Thursday, February 07, 2013

Resisting the Urge to Do Cutting Edge Youth Ministry

In my early twenties upon moving to Birmingham, AL, I attended for three months a mega-church with an impressive growth rate. The pastor regularly boasted about the church’s increasing attendance in between opportunities to talk about the large audiences, to which he was speaking around the world. My last Sunday was capped by the pastor’s proclamation that the incredible prosperity of the church resulted from the “cutting edge ministry,” which they performed (and, oh yea, God too.) I exited with a bad taste in my mouth and a headache from the number of times I rolled my eyes that Sunday.

Fast forward ten years. I had been working for six years as a youth pastor at the Cathedral Church of the Advent. During a meeting with a business leader in town, where I explained our somewhat unique approach to reaching postmodern teens through a fragmented ministry of smaller, intimate clusters of students, the entrepreneur said, “Wow, it sounds like you guys are really working at the tip of the spear.” As I burned with pride, the voice of my ego whispered, “You might even say that we are on the....cutting edge.” In the one- and only one- potentially cutting edge moment of my life (which lasted ninety seconds), I felt this rush of pride as if my efforts made the difference and as if I had distinguished myself from other ministries. (These are ironically vain sentiments for someone who still uses a flip phone.)

In all spheres of ministry, the temptation lurks to be “cutting edge.” This enticement may exist more in youth ministry more than other sectors, due to the frequently evolving nature of teen culture, where the target seemingly moves every five to seven years. In a valuable manner, youth ministry people seek to keep a watchful eye on the most efficacious means by which to reach teenagers. It is part of what makes the field exciting and dynamic. At the same time, youth ministry can dedicate exorbitant amounts of attention to finding a magic bullet in our methodology.

The longer I work with students,
the more convinced I am that
there is nothing sexy or cutting edge about effective youth ministry. I have annoyed many a colleague with my penchant for repeatedly saying, “There is nothing new under the sun: if you want to be cutting edge, go into biomedical engineering or particle physics, not ministry.” Effective youth ministry boils down to pursuing relationships, teaching scripture, proclaiming the Gospel, worshiping, and praying fervently. That is it. Ministry revolving around these five components has endless possibilities. Other parts of ministry, such as missions, social justice, and fellowship, can have great vibrancy with such a foundation. Ministry that lacks relating, exegeting, proclaiming, worshiping, or praying usually evolves into an exercise in futility or a practice in “playing church.”

Such a minimalistic philosophy will not sell many books or land you on a panel at the next conference. Nobody has ever been impressed when I describe our strategy with a few participles: loving, teaching, proclaiming, worshiping, and praying. Perhaps, this is because effective youth ministry involves a healthy lack of confidence in our ability to effectuate change and transfers all hope upon what Jesus did do and what the Holy Spirit can do. Thus, our methods become less sexy and sophisticated and more simple and basic. What a relief! Thanks be to God.

Cameron Cole serves as the chairman of Rooted: Advancing Grace-Driven Student Ministry and has been the director of youth ministries for eight years at the Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, AL. 


  1. Wise words. Thank you for sharing.

  2. So much truth in this post. Thank you!

  3. As a mom to a 6th grader entering the world of middle school ministry, I really appreciate your approach. I wish more student ministers felt the same. My son has really been turned off by the "bells and whistles" of the middle school gatherings he's experienced as we are church hunting after a recent move. I think, deep down, he's also turned off by what our culture tries to sell him. The church should be a place your heart and soul are drawn to because you're catching a glimpse of heaven. Kids know that, they get it, but like us adults it's hard to look away from all the latest eye candy. Solomon was right "the eye never has enough of seeing, nor the ear its fill of hearing" and yes "there is nothing new under the sun" Eccl. 1:8-9

  4. Mom of 6th grader,
    Thanks for your valuable insight. I think what people miss is that postmodern teens are drawn to authenticity and honesty. They can detect when people are hokey and contrived and are turned off by it. A youth pastor who lives in the truth of the Gospel of grace is free from this need to perform and entertain. They are freed to simply be comfortable in their own skin, to trust in the Word and Spirit at work, and to be relieved from the gimmicks.

  5. Excellent post. I have posted a link on my own blog to this article, hoping that many people in my church family will read it. Keep up the good work!


  6. Some good reflections here Cameron. However I am disappointed that you had to degenerate and run down another church ministry to open your article on what you see as healthy high school ministry. This article smacks of the 'small is good/godly and large church is fake/bad' mentality.

    If the participant (child/high schooler/adult) is growing in their small/large church and living the great commission then it is a valid and meaningful ministry regardless of size.

    Mik Geerling

  7. Mik, Thanks for your comment. Truth to tell, I work in a large church with about 4,000 members. Our youth ministry has around 350 kids who are involved. That may be a small church compared to others, but I think most would say that is somewhat large. I certainly did not intend to denigrate another church; if that were my intention, I would have named the church and the pastor.

    I agree with you that size is irrelevant. My article has everything to do with approach. Briarwood Presbyterian in Birmingham, AL; The Falls Church Anglican in Falls Church, VA; and Second Pres in Memphis, TN have giant youth ministries within very large churches and they do ministry in the way described in the article. Their ministries are built on authentic relationships, exegetical teaching, proclaiming grace, worshiping God, and expectant prayer. They're a model for effective youth ministry.

    Finally, I think there can be an equal temptation to say that a relational, Gospel-centered ministry is "cutting edge" in a retrospective kind of way. The biggest issue concerns where our confidence lies. The pastor I referenced talked endlessly about the church's methodology. It seemed to reflect a confidence in our power. The confidence has to be in the work of the Holy Spirit through relationships and the Word.

    Thanks for providing the opportunity for me to clarify.

  8. Good thoughts. I'm passing this along to our youth pastor.

  9. I've been researching what it means to become a minister to young people and came across your post. Very interesting insight, thank you!