Within 10 minutes of meeting a group of youth workers for the
first time, I know I’ll hear someone launch into a disapproving
critique of “program-driven” youth ministry:
- “All this church wants is programs; they should’ve called a
cruise ship director instead of me.”
- “My senior pastor is a program addict. He just doesn’t
understand that we’re not in the ’60s anymore.”
- Or my personal favorite: “We have a relational youth ministry,
not a program-driven one.”
Nothing sparks a head-nodding session among youth leaders faster
than a fervent diatribe about programs in youth ministry. This is
the one issue we can all agree on, right?
Programs are the favorite punching bag of youth ministry, and
have been for way too long. I have to admit that, for years, I saw
program-driven ministry as a throwback strategy appropriate only
for the unenlightened. Programs were synonymous with “old
But I was wrong — relationships and programs are not competing
approaches to youth ministry. In fact, a good program is usually
the best way to set the stage for relational ministry.
Let me explain.
I cut my youth ministry teeth in Young Life, the ultimate
“relational” approach to working with teenagers. But after going
through YL training and leading clubs for years, I realized our
success in building relationships with teenagers was possible
because of a thriving “contact” program — something we called a
The kids I related to more deeply were a part of Campaigners, a
program held in someone’s home early in the morning. And then there
were those three kids in our leadership core who met weekly in a
(you guessed it) training program.
Let me be clear: Nobody believes buying water balloons at Wal-Mart
is as important as making a life-on-life impact with a young
person. Few of us got into ministry because we love to create
invitations, make phone calls, or plan menus. But to imagine
there’s some mythical youth ministry world out there — a land of
pure relationships devoid of programs — is pure nonsense. Programs
are the structure, the beams and concrete, that give kids and
leaders the best excuse for building relationships.
The relationalists are right. Relationships are much more
important in the long-run than structure. But we will not likely
reach more than a handful of kids without an intentional design to
our ministry. So let’s stop using “relational” youth ministry as
the handy excuse for lack of vision or planning, or as a cover for
a less-than-purposeful ministry.
We won’t naturally build relationships with teenagers-or help them
build relationships with each other and with God — using a
program-free approach. Let’s love the way Jesus loved. Let’s make
relationships a crucial priority. But let’s pull the plug on this
ridiculous program-bashing. A healthy youth ministry needs both
relationship-building and programs — they feed off each other. We
simply can’t have one without the other.
mark Devries is the founder of Youth Ministry Architects, (www.YMArchitects.com), a
hands-on youth ministry coaching and consulting service. And he’s
been riding herd over relationship-producing youth ministry
programs for a long time at his church in Tennessee.