Think. Discuss. Act. Youth Ministry

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Review: Sustainable Youth Ministry

Mark DeVries (2008) Sustainable Youth Ministry: Why most youth ministry doesn’t last and what your church can do about it, Downers Grove, ILIVP Books, 234pp.


Mark DeVries is a seasoned youth worker, author of several books including Family-Based Youth Ministry, and founder/director of Youth Ministry Architects (YMA), a consultancy service. He writes this book, not exclusively or primarily to youth workers (p.14) but “for senior pastors and senior church leaders” (p.13b).

He and the Youth Ministry Architects’ staff believe most churches fail to develop and sustain a successful youth ministry because they “gamble rather than invest” (p. 10ff). By gambling, they mean rolling the dice at finding a super-leader and dynamic program and curriculum. By “investing” they mean a long-term investment of planning, time and money. Doug Fields is cited as an example when he told his senior pastor, Rick Warren, that the church ought not to expect any fruit from his youth ministry for five years. With adequate and significant investment, DeVries, YMA, and this book promise a successful youth ministry.
“… churches really don’t need more ideas, more passion, more zeal, more energy, more enthusiasm. What they need is the ability to take what they already have and turn it into something that works” (p.16).

The book’s description of failed youth ministry is clear and familiar—and includes the author’s own story of failure. The key to failure highlighted here is underfunding. A church had raised two million dollars for a state of the art youth facilities, “but had absolutely now plans for increasing the staff for the youth ministry (p.33). (At this point one gets the sense we are not considering churches that have money only for maintenance, a low pastor’s salary, and a part-time sexton.) “Often we find that the apparent “failure” of the youth ministry is caused less by an underperforming youth worker than by an overcapacity ministry.” (p.35)

Over the past five years, we’ve discovered five fairly consistent “normals” for understanding capacity in youth ministry. Though not all these normals are always present in every church, every church has had some clear combination of them.

  1. One thousand to fifteen hundred dollars a kid…. This rule of thumb suggests that a church that expects to have one hundred youth involved on a weekly basis needs to have a (youth ministry) budget in the neighborhood of $100,000, including the program budget, staff salaries and benefits.

  2. One full-time staff for every fifty youth.

  3. One adult for every five youth.

  4. Ten percent of the worshiping congregation… it’s likely that a church with an average worship attendance of five hundred will have about fifty students active in some way in the life of the church.

  5. A 20% ceiling… churches can naturally grow their youth ministries to a size equivalent to about 20% of the worshipping congregation… A church with 500 people participating in worship could naturally grow its youth ministry to one hundred simply by increasing its investment. But as the youth ministry seeks to grow beyond the one-hundred mark, increased investment alone will not necessarily increase the number of youth involved weekly.  (35-38)

Exceptions to these predictions are noted. A church with a youth group of “twelve or so can typically do youth ministry much less expensively.” A church with a “high staff and volunteer ratios can balance out its lack in financial investment.” (38)

High expectations and vague job descriptions undermine a church’s reliance on a superstar. Thinking a leader must be brought in from outside the church is contrary to the findings of Collin’s “good to great” and other organizational experts. Relating to students before a structure of volunteers is built can spell failure. Thinking that paid staff can replace volunteers is disastrous.

Endless and often fruitless discussions of youth ministry concentrate on crises and content. DeVries turns out attention to the process of youth ministry and encourages a systems approach. “Every church can build a sustainable youth ministry by attending first to the two key components of systems thinking in youth ministry.”

  1. Architecture: the structure of sustainability

  2. Atmosphere: the culture, climate and ethos that sustain the health of an organization. (53)

The architecture of youth ministry involves its key control documents: Name and information Directories, Annual Events Calendar, Job Descriptions (staff and volunteers), Master Recruiting List, and a Curriculum Template, a several year plan as to how teachings will be structured.

In addition to its control documents, a youth ministry (like its church) needs four key visioning documents (which should agree with but be distinct from that of its church). These are a mission statement, measurable three-year goals, a statement of values, and an organizational chart.

In terms of the atmosphere or culture of a church and youth group, DeVries talks about “climate control.” (76) Transformation comes, not from accomplished tasks or fine programs, but “when a unique ‘climate of transformation’ is established.” (77) To begin with tasks is to be forced to consider vision and a new climate is never reached. Rather, we are encouraged to begin with a proper climate—which produces realistic vision and leads to meaningful tasks.

A positive climate begins with positive events, a positive attitude reinforced by positive actions—moving in the right direction. “Changing the climate of our churches is hard, but often not as hard as changing ourselves.” (89)

For those who have felt this book too formulaic, too much about money and numbers, there is in its sixth chapter a refreshing note and change of emphasis.

Our experience has been consistent: we’ve never seen a youth ministry with a singular focus on boosting numbers actually be successful. More often than not, an urgent demand for numbers has just the opposite effect: increasing the level of toxic anxiousness in the climate surrounding the youth ministry, resulting in less, not more youth becoming involved. (81)

And yet, DeVries is clear that “every youth worker will be expected to cause the ministry to grow.” (103) Candidates for a position ought to be given a clear explanation of a church’s underlying expectations.

You will want to read carefully DeVries chapter (8) on the “Emotionally Healthy Youth Worker.” Self-care is neglected by so many of us in youth ministry—and in the literature. The next chapter discusses secrets to longevity in ministry—setting priorities and time management. The author derives encouragement from the simple story of The Three Little Pigs. Too many ministries are built in haste—as the first two pigs did. DeVries is looking for “third-pig” youth workers who build solidly for the long haul.

Many churches and some organizations have only vague plans for the recruitment, job descriptions, training, evaluations and terminations of volunteers. All of this is vital for sustainable youth ministries.

Chapter 10 deals with the vast majority of youth workers: volunteers. It covers how to cultivate dreams of volunteer leadership, and the whole process of developing volunteer leadership. Their lives are as important to you and the program as students themselves—after all some of them were part of that student body a short time ago. Aligned with our strategy for volunteers is our strategy for making the whole adult church committed to its teenagers. You will find helpful ideas regarding a “cool church” and “sticky friends” as you read.

Of course, there is always church (or organizational) politics in the overall picture. Chapter 12 provides advice for “navigating it turbulent waters.” The writer shares some of what he’s experienced in one church over twenty years—and what he’s learned. One quote from Doug Fields: “My philosophy about working with a senior pastor is to do whatever I can to make his life easier.” (p.183) The last chapter fittingly encourages the reader about well-laid plans which just don’t work out.

The book’s Epilogue sums up, concludes and extends the wisdom of this book’s vast experience. Youth ministers for the long haul need to seek support from within and outside their program. “… be bold enough to ask for support early enough in the process… remember as you begin that ‘everything can look like a failure in the middle.’”

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. Did you get the feeling, from this brief summary devoid of rich stories and examples, was for you… or not for you?
  2. Whether or not you felt it written to your present situation, were you able to discern some principles that encourage healthy ministerial situations? If your church or organizations were to bring YMA into your situation over the course of a year or so, and your whole church generally bought into and followed their suggestions, do you believe their promise to see a successful youth ministry program would be fulfilled? By that time, who in your church would be doing youth ministry?
  3. How do you see the difference between ministerial “gambling” and “investing?” What would it mean for a small or poor church to invest substantially?
  4. Do you, at least subconsciously, believe that a great youth leader is more important for youth ministry success and long-term sustainability than a solid philosophy, structure and broad support of a program?
  5. What do you consider the difference between the architecture and atmosphere of your youth ministry?
  6. How important do you consider control documents to be? Which are these are clearly spelled out, which missing or weak, in your situation?
  7. How much emphasis on self-care and your church or organization’s attention to the emotional care of staff and volunteers do you see in your situation? How is this working, or who is suffering?
  8. Have you received training in leadership principles or conflict-resolution? How could your skill in these areas be increased?
  9. How well do you delegate or ask for help?  How might you grow in this area?


  1. Mark DeVries and his associates have more experience in observing and thinking about successes and weaknesses in all kinds of church youth ministries these days than just about anyone else. It is wise to listen to him.
  2. This is a book to share with your pastor, supervisor, committee or advisory council—it was written primarily for them.
  3. The nature of their consultancies and the emphasis of this book are directed toward largely middle-class churches with paid staff and a rich supply of volunteers. This is not to make the challenge of such churches sound easy; it is not. But, smaller and poor churches may be turned off by this book and its advice. That would be foolish because there are wise wisdom and helpful, universal principles here.
  4. Especially among “poor” churches, we need to provide consultation and help to one another—using especially the Control Documents explained here.

Dean Borgman
© 2018 CYS

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