It's an impossible choice, for youth ministers

They're stuck between an oft-criticized sales model and empty chairs in their youth groups. Innovation isn't anywhere on their horizon.

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Goodness, this is a bad time to be a youth minister, according to a post I saw in Religion News today. It’s about how youth ministers must “innovate” if they’re to have any hope at all of winning back the legions of unchurched Gen Z people. When I saw that, the first thing I thought was simply this: if evangelicals have to innovate to revive their failing youth ministries, then they are well and truly boned. Evangelicals are the way they are because they’re deeply authoritarian. And authoritarianism means never having to try anything new or different. Today, let me walk you through evangelical concepts of youth ministry — and let’s see what innovations they’re coming up with.

(Quick note before we begin: I don’t use scare quotes without telling you up-front what they are. All quotes in my posts come from cited sources.)

Youth ministries of yore

Way back when, when Yr Loyal &Etc Captain was but a wee Christian child, youth ministries were pretty straightforward. They involved Jesus-flavored activities and the telling of Bible stories in child-friendly ways. In every way, they were innocuous. No parent would ever get upset about anything that happened in one. I’m fairly certain that even evangelicals’ youth ministries ran along these lines. The worst thing one could say about them was that they preyed on young children in inappropriate venues like state fairs.

Then, evangelicals waded into the picture.

As I reached my teen years in the 1980s, evangelical denominations targeted my generation for recruitment. The Satanic Panic–an intense conspiracy theory–had infected evangelical youth ministers. Now, they felt they not only had to teach the next generation but also to rescue it from literal demons.


Though the Satanic Panic itself died away by the late 1990s, youth ministry didn’t change a whole lot.

The bodacious 1980s

One Christian site summarized it like this:

It was a weird-science mixture of dodgeball games, singalong worship, quick lessons, cold drinks, hot pizza, caffeinated all-nighters, occasional mission trips, week-long camps and weekend retreats.

Although the clothes have changed (thank the Lord), most of our strategies to reach and disciple youth have not. For the most part, youth ministry today is stuck in the 80s.

Christian Post, 2018

The writer of this ode to 80s awesomeness is Greg Stier, who sells youth evangelism products to worried parents and ministers. His grand solution, of course, is TRUE CHRISTIANITY™:

Go back to Acts and implement the original blueprint for the church. Then bring it all back to the future. Bring it back to your youth group. Not only will your youth group attendance begin to grow in numbers, but your teens will grow in spiritual maturity.

But I daresay that evangelical youth ministers already think they’re doing exactly that, just with pizza and free movies and concerts too. After all, many of the ministers of today were, in fact, the teens in those 1980s youth groups.

They were also budding authoritarians. As children, they learned all the awful lessons that authoritarians must learn to survive in their dysfunctional groups. One of those lessons involves never changing.

Why Christian authoritarians, in particular, hate change

Authoritarians in general don’t like change. And evangelicals are authoritarians to their fingertips. They fit every checklist I’ve ever seen for authoritarianism. Bob Altemeyer, who wrote the actual book on authoritarianism, might well have been describing evangelicals themselves. So as you might expect, Christian authoritarians have a lot of additional baggage around the idea of change.

Christians worship an unchanging god. After all, change means moving from one level of perfection to another. If their god is already completely perfect, then that means any change would be to lessen perfection. So change is simply not something their god can do.

(Yes, I know about the old silly zinger about Yahweh making a rock he can’t lift, CHECKMATE CHRISTIANS, etc. This is similar, I guess, but just as nonsensical. Christians of all stripes consider their god’s inability to change a feature, not a bug, of their conceptualization of him.)

When one’s god is changeless, then change itself becomes something to dread. It’s like an admission of weakness–of having been wrong. Even worse, it could indicate having perfection, but then losing some of it through error.

So I wouldn’t expect their youth ministries to change. Of course not. Instead, I’d expect evangelical teens would go through these ministries, be shaped by them, get old enough to assume a little power of their own, and offer the same programs to That Current Year’s teens.

And then, I’d expect them to blame the children for not being Jesus-y enough to recognize TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ when it was right under their noses.

Innovation in youth ministry

As articles go, the one I spotted today in Religion News wasn’t surprising. Its writers try hard to put as good a face as they can on the general exodus of young adults from Christianity. Mostly, they and their quoted sources try hard to make Gen Z sound super-duper spiritual–just distrustful of establishment-style Christianity and unwilling to commit to any groups that don’t make them feel good or offer them what they need and want out of religious groups.

(I can almost feel evangelical leaders cringing at that last idea. Don’t worry. We’re getting there in a moment.)

So really, the fields are actually white unto harvest! Only ignorant meaniepies say otherwise!

Indeed, the people we find in this article look down their noses at anyone who points to the massive decline of Christianity in America as any kind of real decline. No no. Christianity is alive and well, folks! Alive and well! Lookit all that spiritual stuff Gen Z does! Just Christianity needs to evolve with the times, y’all! Its leaders need to innovate!

To make their case, the writers of the post offer up a few youth ministries that seem to be having limited success. I suppose in an era of massive declines, limited success must pass for a reason for wild, boundless optimism.

The innovation itself

One such ministry has young adults baking bread and farming together. These activities foster what we’re told are “authentic relationships.” In turn, these relationships facilitate teaching religious lessons and attempting to recruit. We are not told how many of these “authentic relationships” turn into pew-warming, tithe-paying church members. That said, we can make a safe guess that the church involved, “The Table,” is most definitely not evangelical; it flies Pride and Black Lives Matter banners next to its church sign.

That is the only Christian ministry we’re told about. The others are Jewish and Hindu. Their ministers offer activities that young adults enjoy, like yoga and community service. As with the Christian ministry, we are not told how many young adults participate in these two ministries. Nor do we ever learn how many turn into active members of their respective congregations.

All the while, the authors hammer at this one idea above all else:

Rumors of Christianity’s decline are greatly exaggerated. Nope! It’s doing just fine! Youth ministers just need to figure out ways to tap into the vast wealth of spiritual feelings that Gen Z has, then turn those feelings into church membership.

But whatever spiritual feelings Gen Z people might have, it is most certainly not leading them into Christian churches.

And if evangelicals could actually do anything like that, they would not be evangelicals. They wouldn’t be on board with any of this.

How evangelicals likely see these exhortations to innovate

Way back in 2013, Rachel Held Evans wrote a funny account of presentations she gave to evangelical leaders about how to draw Millennials back to church:

I talk about how the evangelical obsession with sex can make Christian living seem like little more than sticking to a list of rules, and how millennials long for faith communities in which they are safe asking tough questions and wrestling with doubt.

Invariably, after I’ve finished my presentation and opened the floor to questions, a pastor raises his hand and says, “So what you’re saying is we need hipper worship bands. …”

Rachel Held Evans

She complained that evangelicals always thought that “the key” to reversing declines was “simply to make a few style updates.” Instead, she wanted them to offer TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ as she saw it: more liturgy and fewer culture wars and power-grabs.

Unfortunately for her, evangelical ministers couldn’t do any of that then. And they definitely can’t now. Even when they vaguely recognize the problem, there’s no way to fix it in a culture where church attendance is growing more voluntary by the year. The very “attractional model” that The Gospel Coalition complained about in 2012 was already the only one keeping evangelical youth ministries alive at all at the time. (Their recommendation, of course, was a return to TRUE CHRISTIANITY™. Noticing a trend?)

Authoritarians tend to be extremely task-oriented. They fear taking risks that could open them up to criticism or punishment. Once they figure out a way to do things that kinda works, they cling to it with every bit of strength they have.

That’s what’s going on here.

Youth ministries are businesses too

A church’s youth ministry functions as a sort of Junior Varsity pastoral gig for its leader. (Back when Babylon Bee was actually funny, they lampooned the prevailing mindset at the time. It’s worth noting that my then-husband Biff was trying to angle into a real pastor job in exactly this way.) The youth minister needs to be young, trendy-looking and hip, attractive, and enormously charismatic. And if he checks all those boxes, then he–yes, almost always a man in evangelical groups–might just cultivate a following that eclipses the main pastor’s–for a while, anyway.

Before his very weird downfall, Matt Pitt was one such leader. His services at “The Basement” attracted hundreds of screaming teenagers. But very few of those teenagers seem to have graduated to the adult church sponsoring “The Basement.” It turned out that getting teenagers super-psyched for Team Jesus didn’t lead to them becoming dues-paying church members as adults.

South Park. Cartman imitates a teacher in a 90s inspirational movie–complete with a job teaching underprivileged children.

There’s no shortage of critical articles online telling evangelical leaders that this “attractional” model doesn’t work, has never worked, and shouldn’t be done. But I see it still in use everywhere. Here’s a youth event that took place last year in my state:

Yikes, it’s even called HYPE. (Screenshot of their video.) It is as cringey as you imagine.

When I look at evangelical churches’ youth group pages, I see photo after photo of fun activities, pizza parties, football, camping, and more. One even offers regular waffle parties. It’s very clear that their leaders are trying hard to attract children to their events through activities they think kids will enjoy. Then, through Underwear Gnome logic, that strategy supposedly–somehow–results in lifelong membership in the group.

From South Park.

Except it doesn’t.

It’s like the 1980s and 1990s never died.

Bristling over the “attractional model”

Evangelicals have always bristled over the very idea that they should actually do what any secular group must do to cultivate and maintain a membership:

Offer potential recruits something they want at a price they feel is fair, and don’t be mean to them or take them for granted once they join. Always be winning customers’ business.

It’s almost comical how much evangelicals hate the idea that their evangelists are actually salespeople. They hate even more the idea that those evangelists are simply selling a product (which is, in turn, active membership in their group). They always have, as we can see from this interesting 1920 essay that engages with that exact truth. Of course, he emerges from that consideration by insisting that his religion does indeed “earn its bread” by being tangibly useful to society by introducing concepts like charity and kindness to otherwise “savage” people.

Evangelicals might believe this in a general sense, but they really don’t like the idea that their religion should be judged on its tangible benefits to society at large.

Why, back in the Good Ole Days, these evangelicals bellow, nobody had to make Christianity look useful or beneficial! Pure Jesus-osity totally drew Christians in by the boatload because Christians were just so, I dunno, DIFFERENT, I guess! “The gospel doesn’t need our hype!”

With that utter misunderstanding of history dancing in their minds, evangelicals keep chasing the Original Christianity myth. They keep insisting that if Christian leaders would only return to Jesus-ing like the earliest Christians totally did, then people will join by the boatload.

The myth of Original Christianity, in the wild

“Go back to Acts,” urges Greg Stier.

Stop giving potential recruits “what they want or need,” complains The Keystone Project.

Do what Jesus did instead, instructs a Christian pastor who got burned out chasing what he calls the attractional “dragon.”

Just give Millennials “Jesus” without layering on all those beloved evangelical extras, sighs Rachel Held Evans.

Make Christianity “a mode of life” (whatever that even means) and not a product for sale, opines an assistant professor at a religious college.

Every one of these people is very certain that TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ is more than enough of a draw on its own. Gosh, if Christian leaders would only offer that, then literally everything would change.

Alas for them, there’s no real way to make it happen.

And yet the 4-14 Window keeps closing

Every single thing a youth ministry does is supposed to be done with an eye toward making teenagers into dues-paying adult members of the group. Everything they do is useless and pointless if it doesn’t lead there. Heck, it might even be counterproductive then.

The problem here: evangelicals just have no clue how to make that leap from child-attendee to adult member. They never did. Really, they never had to, until about 40 years ago. Then, suddenly, salesmanship and retention mattered.

And now, evangelicals have a big, insurmountable problem. They never learned any of those skills. Instead, they just coasted by on their ability to pressure and coerce people to join and stick around.

What a voluntary Christianity means for youth ministers

Evangelicals know very well that if they can’t fully indoctrinate a child between the ages of 4 and 14, it probably won’t ever happen. Very few unindoctrinated adults ever join evangelical groups. However, fewer and fewer children are walking into evangelical churches to be indoctrinated.

Without that kind of long-term, regular access to children, evangelicals are sunk. They know this.

And yet, they can’t adapt or innovate youth ministry now. All they have is the attractional model. They can’t force children show up for TRUE CHRISTIANITY™, whatever their personal definition of that term might be. Whatever TRUE CHRISTIANITY™ looks like as a youth ministry, it does not get kids interested in showing up.

So if parents don’t bring their kids to church (or at least allow the church to come fetch them), and nothing compels anyone to be there, then children will almost never attend on their own.

As a result of these truths, all youth ministers can reasonably do here is try to attract children through fun activities. They know that strategy doesn’t ultimately give them the results they want. But it’s all they have.

The devil and the deep blue sea

It’s really this simple, and it’s really this stark: if youth ministers don’t offer fun activities, then they’ll see even fewer children walking through their doors than they do now.

Caught between the devil of a church model that many evangelical leaders openly criticize and the deep blue sea of an empty youth ministry, evangelical youth ministers have little choice.

Either approach will get them criticism from their huffy leaders, yes. But one at least gets them bunches of teenagers sitting at least temporarily in their churches’ pews. And here’s the good part, for them at least: their favored approach requires no scary changes at all on their part.

It’s a win-win, a no-brainer! At least, it is until the decline continues past its tipping point, I reckon. But then, Christians can all engage in that classic evangelical pastime: blaming each other for what went wrong.

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...