To The Frustrated Youth Worker

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My husband and I were raised in church. He came from a large church and I came from a much smaller one. Both of our parents were active members, so any time the doors were open, WE WERE THERE.


Although our backgrounds were a bit different, when we took a position as youth directors, we already had a preconceived idea of what that should look like.

Youth band, check.
Cool media, check.
Games, check.
Entertaining sermon, check.

Of course, that didn’t stop me from researching everything I could find on the most proven methods of leading a youth group. I prepared games that other youth groups said worked, I constructed messages that researchers said would reach the students, I plugged into media that was guaranteed to impress.


We started off with (what we thought) was a bang. We moved the youth from what had been their tiny youth room, into the sanctuary. Put flashy media on the big screen, had fun games and an interactive message. We thought we nailed it.

We thought…

I remember during one of my sermons having to compete with a LOUD bag of Dorito chips rustling for what felt like THE ENTIRE MESSAGE (I thought I was gonna die). And then there were the spitballs being thrown from the girls to the boys during (what we hoped would be) an intimate worship service. Add to that the ENDLESS TALKING during just about everything we were trying to do – yeah, we were frustrated. REALLY FRUSTRATED.

After only a few short months, we were wondering why God put us there. CLEARLY, they weren’t getting much out of what we were doing.

But, we weren’t giving up.

We knew God had a plan.

And we were determined to reach these kids.

Against any sort of earthly wisdom, we threw out everything we knew of youth group. We let go of the need for an agenda. We quit the media. We quit the cool music and “atmosphere” we were trying to create.

We just stopped. ALL OF IT.

We didn’t even prepare messages (all of you pastors who just about fell out of your chair when I said that, hang with me)

We decided to focus on just the Holy Spirit’s leading instead.

The next night, we took the kids outside and sat in the parking lot. One by one, we asked them what youth group was about. What is the purpose of coming together? Why are we here each week?

Their answers were spot on: to grow in our faith, study scripture, worship, pray, be encouraged, fellowship, etc.

Their hearts longed for the same thing as ours. But, we needed a format that would work for them.

We spent the hour that evening praying and discussing with the students what they believed would serve them best. What format did they like? What didn’t they like? What environment do they learn best in? What were their needs?

It’s easy to get caught up in having the best youth band, the best sermon, the biggest youth group, the most visitors, etc. Slowly, it becomes more about us instead of the ones we should be serving.

As pastors (as Christians even) we tend to forget that our primary purpose is to serve.

Matt 20:28: just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…

After listening to the students, we found that they learn better in a less flashy environment. They like sitting on the floor or couches close together, discussing what we’re teaching. They want to be able to ask questions and get answers. In the large environment, we were trying to create, they felt like they couldn’t do that. And we lost their attention because of it.

So, we changed it up.

We now meet in the youth room and we literally just read scripture and talk about it. Currently, we’re going through the book of Psalms chapter by chapter. They are LOVING IT. We break each chapter down and discuss it verse by verse. That’s it. (AND – hold your breath – we actually keep their attention for close to an hour. WHAT???!)

They are getting WAY more out of youth group now than they ever got out of our media or bullet point messages from before. We pray for each other, we listen to each other. But, most importantly, Zac and I stay focused on what the Holy Spirit wants us to do and we step out of the way.

(And I’m pleased to report, we have not had any competition with Doritos or spitballs since. YAY)

We’re learning that ministry isn’t about finding the right method (although everyone wants to tell you it is).

To you fellow youth workers who may be tired or frustrated, spinning your wheels trying to find something that will work: consider this full permission to stop trying to find the right method or be “as great” the youth group up the street. Seriously.

The BEST youth group is the one where the Holy Spirit is given first place. Where prayer is powerful and lives are changing. Where a fire ignites in their spirit and they hunger to know more.

That youth group may have a big stage and a fantastic band. They may have crazy cool media and awesome teaching. But, that youth group might be in someone’s basement or in a small room inside a church. It might not have a band at all. It might just have a guy with a beard and his crazy Jesus freak wife (I like the beard. He likes that I’m crazy. It works)

Every youth group is different. Each is unique with their individual style and community. The great news is that the Holy Spirit has a perfect plan designed to fit each and every one.

This is a guest post by Anna McCarthy. Anna is an author, blogger, and speaker from Kansas City. She and her husband, Zac, have four kids and are youth directors in their local church. She blogs about her journey of following Jesus at