Effective Youth Ministry Press Blog
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This blog is designed for anyone who wants to think seriously about youth ministry. It is for: fulltime youth leaders, part time youth leaders, volunteers in youth ministry and those who are thinking about youth ministry in the future. The goal is for us to think practically and strategically, with our Bibles wide open. Remember, it is crucial that the word of God shapes our methods and not only our message in youth ministry. Read on…
Today we are going to talk about icebergs even though I don’t know a lot about polar exploration. I’d love to give it a shot but I just don’t think this Arizona boy will ever have the chance. I guess winter in Saskatchewan can at least count for a distant second.
I want to continue to focus our thoughts on starting out—what do we do to get our youth group going in a way that is profitable for long-term discipleship and ministry.
If you’ve read my earlier posts you may remember that I’ve encouraged you to do some things that will help your time in your new youth group to be more profitable. I want to now focus on a question that is basic and yet foundational to your work: Who will this group be for? Most youth leaders begin with dreams of reaching out to the lost and so they aim for a group filled with nonChristian youth. While this is understandable, be very careful. A group that is predominantly nonChristian will lead you to, what I have described in Changing the World, the upside down iceberg.
As you know, icebergs have all the weight at the bottom. This base supports the top, which, while visible, is the minority of this great structure. The principle is the same for any effective youth ministry. If you want to see a group that reaches out to those who don’t know Jesus, you must have the strongest base possible. This base must be made up of two key groups: Christian youth from the church/local area, and youth who, while they may not yet be strong Christians (or even Christians at all), are willing to wholeheartedly participate in every spiritual activity that you run.
I think about many of youth groups that I have either heard about or participated in the past few years. They are designed to attract the lost. When the lost do come, there must be activities that will be enjoyable and will keep them coming. This becomes a tremendous burden to the volunteers and to the leader themselves. This is an example of an iceberg that is wrongside up. The leadership team must then prop up this iceberg to keep it from crashing down. In my experience, gravity always wins and inevitably, the group crashes.
The better way
Your goal must be to build a strong base of Christian youth. These youth can then minister to nonChristians youth. As the base grows, so does the top—the whole thing gets bigger and bigger!
So, one of your first steps is to begin your youth group with the above two groups (Christians and any youth who willingly participate in Christian activities) as your base. Find out exactly how many Christian youth are in the church or have gone to the previous group. Meet with these youth and explain to them your desire to run a group that will be built on getting to know Jesus each week and encouraging each other to follow him. If there was a youth group before you moved into the leadership role, find the next group; those youth who came to the youth group and were willing to participate in the spiritual activities. These two groups are your core, your bread and butter, your pizza base and every other metaphor that you can insert here.
A word to youth ministry vets
I’m not talking about those of you who look after animals but anyone who has been in youth ministry for a while. We all need to be careful of the upside down iceberg—even seasoned specialists with the best of intentions can be sucked in to running a group that is upside down. This will make things so much harder in the long run.
Well, it’s a beautiful day in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan! Summer isn’t winter that’s for sure!
Now, let’s have our final session on about how to get the most out of your camp. This covers one of the most important … and most overlooked … this is the all important issue of follow up.
It is my belief that we tend to see the gospel as some sort of magic potion or rite that we must pass on to youth. Once the “accept” it or “go through the rite” everything is fine and God will take care of the rest. It doesn’t take more than a moment or two of thought to see that this is crazy. Furthermore, simply look at the success rates of our camps when it comes to longevity of faith among those who make a decision on camp and you can see that something needs to change.
A few years back I spoke to the head of an organization that was deeply committed to seeing young people come to Christ both weekly and on summer camp. In a moment of honesty he told me that “my crowd has absolutely no plan when it comes to looking after youth who make a decision for Christ.” Another camping organization that I spent time with admitted that this (following up campers) was the “weak link” in their program. Their solution was to have a twice a month “reunion church service on a Sunday night”. While it would start strong a few weeks after camp, it would peter out after a month or so.
It is my belief that follow up may not be as difficult as we have made it out to be.
The less than strategic way to do follow up:
Encourage your counselors to write emails, text the youth in their cabin throughout the year.
Have a reunion multiple times throughout the year
The problem with this approach is that it maintains the focus of the Christian life for the new Christian on the camp itself rather than a local church. This church is far more equipped to look after these youth than the annual summer camp.
The more strategic way to do follow up:
- Grab a map.
- Look for “key areas” that you can isolate your follow up process on. Look back on past camp rolls and note down all the areas that youth have come from in the past. For example, suburbs from major city, small towns, regional centres etc.
- Find out churches in these key areas. Let me give you an example. If you are from Vancouver, you will know the satellite community of Tsawwassen (pronounced ‘Ta was en’). This community has a large Baptist church right on the main street. This church also has a solid youth ministry program going.
- Form a partnership with these churches. If your camp had students who came from this Tsawwassen, you will seek to form a bond with this church so they could do the follow up.
- Work with this local church to send able cabin leaders to your camp. These leaders will naturally form a relationship with the youth in their cabin. Those youth who do not have a youth group at home will be encouraged to go to their cabin leader’s group.
- Have a night towards the end of camp where you break up the group according to where they come from. The leaders from these areas encourage the youth to come to their youth group once camp is not on.
This type of follow up program creates a “win-win-win” scenario. The youth win because they go to a youth group where they know one of the leaders well. The local youth group wins because they grow numerically. The camp wins because these youth will hopefully return to camp and bring some youth from their new youth group with them. Thus, the whole process begins again.
Hopefully this whole process will bring some much needed clarity to our follow up process with our summer camps.
Well, I’m in Phoenix Arizona and it is going to be hot… really hot. It’s gonna hit 115? (for my American friends) or 46? (for the rest of the world) this week. But hey, it’s a dry heat. With the heat comes summer camp. Ah yes, a great time to cool off near some water and have a great time of Christian fellowship.
A few weeks back I asked two questions about camp, “What is summer camp about?” And “Who is it for?” Now I realize that this may sound like an odd question, but I’m not convinced that we have really thought this through all that thoroughly. We tend to limit our thinking to, “I’ve been to camp, my family has been to camp. Camp is great, support camp.”
However, culture is changing and, if I’m not mistaken, we will start to see a bit of a hurt put on the whole camp movement. The average summer camp isn’t bursting at the seams with volunteers and leaders. We are struggling to fill our positions each summer as we see a decline in numbers in our local church youth groups. There is a ‘trickle down effect’ and it is my worry that we will continue to see a decline in the numbers of volunteers needed to staff our camps and a drop in the numbers of campers themselves. The pool that we draw from is shrinking and less kids in church based youth groups = less camp staff and less campers. (There is one caveat I can add about camp—with the increased busyness of parents, summer camp may well become a viable ‘babysitting club’ option for some youth. This may help to extend to life of summer camp but will significantly decrease its effectiveness.)
With this in mind, it is crucial that we think critically and carefully about summer camp. Let’s tackle one of the questions I raised a few weeks back—who do we aim to attract to our camp? Here is my answer:
Camp is a temporary gathering of members of the Kingdom of God who come together for a week of Christian fellowship. They do this because summer camp offers them two things: 1. A chance to gather with spiritually like-minded youth from a wide region. 2. The summer break gives them the luxury of spending a solid week in unhurried Christian fellowship pursuing Christian disciplines. Many of the youth’s schedules ‘crowd out’ some of these spiritual disciplines. Summer camp is a time to slow down and ‘re-engage’.
Please note that my definition is not meant to exclude nonChristians but rather is about placing the emphasis on ministry to the Christian youth, not on attracting the nonChristians. It will mean that at camp we can work on those activities that we should be able to do well: prayer, Bible study, worship, service, growing together in fellowship, love etc. (As I have said earlier in other forums we must remember that the Bible teaches us that these activities in and of themselves are attractive and effective in Christian growth and promoting the gospel to the outsider.)
Our goal for summer camp is that the youth who come will be encouraged and equipped to go back to their communities to live for Jesus. This will also mean that those Christian youth who come to camp will minister their friends and seek to bring them to the very camp that was a blessing for them! They will want their friends to experience the great things that summer camp offers: prayer, Bible study, worship, service, growing together in fellowship, love etc.
Can I remind you of the ‘Iceberg Principle’ of youth ministry? Imagine your group (or summer camp) is an iceberg, if the base of this (70-90%) is nonChristians, you will spend all your energy keeping it from toppling over. If your base is built of Christian youth, you can effectively minister to the 10-30% of nonChristian. What this means practically for us is that we will seek primarily to attract a large majority of Christians who will invite a much smaller minority of nonChristians. This will allow us to do those things during the week that promote Christian growth and truly effective evangelism. When the Christians go home they will be built up and encouraged, and when the nonChristians go home they will have a clear experience and understanding of what the Christian community is all about. Some of them will no doubt join their friend’s youth groups because they enjoyed the experience of camp. (Obviously our hope is that many of them became followers of Jesus on camp as well!)
It is my belief that summer camps have a direct parallel with local youth ministry. Not only are they inseparable, but they are symbiotically linked and connected in the deepest possible way. With this in mind I want to suggest that many of the questions that we deal with in youth group (i.e. ‘How do we attract nonChristians?) have the same answers when we think of summer camp. Aim first to build, equip and encourage the Christian. Once we have done this they can reach their friends in a way that has spiritual integrity.
The good news is that summer is just around the corner. When you look at my backyard and the wall of snow that forbids me from seeing my backyard (no joke!), you realize that this is good news. With summer comes… summer camps! For many kids this is great news. Summer camp= horses, rope courses, rifles and water sports. Oh yeah, it also includes connecting with Jesus (or, for many, reconnecting with Jesus).
This week I want us to re-think the effectiveness of summer camp— now before you spill your coffee in view of my last comment, there are a few things you need to know.
1. I became a Christian on a camp.
2. Summer camp had a profound impact on me and my development as a person.
3. I love camps—I’ve run a lot of them (I stopped counting at 300). With these things in mind though… please allow me to probe just a bit.
I have now been in Canada for almost nine years, and am surrounded by summer camp ministries. While I love them, I must ask, “Are summer camps really that effective in reaching youth for Jesus?” I know many of you will say, “Yes, of course!” but let’s just look at the facts. When I was in Vancouver, the local youth leaders I knew may have picked up one or two youth every now and then from all the various summer camps held around British Columbia (and there are a lot of them!). But the number of converted who joined youth groups and stayed was far from staggering. Sure, one or two youth is better than no youth. However, a lot of effort goes into these camps. And, a lot of hands go up in the “Who wants to turn to Jesus” slot. The feet attached to these hands just don’t seem to make it into a local church.
Following on from this, I spoke to the former head of one camping program and she told me that, “we surveyed each and every student we could find who did our training program attached to the summer camp in the past twenty years. Only 3% of them continues to be actively involved in church.” You probably know these training programs under various names (LIT, CIT, SIT etc. It is basically “in Training” with a consonant attached.) Now I realize that this is a slightly different category to nonChristians who go to camp but it still begs the question, “Are we being effective in our summer camp ministry?”
We know that summer is a long time and can be boring, so a week away can be a great opportunity to connect with nonChristians. Therefore, we use this program to attract and (hopefully) lead nonChristians to Christ. However, as with many of our adopted youth ministry strategies, is it effective? Is it the best way to reach youth over the summer? Are they worth all the effort we put into them?
In the next few posts I want to ask two simple questions, “What is summer camp about?” And “Who is it for?” I’m striving for clarity here… Is summer camp a time for Christians to gather together and enjoy a week of summer fun? (Which is a concept fine by me.) Or is it a time to charge the Christians up during the long spiritually dry season of summer? (A good thing!) Or, is it a time to reach the nonbeliever through an active, “fun” program?
Let’s explore these questions over the next few posts.
So there appears to be a shortage of males in many of our youth groups. One youth leader skyped me on this issue just this week. His questions were straightforward and ones many of us can relate to: “What can we do to attract more young men to our group? How can I get more boys to show up? How do I evangelize the boys in our community?”
Good questions… difficult ones too… and especially difficult to answer in a short post like this one. So, if you allow me to speak in bullet points… here’s some things to think through...
- Males like male leadership. Aim for this – work to have males who are strong in their faith to help lead the group. This may be a long-term process so begin now—are there any males in the high school group that you can see as leaders in a couple of years? If so, build build build for the future. Female leadership is good for the young women, but boys need men to follow. If you are a female leader with no males helping you, can you bring in some volunteers to help out in some way?
- Following on from this, can you have long-term male leadership? Some boys are used to a pattern of abandonment from the significant males in their life. Strive for a 2-3 year commitment from the male leaders in your youth ministry. I know this can be a toughie- but it is the right target to aim for.
- Try and develop a core of male youth who attend regularly. Guys like to see other guys at anything they are thinking about committing to. Start to develop a core from within the church... this is where connecting and linking with children's work is a must (see 'Flow' in my book Changing the World). It has been my experience that “guys bring guys… and girls too”! For some reason I have not seen a youth group of girls attract males—even though some think this happens. However, I have seen a group of guys be attractive to both sexes. I’m not sure why (although I have a hunch)… just my experience. Teach, encourage and work to build a regular core of guys (this is where small groups are key).
- Make sure your program is not too … how do I say this… wussie. Many are. Boys tend not be as interested in ‘feelings’ as much as in action and doing. Nor do they enjoy sitting around and chatting as much as older people do. Think through active learning and profitable kinesthetic activities (rather than typical youth group games). Build this into your small groups and into your weekly program.
- Have single sex Bible studies. This is a must. Guys don't want to feel stupid or immature. This often happens with girls in the group. Nor will they share openly about struggles or pain. For some reason, many youth leaders disagree with this and continue to run coed groups. While there can be a minor argument made for this, males love to meet together in a group of males and the arguments in favor of a males only group far outweigh a coed one.
- Be clear on who you are and what you do. Steve Biddulph says in Raising Boys that males need to know three things: Who’s in charge? What are the rules? and, will they be enforced? Boys like strong leadership, clear expectations and purpose. Be a group that exists to help young men connect with the creator of the universe in a clear and real way.
- Model the great adventure of following our strong God. The Christian life is a great journey. Our God is a great God of love and strength. Model this, teach it and talk about it often. Talk about what it means to be a man of faith and to take God’s call seriously in this world. Spend time outdoors teaching on the creation. Spend time indoors talking about issues that matter to boys. Think creatively about how to teach a group of hyperactive young men. One practical outworking of this is in our teaching program. Balance your teaching to include studies on topics that will interest guys like King David or the Book of Judges.
God bless you as you seek to attract and build up mighty men for the Kingdom.