Several years ago, I shared some the biggest mistakes I have made in youth ministry and I think it's humbling to revisit these occasionally ... and add a few more! Anyone willing to share their own personal "youth ministry fail?"
1) Competing with Other Ministries - It's hard to resist the temptation to want to see what the church across the street or across town (or across the country) is doing and wondering "Hmmm. Maybe I should be doing that, too." If the other church seems to be attracting more youth, I suppose it's human nature to want to emulate their program. I used to be hyper vigilant about trying to discover the latest trend, the latest gimmick, the newest "approach" to youth ministry and then implementing it, figuring that if it worked somewhere else, it would work with my students. This sort of approach assumes all youth and thus all youth ministries are alike and that what works across the street will work just as well on our side of the street. But the truth is - every ministry is particular to the setting and the individuals that we serve. It really doesn't even make sense to copy your own youth ministry program from one year to the next because over time the group shifts and grows and their needs change.
2) Doubting My Age - When I was a younger man just starting in youth ministry, I feared that I was too young, too close to the age of the youth to make any lasting impression on them. Then, as I aged (grey hair...less hair...reading glasses), I began to wonder if I was getting too old to be effective with the youth. Was this a job for a younger person? The truth is, if youth ministry is your calling, then age has nothing to do with your effectiveness in ministry. There are advantages to being a twenty-something youth minister: you likely have lots of free time to give to the youth, are more connected to youth culture, and have more energy. Of course, there are many advantages to being an "older" youth minister: you have much greater experience and a more mature faith, you've made lots of mistakes and learned from them, you've had more time to learn what youth ministry is and can be, and you've reached a much more relaxed time in life that allows you to offer the young'ns a different perspective on the world than the frenetic life they believe they are destined to lead.
3) The "Family Guy" Error - I can sum this one up in three words: Preview! Preview! Preview! Several years ago at a youth group gathering which we called "free night" (an evening of unstructured fellowship time), one young man offered to bring episodes of "Family Guy" to show for those who wanted to watch TV.
I had only seen one short clip of a "Family Guy" episode on YouTube and it seemed funny and fairly innocuous so I figured it was no problem. Wrong! Trust me on this one: "Family Guy" is hilarious and it is also completely inappropriate for a church setting. After about 3 minutes of viewing -- three minutes replete with curse words and sexual references -- I promptly switched in a Disney movie. Ironically, during my teen years my own youth leaders made this same mistake by showing "American Werewolf in London" to us around Halloween. They had to rush and cover up the TV screen because they failed to realize the film included a graphic sex scene. You'd think I would have learned from their mistake!
4) Plan for Program, not Presence - It took me a long time to figure this one out. I put most of my focus for many years on planning a youth ministry calendar crammed full of activities. But as more years went by, I came to realize that when our alumni reminisced about youth group they talked mostly about the people and not the programs. We have only to look to the ministry of Jesus to see that our focus needs to be on helping youth find God's love in relationship, not activity. Of course, you we can plan activities that foster relationship building, but it takes careful planning. It's much easier to deepen relationship on a spiritual retreat than it is running around in an amusement park. You can do both, but the former should take priority.
5) This Means War! Letting kids have a late night squirt gun fight throughout the entire church? Yep, I did it...a long time ago. The less said about this one the better.