Back in 2020, I wrote an piece for Youth Specialties on 5 youth ministry fixtures that need to die. Click here to read that article. Now it's time to kill 5 more fixtures!
Youth ministry is still a fairly modern development within the church. Based on my research, we have had specialized ministry to teenagers for around 150 years. Considering the church has been around for 2,000 years, youth ministry is the equivalent to one of the middle schoolers in your church.
Just like the students in your middle school ministry, we are still trying to figure out how to do life, what is acceptable, and what is off limits. We are in that pushing boundaries time of development, but we are also in that time when some parts of our life are beginning to settle. And if we don’t watch it, we might settle into the wrong cement. Similar to a 7th grader, we need to ask ourselves if this is what we want our lives to look like when we become adults.
Of course, like all metaphors, that concept breaks down at some levels. Most of your middle schoolers probably aren’t thinking quite like that, but that is how they are approaching life. Most of them are just trying to figure out who they are. Similarly, we need to figure out who we are as youth pastors and youth ministries.
So, here are five more youth ministry fixtures that I believe need to die soon…
Programs are not all bad, but our pragmatic thinking has led many ministries to just keep doing it the same way we’ve always done it. And what is that way? Programs. If we see a problem, many of us begin to think of how we can build a program to fix it. And before we know it, our ministry is nothing but a bunch of programs. Kyle Idelman said, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” So what are you winning students with? Is it a big program or event, or is it relationships–with God, leaders, and their peers? Think about what you want students to do longterm. If it’s attend a program, then keep going. But if you want to call them to something bigger, then don’t let programs be your driving force. In fact, think about this approach: Only have a program when it is truly the best/only option.
I remember being at the church all the time when I was a teenager. My parents were happy that I had devoted so much of my life to God, but they also didn’t see me nearly as much. Are we doing the same thing for students today? Are we flooding their calendars with events and then expecting them to be there all the time? How are they supposed to do their homework, pursue hobbies, and spend time with their families? Even better, how are they supposed to spend time with others, seeking opportunities to share Jesus, if we have flooded their calendars? On top of this, they need some space to explore their own faith instead of just what they experience at church and youth group–praying and reading on their own. If you have more than 2-3 events a week for your ministry, maybe it’s time to rethink what you’re doing (and also see the above point about program-based ministry).
Are you ready to get controversial? Here we go! Most of us would say our goal is to help teenagers build lifelong faith that impacts those around them. And yet, all of the major research with young adults who are committed Christians point to other elements as more important than youth services: things like serving, small groups, and intergenerational worship. I’m not saying you have to kill your youth service altogether, but be willing to do it. Maybe there is a time and place for it in your ministry, but my guess is that, for many of you, it isn’t producing the fruit you want. Instead, what if you spent more time getting students involved in the main church worship service instead of doing your own, serving inside/outside the church instead of just in the youth group, and into small groups with trusted adults who care for them? It is important to note I am not saying get rid of all youth group nights, but maybe it doesn’t have to look like a traditional youth worship service anymore. Getting teenagers together is still important, but feel the freedom to change it up! And if it’s not working at all, and you’re just doing it because that’s how it’s always been done, be ready to kill it.
I don’t know how many times I have logged onto a youth ministry online group on a late Sunday or Wednesday afternoon (when most churches have their student ministry programs), and someone is asking for game suggestions or even sermon ideas. We have to be better than this. Our teenagers, teams, and families deserve better. I strongly suggest that you think at least six months ahead at all times with more details a month out, and fully planned one week ahead. Yes, it is important to leave yourself some room to make changes when the inevitable curve ball comes your way, but we have to stop winging it. This will not only leave you room to be more strategic and creative, but it will help you get others involved. It also helps the parents of your students. And it will allow you to build something. My advice for this is to take a day or two, grab a calendar, pray, and start filling in the blanks. Then start working backwards. For some of you, you should also mark dates for everything that needs to be done ahead of time, so you don’t forget. If you need help on this, please reach out to someone you think is already good at it, and ask for assistance.
Forgetting about Self
For most of us, I would presume we got into student ministry out of our love for God and for teenagers. Further, I believe many of us are constantly focused on improving our ministry, learning more about teens, and growing as youth workers. That’s a great thing! But where are you in your own relationship with God? How much time do you focus on improving that first love (Revelation 2:4)? We need you to stay strong in Christ! Don’t forget all the things you know you need to do: all the spiritual disciplines/habits. Not only do your students and families need you to model it for them, you need it for yourself. Our flesh is only so strong. We will run out of gas. We need the Holy Spirit’s power! So be sure to spend regular time with God daily, don’t neglect your day off (Sabbath), and consider taking an extended time each year to get away for a couple days of renewal. Consider using the “do not disturb” function on your phone more often. Get yourself a spiritual mentor. Do whatever it takes, because if you want to last in student ministry, you can’t forget about yourself and your own relationship with God.
I know some of these are a bit more controversial, but I am here for you all. And honestly, I’m shouting all of this at myself too. I need to make sure I don’t get sucked into a program-based youth service-only ministry that floods the calendar. I need to keep planning ahead, and I definitely need to not forget God along the way. It’s so easy to fall into bad habits, though. If you struggle, maybe it’s time to look toward getting a ministry coach, mentor, and/or accountability partner. And if I can be of any assistance, please feel free to reach out.