The three words “youth pastor voice” wield magnificent power online. Every day there are multiple examples of people using the phrase on X, mocking the way that youth pastors—American figures, stereotypically, who are unique in that no one on the planet is less cool than them—desperately try to keep Christianity relevant in a world that is gradually leaving religion behind.
Youth pastor voice has been applied to everything on the internet, from big dick energy and being canceled all the way through to serving cunt (yep). Its most obvious sibling, also seen online everywhere in the last decade, is the Steve Buscemi meme “How do you do, fellow kids?”—a lame person failing to endear themselves because of how clearly inauthentic they are.
The origins of ‘youth pastor voice’
Youth pastor voice is everywhere. Never heard of it? Welcome. Youth pastor voice is a meme whose true origin is unknown, but it probably first appeared in Tumblr’s heyday about ten years ago. (Know Your Meme claims it began on Tumblr in 2015 but this seems a little too late, as I will explore later.) Most often seen in brackets, it’s a phrase that prefaces a ludicrous statement. The statement will generally begin with “You know who else” and will be a thinly veiled reference to Jesus Christ, whom the imagined youth pastor is desperate to introduce into every conceivable conversation. Here is an example: “[youth pastor voice] Kids, Twitter is sharing revenue with its top creators, but let me tell you about a Creator who shared his most precious gift of all—his own Son—with us.”
On X, no one really said the words youth pastor voice until 2009. In the first few years, however, it seems to have been reserved exclusively for sincere professions of Christian faith, with no indication that youth pastors can be embarrassing at all. Then on September 19, 2014, the phrase was first uttered in jest—by user CostumeMomTM, who was 15 years old at the time. “[youth pastor voice] balls deep in the word of god”, she tweeted, linking to a Tumblr account.
First of all, she says, she’s honored to be contacted. “I’m pretty sure “[youth pastor voice]” was a meme started on Tumblr, to poke fun at how youth pastors talk to kids!” she says. “The same format was used for other things, ‘[hacker voice] I’m in’ being one of the first ones I remember seeing.”
She says that the appeal was the humor, of course, but also the sense of inclusion: “Almost everyone who reads that post will have a similar, if not the exact same, idea of what the youth pastor voice sounds like.” On Tumblr, which isn’t the frantic meme platform that X now is, the phrase is largely a thing of the past. On X, there are countless examples of the phrase in its conventional form, but “youth pastor voice” is now old enough that users, assuming an awareness on the reader’s part, can play with it. Posts can refer to Hitler, not Jesus; they can let readers fill in the blanks; they can simply say “You know who else rizzed up baby gronk?”
How youth pastors reacted
I wanted to explore the reactions of one particular group of people: youth pastors themselves. How does the meme come across to people sincerely trying to do the Lord’s work? After trying to get in touch with about a dozen youth pastors, I received responses from only two. I think this speaks volumes in itself. Perhaps America’s youth pastors do not want to be associated with the youth pastor meme.
One youth pastor who responded by email is 38-year-old Jeremy Cooper from the “refreshingly biblical” Summit Ridge Church in Las Vegas. “I have a few friends who send me that kind of stuff from time to time,” he says. He likes making fun of youth pastors and even makes fun of himself. His 13-year-old daughter notices him going into “youth pastor mode” when he makes an effort to be spectacularly enthusiastic.
But there’s a limit, says Cooper, because youth ministry is serious work. He wants to move away from an image of youth pastors as “glorified babysitters” and towards an image of “real spiritual shepherds.” This won’t happen with memes. “My bottom-line thought is that all of life belongs to King Jesus and we need to be more awake to that reality, not less,” he says. “But the caricature of the typical youth pastor I think takes some of the sharp edge off of that glorious truth and just turns a resurrected God-Man into word games. I don’t think word games ever brought real joy and peace.” Fans of Wordle might beg to differ.
On X, I also spoke to AngryYouthPastor, a 37-year-old youth pastor who tweets under the cover of anonymity all about youth pastor-centric issues. He has been in youth ministry for more than 15 years and admits that—to a certain extent—he is guilty of the behavior being mocked. In fact, straight out of the gate, he fires off his own example: “You heard how there’s a new Mission Impossible movie coming out? Well, it’s our MISSION to make it POSSIBLE for you to know Jesus!” It’s a good one.
“I actually like the meme,” he says. “Mainly because it’s gentle ribbing at the kind of youth pastor many of us have seen, or even been at some point.” He thinks a little differently to Cooper and frames the issue as being the responsibility of youth pastors, not the people making fun of them. “When you start out in youth ministry, you want to try to connect with students. People will do this by changing their wardrobe, the way they talk, or even pretending to know what is going on in teen culture. When you do that, it’s just going to make you look like you’re trying too hard and make students cringe. It’s much better just to be yourself.”
It’s advice that each and every one of us could apply to our lives. Rather than trying to crowbar contemporary references in conversation, youth pastors will do themselves a favor if they show students who they really are, said the anonymous youth pastor, somewhat ironically. It will be then, when they are authentic and comfortable in their skin, that they will actually be considered cool.