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Youth Minister After 2 Years: Perception vs. Reality

I’m worried about my memory. I just started my 6th year in full-time youth ministry, and I’m already finding it difficult to remember any perceptions I had about ministry that have not matched up with reality. So I can’t be sure if what I’m about to share was revealed after I entered the trenches, or if these are ideas I held before then that have since been authenticated by real-life ministry experience. At any rate, these are some principles that have become increasingly important to me in youth ministry:

1. Focus on your own spiritual health and integrity.

By far, this one is the most important. Some new youth ministers believe that more time spent with students equals greater effectiveness as a youth worker. This is not true. It may sound selfish, but the minister’s first priority is his own relationship with God. More time spent with God equals greater effectiveness as a youth worker. To use a worn-out illustration, this principle is much like the in-case-of-an-emergency safety demonstration on an airplane: the adult is told to put on the air mask first before helping the child. Similarly, the minister should care for his own spiritual health before helping his students.

I will never forget a story I heard Lonnie Jones tell a few years ago. He talked about when he was preaching as a young man and caught a glimpse of himself in a mirror hanging in the church foyer. As he looked at himself standing there behind that pulpit, he had this thought: “I am standing here because I have to say something, not because I have something to say.” I want to always have something meaningful and truthful and life-changing to say when I stand before students or the whole congregation. For that to be the case, I must spend time with God and His Word. I must be primarily concerned with my relationship with God. The greatest gift a minister can give to his students and congregation is his own spiritual maturity and integrity.

2. Focus on relationships instead of programs.

Fancy programs are overrated. Relationships are what matters. And in addition to the relationship the youth minister is building with God, he should also seek to develop relationships with the people in his congregation. But once again, let me push back on a widely-held belief with this: the youth minister’s relationships with the parents of his students are just as and maybe even more important than the relationships with his students. Parents inevitably spend more time and have greater influence on their children than a youth minister. I would just be spinning my wheels if I tried to get close to my students while neglecting their parents. For a much bigger spiritual impact, seek out relationships with parents.

3. Focus on the ones who show up instead of the ones who don’t.

It’s so easy to play the numbers game: to claim success when a big crowd shows up and to admit failure when it’s just a few. This is a waste of time. I know it’s important to reach out to students who aren’t involved, but I try not to beat myself up over who doesn’t come. I’ve learned that this only distracts me from being present to the students who do come, the ones that God has placed within my care. Instead of saying, “Where is everybody?” the youth minister should say instead, “I’m thankful for the opportunity to impact the ones who are here.”

Joseph Horton is the Youth Minister at the Winchester Church of Christ in Winchester, TN where he has served since May of 2007. He is married to Lauren Lusk Horton and they have a beautiful daughter named Kathryn Elise. Joseph blogs at Musings of a Youth Minister.


Does the Bible offer hope to teenagers who live with emotional and spiritual pain?  What about all the suffering that exists in the world today?  What can we do as Christians to help others through these tough times?  In this post I want to share with you a few different ways to explain to teens how to endure pain and what God is ultimately doing to evil and suffering in the end.

The problem of our pain and suffering has a source and if we do not understand that source then we will not understand the solutions that God provides.  The problem that exists in this world is sin.  If we do not place the blame on sin, then we will not understand the answers God provides in the Bible.  Sin is the cause and reason for pain and suffering.

Sin began in the Garden of Eden when Adam and Eve disobeyed God by eating of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 3:6).  We find in the rest of Genesis 3 that every area of life was dramatically affected by sin.  This sin has touched the world around us.  The entire message of the Bible from Genesis 3 on is how God is dealing with this sin problem.  Let us look at some of the solutions to this problem.

The first solution to the problem of evil and suffering is to understand your purpose.  The Bible tells us that our purpose is to know God (Philippians 3:10).  This may not give a solution but it may give you motivation to endure what you are going through.  There are two ways to find a purpose in your suffering.  The first is to know that God wants you holy, not happy (1 Peter 1:15).  This may mean that the suffering that is taking place is intended to make you a better person.  God does not care how happy you are if you are leading a life that will end up in hell!  The suffering that comes from our personal sin helps us turn back to God.  We must also remember that some of the things we endure make us look to a loving, heavenly Father for answers.  Another perspective from your purpose of knowing God is that the pain and suffering may be a test of spiritual maturity.  Do you love God for God’s sake, or for what you get from God?  Much of the pain we endure can bring about glory for God or can remind us about spiritual truths.  Death is a reminder of our short time on earth.  Suffering as a Christian can be a testament to others who see our faith.  Just enduring suffering with an understanding that God still loves us is an amazing tool for evangelism and encouragement.  These two areas of knowing God help us to look at pain, evil, and suffering differently.

The second solution to pain and suffering is that we need to understand that on the cross, Jesus did the ultimate judo move to sin.  If sin is the ultimate enemy, then what Jesus accomplished on the cross defeats its power.  What is the essence of the marital art of judo?  To use your enemy’s strengths against them!  Think about what Jesus does for us on the cross.  1) He defeated all the political evil that exists in the world.  He was tried and found guilty unjustly by Pontius Pilate.  2)  He also defeated all the religious evils.  The Pharisees and Sadducees called for his arrest and crucifixion.  3)  All the Satanic evil was defeated.  Satan entered Judas’ heart to turn Jesus over to the authorities.  These three areas were turned against themselves with Jesus’ death on the cross and his resurrection three days later.  There is hope for us all in the fact that the cross took the evil in the world and defeated it!

The third area is my personal favorite.  We need to understand that in the end God makes everything new!  Revelation 21:5 says this, “And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.’”  Stop and think about this for just a second.  God does not say, “Behold, I am making all new things.”  What God says is that “I am making all things new,” in that order.  God, in the end, takes all that is wrong in the world and put it back to what is right!  Romans 8 gives an even clearer picture when it says in verse 21, “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.”  Even the evils that fall on us from the physical world will be made right in the end!  The final message of the Bible is that in the end, God makes everything new!  What has existed in this sinful, broken world will be made right in the end.  Isn’t that more of what we long for than just a simple answer in the midst of our suffering?  

 As we close, I am reminded of the words of C. S. Lewis when we think of the day when Christ returns and turns all that is wrong back to the way God wants it to be.  Lewis says, “they say of some temporal suffering, ‘no future bliss can make up for it,’ not knowing that Heaven, once attained, will work backwards and turn even that agony into a glory.”   Today, we eagerly wait for that glory and we need to understand that with Christ’s work on the cross all pain, evil, and suffering has been defeated!

Barry Throneberry has been the youth and family minister at the Highland Church of Christ for over 8 years.  He is married to Rebecca Schwartz Throneberry and writes a blog called Theology with Throneberry.  He is also part of the team that does the podcast.  His interests are in the areas of Theology, Spiritual Disciplines, and Apologetics.

It’s hard being a teenager.  This past weekend I heard stories of difficulties some teenagers were having and my heart just breaks listening to their pain.  Much of what you hear is disparaging as many teenagers still have sex, drink and treat other with disrespect.  I was talking with one of my teens this past weekend and I asked him, “Do a lot of people at your school drink?”  What he said was piercing, “Yeah man.  It’s really bad.”  Maybe you have heard (or had) this conversation between a teenager and his parent.

Mom:  I just don’t understand you anymore Tom.  You argue all the time, you’re so disrespectful, you’re grades are horrible and it’s like you do not even care about your father and I.  What is wrong with you?

Tom:  You don’t even understand me.  You think being a teenager is easy?  Things are different now than when you were in high-school I just wish you could be in my shoes and understand what I am going through.

Sound familiar?  Maybe a little too familiar.  In response to that I am starting a new series called “A Day in the Life of a Teenager” with guest posts from youth ministers and ministry experts from all over.  We will discuss some topics that I think are pertinent to many teenagers in hopes that you will be able to empathize a little either as a teenager or with your teenager.  We do not have all the answers so this will not address everything.  These posts are more of a primer for you to do more studying, searching and dialogue.  These guest posts all come from a biblical worldview specifically in a full-time ministry context.  I hope you enjoy these posts and here is the line-up:

  • March 1 – “Bullying” Scott Bond, Jr.
  • March 2 – “Peer Pressure” Joseph Horton
  • March 3 – “Drugs and Alcohol” Chuck Morris
  • March 4 – “Physical and Emotional Changes in Teenagers” Lonnie Jones
  • March 7 – “Spiritual Changes in Teenagers” Rusty Pettus
  • March 8 – “Family Issues” Jon David Schwartz
  • March 9 – “Teenagers and Technology” Joe Wells
  • March 14 – “The Pain they Endure” Barry Throneberry
  • March 15 – “The Hope they Possess” Philip Jenkins