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…
I have done a lot of things in (almost) 30 years of youth ministry. I have done youth ministry full time, part time, and volunteer time.
My heart really goes out to those of you who are volunteer youth leaders. This is a tough gig at the best of times. You are trying to run a solid youth group without the luxury of time. You have to face the pinch of wanting to give this group your all and yet, you have a life (and a fulltime job) aside from this group. This is hard, hard work. However, today, it is even more difficult than it has ever been. In addition to all the normal trials that go with being a volunteer youth leader, you have to face the additional (nutty) busyness of youth today.
It can be extra hard for the volunteer youth leader to make their group the best it can be in this climate. When you have spent your time and energy preparing youth group and committed yourself to be there week by week, there are few things more disheartening than your youth group kids skipping out on your program simply because they are too busy or chose something less important to do.
In the end, there are really only two practical things you can do when dealing with these issues as a volunteer: You must seek the help of the senior pastor and you must enlist the support of the parents. The senior pastor needs to back you up both privately and from the pulpit. They need to advocate your cause at every turn and help people see the importance of commitment to others. You also need parents to show their support through scheduling your youth group in, and other secular activities out during youth group time. This is a tough call in today’s world, but sacrifices made for Christian fellowship are always worth it.
Oh yeah, and you need to keep praying that your youth show godly wisdom in committing themselves to the group and not their individual desires.
Press on you volunteers…your labor in the Lord is not in vain! (1 Cor. 15:58)
I’ve just had a great chat with a parent. He asked me the question, “How do I teach my boys the Bible? When I ask them their thoughts on a passage each week at family devotions they just stare blankly and don’t say anything.”
Great question, and I can’t believe it, but I quick as a flash of exploding gunpowder came up with… of all things… a hunting illustration. Now you must realize that I’m not a hunter. If there was a nuclear winter or a zombie apocalypse or it would be all over for Kenny & Julie (although I could see her grab that Navajo spear we have hanging on our wall and go stalk some game). Basically, as soon the local grocery store ran out of canned food. I’d be … err, toast.
But when I think of it, hunting and Bible study has a number of things in common.
Let me explain.
Some of us have grown up with a bizarre strategy of reading a section of Scripture with a group of youth and then leaving it up to them to figure out what the Bible is saying. Often, we have been taught a strategy built around asking a number of questions like “What do you think verse 12 means? Why do you think Jesus said this? What does the writer mean by righteousness?” etc. etc. Now think of it… this is not a wise (nor Biblical) strategy*. Most youth that I have met are simply not equipped for serious hermeneutics (Biblical interpretation) without a good bit of help beforehand.
Nor is the “ask a bunch of questions and hope for the right answer” a strategy that you would put into practice in almost any other field. Let’s go back to huntin’. Here in Saskatchewan there are tons of animals around and, you guessed it, huntin’ is quite the pastime. You would never hand your son a rifle, a handful of bullets and say “how do you think you load this thing and shoot an animal?” Crazy isn’t it. You would talk him through the parts of the rifle, how to load it, gun safety, how to aim and gently squeeze the trigger etc. The goal is, of course, that later on he can handle it himself and teach others as well.
However, think of what we often do with God’s word. We hand young people this awesome, but let’s face it, sometimes difficult to understand book and say “figure it out”. In thirty years of youth ministry experience I can assure you that the average young teen is just not equipped to deal with a series of questions based on a Bible text—especially when the feel any degree of discomfort or pressure. No wonder they simply grunt and answer, or stare into space.
The solution is quite simple; we must not be ashamed to teach young people the Bible. I mean open it up and explain it to them. Here is a simple formula:
Step 1. Read the passage
Step 2. If you wish, ask three simple questions:
1. Are there any parts of this passage that impact you straight away?
2. Is there anything that is confusing in this passage of Scripture?
3. Does this passage remind you of any other parts of the Bible?
Step 3. Go through what the text is saying and teach the youth what it says.
Step 4 You may want to discuss any applications from this passage.
Now I must say that there are some excellent ‘inductive’ methods or templates for letting youth unpack the Bible (i.e. give this passage a title, write down the three main points from this passage, write down as many practical applications as you can etc.). This, however, is a much different strategy from simply a barrage of questions. [Btw, for youth leaders out there: young people speaking in Bible study isn’t really the measure of success we are looking for. Sure, it is a good and helpful thing, but in the end, we are looking for things like “do they remember the word and put it into practice?” “Do they store God’s word in their hearts?” And even “Do they keep coming back?!”
In the end the point is simple, don’t be afraid to teach young people what the Bible says. Our success is to be seen in what happens down the road, not whether we have a good short-term discussion.
Hope that helped that dad I was chatting with.
*Remember Priscilla and Aquila in Acts 18:26—they took Apollos aside and explained the Bible to him. Reflect also on Paul’s words to Timothy in 2 Timothy 3:14-16.
In the youth groups that I’ve helped run, we’ve seen an interesting thing happen—let’s call it the “just show up principle”. It seems that in many of our churches all the youth need to do is to simply attend, and most people are satisfied. Here are the words of a young man in grade 12 during my time in Vancouver, “It didn’t take much for us to impress the adults. Before you changed things all we had to do was to show up to church once in a while and everyone was happy. If we did anything in the service everyone was ecstatic!” This is the ‘just show up principle’ that seems to be common in churches. If the youth simply show up, everyone thinks something big is going on. These same churches then scratch their heads and wonder why a large number of youth stop going to church after a few years or develop into spiritually malnourished adults.
It is crucial that good youth ministry changes this. We must place expectations of godliness on the youth (reading the Bible and putting it into practice, coming to youth group regularly, going to church, loving the newcomer etc.) and strive to see 1 Timothy 4:12 & 2 Timothy 2:22 in action. This has always been my goal. And, as I’ve done this, I’ve seen two different responses. One response is that a number of young people rise to the occasion and actually walk the walk, take Jesus seriously and grow in their faith. However, there is another response from the youth—and opposite reaction to growing in their faith. Many youth don’t actually want to be all that godly. They are content with simply showing up and not taking Jesus with much degree of seriousness. These youth tend to drop out of the group or slowly fade away as time goes by.
Now, please hear me, I’m not saying that their leaving is a good thing. Far from it. However, this doesn’t mean that we simply adopt the “just show up and we’ll all be happy principle”. We must shape our youth ministries to encourage and equip godly behavior. In fact, this must be the expectation placed on those who claim to want to follow Jesus. Think Jesus and the Rich Young Ruler - Jesus places godly demands on him, the young man walks.
The one great thing is, when the godly rise to the challenge, everyone wins and the program begins to hum. Bible study is appreciated, worship is hearty, prayer is expected and desired and evangelism is seen as crucial.
So, in short, here is what I’m saying:
-Placing godly expectations on your youth group is a wise, Biblical thing to do (eg. Colossians 1:28).
-Realize that there will be two different reactions (eg. Luke 18:18-25).
-While one will be sad and somewhat painful, the other will be glorious, and, offsets the negative.
Well it’s cold outside—too cold for any sanity (the weatherman err, person, says it could hit the -40s with wind chill). -40 is insane, in anyone’s language. However, let me see if I can hit the right keys and produce a sane document (just for the record, I am indoors and I have my beanie on. To my Canadian friends, my toque).
But that is not the point of this paper. I want to focus our thoughts on discipleship. Discipleship is at the top of all our lists when it comes to our goals for ministry. It sits right next to its brother, evangelism. We all want to see young people discipled—we want them to be strong, passionate followers of Jesus who are equipped to take on the changes and chances of this fleeting world.
But, do we really do it? As I think through what discipleship is, and how we do it… and even when I chat with experienced youth leaders, it seems that our thinking may be a bit muddled. It is here that I want to give a plug for a great book— it is Bill Hull’s The Complete Book of Discipleship. This is a masterful treatment of the subject (be warned, it is not a book you skim through in an hour or so- it is indeed, meat not milk).
Hull gives a very clear, simple and effective understanding on what discipleship is. He also gives us a real jab, more of a 2x4 upside our collective heads to get discipleship right.
“Simply, discipleship means learning from and following a teacher. However, while we can define discipleship in these simple terms, something about the discipleship movement has never quite made it into the heart of the church. I find it particularly puzzling that we struggle to put disciple-making at the center of ministry even though Jesus left us with the clear imperative to ‘make disciples.’ (p. 24)
Following, however, isn’t short term. Discipleship isn’t a program or an event; it’s a way of life. It’s not for a limited time, but for our whole life . . . . Discipleship isn’t just one of the things the church does; it is what the church does. (p. 24)
Hull reminds us that discipleship is simply teaching people to follow Jesus. It is not simply enough to turn to the Christ in one impassioned ‘spiritual moment’ after a fiery sermon. We don’t simply go down the front of church to say a prayer and then move on. We deny ourselves, take up the cross of Christ and follow him to death.
It seems that we are so focused on numerical growth through evangelism that we have dropped the ball when it comes to helping those converts actually follow the one they have converted to.
Discipleship is not about attending a young person’s sporting event or having pizza with someone to ‘hear their story’. Hey, these are awesome, excellent things to do and may assist or flow from discipleship. However, discipleship, at its heart, is teaching someone the scriptures. It is opening up the manual and unpacking it for someone who wants to follow the master who wrote it. We must do this unashamedly, wisely and make it the key plank of our youth program.
More thoughts on this to come… I’ll leave you with some tasty Hull quotes.
Unfortunately non-discipleship ‘Christianity’ dominates much of the thinking of the contemporary church. In addition to sucking the strength from the church, Christianity without discipleship causes the church to assimilate itself into the culture. And sadly, whenever the difference between the church’s and culture’s definition of morality ceases to exist, the church loses its power and authority. (p. 16)
In particular, the church in America has superseded the theoretical for pragmatism, creating a marketplace model of church and society. This isn’t a new phenomenon. Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who toured America in the 1800s and recorded his impressions, said, ‘Where you expected to find a priest, you found a politician—or a salesperson.’ (p. 27)
This post is going to be slightly bleak. Well, in all honesty it may be a downright ‘bleakfest’. It is not that I’m in a bad mood or tend to be a negative person. Far from it in fact. There is beautiful snow on the ground, the day is bright and sunny and the Christmas break is right around the corner.
However, I think today’s post will still be bleak.
We’ve always had a pool. We could rely on this pool. Whenever, things looked a bit grim, we could rely on this pool to bring us support and refreshment. However, this pool is drying up. The well has run dry.
Translation: I grew up with a culture that supported Christianity. In fact, it was expected that you were a Christian, with the exception of my many Jewish friends. We were all ‘god fearers’. Very few people that I knew had no religion or one of those religions from “over there” (far away). This type of culture meant that we had a large pool of support for church and especially youth ministry. In those days you could put on almost anything and youth would show up.
The well has run dry and the pool is now filled with skaters
With Christianity in the culture there is goodwill (everyone’s parents/grandparents go or went to church). Those days are gone, long gone. This means that this mythical well where we could always count on support is now dry. In fact, in many places the culture is downright hostile to our faith and our pool, which was once cool and refreshing, is dry and filled with skaters (not that I’m knocking skaters, it just made for a good metaphor!).
In Australia, kids used to flock to the children’s programs on a Sunday morning. That, in the most part, is no longer part of society. However, Sydney is in revival mode when you compare it to Vancouver or the other major Canadian centers. Youth aren’t flocking to youth events. You can’t put on any activity and count on the support from parents, grandparents and the surrounding culture. The goodwill we once had is long gone.
But you know what? - that ain’t such a bad thing. I can’t help but wonder if our previous ‘success’ was nothing more than culture merely showing us its hand. It was acceptable to believe in God, go to Christian events and participate in a youth group. However, was our success really all that successful? (Think Christian Smith’s “Moral Therapeutic Deism”- is that what we produced?)
When we look to markings of success, we tend to look to the amount of youth who come to our groups, go on our camps/mission trips, get baptized or confirmed or simply raise their hands or go forward at a youth event.
The real marks of success are longevity. Do our kids go the distance? Do we develop leaders coming from within the group who can carry it on? Do we have youth moving to other places and stay strong and bless their new community while away from home?
With the pool drying up, we now have to rethink the way we do youth ministry. We no longer have the backing we once had. This means we must change. This may/should/could also mean that we become much more effective in what we do.