Mark DeVries: Investment drives results
Healthy youth ministry is not based on a single charismatic leader, says an expert in the field. It requires congregations to invest in staff and create a vision.
January 31, 2012 | “Sustainable infrastructure” might not sound like the most exciting rallying cry, but for Mark DeVries, an advocate for youth ministry for more than 25 years, it’s the key to success.
“Our dream is to see churches develop thriving youth ministries, and we believe that happens as you build a sustainable infrastructure -- ‘system’ is our key word,” he said.
And everyone in the church -- from judicatories to seminaries to senior pastors -- has a role in creating a system that expresses “what the life of discipleship is in the church in a way that resonates with the heartstrings of the next generation,” he said.
DeVries has been the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville, Tenn., since 1986. He also is the founder of Youth Ministry Architects and Children’s Ministry Architects.
DeVries, a graduate of Baylor University and Princeton Theological Seminary, has written or co-written a number of books, including “Sustainable Youth Ministry,” “Family-Based Youth Ministry,” “Before You Hire a Youth Pastor” and “The Indispensable Youth Pastor.”
DeVries spoke with Faith & Leadership about the roles that congregations, judicatories and seminaries play in creating healthy and sustainable youth ministry. The following is an edited transcript.
Q: Why is youth ministry important? What’s at stake?
In many ways, youth ministry is not about youth ministry; it is about the church.
I think the reason it’s so crucial right now is because we’re observing this pretty frightening phenomenon of kids exiting the church in droves and not returning. And whatever it is we’re doing, we’ve got to reshape the way we express what the life of discipleship is in the church in a way that resonates with the heartstrings of the next generation.
Q: On your website you say that “thriving, sustainable youth ministries can never be built on a parade of young, enthusiastic leaders trying to piece together a disjointed collection of ideas from popular models, books and seminars.” What problem are you talking about there, and what’s your solution to it?
Our organization really grew out of churches not being able to sustain thriving youth ministries. In fact, our very first church that we worked with was a pastor who had himself been a successful youth pastor but, in 20 years of being a senior pastor, had never, ever had a thriving youth ministry -- or even what we might call glimpses of healthy youth ministry.
And so we’ve seen that story repeated over and over again, where churches will have a desire to fulfill the church’s baptismal vows on behalf of its teenagers. But the only answer seems to have been, “Let’s hire somebody who has very little experience but a lot of enthusiasm.”
We hire somebody with great relational skills and then they end up having to run what amounts to a $100,000 operation with lots and lots of volunteers and lots of logistics to coordinate, and these people were hired, not because they were good at coordinating logistics or volunteers, but because they’re great with kids. Those are really two different skills.
So our dream is to see churches develop thriving youth ministries, and we believe that happens as you build a sustainable infrastructure -- “system” is our key word. Just like the body is a system of systems, churches are as well.
We also think it is the church’s mission to have its own vision for a youth ministry. They ought to have that in place and invite a staff person to steward the church’s vision rather than asking that person to import a vision that will last as long as they do, which is, latest stats, about 3.9 years. They’ll keep it for 3.9 years, and then somebody else is supposed to import a new vision.
It’s important for the church to say, “We will take responsibility for setting the vision,” and then hold the staff person accountable to steward that.
Q: What are the hallmarks of the structures and cultures necessary in local churches for the sustaining of healthy youth ministry?
It’s really not terribly measurable. But one of the things is there’s just a general joyful confidence and enthusiasm. Parents, kids, volunteers -- they feel like this thing’s going somewhere.
We look for leaders who lead with a non-anxious -- using that family-systems language -- a non-anxious playfulness.
On the opposite side, one of the unhealthy patterns is a victim mentality, where a youth pastor says, “Nobody ever volunteers. We just have a church where [heavy sigh] it just doesn’t work.” (I hope you get that in there -- my sigh.)
Sometimes a church will invest at 1x level and expect results at 10x level, and then they’re really surprised. And the youth pastor is often fired, or criticized, or ostracized, because they can’t perform miracles.
Now, part of the reason churches stay hooked on that crack is because they have in the past had a superstar -- and the superstar stayed usually 18 months, maybe two years. They inflated the ministry beyond what was sustainable, and then that person left, often in a huff, often with some conflict.
But then the church for the next decade or more looks back on those glory days and says, “We used to be able to have 100 kids with one person here; I don’t know why we need more than that.”