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Book Review: Giving up Gimmicks – Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture

Last week I received my copy of yet another new youth ministry book. In fact, I got another book this morning for my Kindle that went up for free today. The fact that so many “how-to” books of youth ministry are available is, I think, indicative of the problem facing youth ministry. There are only a few books I would actually recommend on youth ministry. Mark DeVries’, Sustainable Youth Ministry, is one of them. This new one I just read last week is one I would also highly recommend. It’s called “Giving Up Gimmicks: Reclaiming Youth Ministry from an Entertainment Culture.”

Brian Cosby is the author of this great book and youth pastor at Carriage Lane Presbyterian Church in Peachtree City, GA. As he states, “The goal of this book is to give youth pastors, youth leaders, and parents a guide on how to lead a gospel-rich youth ministry that incorporates the means of grace – Word, prayer, sacraments, service, and community – into the content of the ministry as well as its methodology.” This may sound a little odd to those in Baptist circles (of which I am a part of), but I must say that Cosby writes very convincingly that a deeper, Gospel-saturated movement is needed among teenagers and youth ministries.

Part of the problem is that “youth programs have turned to entertainment-driven models of ministry in order to bring in the most youth as possible to the local church. Success has become the name of the church-growth game. The devastating effects, however, are seen not only in the number of youth leaving the church after high school, but also in a spiritually and theologically shallow worldview among many American teenagers.” Cosby has it the nail right on the head with that statement. I learned early on in my first church that pastors, church members, and deacons are often (not always) more concerned with numbers than they are spiritual depth. The pastors in my first two churches would show great excitement if we reached a new record for attendance that week than they would if someone got saved or had a spiritual breakthrough in their life. It’s all part of a broken down system in which pastors and youth pastors find their identity in numbers, rather than in Christ. If numbers are good, then the people will approve of you. If numbers are bad, people will question everything about you. It is an absolutely devastating cycle. Cosby writes about this very thing. The first question youth ministers are always asked is, “how many youth do you have?” Cosby says, “It sometimes becomes a plague and a burden – driving you to be either prideful (wow, I attracted a ton of youth tonight!) or full of despair (nobody came…and nobody will come next week either). It’s no wonder that the average youth minister stays in one location less than 18 months.” We must move away from such sinful notions of ministry. In the end, it is faithfulness that matters.

Cosby points out a few things worth mentioning as to why teenagers don’t want to be associated with or committed to a church. First of all, teens have been taught by our entertainment-saturated culture, and by their parents, to be committed to something only so long as it’s popular and makes you happy. Secondly, they don’t want to be labeled as hypocrites. Thirdly, they don’t want to be committed to a church because of their understanding of pragmatism – what makes me happy? What works for me? How is this going to help me and make me feel better? These three things often have the devastating results of leading to a deep sense of meaninglessness and shallow joy. Furthermore, an entertainment-oriented youth ministry does not equip and lead youth in the works of ministry and fails to provide them with a biblical model of Christian living.

Cosby spends the bulk of the book explaining how to incorporate the “means of grace” into youth ministry. He also spends a couple chapters offering insight into how to implement discipleship groups and building a leadership team. This is a wonderful little book, and I highly recommend it to youth pastors and pastors.

I have recently spent some time contemplating the state of youth ministry. I often find myself wondering why teenagers are not as interested in coming to church as they once were. The reasons are numerous and range from a lack of interest to a lack of parental involvement and any number of things in between. At the end of the day though I believe youth ministry has all too often just failed a generation of young people. We have bought in to the mindset that our ministries must be attractional rather than missional. In the last couple of weeks I have spent some time with youth pastors in my area and can feel the burnout they are facing. They are tired of playing the numbers game. They are tired of the pressure from their church to reach a certain number (ironically churches are never satisfied with numbers anyway). They are just simply tired of feeling like they are losing the battle. I highly recommend reading Brian Cosby’s book. I think it will help youth pastors realign their ministries to a more biblical based philosophy of youth ministry and set them free from the entertainment driven culture of youth ministry.

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