The Family-Equipping Youth Ministry

by Greg Gibson

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherd-teachers to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ
-Ephesians 4:11-12

Editor: a version of this post originally appeared at The Veritas Network.

The following is an overview of some of the challenges of present day youth and family ministry. It also includes a glimpse into the philosophy of Foothills Church and their method of overcoming these challenges. 

75 years ago there were no student pastors in churches, and by default since there were no student pastors there were no youth ministries.  Student Ministry began to spring up about the time of the Industrial Revolution in the mid 18th to 19th Century.  During this time, young people were becoming frequently more urban, spending their days working in factories, often at the neglect of seeking and pursuing education.  Churches began to notice this trend and began to put together and assimilate plans to reach this emerging industrialized youth culture that was now beginning to see fruition as a specific sub-culture within larger culture.

Eventually, churches began to open up their doors on Sunday mornings before their worship services in attempt to evangelize this newly developed youth culture.  This became known as the modern phenomena of Sunday School, and we have continued to see this aspect of church culture to this very day.  The invention of Sunday School as an evangelistic tool to reach youth began to be reproduced all over the country into para-church ministries such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, and the YMCA that specifically targeted young people.

As youth culture has continued to evolve so has student ministry.  Youth culture has become a specific umbrella within our society, functioning as a culture within a culture.  Churches have sought to evolve with the times, attempting to reach youth culture with bigger budgets, bigger programs, bigger workloads, etc.  Youth Ministry has become a church within a church that functions outside of any relationships with parents and other adults.  We have seen big budgets turn into program after program after program, and we have seen the foundation of these programs turn into cultural relevancy, often at the neglect of biblical faithfulness.  As churches have changed their methodology with the times, we have actually seen more harm than good.

Some Common Challenges to Discipling the Next Generation

Some of the latest research for student ministry points to the fact that there are 4 major problems facing the church when it comes to how we are structuring and programming our student ministries today.  These 4 gauges are (the following research comes from Steve Wright’s book ReThink) [Editor note: these numbers are representative of information from 2011]:

Student Retention Rates

  1. A recent Time Magazine article points to the fact that 61% of the adults polled who are now in their twenties said they had participated in church activities as teens but no longer do as adults.
  2. Josh McDowell states, “Over 69% of youth are leaving traditional church after high school.”
  3. Depending on whose numbers you use, 58-84% of graduating youth from church youth groups are not returning.
  4. David Wheaton suggests, “As many as 50% of Christian students have lost their faith after 4 years of college.”
  5. George Barna states, “Only 33% of churched youth polled say that church will play a part in their lives when they leave home.”
  6. 67% of church youth say church will play no significant roll in their life after high school.

Student Baptism Rates

  1. Last year alone, there were over 23,000 SBC Churches who baptized 0 teenagers.
  2. Baptisms continue to decline as youth culture and population continue to grow.

Student Bible Literacy

  1. 15,000 students were recently surveyed in Christian Schools all over America to see what worldview they held, and only 6% of the students surveyed embraced a biblical worldview.
  2. Students leave the comforts of their own homes and go off to college without a firm foundation for why they believe what they believe.  Student ministry has essentially developed into empty challenges Wednesday night after Wednesday night without any form of biblical, doctrinal, or theological training.

Student Pastor Tenures

  1. The Association of Youth Ministry Educators state that 63% of student pastors begin before the age of 25.
  2. The average youth ministry tenure is 4 years.  Most of these student pastors that begin before the age of 25 leave student ministry never to return.
  3. The AYME states several reasons for this quick turn around: 1) High Job Expectations; 2) Low Income; 3) Low Status; and 4) High Stress Level Job.

The statistics above speak for themselves.  If we are going to see a healthy youth ministry, a healthy student pastor, healthy families, and spiritually growing young people then we must get away from this traditional model of student ministry that champions big budgets, big programs, and big events, and we must intentionally engage and develop the family as the primary disciple-making unit of young people.

Foothills Church’s Solution To These Challenges

  1. We are going away from the youth pastor being the primary disciple-maker of young people and going toward the family unit being the primary disciple-maker of young people.
  2. We are going away from big programs and going toward the intentional development of students in relational environments.
  3. We are going away from the separation of parents and going toward partnering with parents.
  4. We are going away from the concept of student ministry and going toward the concept of student development.
  5. We are going away from cultural relevance and going toward biblical faithfulness
  6. We are going away from internalized ministry and going toward championing the home and the church.

This is what is known as the family-equipping model of student ministry and is a summary of how we do things at Foothills Church.


Greg Gibson is the founder of The Veritas Network and serves as an executive elder and the family ministries pastor at Foothills Church in Knoxville, TN, overseeing the crib through college life-stage teams.

Greg also serves as the Executive Editor and Communications Director for The Council on Biblical Manhood & Womanhood (CBMW), a leading conservative evangelical think tank on gender, marriage, and sexuality.

Greg speaks all over the country at youth and college conferences, disciple-now weekends, men’s conferences, family conferences, and more.  He is the author of Date Different: A Short (but honest) Conversation on Dating, Sex & Marriage for Teenagers (and their parents), co-editor and contributor of Building a Marriage Culture: Renewal in the Ruins, and the forthcoming 50 Truths to Teach Your Preschooler about God.

He received a M.Div. in Biblical and Theological Studies from SBTS and a B.A. in Biblical Studies from Boyce College.

He resides in Knoxville, TN with his wife, Grace, and their two children.

[Photo Credit: amy warner via Compfight cc]

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