The goal of “Welcome to Student Ministry” is to post interviews that help guide both new and experienced student pastors toward faithful ministry over many years. This eighth interview in this series is with Mike McGarry. Mike has served as a youth pastor in the New England area for 14 years! He has written the book A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry and contributed a chapter in the book Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry.
- Tell our readers some background information about how long you have been in student ministry, how you started, and anything else that you think would be useful.
When I was a teenager, my youth pastor changed my life by how he listened, encouraged, and challenged me. As I matured, he gave me opportunities to teach in Bible Studies and I had the sense, “This is what I was made to do.” He later confessed that he “just didn’t see it” when I told him that I was going to college to study youth ministry. It just shows that you never know…
I’ve been serving in full-time youth ministry for just over 14 years but have been at my current church for just over a month. My greatest passion in youth ministry is translating theology for the next generation and helping them see how sound doctrine shapes our Christian lives. I think best with my fingers on a keyboard – I’ve written one book (A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, by Randall House Academic in 2019), contributed to another (Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry, by Crossway in 2016), and I regularly write for the Rooted Ministry blog.
- How has your view of youth ministry changed from when you started to now?
I did the internship for my youth ministry degree at Willow Creek when they were at their peak of popularity. I learned a lot that summer that still serves me really well, but I’ve seen that the attractional model can’t deliver the same long-term fruit it seeks. Instead, I’ve come to believe that the gospel should shape everything about our ministries, not just our evangelism, and that our central mission is to co-evangelize and to co-disciple teenagers alongside parents in order that they develop meaningful roots in the local church. I know that’s a really dense sentence that could use a lot of unpacking, but it represents a lot of change in the way I view student ministry.
I love the way the Rooted Ministry unpacks the gospel-centered youth ministry (these are in my words): 1. The gospel is everything (not just an evangelistic message). 2. If you want students to hear the word of God… then teach the Word of God (not your opinions). 3. Discipleship takes place through relationships where youth leaders are intentionally shepherding students into greater maturity. 4. Parents are insanely important, encourage them and seek meaningful partnerships with them instead of only using them to drive to Six Flags. 5. Connect students into the church, not just the youth ministry (if you don’t, you shouldn’t be surprised when they walk away from the church after graduation).
- Share one of your favorite student ministry moments.
I wouldn’t say these are my “favorite,” but the most meaningful student ministry moments I will always treasure seem to revolve around crisis ministry. It is an incredible honor to be there with students when a parent has passed away, or when friendships are dissolving, or when they’re in the hospital. Pizza parties and dodgeball are fun, but sitting with students in times of crisis and pointing them to the hope we have because Jesus rose from the grave… that’s something I truly hope I’ll never take for granted. These are opportunities where students (and parents) are especially open to receiving the gospel because their need for hope and comfort is so great. And there’s also a strange dynamic at play – we ourselves need to face the question, “Do I really believe the gospel has something to contribute here?” There are times when I’ve stayed silent because I waivered. And there are times when I have confidently spoken the promises of God. Those are the youth ministry moments that stick with me.
- Share one of your least favorite ministry moments
We had a “Night of Awesomeness” about eight or nine years ago where we had students eat tootsie rolls out of bedpans filled with mountain dew, blended up a happy meal and dared a student to eat it, and then tricked a student into eating frozen mayonnaise. We thought it was a fun night, but later heard from a few students who brought friends that their friends didn’t want to return – “If this is how they treat people here, why should I want to come?” That was a real turning point for me. The games we play reflect our values, and ours had gone pretty far off-course. Ironically, the very thing that was intended to appeal to students drove them away.
- What resources do you find helpful to use in student ministry?
Aside from Scripture, my number one must-have is a good Moleskine notebook and a Sharpie pen. I always do my best brainstorming and message prep in a notebook, then I turn on the computer and work it out after I’ve gotten a good outline on paper. My favorite Bible-study resource is Accordance Bible Software. It’s definitely an investment, but I think it’s worth it for us who are committed to lifelong ministry. But I have to admit, Google is still my go-to concordance when I need to find a Scripture reference and can only remember a few words.
When it comes to curriculum, I usually turn to either YM360 or LeaderTreks, depending on what I’m looking for. YM360 has the best Bible Study curriculum and is really teacher-friendly, while LeaderTreks’ material for student leaders is unmatched. Walt Mueller’s 3-D Guide for discerning media is still one of my favorite tools to help students learn how to think Christianly about media (tv, movies, music, etc.).
My favorite resources to nourish my soul are the Rooted Ministry blog, which consistently reminds me of the grace I’ve received and that my worth doesn’t come from my ministry, but from Christ himself. And my favorite devotional resource is the Valley of Vision, which is a book of prayers.
- What is one of two things that you do to make sure that you do so that you don’t burn out as a youth pastor?
My hardest season in ministry was probably during a time when I stopped writing because of criticism that it was taking away from my ministry to students. That wasn’t the only complaint at the time, so I stopped writing in order to throw myself into ministry even more. Writing is how I think straight and clear. So when I wasn’t writing, the stress of criticism from parents and my youth leaders only drove my insecurity deeper and I really struggled to work out of that.
For me, writing is a non-negotiable for me to be able to think clearly. To take it one step further, keeping a journal helps me prioritize time in Scripture while creating space for me to process what God’s Word says, and apply that to what’s going on in my life.
I also have a few friends who are also in ministry who I regularly call and talk with. Sometimes we just talk about Marvel movies, sometimes about theological stuff, and other times it’s about personal issues that we’re working through. Without these friends I would’ve burned out and stayed burned out.
- What advice would you give to yourself when you started as a youth pastor if you could go back to that time?
I think I started out with my head in the right place, but a few years into ministry I felt the need to “step it up.” I’d want to tell myself a few things:
- The gospel is more than an evangelism tool. It shapes the way we disciple just as much as the way we evangelize. We aren’t saved by faith then sanctified by works. You need to have a more robust view of the gospel.
- Ask intentional questions. For a season, I found myself “hanging out” with students but struggled to lead into spiritual conversations with students. Looking back, I think I let those students define our relationship. Maybe it’s my age now, but it’s much easier for me to simply ask students, “Tell me how your relationship with Jesus is going” or “What have you been reading in Scripture lately” and then taking the conversation from there in a direction that encourages them to prioritize their relationship with Christ.
- Go to their games more consistently. This is just the bread-and-butter of so much youth ministry, but eventually this slipped by the wayside because other responsibilities crowded it out and it really hurt my ministry.
- When you think the ministry should head in a certain direction, don’t be a bully but don’t be bullied out of that direction either. Take your time and lead that change well… but remember that you are the leader (under the appropriate authority of the Senior Pastor and Elders, of course).
- Parents are not the enemy. There may be seasons when it feels that way, but they aren’t. Look for a few advocates, empower them, and develop a meaningful partnership with parents in the ministry. When students graduate, they’ll leave you but they won’t leave their family (hopefully!). Investing in parents is a wise long-term decision that benefits your students.
Thank you, Mike, for taking time to answer these questions. In coming weeks I will post our ninth edition of “Welcome to Student Ministry” which will be an interview with a youth pastor from Tennessee!