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…
Last time I asked you to go through three important questions. This time, let’s steal something from real estate and apply it to youth ministry.
In real estate there is one key rule: Location Location Location. It is where it’s located that matters. In youth ministry, especially when starting out, it is Relationship Relationship Relationship.
So, let’s take the first step
Here is the first thing you must do—and it is very, very important. Get to know your people. Find out about them as you spend time with them. A wise man with the last name of Bacon once said, “Knowledge is power.” Since bacon is awesome, and must be listened to, it is worth thinking about this quote. You must get to know as much about the place you are working as you can. What worked in the past? What didn’t? What about the previous youth leaders—why did they leave, how long did they stay? What are the hopes of the youth in the church for the youth group? What do their parents think?
You must get to know as many people as you can, as well as you can, as quickly as you can. For Canadians, this is where Timmie’s is your best friend. For Americans it’s Starbucks. For Aussies it is one of any of the 1,000 fantastic coffee houses within walking distance of your front door! Spend time in these places getting to know your volunteers, potential volunteers, youth in the church, parents of the above, staff members etc. In fact, by the end of your first month you should be so full of caffeinated beverages that your eyes glow.
You will also want to take the bold step of inviting yourself over to everyone’s house for lunch or dinner. I realize that this can be awkward, so tread carefully, but I probably don’t need to convince you of the value of sitting in a family’s home to gain some knowledge and appreciation of who they are. As soon as someone from the church says “we really should have you over for a meal” you grab your calendar and say “how about this Thursday?”
As you meet with people you must learn to ask the right questions and to listen, really listen to the person across the table from you. You must also take this opportunity to begin the job of earning their trust and their willingness to follow you.
- Some $$ to cover coffee (& meal?) expenses
- The right set of questions
- Tell me about yourself, where did/do you go to school? Was/is it a positive experience?
- Tell me about your family?
- Where are you in your relationship with Jesus? (How/when did you become a Christian?)
- Describe for me what you like about youth group (if they are involved)?
- What are some things that you would like to see happen in youth group?
- Would you be able to be committed to the youth ministry regularly?
- [For Parents/older people: Do you think you could give us some help at all?]
Now, get to it. Find those people and grab a coffee!
Well, this week is the week when summer is officially over and the school year begins. For most of us in youth ministry this is our kick off week. At least it is for me. With this in mind, I thought I would spend the next few posts offering some wisdom for anyone of you who is starting out in youth ministry.
Now I need to be clear on one thing—when I started out in youth ministry I did not have a clue about what to do. I had energy and a passion for Jesus, and that was about it. Hopefully in the next few posts I can give you just a bit of a “leg up” and help make the next few months go smoothly for you.
There are three key areas that you need be very clear on:
Who you are (your gifts, what you can do, what you can’t)
What you hope to do in the next year or three
How you hope to do it
Having a firm grasp on these three areas will make your life go a bit more smoothly. (I am going to assume that you, dear reader, have some self-awareness of who you are, what gifts you have and don’t have etc. I am going to assume that you also have some people around you who are honest and can speak truth into your life. A good mentor who is familiar with youth ministry is going to be a real help here!)
Who you are
While we know God is sovereign and can do anything, we have a “sober judgment” of ourselves (Romans 12:3). Do not bite off more than you can chew, nor should you underestimate your abilities and giftedness. This is where close friends, or a wise marriage partner are crucial.
For example, if you are a naturally gifted evangelist, this will no doubt make up some part of your ministry. If you aren’t, you may not want to program in a big push on evangelistic growth, just yet. If you are a good upfront speaker, you will want this to be a key part of your program. If you aren’t, you will either find someone else who is, or you will build your teaching time around small groups.
The key here is to really, truly have a grounding in who you are and what you can achieve. I have seen far too many people in youth ministry who really should have been librarians instead. (Just to be clear, I’m not knocking those of you who are librarians, it was the simply the best profession I could come up with to contrast with youth ministry. I love librarians where would we be without them?)
Keep in mind that you will grow and pick up skills and new abilities as you mature in your ministry. Right now we are focusing on the first year. With this in mind, be clear on your abilities.
What you hope to do in the next year or two
The people (and youth) in your church want two things: 1. They want you to listen to them and lovingly hear their needs, wants, goals, struggles etc. 2. They want you to lead them; helping them to encounter Jesus and his people on a deep level.
It is your job to formulate some plan that will facilitate this. I will write more on this later but you must walk the tightrope of crafting a program with your group in mind and providing a new program that is effective in building Christian maturity.
How you hope to do it
The last one is pretty obvious isn’t it? You need to have a plan. Hopefully you have been trained somewhere along the path as to the “hows” of youth ministry. Needless to say this is the big question isn’t it! This will be the focus of the next few posts. To get us started, however, let me suggest two books that are very helpful, if not crucial for the new youth leader both of them are by Mark DeVries:
Sustainable Youth Ministry
The Indispensible Youth Pastor
Next we will look at first steps in your first year.
Here is an email that I get far too often:
“Ken, I’m hoping that you can help me. I run a summer camp called _______(fill in name) and I am in need for camp staff. In fact, we may have to cancel some of our camps if we do not get more volunteers. I could possibly take on some nonChristians to help out but I’d really rather not. Any suggestions?”
I don’t want to be too pessimistic but as I have said earlier, this is a sign that the future is not as rosy in youth ministry as we would like to believe. Healthy youth groups produce healthy Christian youth who can then go on to do youth ministry. The end result is that camps (and other ministries) have a surplus of volunteers. However, we are not in that situation any longer. So, instead of moaning for the good old days, may I suggest five courses of action to help alleviate this problem.
1. Seek financial help. If you pay your staff well, you will have a much easier time of finding workers. This is pretty basic I know, but the average camp pays very poorly. From my perspective, I have students who would love to spend their summer in camp ministry—much more than working at the local grocery store. But they simply cannot afford it. So, they sacrifice a summer of fruitful ministry to chase next year’s tuition.
With this in mind, one of your first priorities must be to raise a significant amount of capital. Your first place to start is with alumni. These former campers will have fond memories of their time in camp. Don’t be afraid to explain to them very clearly what your needs are and where the money will go. You may get some push back with statements such as “but in my day all the staff were volunteers”. You need to clearly explain that we are living in a very different culture and that the future of the camp is becoming less clear unless something changes.
You may even want to give all your campers the chance to contribute financially throughout the year. Plenty of campers have part time jobs. You may be surprised at what you could raise through this.
Consider meeting with the missions committees from churches that send campers and staff. Explain to them your needs. See if you can become part of their missionary giving.
2. Train your staff for long-term partnership. This goes without saying. In fact, many camps are quite good at training up leaders. Stay focused here and always be thinking about how do we keep our junior staff and use them for the next 3-10 years.
3. Partner with churches. As I wrote in my previous post, it is imperative that camps work with church for follow up. It is also very important that they work with churches for staff. How can your camp promote a partnership with a local congregation that last more than a summer or two? If you can have a number of churches, from a wide area support your camp, many of your key needs (follow up, financial support etc.) will be solved. Your goal is that when it comes to camp, your camp will be the obvious place for this church to support.
Here’s a quick story: when I worked in Vancouver there was a camp that many of our youth went on. Early on I noticed that the youth who were the best at helping on our weekend retreats were those who had done ‘pit crew’ on this summer camp. These kids where such a blessing to our retreat ministry (we had about ten retreats per year in the various ministries). I quickly realized that we needed to give back to this camp—we would promote this camp each year and, we would strongly encourage our youth to sign on as volunteers knowing that they would be trained in ministry. Our church and this camp formed a partnership, a two way street blessing if you will.
4. If you can’t find young staff, find older ones! This is pretty straightforward. If there are no youth to staff your camps, seek non-youth. Are there seniors who are time rich, don’t need to be paid, strong in the faith and willing to give you a week or two? With a bit of searching, you may find more than you realize. Especially if you modify the camp just a bit to have less focus on the ‘wild side’ and more on what the older volunteers are good at: talking with youth, listening to them, talking with them about God and praying with them. Most young people today really don’t care about the age of the staff, they care about whether the staff cares about them.
5. One last word, don’t sacrifice on spiritual quality in the search for quantity. It is tempting to fill your staff needs with people who are less spiritually mature, or even not in a relationship with Jesus. Be very careful of this. If your goal is to produce strong followers of Jesus, you need strong leaders who themselves follow our Lord. They must be able to echo Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 11:1 “Follow me as I follow Christ.”
I would love to hear more suggestions to add to the list on how we can reverse this staff shortage in our summer camps.
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.
I am sitting in one of my favorite places on the planet. In fact, other than Disneyland, this is the ‘happiest place on earth’ for me. It is, in fact, Starbucks in Phoenix, Arizona. The good news is that it is hot outside- without a snowflake in sight! It is warm, after I do some work here I’ll go for a swim in the pool and, to top it off there is a baseball game on tonight. Good times.
So, we were talking last week about summer camps and I was questioning who are these camps for, Christians or nonChristians? I’ve appreciated your responses- thanks.
Now, let’s talk about how to get the most out of your camp. There are three things to focus on: advertising with integrity, a good schedule, good leaders, and solid follow up afterwards.
1. Good advertising is a must
Now I need to be clear; I don’t mean widespread advertising—although this is a good thing (as you know, the best advertising is word of mouth). What I do mean is clear advertising that tells the prospective camper what the camp is about. Here is a simple exercise; go to a few camp websites (or brochures) and see what they offer. Is it fun? An exciting week away? Making new friends in a stunning environment? Is there anything about God, Jesus, new life in Christ or the real reasons that camp is on? You will be surprised how often this is the case. It is as if we are hiding the very thing that we are trying to promote.
I found this out when I worked in BC. Many of the smaller camps (and those clearly tied to denominations) were very clear about what a week at camp was about. However, some of the bigger ones weren’t. In fact, I said to one camp leader, “You can’t find anything that is remotely Christian on this brochure.” He simply shrugged and we both felt awkward.
As I write this there is a local camp that is being heavily promoted. It seems to be based on the Percy Jackson books and helps kids to “act like a demigod”. I think it involves wooden swords and the wearing of body armor. The point is, their promotion is clear and tells you exactly what they want you to experience at camp.
Shouldn’t we do the same?
In fact, in this age of “youth seeking after meaning and all things spiritual”, isn’t that our greatest selling point?
2. A good schedule is a must
This goes without saying really. However, I want to ask you to rethink some of the schedules that you’ve grown up with. Here is a common “old camp schedule”:
Breakfast: morning activities (sailing, rock climbing etc. )
Lunch: afternoon activities
Dinner: activity/ chapel/campfire/ cabin groups
This schedule, which is quite common, is focused in the wrong direction. The focus is clearly on the activities which are fun and ‘exciting’. Now I realize that often there is a ‘God slot’ placed somewhere in the earlier part of the program. But let’s see if there is another schedule that might just accomplish the goals of solid spiritual growth with an enjoyable time.
A new schedule
Breakfast: full morning program of ‘spiritual stuff’ (worship, personal devotions, active learning, Bible teaching, small groups/cabin groups)…
Lunch: afternoon activities (maybe prayer groups just before dinner)
Dinner: evening activity… campfire/chapel/cabin groups
This schedule may at first appear only slightly different. And, in a way it is. However, the focus in the first part of the day is the focus of the whole point of camp—growing Christians. You will maximize your input in the morning when the youth are raring to go. (Btw, it is important that the youth are not up all night talking and pranking each other…this is not helpful at any level). You then move to an afternoon full of fun activities like swimming, archery etc. The day ends with a quiet campfire, chapel or cabin groups. In short, you want to use the mornings when the kid’s minds are alert, for the ‘meat’ of the program. After a long day of activities, youth are tired, and often emotional (ever seen a ‘cryfest’ at the end of a camp day during chapel? You can call me cynical, but sometimes it is more fatigue than the Holy Spirit coming to the surface.)
HOT TIP: think about having your older youth (or junior leaders) running prayer groups late in the afternoon just before dinner. While this is happening you can have your daily leader’s meeting. This keeps you from running it early in the morning or late at night.
One final thing, the morning ‘meaty’ program needs to be run with the joy, and ‘oomph’ that we run the other activities. We must aim to make it enjoyable (not gimmicky) and shine with all the goodness of what it means to follow Christ.
So, here’s the point: Promote you camp with honesty, clarity and integrity. Run your camp with a schedule that doesn’t skimp on spiritual input.