Recently I had coffee with a young youth pastor here in the DC area. He had just started working at his church and he wanted to get off to a really good start. He asked me this basic question, one that I rarely hear asked anymore, "So what exactly should I be building so that our youth group is healthy?" I just walked him through, what I believe, are some things to shoot for that will lead to a wholistic and healthy youth ministry Culture (excluding the obvious programmatic ones like: weekly meetings, retreats, missions, service, monthly activities ...) So here's my first priority -not exhaustive- list:
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 :)
By: Kelsey Morgan
I really enjoy where we are living in the DC Metro area. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve looked at Brock and marveled that this is our turf, our playground. It has been such a pleasure to explore DC, which brings me to the realization that we have only been living here for one year. Wow! Time flies when you drop everything and invest your blood, sweat, tears, and finances into a crazy big dream! Believe me, it has been in incredible journey on every level:
incredibly faith filled
With all that “incredible” stuff taking place I have had moments when God has shown up in the midst, speaking my language and ushering me into a place of centeredness.
Because, let’s face it, sometimes it’s really just about God showing up. Like one of those 5 year olds playing soccer, it’s not really about winning so much as the people cheering you on from the sidelines. People showing up, people you love and people you want there whether you win or lose the game. I think that has sustained me over the past year, when God just showed up and spoke to me and I knew he was there with me, win or lose. Which brings me to a couple of stories of God just showing up when I needed him.
As a part of being a healthy human being, I have taken up riding my bike across the Woodrow Wilson Bridge. The bridge connects Old Town Alexandria, VA with The National Harbor, where we currently live. The path itself is really cool and takes you up and over the bridge to a park area on the Maryland side where you can look down at the traffic (yuck) and the lovely water way. As you continue on the path you run parallel with the car traffic in a divided lane. This path is almost always busy, with people from both sides of the water coming and going.
As I rode and prayed, I noticed a butterfly about 3 yards ahead of me aligned on the path. As I drew close, the butterfly flitted up and ahead of me, always staying within the boundaries of the path. Every so often it would land in front of me, but as soon as I thought I had caught up it would take off again. Always staying within the walls of the path, it flew high and could have crossed over, but it wouldn't. The path it made was erratic and yet always pressing forward, always leading out in front of me.Hmmm. Could this be like the Holy Spirit in our lives? The ways in which God works in our lives can sometimes seem sloppy, like the erratic path of the butterfly. I, like so many of you, like things neat and tidy - planned out and linear. And yet, the Spirit never departs from the path, the story, the objective. There’s just a lot of space in there to move around, soar, zig zag. The Holy Spirit will not be pinned down, will not stay put, will not be content to stop working all together. Always leading, showing the way, encouraging us to follow, but never so far out in front that he disappears completely.
This reminded me of two things: First, I can trust the leading of God’s Spirit in my life even when it doesn't fit into the nice, neat paradigms I have invented to contain and make sense of my life. Second, I can trust the Holy Spirit to work in other people’s lives even when it looks like they are a little bit, well, crazy. The Spirit might be zig zagging in their lives right now, and who am I to judge that? I have to accept the fact that I am neither the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit.
What I have discovered is that launching out and starting a new ministry has made me desperate for God - which leads me to this - our conference, The Amazing Next, is happening Sept. 23-24 in Oklahoma City. We are so excited, but as you might guess also combating fear and doubt on a daily basis. As the date looms closer, the desperate prayers for peace cry out of one’s soul. I hopped on my bike again to make that stress work for me and to center myself on a particularly windy Saturday as the tropical storm Hermine made her way up along the coast. The winds were anywhere between 15-25 mph, but I needed desperately to burn some rubber. The trip over the bridge toward Alexandria was filled with prayers that sounded something like this, “Oh Jesus! Oh Jesus! Help me Jesus!” That mixed with the tears that flowed freely down my face made me look like one crazy windblown lady on a bike. The wind at my back, I enjoyed the descent into Old Town, then turned to go up the hill and back over the bridge.
Oh. My. Word. The wind was now combative toward me, pelting me, making my ride incredibly difficult. The pent up stress that had aided my ride so far had left me and now it was a mental battle to will my self forward. As I shifted from 2nd into 1st gear, I was tempted to quit, give up, walk it. This is just too hard! I heard myself think. Whoa. Right then is when God showed up. “What’s too hard? This is not too hard. Sometimes you just have to stay the course, woman!” Stay the course. Because life is hard, but you have to stay the course. There will be payoff for your faithfulness, your perseverance even if you cannot see it now.
Our daughter had a discussion in her Psychology class last week about whether or not they would spare their children certain difficulties. For instance, would you take a pill that would eradicate all cancer from your unborn children? The teacher, obviously knowing what a thoughtful and amazing person Dancin is (a little brag there), called on her. Her response was unresolved, she said, “Having pain and difficulty is part of growing up and developing character. Why would you need God if you never suffered or had to walk through hard times? You would never learn to depend on God and I want my children to know what it is like to depend on God.” She is a witness to the life well lived, even in the hard times, and she likes the fruit of that life and where her own suffering has taken her. I love that life has become more gray for her, that it is not a pat answer which satisfies her.
And I love that God meets us where we are, responds when we call out, kicks our butts when we need it, and is palpably with us as we stay the course.
Brock is an author, speaker, youth pastor & the executive director @ Generation514 who is doing his best to live the adventurous & expectant life of following Jesus.