Why so many are leaving youth ministry to join the church-planting movement, and what you can learn from them that will fuel your own ministry.
Editor’s Note: The church-planting movement in America is growing exponentially, fueled and driven by an army of former youth pastors. Attend any church-planting conference and you’ll ram into a sea of youth workers who’ve migrated out of their niche and into the Wild, Wild West of broader church leadership. Behind the scenes, what are the forces at work behind this migration? And what can we learn from this movement that will leverage what we’re doing in youth ministry right now?
We asked three church planters—all them former youth pastors—to tell their stories and offer their insights into this trend, and what youth workers can take from it.
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It’s Not You, It’s Me
by Casey Franklin
The best church-planters are ex-youth pastors, and I think I know why.
As a youth pastor for 20 years, I was always drawn to the fringe kids—the teenagers who lurked in the margins. I had a heart for the misfits, the outcasts, and the students who looked different—whose parents not only didn’t attend our church, but didn’t attend any church. I connected best with the metal-heads, the druggies, and the skater punks—the ones who had to excuse themselves right in the middle of my (amazing) talk to go outside for a smoke. The “churchie” kids didn’t understand these kids or relate to them, so the misfits usually coagulated together, away from their “normal” peers.
My churchie kids would often complain about the “fringie” teenagers—they said things like: “Wait ’til my parents hear that kids at the youth group smoke…” Or their parents would say things like: “The whole reason I send my kid to the youth group is so they can hang around some nice Christian kids—not kids who are on drugs!” I had a fruitful ministry with all of the teenagers in my ministries, including church kids. But my heart was drawn to the outsiders.
Then, about two years ago, a scary realization crept into my soul—it felt like I was having a spiritual heart attack…
I started feeling like the one who didn’t fit in.
The End of the Game
The more I thought about it, the more I realized I’d become the misfit, the outcast, and the one hanging out in the margins. It dawned on me that I no longer fit into church culture. There was nothing wrong with the church; there was something “wrong” with me. I’d grown up in the church, and I’d spent my entire career ministering in the church, but in truth I was now an outsider—just like those misfits God had given me a heart for.
I saw clearly that God had wired me to go after “the lost”—those outsiders who knew, like I did, that they were a mismatch with church culture. That culture generally works well for those who’ve grown up in it and understand “the rules of the game.” But for those who didn’t, feelings of irrelevance and even disdain made it hard to feel at home within the church.
For me, this meant I had to admit a scary truth: The church game was over for me.
This marked the beginning of a quest to understand what this would mean for me, and to follow where it was leading. Fortunately, I’ve surrounded myself with wise and godly mentors. One day, while meeting with University of Denver religious studies professor Carl Rashke, he asked an innocent question: “Casey, how are you doing?” I didn’t have the energy to explain everything that was going on, so I opted for, “I’m frustrated…”
After a few of Carl’s probing questions, I gave in and tried to describe the pain I felt, and my sense that I was called to something deeper. Then he jabbed his finger at my chest and blurted: “You’re supposed to start a church!” In that moment, I already knew it was true—maybe I needed someone other than me to put words to it. God had already been calling me out of youth ministry and into something new for quite some time, but I needed a tipping point. And that’s how I became a church planter.
Wells vs. Fences
So, I’ve said that the best church planters are ex-youth pastors. Why? I think it’s because youth ministry has always been the R&D department of the church. Because of our “target audience,” we have no choice but to push the limits and discover new ways to engage kids in a rapidly changing culture—that means our approach to ministry is often not just out-of-the-box, but blow-up-the-box.
The best youth pastors I’ve known almost always run afoul of “authorities,” because they are willing to take risks. Using the language of Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch, authors of The Shaping of Things to Come, these risk-taking youth pastors lead ministries that reflect a “Centered Set” mentality rather than the more conventional “Bounded Set” structure.
A Bounded Set ministry makes sure everyone understands the spoken and unspoken rules for acceptance within the community. But a Centered Set ministry puts Jesus at the center—it’s focused on how closely its participants are moving toward the Center, not about whether they’re in or out. Kids’ movement toward Jesus is the focus of attention, not their adherence to expectations.
Michael Frost is from Australia, where cattle on ranches roam across thousands of acres of land divided by very few fences. How do ranchers keep their cattle from wandering off? They dig wells instead of building fences. The cattle know their lives depend on the wells, so they stay close to them. In a similar way, a Centered Set ministry puts the “Well of Living Water” at the orbital center of everything, and builds very few “fences” to underscore the “rules.”
The traditional Fences mentality (BELIEVE>BEHAVE>BELONG) is flipped around in a Wells mentality (BELONG>BEHAVE>BELIEVE). Belonging comes first; believing comes last. This is how Jesus led his ministry, and this is how a Jesus-centered ministry operates.
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If youth workers make up the de facto R&D department in every local church, then church planters comprise the R&D department of the church at large. Now, as the lead pastor in a freshly planted church in the Denver area, my approach is infused by the spirit and practice of youth ministry—in fact, after a local pastor learned more about what we’re doing, he said, “You’re basically doing youth ministry for adults.”
This is why the best church planters are ex-youth pastors. Long live the youth pastor (turned church planter). ◊
Casey, a longtime youth pastor, is planting a church called Inversion Community in Highlands Ranch, Colorado.
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Beyond the Bandwidth
By Brit Windel
I was “’til death do us part” youth pastor—I hated the “stepping stone” mentality I sometimes saw in my peers, and I often railed against those who left youth ministry to take a whack at senior pastoring. I went to school to learn how to be a youth pastor, and that’s what I intended to do… forever.
So that makes my current life as a church-planting lead pastor a little hard to swallow. Here’s what happened…
“Return to Your Home”
A few months back I resigned from my full-time position as a family pastor. My resignation was the culmination of a season in ministry characterized by frustration and discontent. I couldn’t put my finger on what was bothering me, until several pastors spoke essentially the same truth over me: “Brit, you have a passion to see church expressed a certain way—and for people to come to know Christ in a certain way—that’s beyond the bandwidth of most youth ministries.”
My new apostasy, it turns out, is that some youth pastors really are called to a new season. And my new season is fueled by my last 10 years of youth ministry experience. I could not do what I’m doing now without the “special forces” training I’ve had as a youth pastor. And in the last year I’ve met hundreds of church-planters who were once youth pastors. I’m convinced that the Holy Spirit is up to something here—stirring a youth-ministry-fueled fresh expression of Jesus Christ in communities that are thirsty for him.
My wife, Stacie, and I heard Jesus tell us: “Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you”(Luke 8.39). So we packed up our life and moved to Wisconsin—stepping out in faith, leaning on Christ.
The Proving Ground
Youth ministry is a path into discipleship—it’s the leverage Jesus uses to form us into leaders, managers, shepherds, dreamers, and creators. We get hands-on experience in training volunteers, managing budgets, dreaming up events and making them happen, leading midweek or Sunday night ministry gatherings, and bringing others into a discipling relationship with Christ. We learn how to create administrative and relational structures so teenagers (and volunteers!) don’t slip through the cracks.
Our youth ministry boot camp uniquely prepares us to take on broader leadership responsibilities in the church, because we collect (by necessity) a broad range of skills. Those skills are crucial for planting and building new churches.
Youth ministry was never a stepping-stone for me. When a youth pastor in my new community asked me why I’d left “the business,” I said: “Youth ministry has been the cornerstone to my discipleship process as I’ve followed Jesus into this new adventure.” The “bridge” between youth ministry and church planting is obvious, once you’re on it.
<> Brit and his wife Stacie recently moved to Kenosha, Wisconsin to start Daybreak Church.
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The Migratory Patterns of Youth Pastors
By Aaron Stern
I was college pastor for 11 years, and I thought I’d be one for the rest of my life. I worked at a large church, and the ministry I led was successful by every standard. I was aiming to be the coolest, oldest college pastor you’ve ever seen (think Louie Giglio without the tan).
Then God spoke to me, and everything in my life got upended.
I transitioned out of college ministry, then launched out on my own with my wife and four boys. We moved to a “new land” and settled in as total strangers (think Abraham), planting a new church in northern Colorado. At the time, I had no idea that I’d joined a growing “diaspora” of youth and college pastors leaving their posts to dive into church planting. Now that I’m deep into my “promised land,” here’s my perspective on why this migration is happening in the church today…
1. We’re tired of saying goodbye. I love pastoring young people, but one of the occupational hazards of young adult ministry is constantly saying goodbye to the people you’ve poured your life into. It was always my least-favorite part of the job, and I had to learn to not take it personally. I loved the young people I worked with—many of them became my good friends. But they were always leaving my ministry to enter the next season of their life. They married, graduated, went to grad school, or moved away. Now, as a lead pastor, I get to walk with people through more than one season of their life.
2. We’re tired of feeling overlooked in church culture. Too often youth pastors are relegated to the metaphorical “kids’ table” in the church. Many senior pastors take a “out of sight, out of mind” approach to their youth ministry—as long as we don’t screw up, we’re ships passing in the night. But this functional “invisibility” means youth pastors often aren’t invited to the table where decisions are made that shape their churches. And this dynamic can bubble over into frustration—and that often fuels a desire to shape things our own way. We long to build our own table.
3. We’re drawn to the edge. In the ’80s, the youth pastor was the cutting-edge staff position in the church (think Ron Luce). In the ’90s and ’00s, the worship leader (and his hipster scarf) took over that role (think Delirious). Today, the senior pastor is pushing the envelope (think Judah Smith). It may be a fad—and the children’s pastor might be next—but who doesn’t want to be part of something that’s innovating and pushing the boundaries?
4. We’ve got the leadership “itch.” Youth and college ministry is a wonderful training ground for leadership development. We learn how to plan “services,” craft sermons, recruit and empower leaders, develop small groups, and plan outreach efforts. These arenas overlap with the responsibilities of a lead pastor. And as we grow more skilled as leaders, many of us get the itch to broaden our influence. ◊
<> Aaron is the lead pastor of Mill City Church in downtown Fort Collins, Colorado.
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What Church-Planting Has Taught Me About Youth Ministry
Editor’s Note: We asked Aaron Stern and Brit Windel to think about how they would lead differently if they suddenly transitioned back into youth ministry. Here’s what they said:
Aaron Stern—After my experience of planting and leading a church, the first thing I’d do if I was suddenly a college pastor again would be to spend more time connecting young people to the broader church. I’d invite more older people into my world, and find more ways for kids to engage multi-generationally.
One primary reason young people are leaving the church after high school and college is because we’ve prolonged adolescence for them. We haven’t taught them to interact with people older than them, and this is harming them long-term. When they attempt to transition from youth or college ministry, it feels like moving to a new planet. Young people need to love all aspects of the church, and it won’t happen unless they’re involved in the broader body. As a college pastor, I didn’t realize how profoundly my “normal ministry mindset” was isolating the kids I was trying to serve.
Brit Windel—I’m still a newbie church-planter, but I have learned one thing: I need Jesus more than I could have ever imagined. In Matthew 16:18 Jesus tells us it is his church and he’ll build it—it’s not about my cleverness, my sophistication, or my anything… Jesus will honor his word to build the church himself. My role is simply to come alongside him in the building project he’s already launched. I wish I’d lived out this desperate-for-Jesus mentality even more when I was in youth ministry.
If I returned to youth ministry today, I think I’d live and lead with a new-found boldness—I’d pray bolder prayers, I’d love others in a bolder way, and I’d call teenagers to live more boldly. This step of faith into church planting has forced both my wife and I to grow more bold—not in ourselves, but in the One who’s called us. ◊