Back in the days that “Youth Ministry” was a central part of my job description, I used to feel bad that I didn’t fit the mold of “youth ministry guy.” You know – the overgrown, hyper-energetic, guitar playing, extraverted, always fun person – who stereotypically fills the role? I was a fairly quiet, introverted, academic type. My youth groups never had the huge blow out events. We never numbered in the hundreds – or anywhere close.
A couple of times I actually prayed something like, “God, make me more exciting so I can draw in more youth!” But my prayer was only half-hearted. I was – and remain – fairly content with my personality type. What I’ve done instead is shift the way I evaluate a youth ministry.
There are lots of ways to evaluate the quality of the youth ministry. Quite a few judge quality on the basis of quantity:
- How many members?
- How many regulars?
- How many conversions?
- How many programs/activities?
All of these can be good things. Unfortunately, each (as we judge them) can be completely irrelevant.
Instead of basing my evaluation on numbers, I ask the question, “Where will these kids be in ten years? Will what our ministry does with them now have any lasting influence? Will it stick with them – even a little – through the college years? Will it shape their families and career path?” I’m happy to say that ten years out of my last youth ministry job there is some lasting fruit. It still breaks me heart that there’s not more (also when I read stories like this).
“Fruit that lasts” sounds pretty biblical, doesn’t it? So why do we stick with the numbers game? I can think of a few reasons:
- Numbers are biblical also. In the Book of Acts we’re repeatedly told of thousands coming to faith.
- Numbers appeal to our egos. We can easily visualize them and compare them with others.
- The vast numbers of people in youth ministry who are insecure and think (too often rightly) that the church they work for doesn’t consider their work to be real work, feel the need to justify their measly little salary. “Why are we paying you the big bucks [20 – 30 k with no benefits] to have fun with just a handful of kids?”
- Numbers are something we can measure NOW. Who knows where we’ll be in ten years? We probably won’t even remember these kids.
So how do you do youth ministry if you’re looking for fruit ten years out? I’m far from an expert, but here are some ideas:
- Give the kids what they need, not just what they want. Matt Friedeman says the same thing. The problem is, kids know what they want right now – but they rarely know what they want for their lives as a whole. As people who are – or ought to be – at least a few steps ahead of them in terms of spiritual maturity, we can have a better understanding of what they’ll want from a whole life point of view.
- How do you know what they need? First, pray your socks off. Second, converse with them. Rely on your maturity to know what to do with what they tell you.
- At the same time, make the kids partners in their own spiritual development. Let them know what you’re doing. Help them to grasp the big picture. A key way to do this is to involve them in the ministry so they can be part of the same process in the lives of others.
- Continually challenge them. Sure, they’re only youth. So what? Get them into the bible. Get the bible into them. Teach them that God calls his people to be his Kingdom agents.
- Relate to them not merely in formal settings (i.e., group meetings and scheduled events), but also in normal life. Help them to see and understand “ordinary” life from a Christian point of view.
- Let them see your heart. They generally will anyway – you can’t hide it from them. If you’re in it for the money, they’ll know. (While youth ministry rarely pays a living wage, there are enough insecure people filling the ranks who think they’ve invested too much in it and couldn’t possibly do anything else.) Show them how much you love them. Show them how much your heart is broken for them and their peers.
- Reinforce your own ignorance. Ignorance is normal. Advanced degrees only expand ignorance – they don’t eradicate it. When your kids hear your own admission of ignorance, and see that you (at your exalted stage of spirituality) still have significant distance to cover, they’ll be more likely to have realistic expectations for themselves, and won’t give up at the first sign of failure.
- Following closely on the last point, fail frequently. I don’t mean that you should SIN frequently (I’m not making the same point Staupitz did to young man Luther). Failure is a normal part of life. They need to see us obeying God whether it “works” or not.
- Still following closely – we need to demonstrate – not just say – what it means to takeup our crosses daily. Even though Jesus has defeated the powers of sin, death and hell in his death and resurrection, the Christian life is no mere walk in the park. The world is still a dangerous place. If we can hold together a healthy sense of our own fragility, a sense of the danger of the world, AND a sense of the awesome role God calls us to in life, we will be able to stay weak, humble and usable.
- Finally, (and I recognize many more things are needed) don’t do it alone. This has always been my greatest error. I know by observation that I’m not alone in making this error. In the short term its almost always easier to do it all myself. In the long term I cheat the kids, cheat the church, cheat the ministry as a whole, and wear myself out. The kids need multiple role models. They need to see multiple ways of following Jesus. The ministry needs the wisdom of several people of diverse experience with God.