Is It Working Any More? Working with Today’s Teens

Tony Toth
October 7th, 2009


Paul sat quietly, staring out the van window as we drove to youth group. Paul often zoned-out when life got heavy. His parents were alcoholics, his father a “nice” drunk, his mom more cruel and abusive. When he was home, Paul lost himself in TV or video games, but in the van he had only the clouds. Suddenly, he turned to me, “You know, it would be great to have you for a father.” For Paul, the youth group was his place of safety.

Josh was in the church parking lot, his old car coughing black smoke as the engine knocked and pinged. Josh had quit high school to support his mom and older brother who was a drug addict. Despite his mother's two full-time jobs, the mortgage, utilities, and occasional bail left little money for food. Josh worked one-and-a-half minimum wage jobs to feed his family. Josh never knew his father and would tell you that it didn't bother him, but always with a trace of bitterness in his voice. The youth group was his last remaining link to youth, even though he was still far from being an adult.

Jasmine was in my office, drawing on a notepad, sketching tag art that resembled her new tattoo. Just as Jasmine reached the age when other mothers and daughters start sharing intimately about dating or clothes or hopes and dreams, her mother died. It'd been a couple of years, but her behavior was still controlled by her anger and pain.

That night as we started our meeting, I looked out over the group and saw three teens with very different lives but one thing in common: they didn't want to hear about Jesus.

Means to an End

Relational ministry is an integral part of youth work. The conventional wisdom says that if we can get close enough, we can share the gospel message of hope and healing. As Marv Penner wrote in the November/December 2001 issue of Youthworker, “We'd hang with kids, go to their recitals, and coach their teams, all in the hope that if we did it long enough and well enough, we'd eventually get the opportunity to dump the whole load of truth on them.”

For years, youth workers have operated within this model. Indeed, many churches have built their entire youth ministries around funny, warm, enthusiastic, and cool leaders. They know the lingo, listen to the music, and see every movie. They're up on the clothes, the fads, and the culture. Their faith is solid and their ministry skills sharp, but it's their ability to relate that makes them so appealing. In fact, sometimes they relate so well that it's difficult to tell the youth worker from the youth!

Problem is, too often that kind of relational ministry doesn't work anymore.


Because it's too shallow to meet the needs of today's kids.

Developmental Issues

Many years ago, Abraham Maslow studied human behavior and from his observations constructed a theory called a Hierarchy of Needs. He created a pyramid. At the bottom were our most basic physiological needs: food, water, shelter, and clothes. Next higher was safety, followed by love and belonging, then self-esteem. At the very top of the pyramid was self-actualization: the need to fulfill oneself, to become all one is capable of becoming. According to Maslow, we cannot function at one level unless the needs below it are met; a teenager cannot be concerned about being loved if she's hungry or in fear for her survival.

James Fowler crafted a similar hierarchy in his research on faith development and, like Maslow's pyramid, each stage must be negotiated before advancing to the next. The early stages, developed during childhood, are steeped in trust and empathy issues. By the time they get to us (early teenage years), students should be somewhere around stage three. During this phase kids begin compartmentalizing life into different arenas: home, school, friends, and church. They begin to act differently depending upon the arena in which they find themselves. It's also a period when thinking becomes abstract, and Scripture and sacraments are seen to have several levels of meaning. Stage four is a turbulent time of change characterized by deep introspection and periods of doubt and confusion. The task of the youth worker is to help teenagers navigate these stormy waters as they find their ways through stages three and four. If we do our job well, by the time they hit stage five they're adults and on their ways to becoming youth sponsors!

But what happens if home life, school dynamics, or socioeconomics interrupt that spiritual formation? What if our teens are stuck on Maslow's pyramid at a level where the trust and empathy issues of childhood are still unrefined? Empathy is a key aspect of Fowler's stage five, and trust is integrated into all levels of faith.

Cultural Issues

Most North American kids raised in the '50s and '60s had most of those needs readily met; families, neighbors, and schools supplied their basic needs while providing a sense of security, trust, belonging, and, to some degree, self-esteem. This social structure allowed churches to focus mostly on self-actualization and the Fowler stages in which faith and matters of deep spiritual development take place. This cooperative worked well as long as each pillar in the foundation held up.

The disintegration of families, loss of cohesiveness in neighborhoods (even in the well-to-do suburbs), and atrophy of the public schools has caused this paradigm to collapse; therefore, those of us in youth work must scramble to shore up the remaining structure. Unfortunately, many of the models we still use to expose our students to the good news of Jesus are the ones that worked in the '60s and '70s. Relational ministry is one of these.

Case in Point

Our church serves a neighborhood in transition. On one side of the street are nice houses whose families earn middle-income salaries. On the other side are many Section 8 houses with families dependent on federally funded school lunches and other social assistance. Many of the homes on that side harbor single parent families and substance abuse, and even the houses on the “good” side aren't free from dysfunctional behavior or domestic abuse.

Most of the children and teens in our church come on their own, without parents, and this detachment carries over into the rest of their lives. There's a major divide in our culture between adults and youth. As a society, we've become separated from our children and the fallout from that reality surrounds us. Single-parent homes, dysfunctional families driven by materialism, domestic, sexual, or substance abuse, and poorly blended families have stripped away the levels of love and belonging, challenged the feelings of safety and security, and forced some kids to scrounge for basic necessities.

Some kids like Josh are functioning at the first level, working to keep a roof over head and food on the table. Kids like Paul are stuck at level two, scraping to survive in houses where alcohol, harsh words, and physical threats undermine the family's stability. Jasmine flounders at level three, trying to replace the love and companionship stolen from her by death. Other kids suffer similar pain over parents who've deserted them. For Josh, Paul, Jasmine, and all the teenagers like them, the comfort and hope of a relationship with Jesus is just too far up the pyramid.

These problems are prevalent even in the suburbs. Tom Turpel, Suburbs Editor of YO! Magazine has noted, “Living in suburbia is all about survival. It's about struggling for your dreams, your emotions, and your sanity to survive in a world that blends the fantasy of Leave It to Beaver with the reality of 1984.” Most suburban kids have plenty to eat, fashionable clothes, and nice houses, but as we've seen too many times, domestic, sexual, and substance abuse know no geographic or socioeconomic boundaries. And in transitional neighborhoods, the specter of poverty divides those kids from their suburban peers.

In many churches, the kind of relational ministry Marv Penner describes just doesn't work anymore. The types of relationships it's designed to build are based on the higher reaches of Maslow's pyramid and Fowler's stages. To effectively reach teens with the good news of Jesus, it's time to rethink how we do relational ministry.

Reflections from the Practice

As I've considered this issues in light of my own church and the kids we serve, I've made some observations about relating to today's youth:

1. Today's youth worker must have access to a variety of tools. We can no longer be armed with only a Bible and a few good object lessons. We must build a war chest of agencies and social workers capable of helping our kids meet their most basic needs. Emergency shelters and food pantries, school counselors and administrators, police and family service personnel, and other youth workers all must be our allies in this battle.

2. Youth ministers must faithfully spend time in prayer and study each day. This should go without saying, but with the old style of relational ministry it's possible to go a long time without personal spiritual discipline as long as there's a stock of good stories, fun games, and hip music. As Mike Yaconelli has written, “Only those youth workers who are mystics—who possess a lived-out experience of the indwelling Christ—will have anything to offer students.” Effective relational ministry requires frequent contact with our divine source of power or we won't get very far.

3. Youth ministry must be embraced by the whole church. Our greatest evangelism efforts just might be to the adults in our churches. Senior pastors and church leaders must be reminded that being in mission to youth isn't a tool for growing the church; it's a faithful response by the church to Christ's call.

4. Kids must be individually evaluated and served. Ministry happens when the gospel intersects need. Each youth is in a unique situation with unique needs, and unless we're willing to dig deep with each kid, we can never climb the pyramid with them to get to the place where we can share the gospel. This means that it's impossible for one youth minister to relationally handle a large group. Numbers can no longer be the measure of success.

5. Large youth ministries will need a large number of volunteers. These volunteers will require careful screening for security, spiritual maturity, and calling before intensely training them to take ownership of the ministry.

6. Curriculum and group activities will have to be tailor-made. Gone are the days of prepackaged youth groups. These days a mixture of resources and prayerful deliberation is needed to prepare material for each group. Imagine trying to find a weekly Bible study or group activity that would appeal to Josh and Paul and Jasmine. Every gathering is going to be a challenge and there'll be a lot of trial and error.

Paul, Josh, and Jasmine weren't equipped to hear about Jesus that night. Their other needs didn't give them “ears to hear.” Fortunately, time and experience had taught me that while they didn't want to hear about Jesus, they still needed to see him!

If we're going to touch the lives of teens with the good news of Jesus then we must touch them as Jesus would. We must look into their eyes and see their pain and sense their fear, and then we must love them as Jesus loves them. We must love them so much that we help them reach the place where they're able to embrace the gospel and grow in faith. We mustn't tell them about Jesus—we must be Jesus.

In the end, a new model of relational youth ministry isn't about our relationships with teenagers or our relationships with our adult volunteers. It's all about our relationships to Jesus Christ.

Tony Toth

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.