"Sustainable Youth Ministy" Does What it Says, So You Should Really, Really Read It

By Bart Frost

Sustainable Youth Ministry

"Why most youth ministry doesn't last and what your church can do about it."

by Mark DeVries

Welcome back to Bart Reviews Books! We have our first requested review, Sustainable Youth Ministry by Mark DeVries. Lots of gratitude to Shelia Schuh for the request.

There are a few major names in youth ministry: Dean, Yaconelli, Powell, and DeVries. Mark DeVries is the founder of Ministry Architects and author of Family-Based Youth Ministry. DeVries has a lot of experience under his belt and it shows in Sustainable Youth Ministry as he provides hints and tips on making youth ministries that last.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve noticed that youth ministry involves a lot of turnover. Every year, seniors graduate and eighth graders become ninth-graders. It’s almost like there’s a brand new group each year! This is both a blessing and a curse. A curse because sometimes it feels like just as we achieve full cohesion, some of our youth leave and we have to begin again. A blessing because every year we can work together to (re)build the Beloved Community. Sustainable Youth Ministry is a wonderful resource because it helps provide ways to maintain momentum and continue to develop strong youth ministries amidst change and uncertainness.

All too often, the uncertain future encourages us towards a scarcity mindset and prevents us from seeking innovation. DeVries writes, “Sustainable youth ministries fail all the time; they thrive in a culture of experimentation, innovation and creativity. It is floundering youth ministries that often remain paralyzed, unable to risk, stuck in nostalgic obsession with past success.” (page 23, emphasis mine). This is one of the messages that I hope we can internalize as Unitarian Universalists, that we must risk, we must experiment, we must innovate or we will die an ignoble death. What you or I needed in the past is not what is needed today.

So what is needed today? Do we need more programs? (No.) Do we need more things? (Nope.) Better music? (Wouldn’t hurt, but no.) Better food? (Mmm...no.) More coffee? (NO!)

We need to build our youth ministries one brick at a time (page 139). We need to recruit healthy adult leaders. We need to be present. We need to continue to hold the space for youth to gather. We need to build relationships.

This is what DeVries provides in Sustainable Youth Ministry, the building blocks to begin a successful and sustainable youth ministry. Reading this book isn’t going to give you the magic solution, but a number of tools that you can incorporate into your work if you haven’t already. And if you have incorporated these tools, it will remind you how to use them.

The Good

What’s good about Sustainable Youth Ministry?

  1. Mark DeVries has made a lot of mistakes as a youth pastor and he loves to tell you about therm! His approach is relational and can help you find the humor in your own situation.
  2. There’s an entire chapter about the emotionally healthy youth worker!
  3. Are you a volunteer RE team member? Or on a search committee? There’s some stuff here for you too!


Honestly, it’s all pretty good. It’s from 2008, so it could use some newer anecdotes or pop culture references but otherwise nothing jumped out at me like statistics that feel off or problematic.

The only thing that sticks out is the focus on hierarchy, but I don’t have strong enough opinions to really formulate anything.


  1. “On any successful building site, there are three essential jobs, and the more complex the building, the more important it is to separate these roles. In the youth ministries we’ve observed, the same three positions are essential.” (pp 96-99). The three roles are craftsperson, general contractor, and architect.

  2. “‘Guests,’ on the other hand, are treated like royalty. When we have guests for dinner, we take out the best china and cook our best meals. When we’re guests at a nice hotel, the ‘home team’ is at our service, wanted to do everything to make our stay enjoyable.” (page 167).

  3. “The people you hire will do what they like to do, so hire people who like to do the things the job requires.” (page 101).

Sustainable Youth Ministry gets our very first 5 out of 5! Sustainable Youth Ministry should be part of your youth ministry canon, especially if you manage a youth ministry professional. Are you thinking about ways to adapt your youth ministry? Pick up this book first (then read Growing Young)! Make sure you read it all the way to the end and incorporate some of the tools from the appendices into your work.

Got a book you’d like Bart to review? Email us at blueboat@uua.org!