Q&A with Mark Oestreicher – Discipleship, Missions, & the Evolution of Youth Ministry

As a leading voice in the youth ministry world for years, we’re thrilled to have Mark Oestreicher take some time to answer our questions on discipleship and teens.

In this Q&A session, Marko lays out his thoughts on the evolution of teenagers and youth ministry, shares the best piece of discipleship advice he ever received, and discusses the value of missions in youth ministry.

Q: What has changed about the way youth workers (yourself and in general) disciple students over your career in youth ministry?

There’s been a healthy shift away from a one-size-fits-all mentality.  We were really into creating “discipleship programs” that offered one path, one option, when I was a young youth worker.  Of course, there’s many still pursuing this route.

But, my thinking is (and the thinking of lots of youth workers these days) that a mono-optional “program”-driven approach isn’t honoring to either the disciple or to God. It’s not honoring to the disciple because it only allows for one kind of disciple, the kind that is naturally wired for the expectations and path of the program or approach.  And it’s not honoring to God because it denies, at its core, the gorgeous diversity of God creation as seen in the body of Christ.

The move toward mentoring as a key theme in many youth ministry discussions is a reflection of this shift.  the old approach was to programmatic; the new (and, really, super-old, in that it’s the way Jesus discipled!) is relational.  The old was all about “do this”, while the new (super-old) is all about “follow me.”

Q: What’s the same?

Teenagers are living in a different world, to be sure.  But they’re still teenagers, and they’re still dealing with all the developmental realities of a post-pubescent awakening.  They’re still wrestling with core questions of Identity, Autonomy, and Affinity (or Belonging).  All of these necessarily play into any discussions about teenage discipleship, since they were and are central to the everyday experience of all teenagers (whether they’re aware of these issues or not).

Another way to say this:  teenagers are still wrestling with who they are (identity), they’re still wrestling with how they’re unique and to what extent they can influence the world around themselves (autonomy), and they’re still wrestling with the question of to whom and where they belong (affinity). All of these are deeply discipleship questions, at the end of the day.  Or, at least, they should be!

Q: What’s the best “how-to” discipleship advice you’ve ever received?

Ooh, that’s a tough one.  I guess what comes to mind for me is the training I received, a couple dozen years ago, from a youth ministry training organization for whom the question of “how did Jesus do discipleship?” was central.  Problem was, that organization wrongly suggested that the answer to the question was a set of (intentional) programs.  So, they gave me great advice by leading me to ask that question; but I had to discover the actual answer (duh! Jesus discipleship was the same as his birth — it was incarnational!) on my own when I found the programmed approach to discipleship to be a dead end.

Q: What’s one trend in youth ministry today that you disagree with (or want to change)?

I’m still saddened by the “bigger is better” mentality I see so many places in (American) youth ministry.  Even small churches, who have an amazing opportunity to be unencumbered by complexity and logistical challenges, regularly aspire to be more like the big churches with the big youth groups.  I have friends who do youth ministry in very large churches, but understand the value of small (as well as humility, btw, since there’s a natural arrogance that seems so often connected with “large”).  But, in general, we have bought the lie that bigger equals more successful, and that more successful is what God really wants.

There’s been some movement away from this thinking in the last decade, but not enough yet.

Q: Why are (or why aren’t) mission trips good for building students’ character? How high of a priority should they be in youth ministry?

A few years back, a handful of thought leaders in youth ministry were in a room that I also happened to be in. We were talking about what spiritual growth actually looks like in teenagers. But we experimented by starting the discussion with stories from our own lives of when we experienced significant spiritual growth.

After we’d all told a bunch of stories, and themes from the stories had been placed with sticky-notes all over a wall, we noticed something interesting.  All of the stories fell under one of four umbrellas, or contexts: meaningful community, pain or failure, victory or success, and perspective-altering experiences.

Missions trips offer all four of those contexts. Seriously, what else do we do in youth ministry that offers all four of those contexts in a compact span of time?

There’s some bad short-term missions trips out there, to be sure.  Drive-by missions, or missions-vacations, or “lets go see the poor and destitute so I can feel both bad about myself, then better about myself because I felt bad about myself” trips. But a theologically and missionally thoughtful trip can from what I’ve observed have a more lasting impact on the faith formation of a teenager than anything else I even did in youth ministry.

Mark Oestreicher has been involved in church ministry his whole life, particularly with teenagers and youth workers. Marko was the president of Youth Specialties for many years. These days, Marko speaks, writes, consults with churches and ministries, and runs the Youth Ministry Coaching Program. He has authored or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0, and his most recent, Middle School Ministry.

Marko lives in San Diego with his wife Jeannie and two teenage children, Liesl and Max. For more information, visit his blog (www.whyismarko.com) and his website (www.markoestreicher.com).