I’ve been called many things, but a unicorn was a new one. I’d been in my new role as youth minister for maybe a month, and one of our senior youth (who’d seen a steady flow of youth ministers come and go during her time) asked if I was a unicorn. In her experience at a variety of churches, youth ministers who are theologically trained, older than twenty-five, and not passing through on their way to ministry with grown-ups might as well be mythical creatures.
I happen to know a few ‘unicorns’ who don’t view youth ministry as a stepping stone to ‘real’ ministry. But they’re certainly a rare breed. The fact that this seventeen-year-old pastor’s kid made this observation is a sad but telling sign. So I want to make a plea for more youth ministry unicorns. Twenty-something youth ministers are great. And anybody who puts their hand up to invest in the spiritual formation of young people, even if that’s only for a season, is ok by me. It’s just that I worry that we might have a systemic problem. I can count on one hand the number of full-time youth ministers with theological training in my city. In my denomination, it’s pretty much the same situation. As I’ve returned to youth ministry after a few years of ministering to adults I’ve become increasingly aware that I need every bit of my training, experience, and postgrad theology degree to serve young people. If anything, I need it more in youth ministry than I did with my work as a pastor of adults.
The Level of Spiritual Risk
Being a teenager is tough. In the last few months alone, I’ve been in pastoral care situations featuring involving mental health issues, self-harm, conflict resolution, and family breakdown, all in our medium-sized youth group. For Christian youth, following Jesus brings further challenges. They live on the cutting edge of cultural developments around sexuality, gender, and humanity, without much agency to decide how policies affect them. They have far more LGBTQ+ friends than I do. Their peers have an outsized impact on them. They are drowning in a flood of social media images and messages. All while they’re in the business of making major decisions about their identity and their future. If our ministries among young people don’t have the theological depth and emotional maturity to help them respond wisely and faithfully, it shouldn’t be surprising that something like 70% of young people leave the church by the age of twenty.
The Size of the Spiritual Opportunity
While the fall-away stats are enough to keep you up at night, the conversion stats are enough to get you out of bed every morning. Over 70% of people in every church came to faith before the age of twenty. Young people ask existential questions with refreshing honesty because they’re asking them for the first time. A young person asking about the meaning of life is genuinely open to finding the answer; and they want to find it quickly. They may not be suspicious of faith yet—but they won’t accept simplistic platitudes either. They’re looking for robust truth to build their identity on. If you think it’s all about donuts and dodgeball, you’ve been misled. We play with live ammo on Friday nights. I’d hate to think we’re bringing water pistols to a bushfire.
Finally, even if you have the world’s most faithful, educated, switched-on, and gifted twenty-one-year-old running your youth ministry, there’s still an issue you’ll face eventually: twenty-one-year-olds don’t tend to still be in the same church when they’re thirty-one. There are degrees and jobs and houses and spouses: rarely are all of those things found in the same suburb, or even the same city. Moving on from a ministry role because your life stage has changed isn’t a spiritual failure, it’s a natural reality.
But few things in youth ministry matter more than being there for the long haul. If it’s about accompanying young people through their dissonance with the gospel, being there long enough to build trust and prove your commitment is surely one of the best gifts you can offer. That’s why, under God, I hope to be the youth minister at my current church for at least ten years. And for now, staying that long seems logistically possible. I’m married already, I own a house, I know which school my kids will go to, and my days of wanting to plant a church are behind me.
Of course, God will do whatever he’ll do, and I’ll do my best to follow him wherever he wants me. But the simple fact I’m planning to stick around has been a game changer for the way my team and I think about the ministry. We are thinking and planning for the long game. We’re not rushed, we aren’t tempted by fads or pressured by fast results. We’re deeply invested in these kids, and their younger brothers and sisters, and the kids who are currently in creche and Sunday school. I want to watch them become pastors and parents and nurses and missionaries and teachers. I want to be here long enough to see them grow up in the faith. And if any of them should walk away from the faith, I want to be here long enough to see them come back again.
If You’re in Youth Ministry: Stay There
If you’re an early-twenty-something youth minister, intern, leader, or volunteer just starting out on your ministry adventure, I thank God for you. Serve with every fibre of faithfulness you can muster. Get as much training as you can possibly lay your hands on. Pray lots. Know that Term 3 is always harder. Turn up anyway. Trust God’s word. Love the person in front of you. Remember that you were a punk at fourteen too. Read the parable of the sower again and again. And please, hang around as long as you can. Seeds don’t sprout straight away.
If You Employ Youth Minsters: Resource Them
I get it. You’re possibly giving youth ministry all the time, money, and training your church can spare. The budget is never as healthy as it could be and there’s always something urgent cropping up. All I’d ask is that you consider this: what would happen if you sent some of your best people to be involved in the youth ministry for the next ten years? What might that do to your rosters? Your small groups? Your evangelistic temperature? Your leadership pipelines? I don’t imagine that kind of sending would be without friction in the short-term, but it might create more fellow harvest workers than you think—and sooner than you’d expect. Raise the bar on your expectations for what youth ministry can be, then pray, recruit, and invest accordingly.
Consider Serving in Youth Ministry
Maybe as a volunteer. Maybe more. Do you feel too old and out of touch? Don’t worry about it. The coolest young adults I know feels themselves to be crossing cultures every Friday night. Which is exactly what good missionaries do. Along the way, even the most stand-offish teenager will see through the layers of awkward and notice the love of Jesus when someone offers it to them. So come join in the mission.
 Although there might be a strategic failure here, if a youth minister’s wage isn’t enough to raise a family on, but that’s for another article.