12 Topics Youth Ministries Avoid
There are only so many weeks in a year, so we must select which topics to cover and which to leave off our teaching schedules. Inevitably, we pass over subjects we would love to cover but can’t.
This dilemma presents a powerful temptation: do we schedule precious time to cover topics that make us nervous, or do we stick to our teaching comfort zones?
We asked 12 youth ministry leaders to share the neglected topics they think students most need to hear. We avoid them for a number of reasons, but as you’ll discover, these ignored issues have the potential to show students a fuller picture of God’s love and will for their lives.
As you read through each subject, ask yourself, Have I disregarded this topic in my ministry? How could my students grow if I set aside my fears and taught on this subject?
Here’s a preview of the 12 Topics Youth Ministries Avoid. Read details on each of these below.
- How to Read the Bible
- Sexual Identity
- The Holy Spirit
- Racial Issues
- The Old Testament
- Spiritual Disciplines
- The Cost of Discipleship
1. How to Read the Bible
I have been going to church all my life. I participated in children’s church, youth group, and several Bible studies. My brother and I were even members of a team that would compete against students from other churches at Bible memorization. Yet I was 23, sitting in my first seminary class, when I first heard the word hermeneutics, “the theory and methodology of biblical text interpretation.” That sounds complicated, but it doesn’t have to be.
Each of our students, starting in the early teens and continuing to adulthood, is in the process of taking ownership of his or her faith. This is the perfect time to get them thinking about how they read the Bible.
So why don’t we?
Many youth workers are thrilled to get students to open up a Bible at all. Anything beyond that seems impossible. And few of us feel confident in our ability to teach something as complicated as hermeneutics.
I, for one, am no Bible scholar. I can’t teach my students everything they should know about how to read the Bible. But I can encourage them to look deeper into the text by asking a few basic questions: To whom is the author writing? Why did they write this book? How does this section fit into the larger story of Scripture?
Students must learn how to read the Bible for themselves. Otherwise they will be led astray by false teachings that claim to come from Scripture. Empower your students as current and future leaders by giving them the tools they need to study the Bible and apply it to their lives.
Let’s Teach It. Take a listen to our Trainingcast Episode on this topic, or explore the Bible Study Methods shared in the blog post “How to Teach Students to Study the Bible.” HERO Members can also access “Helping Students Pray,” one of our HERO-exclusive tools in the HERO Toolbox.
2. Sexual Identity
Sex. It’s a topic discussed in most youth ministries these days, even though it can be awkward. But when students tell us they are struggling with their sexual identities, they throw us for a loop. Why? Because talking about sexual identity can be uncomfortable, it can alienate students, and honestly the church in America seems to be divided on this issue as a whole. I also think we avoid it because it takes us deeper into the heart of God, and that can actually be a scary place if we’re used to comfort. God loves us unconditionally, but he is also holy.
So the thought of telling students certain actions or even thoughts can tear them away from God is terrifying. We are afraid that calling out sin will push students away from the church, which is very possible. Yet avoiding this subject also prevents us from focusing fully on Christ.
While we have all been created in the image of God, we are new creations in Jesus. In Christ, we find freedom from sin, from believing the lies of this world, and that is something every student needs to know. Our old identity, which was broken by sin, is now a new identity made whole by God’s love through Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Let’s Teach It. LeaderTreks offers a free lesson series download on this topic. “Shameless” is a 4 lesson series taken from our Vantage One-Year Bible Study Curriculum that helps students understand God’s original plan for sexuality. Submit the form below to download.
3. The Holy Spirit
Most evangelical churches namedrop all three members of the Trinity, but when it comes to actual teaching, the Holy Spirit is rarely mentioned. It’s no different in youth ministries. Students hear a flood of teaching about Jesus and the Father, but they’re lucky to receive a trickle about the Holy Spirit. Why is our teaching on the Trinity so lopsided?
In some ways, it makes sense. The Bible is relatively quiet about the Spirit. Theologians call him the “shy” member of the Trinity because his primary role is to shine light on the Son, not on himself. But many churches don’t teach on the Spirit at all. Maybe teaching on the Spirit doesn’t feel as practical or as personal as spending time with Jesus. Maybe topics like spiritual gifts feel too controversial. Yet by avoiding the Holy Spirit entirely, we are damaging students’ view of God.
According to a survey by LifeWay Research, 51 percent of American evangelicals believe the Holy Spirit is a force, not a personal being. That’s right—less than half of evangelicals believe God is who he says he is. (Jesus refers to the Spirit as a “him,” not an “it,” and calls him our “advocate.”)
You don’t have to teach on the Spirit every week to offer students a basic introduction to who he is and how he works in their lives. The Holy Spirit is as divine as the Father and the Son, and he plays an active role in the spiritual growth of your students. Don’t you think it’s time they met him?
Let’s Teach It. I Am a Disciple is a 40-Day Discipleship Journal for students designed to take students through the core lessons that Jesus taught his disciples. In the week focused on Knowledge, students will encounter who God is, paying close attention to the Holy Spirit. Click to take a look inside.
4. The Intolerance of a Tolerant Society
Throughout our society, a myth has emerged advocating that true tolerance consists of neutrality. The word tolerate means “to recognize and respect (others’ beliefs, practices, etc.) without sharing them” and “to bear, or put up with (someone or something not especially liked).” Therefore, one must believe that someone is wrong in order to show tolerance toward that person.
That definition has been twisted to the point that if you think, or worse, say someone is wrong, you’re called intolerant. With the twisting of the definition has come an increasingly intolerant society. Unfortunately, youth ministries (and churches) have been generally unsuccessful in preparing students to engage in respectful, intelligent dialogue with those with whom they disagree.
By failing to prepare students in this way, youth ministries unintentionally set their students up for failure in college and the workplace. They fear reprisal for disagreeing, even in a respectful manner, with another person’s beliefs or practices.
Many youth leaders are either ill equipped or unwilling to disciple their students with a sound method of biblical interpretation to engage in healthy dialogue with those whose viewpoints differ. If the church expects to “persevere under trial” (James 1:12), then it must prepare students to engage in healthy, respectful, biblically sound conversations that lead to redemption rather than division, as both Paul and Jesus practiced (Acts 17:22–34; Matt. 9:10–13).
Let’s Teach It. The Warped 4 Lesson Series inside of our Vantage One-Year Bible Study Curriculum hits on this topic. Students will learn that while our culture often equates love and tolerance, they aren’t the same. Instead, they’ll see how Jesus empowers us to fulfill the high calling of loving others and loving God’s truth at the same time. Submit the form below to download a sample.
5. Racial Issues
I live in one of the most racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse areas of the country. I’m immersed in a sea of skin shades and an ocean of cultures, yet I still struggle with questions about race. I feel entirely unqualified to lead conversations about racial issues, and I know most other youth workers do too—which is probably why so many of us avoid them.
Whether we like it or not, we all carry judgments and opinions about other people. Since no one can hide the color of their skin, racial differences quickly reveal these prejudices. We use what we have seen in a movie or on the nightly news to make a mental picture of others before we’ve even met them. As followers of Jesus, we know in him we are all one (Gal. 3:23), yet we struggle to reconcile this with how we actually think and feel. And our students are no different.
We must lead students in these conversations because we all (no matter our skin color or ethnicity) have misplaced opinions that affect the way we interact with people made in God’s image. Addressing racial issues with students can be the first step to genuinely tearing down walls that divide us.
It’s a practical way to teach teens how to follow Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. If we keep avoiding this conversation, our fears will only increase. While it might get sticky, we have to continue talking about race if we are going to learn to love the people God loves.
Let’s Teach It. The Split 4 Lesson Series inside of our Vantage One-Year Bible Study Curriculum hits on this topic. In this lesson, students will address the problem of drawing dividing lines around race and status, specifically in the body of Christ. They will see (1) what actually binds believers together, (2) how all believers are needed, and (3) how earthly affiliations and divisions pale in comparison to the binding power of the Lord.
“You deserve it” has become one of my most despised phrases. It permeates the TV, Internet, and radio. And yes, it has impacted the church, our youth groups, and individual Christian lives. The call of Christ to take up our cross daily, following him into a life of sacrifice (Luke 9:23), has been replaced with the pursuit of comfort, materialism, and safety.
We need to instead rediscover the hard teachings of Christ, setting our hearts and minds on things above, not on earthly things (Col. 3). We can still play the egg in the armpit relay and plan the ski trip. We don’t need to ban foosball tables. Our youth rooms can still be filled with laughter, where deep relationships are built. But our study of God’s Word must go deeper, leading beyond head knowledge to life change.
Our hearts need to break for what breaks the heart of Christ. Students should be encouraged to make tough decisions that will lead to changes in how they act, what they say, and where they invest their time and resources.
Thoughts of what we “deserve” will then be replaced with the true joy of participating in God’s ongoing work of transformation and restoration. And we will one day hear Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matt. 25:23).
Let’s Teach It. Teach this theme using the One-Year Bible Study Curriculum, The Black Letters of Jesus. The Black Letters of Jesus invites students to focus on the actions of Christ and follow his sacrificial example. Submit the form below to download a sample lesson.
7. The Old Testament
In youth ministry, we often treat the Old Testament like an awkward family member at a holiday meal: even though they’re part of the family, we avoid spending too much time with them because they’re unfashionable, boring, and frequently offensive. Yet the Hebrew Scriptures compose over 75 percent of the Bible we encourage our students to study.
Many youth workers avoid the Old Testament because they simply don’t understand its theology and value. We struggle to see Jesus in the purity laws, genealogies, stories of violence, and histories of kings and conquerors. Like many Christians, youth workers appreciate the familiar “Sunday School” stories and find some emotional solace in the Psalms. But what about Leviticus? Deuteronomy? First and Second Chronicles? Ezra? Habakkuk?
Spending time in only the New Testament is akin to watching only the final quarter of a football game or viewing the last 30 minutes of a movie—you can’t fully appreciate the significance of the end unless you have the whole story. We need to ignite in students a passion for the Old Testament—its hard sayings, R-rated stories, and affecting poetry—in order to foster a deeper love for God’s Word.
Let’s invite young people into the larger story of God, the whole narrative arc that communicates God’s gracious posture of love and justice towards his people.
Let’s Teach It. Explore a sample lesson of the One-Year Bible Study Curriculum, Intersections. Each series in Intersections pulls from both the Old and New Testaments. The goal of Intersections is to help students move away from simply knowing God’s Word to living out his story.
Sandra Widstrom, Public School Educator in Jefferson County School District, Colorado
Each year I have homeless boys and girls in my fifth grade classroom. They live in motels, shelters, transitional housing, vehicles, or in a friend’s already too-small apartment. They have difficulty getting a regular bath, killing the lice, wearing clean clothes, getting enough sleep, and staying healthy. A three-meal day is possible during the week when kids eat free breakfast and lunch at school, but it is less likely on the weekends.
Sometimes youth groups pitch in to help with groceries, toiletries, clothing, Thanksgiving turkeys, Christmas presents, school supplies, and serving a meal at a church or shelter. But unfortunately a commitment to these children and families is rarely sustained. Why? Most of the aforementioned “helps” are limited in time and financial investment—they’re easy to do and require no long-term commitment yet secure short-term satisfaction for the helpers.
A long-term commitment requires building relationships with these families, and that necessitates an inconvenient investment of time and resources. More importantly, it requires an investment of genuine love that will support families as they rebuild their lives.
Eugene Cho, in his book Overrated, warns us about being in love with change while doing little to make it happen. He challenges those who seek change—in this case, alleviating homelessness—to look in the mirror. Why do we settle for easy commitments? When we wrestle with our own motivations, we will nudge open the door toward real change.
Let’s Teach It. Jesus and The Least is a 4 Lesson Series inside of The Black Letters of Jesus One-Year Bible Study Curriculum. Each lesson reveals how Jesus was especially compassionate and loving toward the marginalized, the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the sick, and the poor. Students will be challenge to not just show kindness to the “least” but to treat them as family, just like Jesus did.
We spend a lot of energy protecting children. The hovering parent cultural phenomenon demands that we swoop in and rewrite the script so our children won’t experience failure, pain, or fear. In some ways, it’s brilliant and effective—the monsters under your bed aren’t as scary after you’ve seen Monsters, Inc. But in other ways, it introduces all new dangers.
One of those dangers is how we downplay hell. Sometimes we ignore the topic completely, and other times we redefine it using softer, cozier words to spare our students from fear. For example, we describe hell only as “separation from God.” That is certainly true, and it is the worst thing imaginable—but only to those whose daily lives lean hard into their Savior. Most students translate separation from God as “life before I prayed the prayer.” And by that measurement, it probably doesn’t seem so bad. In fact, life before following Christ may have been easier and more comfortable, so it’s no wonder students might think, What’s the big deal?
Yet Jesus never softened his words about hell. He described it as a place filled with weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus’ description of hell is terrifying! Understanding the horror of the consequences of our rebellion against God should drive us into his arms. It should motivate us to help others find the safety in his redeeming embrace. We must not deprive our students of that knowledge and healthy fear.
Let’s Teach It. The Rescue series inside of The Core One-Year Bible Study Curriculum is designed to help students know their need for a rescuer. It communicates how we were held captive by sin and destined for hell until Jesus freed us from sin and its effects when he took them on at the cross. Submit the form below to download.
10. Spiritual Disciplines
The youth pastor’s facial expression changed from his characteristic smile to a look of suspicion when he heard these two words: spiritual disciplines. I asked him why. He told me stories of legalistic requirements, boring rituals, and feelings of guilt if he didn’t pray enough. So worried about how his students would respond to the topics, he never addressed prayer, silence, contemplative worship, personal study of Scripture, or journaling.
Because of his unhealthy experiences and incorrect assumptions, he and his youth had missed out on growth and development. I invited him to join me in a few spiritual practices. We approached the disciplines conversationally, biblically, historically—not as ways to score spiritual points or impress the One we follow. We spent time with Jesus by choice, not forced by rules. We entered conversations with Jesus: prayers of petition and intercession, journal entrees on letting go and moving forward, songs of praise and life.
My youth pastor friend worked through his reluctance. He refused to allow inner fears to rob him of conversations with his creator. He said, “Intercession and fasting and silence aren’t so freaky after all. If I’m willing to give them a try, I want my students to give them a try.” I smiled. I had a sense Jesus was smiling too.
Let’s Teach It. LeaderTreks offers a free lesson series download taken from The Core One-Year Bible Study Curriculum on the topic of worship. Use this series to caution students against fake worship and instead cultivate a lifestyle of worship characterized by multiple spiritual disciplines. Submit the form below to download.
Work is a topic most youth pastors stay far away from. No, I am not talking about works-based salvation; I am talking about careers, jobs, and vocations. Though many youth pastors might not feel equipped to train on such a subject, my greater concern is that most youth workers fail to realize its importance.
At best, one in ten students will graduate from our youth ministries and go into full-time ministry or missions work, yet we hail these callings as the supreme vocations! In doing so, we further the notion that some people do ministry, while others pay for it.
I dream of a day when churches will equip students for their future callings in the marketplace. They will empower laity to do the work of ministry in every sphere of influence and society. Evangelism will no longer be reduced to a monthly alter call at a church program or event. Discipleship will no longer be a six-week course. And work will be seen not as a necessary evil, but as a gift from God, a place in which we derive meaning, a means by which we provide goods and services to our world, and a way in which we bring glory to God!
Let’s Teach It. Moving On is a workbook for students that helps them identify their God-given mission. Using this resource, you’ll invite students to uncover the hints and breadcrumbs–burdens, passions, visions–God has scattered all throughout their lives.
12. The Cost of Discipleship
The drive to get students to come to youth group has caused us to choose between making students happy or holy. We focus first on numbers because they’re easiest to measure. It’s harder to measure transformation, so we go with what’s easier and makes more sense.
This move has been subtle and gradual, and many of us don’t even realize we are watering down the truth of God’s Word. It’s all done with the goal of reaching students. We don’t challenge students to repentance; we just encourage them to cross the line of faith.
Francis Chan writes, “If Jesus had a church in Simi Valley, mine would be bigger. People would leave his church to attend mine because I call for an easier commitment.” Ask yourself that same question: If Jesus had a youth group in your town, whose would be bigger, yours or his?
Jesus often challenged his followers with the cost of being his disciples. Many weren’t willing to make the sacrifice. Has the challenge of spiritual maturity caused any of your students to leave the church? Are you teaching Gods word with a spoon full of sugar or with the power of the Holy Spirit?
Let’s Teach It. Gritty Leadership is a discipleship tool that will help your students develop the grittiness they need to persevere as a leader for Jesus. These 4 Bible-based lessons, with discussion questions and experiential activities, will help students uncover what it takes to persevere and run hard after Jesus when the going gets tough.
About the Author
Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners who never leave their side. Doug grew up in… Read More