provide resources, conduct parent forums in churches and put on student leadership events.

Family-based youth ministry. We are beginning to see a paradigm shift. I think a lot of times in Holy Spirit movements that you see things coming, but it doesn't happen immediately. In the past, the church really hasn't done a very good job of doing family-based youth ministry.

Several years ago, Mark Dubris wrote Family-Based Youth Ministry, and we said, "This is it!" This book described the paradigm shift, but did not give us the specific how-tos needed to make the shift.

We are realizing that kids can get saved and healed, changed and transformed, but we are putting them back into families that are really a mess.

In youth ministry, we are not trying to change our total job descriptions. Rather, we are recognizing that the foundation for youth ministry is the family. So, we must serve the family. The question we're asking today is: How do you help families succeed?

Facilitating families. Today, youth workers need to help families succeed. That means we're assisting parents by putting on seminars and doing family counseling. We are informing the parents of what's happening in youth culture. As youth workers, we are probably better students of the culture than parents are.

For example, if a young person is listening to Marilyn Manson CDs, then we need to help the parents understand what Marilyn Manson stands for as opposed to some of the other CDs.

I think we need to encourage parents. Parenting is a hard job, especially with teen-agers. We also are involving parents in the work of the ministry, because kids need parent role models so badly.

Family times together. The Mormon Church has family night. They close down their church on Mondays, and nothing takes place because the families get together.

We in the evangelical, charismatic and conservative churches have not done a good job in this area. We are busy all the time.

Probably the biggest problem in America is overcommitment and the resulting fatigue families feel. So maybe it's time for us to begin to teach families how to have quiet times.

Christian education at home. Christian education belongs in the home, not just in the church. For so long, families have delegated Christian education to youth ministry and children's ministry and whatnot. I think we need to equip homes to do it.

We need family-based training based on Deuteronomy 6. Biblically it is the family's responsibility to bring up their children in the Lord.

In youth ministry we must ask questions such as: How do you help parents talk with kids about sexual abstinence? How do you help parents talk with their kids about drug and alcohol abuse?

Frankly, it has not been happening. Five percent to 10 percent of Christian kids say they have not received any kind of good, positive, value-centered sex education from home.

They don't really think they're getting much from church, so they're getting their training from whoever the latest, greatest media star is and, typically, the stars' message is, "Do whatever you want."

Spirituality in the home. I have to say that the same thing is true in terms of why Kathy is in my life. We weren't raised in the church. We became Christians in high school.

One of the reasons we're probably in youth ministry is because of that. We didn't have the role models to show us how to bring God into the family, so as we started doing family devotions, we chose a weekly family worship time.

We're not asking for some traditions as in the orthodox home with morning prayers and evening prayers. We're just saying: "Pray with your kids, but then once a week come together and have a family worship time together where you pray together. Parents, take the lead on spiritual things, and the kids will participate."

Family ministry vs. youth ministry. We are seeing both models, and in 10 years we'll have the answer.

One of the models is to erase children's and youth ministry and literally make it all-around family ministry. This model has some of the same elements, but youth pastors are not called youth pastors anymore. They are called ministers of the family or family ministry people.

The other element is that the children's ministry and the youth ministry begin to work together, and they include families into some of their activities.

So now there is a family retreat, or now the students and the parents go away together, or there are some intergenerational Bible studies, or some intergenerational Sunday school classes, not every Sunday, but sometimes.

There are special Sundays that are programmed just for families. There is ministry within the church where we are literally giving them those devotions. With most families you say: "Great! Go do family devotions," and they say, "So, what do we do?"

There are ministries in the church that are handing them good resources. They are learning what all the good resources are. More resources are coming out now, and that is a good thing.

Intergenerational learning. Intergenerational learning means you are putting kids and adults together to learn a concept. Frankly, it's hard because kids think differently.

Kids have attention spans in one direction, and adults have attention spans in another. What we like to do with intergenerational stuff is to center on topics. Is it OK to listen to rock music? What about movies? Where does God fit in?

We tend to think that intergenerational means not just one of us talking. But kids and adults learn best when they talk. So you are bringing in interaction and discussion. Unfortunately, there is not a lot of "curriculum" out yet, but there really is some stuff we can use to get families talking.

In intergenerational learning, you'll have some resistance from youth who don't want to meet with their parents. Frankly, the parents may not be happy being with the kids. But if they are encouraged to risk meeting together, they will discover they have much to share with one another.

Some churches make the mistake of doing everything intergenerationally. Kids need their own time with kids, and adults need their own time with adults.

The impact of divorce on family and youth ministry. George Barna recently came out with a study that said there are more divorces among born-again Christians than among atheists. What that means is pastors today have to understand family systems.

Whether or not youth are from broken, dysfunctional or disrupted families, they still are facing many difficult issues. Youth ministry must deal with broken families and the impact on youth.

Today, one out of three young women, before she is 18, will be sexually abused. One out of six kids will try cocaine by age 18. When you start looking at this, you see that kids within families are experiencing crises. We almost have to become authorities in the world of crisis management.

A family-friendly church. I think another issue pastors and youth pastors have to consider is how to incorporate families into the church. They have to take a new look at their youth ministries. They have to take a new look at their whole church and say, "Is this really family-friendly?"

"Sure we offer Sunday school. We do this and that. But is it friendly to the family? Are we talking about the family enough? Are we giving them opportunities to learn about marriage? Are we giving them opportunities to learn about children?"

The church must equip youth for marriage and parenting. This is amazing to me. I have my doctorate, and I've spent a hundred years (it seems like) in school. Yet I had no training for marriage. I had one appointment with our pastor. I also had no training in parenting.

Maybe it is time for us in the church to take some responsibility and begin to train youth for marriage. It doesn't have to be formalized in terms of classes.

Every person who is going to get married at our church is paired with a mentor couple. They study a marriage counseling resource together, talk over meals and regularly meet together with the pastor.

Freedom in worship. I am excited to see that the church is waking up to worship. The charismatic church has had this for a long time.

Scripture says the Lord inhabits the praises of His people. This is a place where, suddenly, many people have their hands raised who did not have their hands raised two years ago. They feel freedom in worship.

I'm excited about the element of worship. I became a Christian in the Jesus people movement through the Calvary Chapel system, where all of a sudden you could come into church barefooted if you wanted. The people had long hair, and we sang praise songs and listened to Christian music with guitars.

We are seeing a change in worship in all churches now. What the charismatic churches have experienced in terms of some of the renewal of their praise songs is now throughout the church.

John Wimber said that in the Protestant church we have so often made the sermon the big thing. Basically, the sermon is the main course, and the diet of worship is just the preliminary.

Youth ministry is going to lead the way in exciting worship. That is one of the more positive elements in ministry with youth and families.

Youth are becoming involved in missions. Churches are getting serious about missions and service more than they have in the past. They are realizing that the call to Christ is the call to serve. Whole churches are serving the poor and oppressed. As a result, churches are challenging youth to become involved in missions.

We have to be prepared for the postmodern generation of people. Millennial kids look at life very differently than the previous generation. Some of us ministers are not prepared for that. We have to become students of the culture. We have to be prepared to give the never-changing gospel in a manner that is very contemporary in its format.

Today, youth are not willing to use some of the old standard ways of gospel presentation. They want the gospel more than ever. We have to become students of the culture to see what is the most effective way to present the gospel.

Training is essential. I think that for the new generation, we in youth ministry and those who are pastors need to be retrained. We need to get training in family ministry. We need to get training in helping kids who are from crisis-type situations.




God gave me the picture of the Great Commission to help the youth ministries all over North America. The specific faith, though, was for 10,000 youth groups in the span of 10 years who were committed to evangelism and discipleship. There were to be 1,000 model ministries and 500 active resource people. God confirmed that in three absolutely supernatural ways, but that's another story in itself.

In Sonlife, we began to develop a discipleship program based on the life of Christ to equip youth in the Great Commission. We built about 70 models in the Chicago area. Then some of those youth leaders went to other churches and took Sonlife with them. They began to tell others about it.

So then we went to Canada, and the next thing we knew, in about 10 years we saw about 20,000 youth leaders a year going through training.

In 1992 Josh McDowell came to us and said: "I have a burden and a dream. What if we did the world's largest pizza party, called See You at the Party?"

I wasn't into it. He was sharing this with about 30 guys. I really wasn't into those big things with satellite downlink. But then, right at the end of that three-day meeting, it was like the Lord said, "This is the initial vision I gave you." So, we partnered with Josh to do that See You at the Party.

The bottom line was that we had more than 10,000 youth groups participating. Most of them were through a lot of the network relationships we had built over the 10 years in Sonlife. Then we had a million and a half kids linked via satellite, and 85,000 kids led their friends to Christ that night.

We had labored for 10 to 12 years training youth pastors all over North America, and through word of mouth we grew. Then it was a combination in my mind of the initial vision, and since then, the Lord just planted another vision in our hearts.

Multiplication in youth ministry. The second "burning bush" experience that I had in my Christian life was in Edmonton, Alberta, on the ninth floor of the Hilton hotel. God gave me the picture of Great Commission--healthy, average-size churches all over North America. He really gave me the faith to trust Him for that.

I pictured 100,000 average-size, healthy churches that would commit to two core values: (1) personal multiplication, which is measured by a 10 percent conversion growth rate. That's a church of 100 seeing 10 people each year coming to Christ; and (2) corporate multiplication, which is measured by seeing that every third year the church would send out a missionary, plant another church or start another ministry.

We work with about 5,000 youth pastors, and our average youth pastor now is there for about 5.3 years. That's average. That is almost three times the national average because when you have a strategy, you stay there.

That is the same way with the pastors. We've just been working with training pastors for the last six or seven years, but they are staying there two to three times longer than they used to stay because they now have a clear strategy. They know where they are going, so it's easier to stay for the long haul.

Youth ministry is about multiplication. We have identified more than 5,000 youth pastors who are seeing 15 percent-plus conversion growth rates every year. They are multiplying. They are bearing much fruit. They are explosive, and they are prepared to handle the fruit that God gives them.




I really began to get a vision for seeing God raise up youth leaders from America to go overseas. I have a passion for mobilizing youth leaders who have been proven in ministry here in the United States to go overseas and equip youth workers. That is what First Wave is all about. It is really mobilizing proven youth leaders to impact youth ministry around the world.

Global youth ministry trends. In South Africa the economy is way less than in North America. However, it is more of a Western culture, and there seems to be a real growing youth culture there. A lot of the same trends are popular.

There is a whole skateboard culture in South Africa. A lot of the trends we see here in North America, such as music styles, clothing styles and hairstyles, are popular there, too.

That's even true in Romania. In many ways, Romania is a Third World country economically.

Yet you'll see teen-agers who look very similar to teen-agers in North America.

In some ways there is a global youth culture. If you go to Ireland, England, Scotland, South Africa, Romania and most places in Europe, you'll find they dress the same and look the same.

Even in some of the Asian countries that are more technologically advanced, they would look very similar and dress similarly. But there also is a huge population of teen-agers who wouldn't look that way.

The lack of trained youth pastors. A lot of youth pastors and leaders from other countries and cultures face the same struggles we face here.

I think the biggest struggle I have seen is that most youth leaders around the world have never had any training at all.

Even five or six years ago, when we started training youth workers in Ireland, many of them said it was the very first time they had ever been through any training program. They had never had any type of youth-group training.

The primary need is for training. They don't need training in American-run programs and ideas. They need training in biblical principles that can be used in their culture to reach youth for Christ.

Dr. Charles S. Price

A Pioneer of Faith


"Dr. Price was the forerunner of the healing revival of the 1940's and 50's which sowed the seeds of the Charismatic Revival that would dominate the last 35 years of the 20th century."

Dr. William Faupel

Ministries Today Interview Guests


Dann Spader is the founder and director of Sonlife Ministries. He has served for more than 12 years in a pastoral role in local churches. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute in 1975 with a bachelor's degree in evangelism, and received both a M.R.E. and D.Min. from Trinity Seminary. He has written more than 12 leadership training manuals and serves as a consultant to more than 18 denominations, developing youth and church leadership. He lives with his wife, Char, and three daughters in Batavia, Illinois.


Dave Livermore serves as international director for Sonlife Ministries in Elburn, Illinois. He holds masters degrees from New York State Univer sity and Grand Rapids Baptist Seminary and is completing his doctorate at Michigan State University. He lives with his wife, Linda, and their two daughters in Geneva, Illinois.


Dave Childers is the director of First Wave, a division of Reign Ministries in partnership with Sonlife Ministries. First Wave mobilizes proven youth leaders to help equip youth workers around the world with Christ's strategy in making disciples. He has been in full-time youth ministry for 27 years and has led ministry teams of students and youth pastors in more than 45 countries.


As the North American visionary for Sonlife, Bill Clem leads in the development of training to more than 7,000 youth workers each year and works with various church and denominational leaders. He is an associate pastor at Cornerstone Community Baptist Church in Kent, Washington, and speaks at camps, retreats and conferences. He and his wife, Jeanne, have four children.


Jim Burns, Ph.D., is president of YouthBuilders, formerly the National Institute of Youth Ministry. Highly respected for his expertise in the area of youth ministry, family and parenting issues, he is the author of many books and speaks to thousands of people around the world each year. His radio feature airs on more than 500 stations daily. He and his wife, Cathy, and their three daughters, live in Dana Point, California.

Youth Ministry


"WE HAVE TO become students of the culture and be prepared to give the gospel in a manner that is contemporary in its format."

--Jim Burns

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