Why the Church needs Parachurch youth ministry.

.Photo: 1st day of Rock Club

You need to know a little about me before you hear what I have to say

I love the local church. I was a youth pastor at 4 churches over 18 years. I spent 9 years at churches under 250 and 9 years at churches from 2,000-5,000. I was a youth pastor with an evangelistic heart for the lost. I still volunteer weekly in our church’s youth ministry. (See my blog post “CEO Volunteer“).

For many years as a youth pastor, I used to think that parachurch youth ministries did not need to exist.

  • I used to think that the parachurch was great at reaching teens but was usurping the role of the church by discipling them as well.
  • I used to think that parachurch youth ministry was redundant; and that money, volunteers and students that were going to a parachurch all belonged in the local church

That’s changed.

For the past 4 years, the Lord in His great sense of humor has seen fit to place me in charge of a parachurch youth ministry called Youth Dynamics. We have 50 youth workers in the Northwest that work with 5,000 teenagers a year. What is a youth pastor’s youth pastor doing in charge of a parachurch youth ministry? It crack’s me up sometimes; but God knew what He was doing when He placed me in this job. What better way to bridge the gap between the two?

Why does the parachurch need to exist? Here are some of my conclusions to this point.

#1. The parachurch is reaching teens churches don’t want to reach.

  • Let’s face it. Most of the teens we reach wouldn’t fit in most church youth groups. Many churches have lost the stomach or the expertise to reach unsaved teenagers. They are disruptive, they swear, they smoke pot… they are exactly the type of teenager that parents do not want their kids around. It is part of the reason they as parents have chosen to Home School or send their kids to Christian School. Youth groups that reach these types of students have to have a Sr. Pastor with a strong backbone who has lots of confidence in his Youth Pastor and believe in what they are doing missionally. These types of congregations are becoming increasingly rare.

#2. The parachurch can do things churches can’t do, don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing.

  • It’s so much easier to get into the schools as a parachurch youth worker. And you can understand from a School’s District’s perspective why that is. They live and die by public opinion. It’s much safer for the school to embrace a non-denominational parachurch than to open doors for a single church or denomination. It happens, but to do so risks outside criticism and charges of favoritism. As a youth pastor I did have success in working with the schools, but mostly as our Youth Pastor’s Network. Again it was because we represented the entire cities’ youth workers and not a single church or denomination; and because we earned the right to be heard by blessing the schools over and over again, and by respecting their boundaries.

#3.  Churches are not valuing youth ministry like they should these days.

  • As church budgets tighten, they are looking at shrinking High School ministries and concluding that their ROI (return on investment), is not good enough. Many pastors and board members remember the heyday of church youth ministry… “We use to have a 100 teens here every Wednesday night!”  That ship has sailed people. It’s possible but not nearly as common. There are pockets in the States where large group youth ministry still works but our culture has changes since the 80s and 90s. And it’s going to continue to get worse. Event based youth ministry is dying in the states, and is dead in Australia, England and in Canada, from what my friends in those countries tell me. It’s alright though. We can still continue to make disciples. And maybe even do it better. But churches need to stop getting rid of older youth workers. As we shift gears to a more relational model, it will become increasingly important for churches to keep old guys around who know how to make disciples, and who can recruit and train parents and volunteers with more veracity and ease. I shudder to think where youth ministry would be without the parachurch. I can count on two hands the number of youth workers I know in their 40s that are still being paid by a local church. Almost everyone I know that is helping shape the youth ministry world on a macro level is not in a local church. It’s sad but true.

The criticism of the parachurch that holds the most weight in my opinion is that the parachurch is horrible about connecting students they reach back to the local church. There are many factors that make this difficult. It is however, one of YD’s corporate values, and we fight for it, because it’s the right fight. We have church partnerships with some churches where they work for both Youth Dynamics and for the church. In addition, most of our staff are volunteers in their local church’s youth ministry teaching Sunday School or leading the youth group all together. A few weeks ago YD in Burlington, WA baptized 5 teenagers in a local lake. These included a couple of homeless teens we’d been working with for over 1 1/2 years. There were about 50 people there from 3 local churches to celebrate and embrace these kids in their new faith.

We are not in competition with the local church.  We are in partnership with it. I love Mike King’s term “church assisting organization.” We aim to be that, but unfortunately many parachurch youth ministries are just that. “Para” = Separate.

But as legitimate as this charge may be, it is my contention that many church’s youth ministries are just as disconnected from the main congregation as if they were subletting the building to a parachurch youth ministry. They meet on a night when no one else is there; they do not come on Sundays, the style and content of the youth ministry looks nothing like the main congregation.

Just because the church pays the salary of the youth worker doesn’t make the ministry connected to the local church.

I challenge churches to strategically connect their youth ministries to the main body life of the church. There are plenty of reasons that our student’s faith is not sticking after high school; this is one that is largely overlooked.

Could it be that one of the reasons students leave the church is because they were never connected to the church where their youth ministry was located in the first place? It was just a building they used for youth group.

It may just be that your church’s youth ministry is just as guilty as the rest of us.


About markmoder

14 Responses to Why the Church needs Parachurch youth ministry.

  1. Kim Lauri says:

    Good stuff Mark, spoke to my heart. I just finished the book “So you don’t want to go to church anymore” I’m more convinced than ever that we need to be outside the church to reach the unsaved. Most want nothing to do with “religion”, cant say I blame them. As good intentioned as the church has been it still comes across as so hypocritical to those that were not raised in the church and even to some that were, they leave churches wounded never to return again. I love Parachurch’s and the men and women who desire to have relationships on the outside of 4 walls of the church, they go to great lengths to reach out to kids and people that the church doesn’t even see, so often the church only see’s its own. Most, or at least many don’t do it for a paycheck, God has given them a gift of loving the unlovable, reaching out to those that sometimes won’t even offer a hand back. its a jungle out there…


    • markmoder says:

      Good thoughts Kim. It’s too bad that there is so much pain associated with church for so many people, and that sometimes that is transferred to God and interferes with their relationship with Him. I wish it wasn’t so. But I remember our old pastor Bruce Miles saying how the church is the bride of Christ. And that “You and I can be friends, but if you don’t like my bride… don’t you think that eventually that’s going to get in the way of our relationship too?”
      I love the Church, warts and all. And as much pain as it has caused us at times, I am committed to His Bride, and to helping make it better.


      • Kim Lauri says:

        Amen to that!! I have found that most of my favorite people are people I’ve had the privilege of meeting in church. Say hI to Heidi for me..


  2. mike says:

    I’m actually in a unique position where I am the middle school pastor at our church, I’ve built a bridge into our middle school and now I’m bringing a parachurch organization on board to help with what I can’t (or just don’t know how) to do.

    It’s exciting and new for both of us!


  3. Thank you Mark, speaking as a Parachurch employee this was well said and written and hope many who I have talked to over the years read this.


    • markmoder says:

      You’re welcome. Probably good that I waited all these years to speak my mind on the issue. Next up… Homeschooling.


      • There were other things I wanted to say, but I needed time to process better or it would just come out wrong.

        The Church is God’s instrument to reach the world for him, Parachurches are a part of that Body of Christ. Not to take away from the church but become the special forces of the church, to help build and equip with specific goals. Your missions (GEM, Wycliffe, Tyndale, ext), youth focus (Youth for Christ, Young Life, Youth Dynamic, Youth Specialties, ext), family information (Focus on the Family, ext), service needs (Most any missions organization, Local Missions and food pantries, ext), and the list goes on with so many other topics. To “exclude” people from the Body of Christ just because they are not service in a “Church” is wrong especially if it is what God has called them to, service. And the same goes the other way, people in parachurches even with frustration with some of the church politics should never look away from partnering with the local church. When all is said and done, people should be placed in the local church. I have talked with churches who were anti parachurch and in the next breath talked of how wonderful another one was, main reason I can figure is the other didn’t encring on their territory physically. If parachurches have moved into new area’s of territory and given the churches in those community the feelings that the church is just wrong, those parachurches are wrong. Mainly because no matter what faults any ministry church or parachurch has (and ALL have them, no matter how good they are), God placed them there for a reason. They may not be equip to do a specific Job but what a great opportunity to partner.


  4. I agree whole-heartedly with your critique on the Church as we know it. As a former church worker and current para-church employee, my heart still tells me that the way you described para-church ministry is actually part of the call and heart of God for His Church (which I think parachurch is definitely a part of if you get down to it). I often say that I don’t think our parachurch ministry should exist – because it’s the job of the Church to reach the kids in our community – even the ones that are on the fringes and have been written off. Para-Church should have never needed to exist – but it does and it is needed at this time because of what you described above. I’m not trying to come off as negative or cynical toward the Church – I’m not at all and I hope to find myself working in one again someday – but my heart aches because of what we have become in light of what I believe God wants us to be.


    • markmoder says:

      I concur Ryan. Ideally a church should be empowered to reach all the unsaved outside it’s doors in the community it’s planted in. But we’re a long ways from that reality today, but I wish we weren’t.


  5. mattlarimer says:

    I was not expecting your three points to be biased church stereotypes used as reasons to do ministry outside of the church that could (and maybe should) be done inside the church. It was almost like you’re saying, “I know there are problems and instead of trying to fix them I’m just going to leave and do it my own way.” What specifically are you doing now that you could not do in a church?


    • markmoder says:

      Hey Matt, thanks for your response. But you are way off the mark. I certainly have not left the local church in any sense, with the exception of who signs my paycheck. I am more involved as a volunteer than 95% of the congregation. I volunteer weekly in the youth group, I lead a small group of teens, I lead a small group of adults, we tithe, I preach when asked, and I coach the youth pastors free of charge. The church is His Bride and I am committed to her and to continuing to help her be focused and missional. As far as Youth Dynamics goes, our staff works incredibly hard at reaching difficult students that would otherwise be Hell-Bound, and taking them with us to the local congregations we are involved with. Isn’t that what the members of the church are supposed to do? Reach out to the lost in our community, lead them to Christ and connect them to the Body? Or is it only those who get paid by the church who are supposed to to that? I would argue that I am perhaps able to be more missional because I do not receive my paycheck from the church, not less. What am I doing now that I could not do in a church? Give my time, talents and treasure to Her as a free will offering, instead of as a job. No, I have not left the church in any sense. I am still IN the church. In fact, I AM the church.


  6. mattlarimer says:

    Mark, I never assumed that you left the church. I said the points you used were church stereotypes not actual reasons for parachurch ministry. Where do you get that churches don’t want to reach certain teens, or that they don’t value youth ministry anymore? I guess I am just really tired of reading posts from disenchanted youth pastors talking about how they can do ministry more effectively outside of “the church.” Maybe you can do it more effectively outside of a certain church, but I think we need to stop using the church label to express our frustrations.


    • markmoder says:

      Matt… I realize I over-reacted a bit, and I apologize for that. I am so committed to the local church, it’s anathema to me to be associated with anything less. Yes I am using a wide brush when painting the church in N. America, but it is not without some merit. 2-3 yrs ago I spoke @ YS in San Diego and in some regional conferences in the Northwest on the subject of “Reaching the Lost vs Taking care of church kids.” My sessions were full. Full of frustrated youth workers whose heart for unreached teens was not congruent with the vision of the church for it’s youth ministry. And it wasn’t just one or two isolated stories. I spent 10-15 min of each session “why are you here? “What is going on in your church in regards to this issue?” Many stories of youth pastors having to stop reaching unchurched teens, or having to create two separate youth groups, one for church kids and one for unchurched. Issues ranging from Awana workers who did not want to let go, to home school parents who mobilized against the youth worker. I realize that there are many unsaved students who are churched kids as well. But my heart and many youth workers hearts go out those who have never heard. I have several staff who work for me now who as youth pastors were either forced out of their congregation, or left preemptively because their heart for unsaved teens was not congruent with the church’s vision for youth ministry at their church. Youth Pastors should stay on staff and appeal to the mission of Christ to seek and to save the lost as much as they can stand up under the heat. But at the end of the day, the youth pastor can not shape the culture of the church beyond what the Sr. Pastor and the church board will allow. So at some point you have to decide to either change your heart (let a piece of it die) or find somewhere else to pursue it. All is not lost, there are missional churches out there, but they are definitely in the minority. Many more churches today with a bunker mentality, “Let’s just hole up together and not lose the ones we have,” vs. “Let’s be a city on a hill, and advance on the gates of hell.” It’s frustrating as well to watch some of my former youth pastor friends who are now senior pastors who now do not believe in youth ministry as a place to engage a lost culture.
      When I guest speak on Sunday’s at various churches, this is always a part of my call: to not forget the unchurched teens in your area and to embrace the mess that comes with trying to reach them. But the issue is way wider than just teenagers… many churches want clean and tidy period. And those that are not willing to reach unchurched teens, are not likely reaching unchurched adults either. But that’s another blog post.


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