Build a Warm, Accepting and Loving Culture A new study is hot off of the presses right here concerning this, but basically students who stay connected to church and faith, stay because they sense the adults really enjoy, like, and accept them - no matter what. Now this seems like a no duh, but you wouldn't believe what I've heard come out of youth workers mouths about the students who struggle or who are somewhat difficult. See, kids are asking us, "do you like me?" And ""Will you still like me when I mess up, when I question my faith, or question you?" And our answer must be a resounding, "YES!"
Now, I know this a a difficult one - especially for certain types of students - but this is why we rely on the Holy Spirit - not on our own abilities. It's easy to like students when they like us, or when they "behave", or seem like they have a mature faith... So the question is, are you building into your ministry culture (and it all starts with the adults) the enjoyment and the warmth of God? Every time a students runs into one of our adults, they must experience the warmth of God, through us.
Build a Culture of Cared for and Well-Trained Youth Ministry Teams
It all starts with leaders, both volunteer and paid. Healthy well trained adults in the lives of students has to be a key priority and its why small groups ministries are so vital. For our adult leaders, we have a rule that helps us - if an adult on our team is having a busy week and has to choose between attending youth group or a leader's meeting, we'd rather have you at the leaders meeting. We have to be one, and healthy, and what we are wanting to see happen in our students lives must first begin in us. I remember Chap Clark telling me years ago when I worked for him in California that any decent and respectable youth ministry volunteer team should have 2 meetings per month (short meetings before youth group do not count). I know this is a hard one to accomplish in today's world, but I've made it a priority ever since. Here's my rule - don't waste adult volunteers' time - you better make those meetings amazing!
Here are three goals I have at every meeting:
1. Grow closer to each other (we eat together, share our hearts, pray for each other, play together, etc...)
2. Grow closer to God (open the word, worship, prayer exercise, etc...)
3. Get some training (give them something that they can use that will benefit their ministry to students - think about giving them a binder where they can keep all of the notes your giving them and the information they need like calendars and rosters)
Build a Culture of Prayer
Don't skim over this one, because I want to challenge us for just a minute. When I say a praying youth ministry, I mean constantly praying across the board. Prayer is happening everywhere - yes - before a program, of course - at leader meetings, but also in the midst of our weekly regular youth group times. I travel around the country and I see a lot of youth groups and I rarely have seen prayer taken seriously. I have rarely seen a youth ministry truly teach students how to pray or encourage regular prayer times, or even to come up front or whatever to receive prayer. Kids today are more stressed out than ever before and they desperately need to experience God's life-giving presence. Heck, one of the markers of the fruit of the Spirit is peace - they are desperate for peace, yet we rarely provide opportunities for them to pray with a leader or, even better, empower them to pray for each other. Why? Because lets be honest, we don't value it (at least enough).
The students in our youth group starting a thing called, Prayer Posse. One kid would go pray for a friend, then the two of them would go pray for another friend and then on and on they'd go slowly growing this huge prayer posse. I loved it and they would do it in the middle of worship or at the end of a talk because we left room and space for it in our regular programming. A healthy youth ministry is one in which students are regularly being taught how to listen, interact, and seek after God - and not just for themselves, but on behalf of others.
Build a Culture of Thinking Students
What I've discovered is that kids thrive in certain environments - but be careful because it can be deceiving. Let me explain. At camp or on a mission trip the gospel resonates and makes sense to them. They hear the gospel being preached and they see it being lived out and it all begins to sink in. But when they leave that environment and are in a completely different environment, where people around them are cynical of the faith and are making intelligent and thoughtful arguments, well, that too clicks for them and can make a lot of sense. Its one of the reason why students struggle in college. What we have to be working on is teaching students how to think, not just what to think. Now this requires trusting the Holy Spirit in their lives - but we must prepare them so that when they hear things that are challenging to the faith, they don't just immediately buy it (or reject it without a thought) - but we are preparing them to go through a process of finding the truth in whatever is being said and disregarding the lies. This is a messy way to teach for sure, but what we've been doing is no longer working - maybe it never worked. Question based teaching is key. Want help for that? Click here
Build a Thriving and Empowered Student Leadership Culture
This has become a lost art in youth ministry. In fact, as I've traveled around the country I rarely see student leadership teams at all - and the ones I do see are really struggling. I get it, kids are super busy, we really don't know how to use them (besides worship band and tech teams), and often the "big church" does not support integrating them into their regular services.
A couple of thoughts here though - youth ministry MUST be about developing and empowering students. If we are not doing this, then we are failing! Go to a local middle or high school - students are running the place. Go watch a play, not a single adult is performing or running the sound or lights or... This, I believe becomes the most important thing we can do - if there's no time for student leadership, then cancel youth group and just develop students. Students are tired of siting and watching and if students don't see a need to be a part of the church - if they don't see a way that they can contribute or play a role- then they will soon discover (and many are) that there's really no reason to come to church at all. If you have any questions about this, let me know - I'd love to help.
Build a Parenting Ministry Culture
Most youth pastors get out of and quit youth ministry before parents actually start listening to them. You know, why would a parent listen to someone who has never raised a teenager before? I've found that the sweetest part of my youth ministry has been in recent years because parents are actually showing up to parent meetings.
YES! It's the best!
I remember my first parent meeting ever - 2 moms and me... ugh! The most successful parent meetings have been training events done monthly during youth group. This was a huge success - and parents wouldn't miss it. I spoke but I would also bring in experts to speak on relevant topics. This has to become a priority - we know that parents are the number one influence in a student's life - so let's help them.
A Serving Presence on Local School Campuses
I've written about this extensively in a chapter of my book, Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World. So I'll be brief. Don't try to get on campus to promote your youth group (under the guise of meeting your students' friends) or even to visit your students on their turf. Just be a blessing and a serving presence. Go to the office, fill out a volunteer application and start serving. If you read my chapter on this you might discover that this very likely could open amazing doors for you. It will also provide more roles for your students leaders to begin to serve at their schools.
Build Connectedness with the Larger Church Body
Just this past week a youth worker told me that they were going to start a high school meeting during the main service. So the high school students are no longer going to be worshiping with the larger church family. It's really too bad because it seems that study after study shows how vital it is that students are a part of an intergenerational group of people - that their identity comes from being a part of this diverse group who are being salt and light in the world together. This particular church has really youth friendly church services, so I am not sure of the reasoning. But the question is, how do we connect students to the larger church family? We have to answer this.
Build a Culture of Continued support for Post High School Graduates
We know that students struggle when they go away to college
- so here are a few things to try:
1. Get a volunteer team to focus just on supporting and ministering to your graduates (this must be their sole focus, so that the ball doesn't drop).
2. Contact a college ministry that your students are attending and get them connected.
3. Have activities, services, and meetings for when they are home.
4. Involve them as youth leaders.
5. Make sure that are serving somewhere.
6. make sure you do number one on this list =)
OK, so here are just a few things that can help build the kind of culture that will create health in a wholistic way. Please remember, this is a slow build - be patient with it and with yourself, because as they say, Rome wasn't built in a day :)