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.

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