The Source for Youth Ministry

Cool Conversations/Interviews

Interview With Jim Burns
speaker, Best Selling Author, and President of YouthBuilders (formerly National Institute of Youth Ministry)
July 11, 2000

Last week I had the privilege to hang out with Jim Burns again. I wanted all of you to hear from him- so I interviewed him just for you! I want you to read this, not because he has authored more books than most of us have read including: The Youth Builder, DrugProof Your Kids, Radical Christianity, Parents Guide to the Top Ten Dangers Teens Face, and the YouthBuilders curriculum series. Not because he was youth pastor and mentor to Doug Fields, but because he has some great stuff to offer all of us!

JONATHAN: Okay- I have some fun questions for you: favorite movie, favorite web site, favorite date spot with your wife, all about Doug Fields growing up in your youth group ... but first let me ask you a few youth ministry questions. The majority of my readers are youth ministers and volunteers- and we'd love to hear from the expert!

How long have you been in youth ministry Jim?

JIM: I became a Christian when I was 16 and I started in youth ministry when I was 17. Let's see, I'm 46 years old now. So, I've been doing it almost 30 years!

JONATHAN: When did you first know for sure that this is what you wanted to do the rest of your life?

JIM: I was in high school. I didn't know if it was going to be the rest of my life, but in high school I was very influenced by a youth pastor and I decided that there was nothing else I wanted to do. Today I kind of look at my life and ask, "What else could I do?" There is nothing more exciting than watching kids make right and wise decisions. There's a poster in my office that says, "85% of the people who make a commitment to Christ make it before age 18 or they never will." That's an exciting place to be. Back then it was because I kind of wanted to follow my youth worker but today I'm sold on the fact that kids are making right and wise decisions and youth workers are heroes. I want to come along side them and help them if I can.

JONATHAN: Quick interjection- is that statistic still correct- I hear that quoted all the time with different percentages?

JIM: George Barna, three weeks ago.

JONATHAN: Really- good to know!

JIM: The first time I heard about it was in The Frog in the Kettle, which was a book . . . I don't know, 6 or 7 years ago. But three weeks ago, in the Barna email update it appeared again.

JONATHAN: Great- now I can finally use it! You work for NIYM, National Institute of Youth Ministry, now called YouthBuilders. What is that in a nutshell, for all of us who don't know what that is?

JIM: The National Institute of Youth Ministry became YouthBuilders as of June 5th. YouthBuilders trains and comes alongside youth workers. We do intensive training. We have a program called the Trainer of Trainers where we train veteran youth workers to go out and train others. We have 500 around the world who use our material ­ kind of a grass roots movement ­ training youth workers. We also put on parent forums. Family-based youth ministry is the direction of the church and that's the direction we're going. We will also, at times, put on full-blown youth events for kids, mainly dealing with student leadership. We also provide resources.

JONATHAN: So let's say I'm a volunteer youth pastor in Collinsville, Illinois, total population 500 people. I'm interested in this- what do I do?

JIM: I'd check out our web site or I'd call our 800 number, 1-800-397-9725 and find out where our nearest ministry site is. We have 46 ministry sites in the U.S. A ministry site is basically a youth worker who can come alongside people in places like Collinsville. There's no cost. We believe in youth ministry, and we believe in youth workers, especially the volunteers. We have training and we have resources that can help that person in Collinsville ... wherever that is!

JONATHAN: It's by St. Louis, I lived there when I was seven.

What has been your greatest accomplishment in youth ministry? In other words, as you look back you say, "Man, I am so glad I did this. This is the thing that God used me the most to help the most people!"

JIM: It's none of the big stuff. It's that I hang around kids on a one-on-one basis. Yesterday, we had a 20-year reunion of a group I worked with 20 years ago. Over and over again, they came up and said, "Thanks for hanging out with me." So it's not the big stuff. The scripture says in I Thessalonians 2:8, "We loved you so much that we not only gave you the Gospel, but we gave you our very lives as well." I think the greatest accomplishment I've ever had is the fact that I've had the privilege to hang out with kids on an ongoing basis and, in a small way, be a part of the change that happened in their lives.

JONATHAN: That's awesome. Alright- there's a guy by the name of Doug Fields that is kind of well known right now. We see his Purpose Driven Youth Ministry books, tapes, and kits. He's kind of the hot name in youth ministry. Now, rumor has it- he came from your youth group when you were a youth pastor! Is that true?

JIM: That's true. When he was in jr. high I went up to him and told him, "You are so obnoxious that you'll either be a great youth worker or be in juvenile hall . . ." He should have been in both, frankly!

We had a very special relationship through high school. After he graduated from he came to work for me and became an intern. And then when it was time for me to leave my church, he took over. We have a very special friendship that is lifelong. I believe so strongly in what he is doing and I'm glad that people like Doug are leading the youth ministry movement.

JONATHAN: Cool. Now tell us some fun dirt about him in high school.

JIM: He married way above his class with his wonderful wife Cathy.

JONATHAN: He'll thank you later for holding back the good stuff!!!

On the serious side of things. In youth ministry we make a lot of mistakes. What is the worst thing a youth minister could do?

JIM: I think that it would be if they buy into the culture and become so over committed and fatigued that they lose their passion for youth ministry. I have a little phrase on my desk that someone sent me, "If the devil can't make you bad, he'll make you busy!" And what I'm seeing is that youth ministry people are so over committed and fatigued that ­ and this is perhaps the worst thing that can happen ­ but they're so tired that they can't focus on their ministry so they begin to fade and struggle. So I would say stay fresh in your own faith. Walk with God. Our technique doesn't matter. It's our freshness in our walk with God. Way too many youth workers are absolutely killing themselves working too many hours and they're just wiped out.

JONATHAN: Which leads to my next question- what's the best thing a youth minister can do?

JIM: The best thing a youth worker can do is get into an accountability relationship. Way too many youth workers that I know from the past have faded or fallen ­ like you talked about in the newsletter you just sent out ("Finishing Strong") ­ because they weren't in an accountability relationship, a support system. They didn't have mentors, they didn't have a peer support system, and they weren't mentoring anyone. So, I think that's one of the main ways a youth worker can stay fresh ­ BE in accountability in a big way.

JONATHAN: What are you most excited about in your ministry right now?

JIM: I think what most excites me about youth ministry is that we're going to a family-based youth ministry. We're actually focusing much more, not just on kids, but on families as well. Because a lot of times we get kids to become a Christians but they have a home that is so dysfunctional. So I'm excited that youth workers are looking at that side of it.

I love the aspect of worship today. I am so thrilled that the youth ministry world has caught on to worship. I'm also exited that they're leading the way when it comes to serving. So I think we're in a really good place. I have some complaints about youth ministry right now, but I also have this excitement about where we are going.

JONATHAN: Okay- you brought it up. What are your complaints about youth ministry right now?

JIM: Well, my complaints would simply be a couple:

First, the church still sees youth ministry kind of like a stepping stone. They still haven't realized how important youth ministry is. Jesus said in Mark 9:36 & 37 "When you welcome a child you welcome me. When you welcome me, you welcome the one who sent me." That's a strong statement. So one of my complaints is that the church hasn't focused on that.
My second complaint is that we still think that we have to do things BIG to be affective. The average youth group size in America is 12 kids and a volunteer runs it. I'm excited about that. Those 12 kids can do great things for the kingdom of God. But a lot of times the youth workers who are really ministering to a group that size or a little larger feel like they are not as good as the heroes of youth ministry when in actuality, they're doing a great job.

JONATHAN: That's a lot of my readers.

JIM: At YouthBuilders, we call that youth worker "the 38 year old mother who loves kids." Many times she has no youth ministry experience or knowledge but loves kids. And if she weren't there, there wouldn't be a youth group. She needs you Jonathan; she needs your site.

JONATHAN: All right- let's switch gears. I'm just curious- what's your favorite movie?

JIM: My favorite movie of all time is an old movie called "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World." I also love the "The Babe Ruth Story" but it always makes me cry ­ you gotta see that. Those are two of my favorites.

JONATHAN: How about in the last 10 years?

JIM: I really liked Gladiator ­ and hardly ever see an R-rated movie. It was an R movie without sex or any cussing but there was violence. And I was inspired. I like the good over evil type themes so I liked Gladiator.

JONATHAN: I liked it a lot too- in the same way I liked Braveheart.

JIM: Your right.

JONATHAN: What books are you reading right now?

JIM: The Source by James Michner. It's about 1200 pages. It's on Israel. I went to Israel over Easter and so I'm working my way through that book. I'm also enjoying the latest book by Leonard Sweet, learn to Dance the Soul Salsa,which is a great devotional book on post-modern Christians.

JONATHAN: What's your favorite place to go with your wife?

JIM: We have several places. One is Maui Hawaii. We have the privilege of going their one or two times a year, partly because of me speaking in Hawaii quite a bit.

JONATHAN: Suffering for the kingdom!

JIM: Yeh, another favorite place with Cathy is the San Juan Islands. But one of my favorite things is we love to walk around the harbor in Dana Point where we live. We did that today; it's a beautiful place. We have certain spots we go to take a walk, look at the ocean, and hang out.

JONATHAN: For the people in Mississippi, where is Dana Point?

JIM: Dana Point is in Southern California between San Diego and Los Angeles, right on the coast.

JONATHAN: Wonderful. Do you have any pets?

JIM: We have a dog named Hobie. He's a Golden Retriever. I promised my girls that we would get him as long as they did all the feeding, cleaning and bathing. I do all the feeding, cleaning and bathing at this point so . . . Hobie is my dog. I didn't want him when we got him, but I love him now.

JONATHAN: What are your 5 top web sites.

JIM: Well, of course, is #1.

JONATHAN: Be real here Jim!

JIM: Truthfully, I love it because you give free input, free help. So many web sites, my gripe about web site is that they're nothing but brochures to sell something. And you're giving out great free ideas!

The king of web sites is the Youth Specialties web site It's so helpful in so many ways and I love Youth Specialties. So that would be one. Then yours. I go to Doug Field's because I love to see all the material he's doing ( And actually, at Saddleback he has a web site ( that says what some of their upcoming events are. They just had a major event for graduation called the Ungraduation and I can learn a lot from their stuff. Anything that has Doug Fields on it I absolutely love.

More and more I am drawn to web sites on parenting and family issues because as a youth minister I have to stay current on family issues. I like Family Life Communications web site ( ) I always enjoy ­ for the same reason that I read Rolling Stone magazine ­ Dr. Drew ( He is influencing millions of kids these days and I want to be up on it. Some of his stuff is terrible, but some of his stuff actually makes me think "Wow! That's how we should be reaching out to a generation of youth that aren't going to Christian web sites."

JONATHAN: You brought up an interesting issue. And, we're running out of time- so- last question- but an important one: How can youth ministers keep up with teen culture? How can they stay current with the junk that kids are watching, the junk that kids are listening to without it affecting us?

JIM: That's a great question. I think if a person is finding himself or herself drawn to web sites that are questionable or spending a lot of extra time learning cultural things through magazines or movies, they may be making a mistake. They need to do it in accountability. I find, for myself, that periodically, I need to turn on MTV. I don't love MTV, but I need to watch it to get a feel for what kids are doing. The average high school kid watches 10 hours a week of MTV. And when I go to the library I'm reading Sassy, the most popular read teen magazine out of Australia. I read Rolling Stone. I'm doing that to gain a greater appreciation of culture.

I think there are some Christian worlds that could help us. What Walt Mueller has at his web site ( and at his ministry is very helpful. Plugged In from Focus on the Family is good. I think that it's very important that we as youth workers have to be students of the culture. You have to read the secular stuff as well as the Christian.

However, if the secular stuff is getting you down or you're finding yourself drawn to it for the wrong reason, stop! Do not pass go. Read the Reader's Digest version from a Christian.

JONATHAN: Great answer. Thanks for your time. We all appreciate you sharing your heart and years of experience with us.

JIM: My pleasure. Keep up the good work training and providing excellent resources.

That's it. He's the man!

Check out the website of his organization NIYM, now called YouthBuilders: