Q&A with Terry Linhart

Q&A with Terry Linhart


Terry Linhart, PhD, is professor of Christian ministries at Bethel College in Mishawaka, Indiana. A speaker and consultant, he is the author of seven books. Terry directs the Academic Support Network for Youth Specialties. He is the founder of the Arbor Research Group, a consulting firm that provides unique research and support to national and international Christian organizations.


Q: How can youth ministries harness and nurture young people who are already beginning to feel a call to ministry during their teen years? 01

I like to use the analogy of a baseball team that works to develop players through the minor leagues. Those of us in Christian ministry need to be scouting for students who show the interest, desire or skills for ministry. If God is calling them, then he has already gifted them for his work. So, like a baseball scout, we first keep an eye out for those young people who talk and act in ministerial ways. We need to watch our people, noticing moments where someone is clearly speaking or acting in ways that nurture others spiritually and otherwise.

Second, we need to have a plan to let students “try on” ministry. It used to be that all youth ministries had student leadership teams and held special training and events just for them. That’s less common now, for various reasons, so there’s less of an emphasis on leadership within youth ministries, beyond getting young people to help set up or promote an event. We need to find new ways to let young people exercise their gifts and create a nurturing space for God to affirm his call. When we let youth help lead, teach, counsel, coordinate and plan, they can “try on” ministry and get a glimpse of what their future may be.

Q: What do you consider to be trademarks of effective youth discipleship? What is unique about this season in a young person’s life, and how should this influence the tone and content of spiritual instruction? 02

There are three characteristics that a discipling youth ministry should have. First, it must be a ministry with people who pray. No programmatic trick or personal skill disciples; God is the one who transforms lives. We are about his business, not the other way around.

Second, a discipling ministry challenges students in appropriate ways. There is no shaming or authoritarianism— elements too common in programs for young people, even Christian ones. Rather, there is a teaching-centered ministry that is dynamic, relevant and focused on helping students serve and minister to others. It is a community where the message is clear and the community is warm and inviting.

The third and final element may be the most crucial: A discipling ministry, no matter how big it is, has a “life-on-life” aspect to its adult-student relationships. Biblical discipleship is not programmatic, but up-close and shared. It’s not private, but communal. A young person’s primary avenue for learning is social. They watch others and then learn in relationship through the modeling of adults and through conversations that explain the “why” behind what was observed. If adult leaders are close enough for young people to see them live out a Christ-centered faith, then there is greater opportunity for learning, for spiritual growth and faithfulness, for direction and redirection, and for support during difficulties.

Q: There can sometimes be this idea that youth ministry is the “junior varsity,” a stepping stone to ministering to adults. How would you encourage pastors and leaders to combat this idea or, when fitting, to personally embrace a long-term calling to reaching this age group? 03

In my current role as a college professor, my weekly frustration is with those who don’t think a person can have a lifetime career as a youth pastor. Many Christian parents, people who dearly love and trust God, talk their own children out of answering his call because of fear, embarrassment or lack of trust. The hesitation is usually economic, whether their son or daughter can earn a decent living as a full-time youth worker.

Their fear is whether getting a degree in Christian ministries is wise stewardship for the money they are investing in a college education. It is.

The church has learned some language about youth ministry from the 1980s that it needs to unlearn, especially with regard to ministry to middle school students. It’s rare that, when a volunteer in the youth ministry is interviewed in a Sunday service, there isn’t a joke made similar to “Why would anyone want to volunteer with middle school youth ministry?” or “You’re a brave person to spend time with teenagers.” That’s leftover language that we need to toss out because it’s gone stale.

As a church, as a community and even as a country, we need to value, support and champion ministry to young people, instead of throwing up our hands because the problems seem large or our own energy level is low. We need to marshal resources to find creative ways to empower and enable those who are called by God to serve and lead in ministry.

This is largely related to salary and benefits. The reality is that older youth workers are way more effective in youth ministry, but the way we’ve structured salaries and supervision is pushing them out. And we pay the price by looking for the next inexperienced youth worker every two to three years at many churches. Our financial investment (or lack thereof) reveals what we think of youth ministry.

If leaders and organizations would up their financial investment in youth ministry, the returns would be compounded. Not only would the ministry have a maturity and effectiveness that would speak volumes to families and the community, but other adults who volunteer with the youth ministry would be developed and trained to go out and lead. The entire church would benefit and flourish.

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