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…
You can’t pick up a piece of youth ministry literature these days without reading that “we are not doing a very good job”. Mark Oestreicher tells us in Youth Ministry 3.0 that
“The way we’re doing things is already not working. We are failing at our calling. And deep down, most of us know it.”
Kara Powel in Sticky Faith tells us that upwards of 70% of our youth leave our groups before grade 12. Book after book, study after study is saying the same thing: “We want to grow numerically, but we stink at it!”
Here is a simple formula that I hope will help: “The best way to grow is to keep what you’ve got”. I make the students from my Foundations of Youth Ministry class learn this saying for two reasons: 1. It is a super important principle for evangelism and numerical growth and 2. It is worth a whole point on their final exam.
Now, I don’t want to sound trite, nor do I want to underestimate the problem. However, I wonder if our thinking is sometimes muddled when it comes to the problem of keeping our youth in the church. We are so desirous to reach the outsider that we forget that the best way to grow is to keep what we’ve got.
My belief is that the average youth leader needs to chill just a bit on his/her evangelistic efforts and spend more time on ministering to and equipping the youth they already have for a life of long-term Christian living.
As I have said in previous blogs (and elsewhere) we need to focus on some factors that will greatly aid us in our efforts to ‘keep what we’ve got’. Here are some key areas to consider:
- Run a weekly meeting that is built on solid Christian content such as Bible study, prayer, worship and fellowship. Forget about the ‘high-energy-fun-drop-in-zone-in-the-name-of-Christ’. The concept is flawed, ineffectual and out of date.
- Set up a network of small groups that study the Bible with an older Christian. This group should seek to encourage each other as they go through the Bible systematically (as in ‘go through a book at a time’) instead of merely topic after topic. The group must not run for a few weeks at a time or change membership/leadership after a short period of time. Powell’s idea of “4+1” is helpful here- take a group from grade nine all the way through to the first year of university or work.
- Work at really building good relationships throughout the whole youth ministry. Youth to youth, leaders to leaders, leaders to youth, youth and leaders to the whole of the church. This will go a long way towards promoting longevity. The youth must regularly see Christians with grey (or no) hair. This is a lifetime gig, not a phase of life.
- Similarly, the youth must be folded into the life of a multigenerational congregation—even the newcomers. It must be a ‘given’ that once you begin to follow Christ, you do this in a group of people (even with those you may not normally associate with). Learning to worship with the oldies and anyone else for that matter, will equip youth to ‘stay with it’.
The bottom line is simply this: let’s work on retention first, evangelism second. In fact, if we can “keep what we’ve got”, my feeling is that numerical growth will naturally follow.
I’m in class the other day and I get hit with three questions back to back:
How do we disciple mixed up young men?
How do we minister to kids from broken families?
How do we help youth who are seeing way too much of the world at too early an age?
Wow—great questions, what a class (go YM 191!). In fact, if you can get the answers to these questions nailed shut, you’ve almost got a whole slab of effective youth ministry down tight.
These questions deserve much more than the brief on-the-spot answers restricted to one lecture and I spent the next couple of days mulling these over. Here’s what I’ve got…
Isn’t the most common thing we are dealing with breakdown of relationship? Certainly it is in the first two questions. Mixed up young men usually have some sort of ‘dad trouble’ lurking in the background. Not always, but quite often. The solid young men that I’ve met often have a solid family. Certainly those from broken homes have relational issues (obviously).
So, if we are trying to solve issues stemming from poor relationships, and, at the very heart of the issue, a broken relationship with God… then we must work for good relationships. That is the key! This may seem pretty basic and not that earth shattering but please remember what drives so much of our youth ministries—the desire to reach the lost through excitement and fun. This will never work because it is the wrong filler for the hole that exists in all of us.
What youth from a broken home needs more fun? What child who has been exposed to porn at way too early an age (there really is no acceptable age but you catch my drift) needs youth group games to straighten them out? The answer of course is … none!
The issue is that most youth today have that hole inside them that comes from some broken relationship either one that is a present reality (like at home) or one that is an existential reality (them and God). To fix this we must have a youth program that is built solidly around strong godly relationships.
I’m going to write more on small group discipleship in the coming weeks but consistent, dedicated small group Bible studies is the place to start. A godly older leader mentoring a group of younger Christians is a must. When a ‘youth with a relationship hole’ comes into youth group he/she should be thunderstruck by the holy relationships that are so evident in that group that they enter on the road to wholeness.
So is your group characterized by solid godly relationships? Are there good small groups? Are you the leader meeting regularly with your leadership team to build them up and have fellowship together? Does the group have a good relationship with the other members of the church?
Get these things right and wholeness will follow.
Well, the plum season is ending here in Saskatchewan (that’s Saskatchewan to my Aussie friends, not ‘So-scratch-yer-arm’ as they are prone to say). This is a sad day for us here in the great white north. Plums are awesome. In fact, fruit is awesome.
So, let’s talk a bit about fruit in youth ministry. Many of us, certainly those who are a bit older, have grown up with the thinking that “numbers are the sign of successful youth ministry”. My guess is many of you have moved on from this specious thinking (specious = shallow). It is not the number of plums that makes the tree (although it would be great to have zillions of them); it is the taste and excellence of the plum that matters. My guess is you’d rather have fewer tasty plums than lots of inedible ones.
It is time that we make the shift away from the old way of thinking about success (numbers) and adopt new ways of thinking about fruitful youth ministry. Your aim is not a lot of fruit lying on the ground rotting around the tree, but a rich harvest of excellence. With that in mind I want to give a few simple suggestions of what a ripe harvest may look like.
[Please realize that there are a whole bunch of ‘fruits’ that can and should be used to judge whether a ministry is successful. Also, there is the obvious list in Galatians 5, however, please allow me to go in a bit of a different direction. May I give you my list? Ok, here we go…]
Regular attendance. Do the kids in youth group attend regularly? If so, this is a great sign of fruitfulness in your group. I don’t need to tell you that we are now living in a world plagued by busyness. This dreaded disease is the number one pest attacking our fruit today. One of the main fruits we must aim for is youth committing to fellowship with one another in youth group instead of all the other possible activities on offer.
No texting in youth group. Following on from this, do the youth who attend put away their cell phones and refrain from texting, checking the Web etc.? We noticed in our group last year that the youth began by having cell phone in hand, after a month or two they kept them in their pockets. This is a good sign. Regularity in attendance and engagement in the program are two key fruits.
Prayer. Do the kids pray/offer prayer points in the prayer time? This is one of the best ‘barometers’ of success in youth ministry. If the kids are praying, they are connected to the mission and goals of the youth group.
A young adults ministry. Is there a College & Careers / Young Adults ministry that has formed due to the influx of ‘post-youth’ who have graduated from the youth group? This is the number one “plum” to show if your group is producing fruit. Sure, if you live in Eyebrow, Saskatchewan (yes, it does exist… just down the road from Elbow, Saskatchewan!) you probably won’t have a group due to young people moving out. But if you are in an urban center of any size, or have the possibility of local jobs or education some of your youth will stay around. If they all move out, are they giving life to a young adults group in another part of the country?
A healthy amount of leaders. Finally, are you developing a leadership team due to youth growing up and wanting to give back to the ministry? It is strange how many churches are running ‘numerically strong’ youth programs but see little to no youth move up to help out in leadership. Clearly a fruitful tree will produce leaders to keep tending the garden.
Let me encourage you to continually reflect on your program and work for real true fruit. Not simply the number of plums in the garden.
I’d been at my last church for only a few weeks and it was evident that some wholescale changes needed to be made to the youth program. Few were coming, few enjoyed it and even fewer were staying in the Christian faith past grade 10. However, it didn’t take long before I heard this question, “Have you asked the youth what they want to do in youth ministry?” In fact, I heard this question multiple times and it usually went like this, “Sure, all these changes you making may sound fine… but have you asked the children?”
It’s a funny question when you think about it. At that stage, I was in my late 40s, had been in youth ministry for over twenty years, had written and taught extensively on the subject… and I was supposed to ask the youth what we should be doing in youth group. It was as if they were the fountains of all things wise when it comes to effective discipleship and evangelism.
I need to say from the start that I like young people - I wouldn’t be in this game if I didn’t. And, I think young people can say some really awesome things. However, I’m not convinced that they should be the decision makers when it comes to a church’s program.
So, after being asked whether I’d “asked the youth” for the 18th time, I decided… well, to ask the youth! I sat down with a group of them and said “please write down on this piece of paper what you would like to have and do in this youth group. After a minute or so I collected all their answers—answers that I still have tucked away today. Here is what they wrote:
A big screen TV
A donut making machine
A big screen TV and a donut machine
A new youth leader who doesn’t think he knows everything like the present one!
Awesome stuff! Absolutely classic. Eight years later (after
five years in that youth group where some really great stuff happened), I’m
reading Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0. It’s an interesting book and,
while there are some ideas that I would avoid,
I think it is a necessary read for youth ministers today (I use it as a text in
my classes). On page 35 he talks about how “speculating” is one thing that
children and pre-teens are not able to do. They cannot “hypothesize”
Teens are notoriously self-focused and preoccupied with what will benefit them. They struggle with thinking through possible outcomes and they may find it difficult to make decisions that, while painful now, will bless the group long term. This will mean that wise leadership is a must when it comes to guiding where the youth group is going and what activities it consists of. An example of this may be what the group does on a Friday night. The old way was to have hockey and movie nights. A nice short-term option. However, when we changed to small group Bible studies, the group not only grew spiritually, but the numbers went through the roof as well. This was an option that the youth would rarely have come to on their own.
To leave the decision-making in the hands of youth is really not the wisest of options. In the end, let's remember what scripture says:
Train a child in the way he should go,?and when he is old he will not turn from it. (Prov. 22:6)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it … (2 Tim. 3:14)
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
While these verses may not directly be talking about how to make decisions in a youth group setting. I do think it is clear that we should be guiding and equipping youth to make wise and godly decisions. We have to show them how (and why) this is done. When they are a bit older (and more developed as young adults), we can involve them more of the decision making process.
To leave the decision making in the hands of youth is not only a dangerous mistake, it is also, common practice. It appears to be wise, and possibly even godly. However, given the fact that teens are just entering into the ability to speculate (if you agree with Oestreicher), a youth group based on what the youth want to do may end up being a group that revolves around little more than donuts and big screen TVs.
I spent most of my ministry life in Sydney, Australia. Now you need to know that Sydney is a great place to live. There is temperate weather, great beaches, awesome restaurants, great business / work opportunities and a vibrant arts scene. It is also a looooong way away from most other urban centers (the “tyranny of distance” as they say in Australia).
This means that the average student who graduates from High School tends to stay in Sydney for their tertiary education. Sure, some youth leave the big smoke and go elsewhere, but most don’t.
Contrast this with North America. When I was growing up it was just assumed that I would leave home after high school. I mean, why would anyone stay around? The cultural norm was to another place for a time of exploration, discovery and of course, an education. (The irony is that while one student leaves his home town to go elsewhere for a ‘better’ experience, another student is leaving her town to come to the first student’s home town for a similar ‘better’ experience!)
A few years back I worked for a large church in a city that is often voted as “the number one city in the world to live”. And yes, it certainly is a nice place to live. It also has one of the very best universities that this country has to offer. The funny thing was, the high school students were under pressure to go elsewhere for university. In fact, many felt that if they stayed in the number one city in the world and went to one of the very best universities in this city in the world that they were making a second-rate choice.
I spent hours telling these students to stay in their home city to study. I’ll share with you the four reasons why:
1. The track record of students who go away from home for university and stay Christian is very poor. If your relationship with Jesus is important to you, chances are you will be better off remaining where you are.
2. Leaving your support structure (family, church etc.) and this stage of your life may prove to be unhelpful. It is often a case of “too much too soon”. Leave this change for a few years when you start a new job or start post-graduate studies—you’ll be much better off.
3. Stay and help your church in the many ministries that it offers. Give a few years back to the church that helped you. As one parent once said to me, “The youth and children’s ministries are built on the backs of those youth who stay.
4. In my research, where you do your undergraduate studies is not nearly as important as where you do your studies after that. In the end, staying here will be cheaper, better for you spiritually and no worse for you educationally.
As I begin to wind up, let me share two interesting observations on the groups of youth I watched graduate from high school in my time in this “number one city”.
1. When I tried to convince parents of the wisdom of staying I was met with a wall of disbelief. “I want my 18 year old to go off and explore the world just like I did” was often their response. I’m not all that sure that this response rings with spiritual maturity.
2. There was often a sense of relief from many of the students when they were encouraged to stay home to go to university. One student said to me “I do not want to go to the other side of the country for four years. I’m only 17. Why do my parents keep insisting that I should—don’t they care?”
3. Without a doubt, those who stayed for university were better off than those who left. We have heard horror story after horror story from our once godly grads who went away for their studies. Sure, one or two really found their feet and were blessed by their time away, however, they seemed to be the exception that proves the rule.
So, the bottom line is simply this: maybe the Christian community needs to keep reassessing cultural norms and go against the trend for the health of our youth.