Over the past 12 years, I’ve had the blessing of working within a church context in student ministry. If you also count my volunteer time and internships, I have about 15 years worth of experience. That’s just crazy! How did I get to that point?
Wait… I’m already getting off-topic…
One thing I have realized over those years is that every church does ministry different. It’s something I have also seen expressed within the Student Ministry Podcast. Each youth worker I interview does it differently. Some put their middle school and high school students together for a weekly program. Others have separate classes for each grade. Some split up student by sex for their small groups, and others don’t have set discussion groups at all.
Beyond that, there are some churches that have official youth group programs that meet every week while others do not meet every week. Further, there are some churches that don’t have official student ministry programs at all due to their philosophy of ministry, lack of people/funding, or other reasons altogether.
Why do I bring this up? Great question! I’m glad you asked!
I’ve lately been asking myself: what is the point in programming? I mean, youth group is great! I really enjoy getting a bunch of teenagers together to have fun by playing games, worshipping God, and discussing the Bible. But doesn’t it get overwhelming at times? Each week, it takes a lot of time and effort to put together one two-hour program. Others of you, like me, have two of those — middle school and high school. And then you have all the coordination of your teams and everything else.
Don’t get me wrong! I absolutely love youth group. But what if we are missing the point with it?
I’ve found that it is really easy to start focusing on the program. It quickly becomes the thing we are preparing for all week. Between the message, games, music, group discussion questions, etc., our ministry lives start to circle the program.
Further, we start to think about numbers. Who is there this week? Who’s not there this week? Why is our attendance going down? Why did this student pick sports or something else over our program? Why aren’t we getting more students to come to our church?
Did you catch that? I did!
So much of what we do seems to be centered around how we can get students to us and our building. Maybe that once worked just fine, but here we are in the 21st century. Most teenagers I know aren’t going to wander into a church just because it’s a church. Most students aren’t going to pick a youth group program over something else, because — let’s be honest — our “show” is never going to be better than something else the world has to offer.
What do we have that is different, though? We have Jesus. Yes, I know — the Sunday school answer. But it’s true! It’s the only thing that sets the church a part from all other social organizations and groups.
The problem is that most teens aren’t going to naturally join a church because they are looking for Jesus. Yet, we still build programs that are designed to attract students to us. While that model in and of itself isn’t wrong, I think for most churches, it’s backward. Instead of trying to draw students into the church, we need to be bringing Jesus to them!
So, how do we go about doing this? I’m still trying to figure it out. But I do know it comes down to relationships.
For many communities, though, the days are gone when you could just visit students at school for lunch or lead a Bible study on school property. Also, for many of us, we get weird looks when we show up to school events or the like. So, how do we gain opportunities to share Jesus with some new student?
I think one of the ways to accomplish this is through the students you already have attending. I don’t mean this as a copout. As ministers, we need to start viewing our jobs in the full view of discipleship. Not only are we called to help students and families understand Jesus and grow in relationship with Him, we are also called to send them out to do likewise. As Jesus sent us, we are to send others. So train up students to be evangelists and disciple-makers. Give them some time to practice, and then let God work through them to reach their peers.
But don’t forget to model it for them too! If we’re asking them to reach out and share Jesus with others, we need to be doing it ourselves! Far too often, we tell others they should be reaching out to their friends, neighbors, etc. but we sit back in our office and wonder why they aren’t doing it. Hmmm… Why aren’t you doing it?
The church cannot sit back and hope people just come to us. We have to connect with the school and community to build relationships. When was the last time you volunteered for a school or community event? If the schools and teens do not naturally trust us, we need to build trust over time by showing up and helping out in the name of Jesus. And here’s the thing. The goal is not to win people to get them to come to your church. Your job is just to be Jesus to others, and let God take care of the rest. Sure, if a conversation sparks up, don’t ignore an opportunity to invite, but that’s not the end-goal.
We have a lot of fantastic youth ministry programs, but when I look at the Bible, I don’t see Jesus and the early church leaders drawing in a crowd because of their amazing program. I see them going to the people, building relationships, and living life together. Programs are cool, but they cannot be the only thing we are doing, because there are a ton of students who are never going to be attracted to our church just because of some cool music, flashy lights, a sermon, and food. They will and have found something else.
Now, I understand some of you don’t even have an office. Maybe most of you don’t have the privilege of the youth room with lights, speakers, projectors, etc. We don’t either. But I know it’s something you often desire. I do. Maybe even the thought of “If only we had…” goes through your head like it does mine. Please stop thinking that way. You are in an amazing spot right now where you don’t have as many distractions. Keep it that way! Even if your church grows and your budget increases, don’t get caught up in having to have it all!
If we truly care about the next generation, we have to go to them, and we have to train our current students to go to them. We cannot just sit back and hope they come to us.
What does this do for your weekly schedule? What does this do to your office time? What does this do for all your meetings? Yeah, it wrecks your schedule! It has wrecked mine! But to be honest, I’ve never led anyone to Jesus by sitting in my office and doing paperwork.
The other day, on Carey Nieuwhof’s Leadership Podcast (episode 83), I heard Ravi Zacharias quote John Stott. He said, “The day the pastor’s study door sign was replaced by the pastor’s office, something changed.” While you may not think this is a significant difference, I believe it is. Our place at the church should be a place where we can study God’s word in preparation to teach it, but it has become something else that is often overwhelmed with administrative tasks.
Now, before all the office admins and senior pastors (are any of you actually reading my blog??) start throwing pitchforks, hear me out! Yes, I know the modern church is an organization, and organizations need people to keep office hours, complete paperwork, and hold some meetings. However, where can you cut back? What are some areas of your ministry that aren’t really ministry? Where are some times in your schedule when you can stop what you’re doing that is good and do something that is greater?
For some this, might be cutting back on your own lesson/message writing and turning to a curriculum once in a while. I love writing my own stuff, and if I had more time, I would probably write all my youth lessons myself. But there are some other great writers out there who help me by getting the ball rolling. That frees me up to spend more time with people instead of trying to come up with new ways to teach the Bible to teenagers. It also frees me up to just be in our community and observe teenagers, studying them to know how I can reach them better for Christ.
Maybe even doing something like moving your “office” operations to a local coffee shop, restaurant, or public park could be a good first step. Instead of being stuck by yourself all day, you at least have a chance to build relationships with store owners and maybe other people who come in throughout the day. If we want to have an impact on those around us, we need to actually be around other people and put ourselves in positions for God to use us. And as I said just a moment ago, a move like this helps us observe and study people. If we’re not in connection with people outside our church, we’re not going to be very effective in teaching them about Jesus when they do walk in the door.
I know many of you might be saying, “Yeah, this is great in concept, but my elders are going to freak out if I tell them I’m going to cut back a program or not be in the office as much.” I understand. It’s not always easy to make necessary changes. But at the end of the day, what truly matters? I’ve been in ministry too long to just sit back and do what others think youth ministry should look like. I have been called by God to reach this next generation and their families, and that is what I am going to do.
So, fellow student ministers… Are you with me?