Youth Ministry is in Danger of Becoming the Phone book

July 4th, 2017

It is well documented in business circles that “blaming the customer” is a terrible practice. It’s also popular to talk about how we must “change or die.” Oddly enough, there are a surprising amount of businesses – and even entire industries – that ignore this wisdom and continue to blame their customers. Ironically, this is many times in the name of resisting change.

  • There have been car companies that decided to blame the customer instead of recalling a faulty part.
  • When the yoga pants maker Lululemon started getting a lot of complaints about their product, their first response was to imply that the problem was with “most women’s bodies.”
  • Kodak almost folded after trying to completely deny the advent of the digital age.
  • Blockbuster Video couldn’t imagine customers not wanting to come out to their brick and mortar stores.
  • The music industry originally responded to P2P sharing programs (like Napster) by taking the customers to court.

Even when the lawsuits succeed, they still fail. In 2013, the city of Seattle was sued for allowing people to opt-out of receiving a phone book.  No brainer, right? Wrong. It was apparently a violation of free speech and after multiple appeals, the city chose to remove the opt-out and settle for $500,000. The phone book companies won. Except they didn’t. After all, when was the last time you used a phone book? (For anything other than kindling for a fire or ripping in half in a strongman display).

Playing the Blame Game & Resisting Change

I would argue that we know inherently that the blame-game is a dead-end. However, we tend to forget how subtle this game is. It is so easy to be playing it and not realize we are doing so. For our purpose here, I’d suggest that we in youth ministry have been playing the blame-game with our students and youth culture.

Resisting change is equally a dead-end. Resisting change creates “sides” where it can be us versus them and we celebrate our successes and their failures.

Howard Hendricks once said,

All across the country, there are tens of thousands of churches in America that are little more than a museum of how church was done 50-100 years ago. They have resisted change and gone from ‘not growing’ to flat out dying. Their leadership gathers and asks some version of, ‘How do we attract young families?’ But then they come to the conclusion that “families these days just don’t care about church like they used to.”

I’ve sat in on meetings like this. My friends have sat in on meetings like this. You may have too. We know our opinion isn’t really wanted so we say nothing and sit and listen to church leadership do the two things we know lead to death: Blaming the customer and resisting change.

Are we falling into the same trap?

Now at this point, you might be tracking with me pretty well, especially since so far I’m making us – the youth ministry people – the heroes. We know better – right? But let me turn this back to you and I and ask a very serious question. Are we falling into the same trap? Are we doing any better?

I can’t speak for you, but I know that I’ve been convicted lately that I blame students, parents, and the culture of the modern family, and I’ve been doing so to help resist the need for change. I’ve been in youth ministry for almost 20 years and I’m known in (very) small circles as a youth ministry “expert.” But I’m scared to death that my real expertise is actually how youth ministry was done 20 years ago.

I waved the white flag at a recent meeting with my volunteer staff.

“I need ideas. I have to stop complaining about how families are too busy and people need to make youth group a priority. Sports schedules will not be getting lighter. Parents won’t make getting their kids into college less of a priority. Teenagers still need Jesus and I’m feeling like our program, as is, only reaches a very small niche of teenagers in our area. If we don’t change our approach, we will be dead in a matter of years.”

Three Options in the Face of Change

I realized I basically had three choices. I could (1) get out of youth ministry, (2) move to a church where my outdated model still works, or (3) change my approach.  And the thought occurred to me that perhaps option two is something that happens in the ministry world more than we realize.

But the point is simply this. I knew what I had to stop doing. I had to stop blaming students. I had to stop blaming parents. I had to stop blaming culture.

So do you.

Otherwise, we will become the youth ministry equivalent of that church leadership meeting that we mock from afar. We will continue to just lament about how youth ministry used to be and continue to do the same things we‘ve always done. We will become outdated, and irrelevant. We will become powerless. We will become just one more institution known for fighting for self-preservation instead of having an actual impact on the world.

We can choose to stop blaming the students and the culture…

…or we can choose to go the way of the phone book.

JONATHAN HOBBS is the Director of Youth Ministries at the Church of the Good Samaritan in Paoli, Pennsylvania. He has worked in youth ministry for almost 20 years, including churches in New Jersey, New Mexico, South Carolina, and Pennsylvania. He has spoken and/or led worship for multiple camps, retreats, and events around the country and has written multiple articles for blogs, newspapers, and magazines.  He also co-wrote/edited a book called “Don’t Do This” which is full of stories about failures in youth ministry. (Something he knows a lot about).  He is the founder of J3 Youth Ministry (WWW.J3YOUTHMINISTRY.COM) and is one of the hosts of the J3 Youth Ministry Podcast. He took karate in high school because he thought it would help make him cool. He was wrong. Jonathan and his wife, Carolyn, have two beautiful daughters, Kaylin and Julia. He loves golf, can juggle two balls skillfully and does a halfway decent impression of Kermit the Frog. He’s also a big fan of the Oxford comma. Follow him on Twitter @JONHOBBSTWEETS.


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.