God, Kids, and Youth Ministry


“No way! I’m never going back! It’s boring and everyone’s stuck up!” Perhaps your teenager has made such comments about his or her youth group at church. Students’ complaints range from feeling as if they have no friends at church, to “church is no fun,” to “all they do is play games.” Inevitably, the phone rings and Mrs. Smith says, “Pastor Mike, Frank doesn’t like coming to youth group anymore. Can you help me?”

If you’ve experienced this scenario, you’re not alone. We can’t ignore the problem. So how do we instill a love for church in our kids? Both parents and the church must take responsibility for finding the answer.


A church youth ministry exists to help students understand who God is. Our job is to help them realize they can have a personal relationship with an awesome God. Unfortunately, many teenagers believe God is either a “cosmic killjoy” or a type of Santa Claus. Scripture teaches that nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, God is the life-giver. Without Him we could do nothing.

Teens need to understand their desperate need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. The average teenager feels invincible and believes he has no need for God. Maybe later, but not now. A series of tragedies brought the kids in our church face to face with reality. After losing four students in two years–one to a brain tumor, two in an automobile accident, and one who was brutally murdered–our youth
have learned that life and friendships are to be valued. When life’s storms turned their world upside down, they were eager to discuss their need for God and each other.

Whatever crises they face, our kids need to know the body of Christ is a place where they can find safety, refuge, and answers to life’s most pressing questions. The church should provide an atmosphere in which students are challenged to know what they believe and why they believe it; challenged to put their faith in action through service and missions projects; challenged to know Christ and make Christ known. The
church is where the body of Christ comes together to celebrate and be equipped and trained for service.


Parents set the tone for the type of church experience their children have today. In raising my two children, I’ve wanted them to view the church as an exciting and fun place. They’ve been told they will only get out of it what they put into it. But that starts with my attitude as a parent. What do I model for them? Do I love going to church? Do I practice what I preach? Am I consistent in my Christian walk?

Many young people have been turned off to church because of their parents’ negative attitudes. Sunday afternoon was the time to pick apart the sermon and criticize what they didn’t like. Negative attitudes breed negative attitudes. Parents who complain about the church need not wonder why their kids turn their backs on God, while those who find an area of service and worship God with a positive attitude will be far more successful in keeping their kids turned on to God.


What can youth workers do to build a positive concept of God in kids and support the efforts of parents? The life of the typical teenager can be described in one word: “busy.” Their distractions can be negative or positive, but they’re distractions just the same. The church youth group is just one more activity vying for their attention, but it must be perceived by them as one of the most important appointments of their weekly schedule if they’re to stay plugged in. The church youth ministry must assist in laying the right kind of foundation for a teen to build his or her life upon, creating the right atmosphere for emotional and spiritual growth.

What do teens see, hear, and feel when they walk into their church or youth service? Does the atmosphere communicate their importance? Are they accepted? Loved? Welcome? One of the greatest needs of youth is to have a place where they feel a part of something they can give their life to and feel a sense of belonging. If a youth ministry is providing this sense of purpose, it’s providing a great service.

The youth ministry of a local church can be one of the most influential aspects of our children’s spiritual life. Here are some characteristics of an effective youth ministry:

Creating the atmosphere. Growing up in the home of a public school teacher, I spent many hours working in my dad’s classroom to help him create the right atmosphere for motivating his students. We created a bulletin board that taught various concepts and informed the students of monthly events. Those experiences have affected what I’ve tried to create for my youth ministry. We recently completed a new
youth center that broadcasts: “This is a place for teens!” When students walk in they are overwhelmed with four twenty-six-inch television monitors and a large screen that display music, sports, cartoon, and worship videos. As they watch the videos, they can enjoy food from a snack bar that offers everything from donuts to bagel-dogs. From the meeting room to the sports page on specially designed bulletin boards in the guys’ restroom, the facility says, “This is where it’s happening, come be a part!” In addition, as teens look around the room they are challenged with various service opportunities, such as feeding the homeless, working at the children’s hospital, praying, and working on a nationwide youth crisis telephone hotline.

Although the building is a great resource tool, it must be more than videos, music, snack bars, and posters promoting the next big event. God’s presence, passion, and power must be felt and experienced, or all is in vain. We want teens to be less impressed with our facility and more impressed by God and His desire to be their personal friend. The atmosphere that’s been created merely points them to an awareness of God. The Bible says if God is lifted up He will draw all men to Himself. (See John 12:32.) As God is lifted up, keeping kids in church will not be a problem. In fact, they will want to arrive early and stay late.

Student ownership. “Give it away” should be the theme of every youth ministry. It’s time for youth ministry to be placed within the hands of some of the most talented, gifted, and creative people around: junior and senior high school students. Teens will be a part of what they own. They’ll be more excited about what they have created. Their potential will be tapped only when we put cameras, paint brushes, scripts, instruments, and Bibles in their hands.

Five years ago I was without a worship team. I pulled out my wife’s old guitar, blew off the dust, and began to play my three favorite chords: D, G. and A, adding an occasional Em and C. Somehow through my feeble attempt to lead worship, I inspired students to try themselves. They responded by saying, “Hey, if Mike can do it, we can.” They now have taken ownership of the worship band. Keeping these kids in church hasn’t been a problem. They’re thrilled at the opportunity to lead worship, whether it’s before a handful or thousands.

Allow teens to make mistakes as they learn to put their faith into action. After all, if there’s any place they should feel free to fail, it’s in the church. Our future leaders may stumble and fall along the way, but before long we’ll find them serving on the mission field, pastoring their own churches, administering large events, producing and directing videos, and serving as youth ministers. A teen who feels free to make mistakes will be more attracted to service. Parents, it’s time to call your kids from the sidelines and encourage them to get in the game. There’s no doubt they can do it.


The church has often neglected to call teens to service. Athletic coaches and band teachers can ask them to go the second mile; why not the church? We are now seeing youth ministries move from being a glorified YMCA to strategic equipping centers where teens are putting their faith into action. A youth ministry with a heart for service projects and missions trips will be a growing, healthy youth ministry. It will change lives and make an impact around the world. Our kids want to serve; we need to provide them with meaningful opportunities.

In our church, November is devoted to encouraging teens to understand the heartbeat of God through service and missions projects. We’ve found ourselves downtown feeding the homeless and walking the
halls of a local children’s hospital, ministering to terminally ill kids. Our teens have also had an opportunity to answer crisis hotline phone calls and lead individuals into a relationship with Jesus Christ. We’ve found ourselves ministering in the inner city of Los Angeles, visiting a small village in Tijuana, and leading an evangelistic crusade in Guatemala. God has used these activities to shape the hearts of our teens.

A few years ago I put a thirteen-year-old on an airplane for her first missions trip. She took up the challenge we had presented. She was on her way to another part of the world to be used by God to change
lives. She returned to find her own life had been changed.


Keeping teens in church is a weekly challenge. Youth ministry must be more than fun and games. Real issues must be addressed. Teens are longing for honest answers to life’s difficult questions. As parents and youth workers, we must face the issues head on. We cannot hide our heads and pretend, for example, that AIDS will just go away. Relationships, fears and joys, the future, and life’s fatal flaws must be addressed from a spiritual, rather than a secular, perspective. God’s Word is relevant for every issue our teens face. We need to help them realize it. As we interact in their lives, we must not lose sight of our primary mission: to lead them to a personal relationship with Jesus Christ–not because we believe, but because they do.


Youth ministry is about creating memories. Relational memories are the most important: between teens; between parents and teens; between the church and teens; and most importantly, between God and teens. Most of us can remember those who had a profound effect on our lives. We’ll never be the same because they were there: when major decisions needed to be made, when we faced a difficulty, when we just needed a friend. They helped us make right choices and picked us up when we made wrong ones. Now it’s our turn to do the same for a new generation. We can be a part of creating memories that will keep them excited about their involvement in church.

Youth retreats can provide a great atmosphere for making memories. Teens arrive on Monday with physical and emotional baggage, and by Friday they leave a little lighter because God has done a work
in their lives. They’ll never be the same.

Deuteronomy 4:9 advises, “Be careful, and watch yourselves closely so that you do not forget the things your eyes have seen or let them slip from your heart as long as you live. Teach them to your children and to their children after them.”

It’s time to create memories for a new generation.

Keeping teens in church and in communion with God is first the responsibility of parents. Then the church comes alongside with youth workers, atmosphere, and programs to do its part. But, ultimately, God is the one who draws us all. As we are reminded in Zechariah 4:6, it’s not by our might or by our power, but by His Spirit that ministry is accomplished. We are merely instruments.

The Reverend Michael De Vito has been involved in youth ministry for more than fifteen years. He was youth pastor at The People ‘s Church in Salem, Oregon for seven years before moving to San Diego
First Assembly where he ministered for seven years. He is currently Southern California Coordinator for the National Network of Youth Ministries.

He and his wife Kristi have been married for seventeen years. They have two daughters: Candice, age thirteen, and Kimberly, age ten.