Growing a Youth Ministry That Looks Like Your Church

Originally published August 15, 2009.

This title may sound like a “duh” but hang with me a bit.

I know no one intentionally grows the youth ministry to be separate from the church but this has become a problem in youth ministry.  Much has been written about the problems of age-segregated programming in church life.  I don’t need to rehash that here.  Anyone who has read a youth ministry blog is well aware of this without having to read more about it.  Growing a youth ministry that looks like your church is more than that problem of separation.  The problem is having a passion-filled youth ministry that is one way and the church family operating in a different passion.  For example if your youth ministry is an outreach youth ministry, your church needs to also be an outreach church.  The entire church family is needed to be supporting those teens who are coming in.  The support has to come from more than just the youth group wing.

The first thing to correct this separation or continue the course you are on is to find out why you were hired or nominated?  Do you know why the committee or pastoral staff thought you were a fit for this particular church family?  There was something about you that the church wanted.


Johnny Robertson, a United Methodist pastor who just hired a youth pastor, said he relies heavily on an applicant’s references before bringing an applicant in for an interview.  During the interview process, he looks for desirable traits of character, faith maturity, social skills and work habits. These four traits are considered above actual work experience as he feels that these are internal to one’s makeup to teach.  Another UMC pastor, Carness Vaughan of Central UMC of Rogers, Arkansas, said they feel they can teach organizational skills and volunteer recruitment so they are looking for someone passionate about “walking closely to Christ and a passion for loving kids into a relationship with Christ.”

Another senior pastor, Jay Foley of Community Christian Fellowship of Siloam Springs, Arkansas, said he looks for someone who loves “the church (whatever its form or flavor) is the Bride and Body of Christ.”  Another important trait is someone who “is holistic in his/her understanding of the local congregation–a person who is definitely called and equipped (the order is important) to minister to youth, but at the same time understands that he or she is a part of a pastoral team and that together we work to equip the saints for the work of ministry.  He specifically does not want someone who uses “a post-modern persona to justify a ‘I’m the only one qualified to understand how to do youth ministry’ and someone who doesn’t view the whole of Christianity with one brush stroke and “not some specialist who either doesn’t know how, or doesn’t want to minister to anyone over twenty one.”

Perhaps your church used the contemplative practice of Liturgy of Discernment or something similar to decide on you.  This is a prayer practice that Mark Yaconelli introduced to the youth ministry world in his teaching and book on contemplative youth ministry.  In a nutshell, it is a prayer practice designed for committees/staffs (communal) to lead them in decision-making in the work of the church ministry.  That would be quite the blessing to find out if this is the way you were hired or nominated, wouldn’t it?

Either way you were hired or nominated, you came into this new role with your education and your youth ministry library of knowledge of how you want to do youth ministry.  Truly, this is probably why you were hired or nominated.  When you were asked questions during the interview process you gave the answers based on your knowledge of how you want to do youth ministry.  This is a youth ministry vision you have spent many hours praying for and asking God to birth in you.  The answers to the hiring committee’s questions came easy because this is something you deeply know and deeply believe in.

Yet somewhere in here is where the disconnect happens.  The youth ministry you want to do somehow becomes something that doesn’t look anything like the church family of which the youth ministry is a part.  This is especially so, if the youth ministry you introduce has the mentality of being a segregated arm of the church family.

How long was it until you realized how little of your youth ministry education didn’t truly apply to your real church situation?  How long was it until you realized that the youth ministry plans in books you’ve read didn’t fit into your everyday situation?   We all chuckle at this awareness and wonder out loud how our professors and these great authors think they’ve got youth ministry figured out.  Some of us even love to bash these youth ministry greats because it gives us a chance to share our practiced wisdom.

Despite knowing that these youth ministry greats don’t have a clue what your local situation looks like, we still rely heavily on their wisdom.  We read, learn, and try these methods.  We know the goal that we want.  We also know the day-to-day real life situation.  So a new idea is tried, maybe an idea which you read about from a book or heard about at a youth conference.   But we forget that the youth ministry is a part of your church–not a part of these other churches.  And because we are the experts, people get behind us and the idea.

A hero of mine, Brian Farmer of First Baptist in Salisbury, NC, has just completed 21 years in one church.  I’m only at 19 years at my church.  In writing for Wild Frontier about his 20 years, he said “One of the reasons given for the short stay for many student ministers is that they have a ‘packaged ministry’ that is good for 2 to 3 years at most.  When all of the elements have been used, it is time to move on.  If you stay in one place for a long time, you have to continually search to be fresh and of substance or you will not be ministering.”  You can easily see this situation and how people got behind the ideas because of the expert but the ideas didn’t match what is happening with the church family.

You have been matched to lead a youth ministry at your church.  All of the books, resources and youth ministry conferences are good and necessary.  That knowledge just needs to be filtered through what the vision of your church is and applied only if it will grow the youth ministry to look like your church.

Honestly sometimes it is the senior pastors who push for a type of church-family-segregated program.  Senior pastors have also read all of their books, have their seminary training, and their conferences just like us.  Senior pastors sometimes don’t think through all of the ramifications of offering the new and better alternative youth ministry which they have learned about.  Senior pastors don’t think these ramifications all the way through because they’ve got you to do that.  What they do know is they want their church teens safe in the faith.  They’ve relegated all that application to the specialist they’ve hired/nominated.  In doing that they’ve indirectly segregated you from the church family.  As one former youth pastor confessed to me, he let his senior pastor pigeon-hole him into an entertainment youth ministry even though he knew in his soul he wanted to move to a more church family-based youth ministry.

Another problem is us.  In the history of youth ministry, many senior pastors have extended grace to their youth workers for their crazy ideas trusting that you know what you are doing.  It may not jive with the practices of the church or the church vision, but there is a trust in you that you know what you are doing.  But do we always?

We’ve all heard this common youth worker whine, “This is going to get me fired…” The “this” is a large variable of ideas.  Whether this comment is made at a youth worker network meeting or a volunteer staff meeting, it is said because too many of us love the role of rebel or instigator.  We love stirring things up for the kingdom of God in radical ways.  Which we should do but why does doing that give the feeling that you may get fired?  And why is there a bit of pride behind that flippant statement?  This is a favored tension by too many youth workers and furthermore this role of rebel or instigator is beloved and respected by peers.  This does not make it right though.  If you believe in your soul that you are to be a rebel or instigator in the local church, work for a church that has a senior pastor who also feels that is his/her role.  These do exist.

So how do you grow a youth ministry that looks like your church?

  1. Start by finding out why you were hired or nominated.  Let this research be a reminder of the parts of you that the committee or pastoral staff believed in about you.  Write those qualities down and then spend some time finding your current self in those qualities.  Have you strayed?  Have you changed?  Has your plan for youth ministry changed?  Did the church get the wrong perception of you in the beginning?  Does it turn out that you have theological differences with the church?   What is repairable?
  2. Find out or remind yourself what your church is.  What are the prominent practices of the church?  Every church is part of the Church of your community but what are the particular characteristics of your church?  How does your youth ministry reflect your church?  Make a list and compare.   Your church has a special role to play in the entire Church of your community.  Is your youth ministry reflecting this?
  3. When you do want to make a change, invite your senior pastor, the pastoral staff, the elders, and/or the volunteer staff to join you.  You don’t need to go through all this to make the decision to teach a unit on Old Testament heroes or to plan the summer camp.  But if you are feeling God’s leading to include parents more or to start small groups or to start a paintball ministry, invite your church leaders to join you in this decision-making.  One of the best practices to do this right is through the Liturgy of Discernment.  This practice can be a great platform for you and your leadership to grow together more.You need to remain pliable during this process.  As a church leadership team takes the steps to discern, the decision may be that the youth ministry should not go in that direction.  Maybe you did hear from God with the original idea but after going through this process, hopefully you also now see what the best direction is for the youth ministry so that it stays true to the vision of the church.
  4. Ask for an evaluation of your youth ministry every three to six months.  Yes, that is quite often and may be cumbersome.  But after time, it won’t be so cumbersome and you, as well as the church leadership, will be able to keep the youth ministry looking like the church family.
  5. Leave a huge paper trail of everything you are doing in youth ministry.  Put together monthly reports for the elders, even if you are never asked to do this.  When good ministry moments happen, write up the story in an e-mail and send it to all of the church leadership.  If something didn’t go as planned, review your process of the event in a memo to your senior pastor.  This is a good practice in general.  Even more so as a way to keep your youth ministry looking like the church family.
  6. In exchange for all this openness you are giving the church leadership, you gain some leverage to help them put a more teen-friendly emphasis in the church family, particularly during the Sunday morning worship experience.  This also helps the youth ministry look more like the church family.

For example at my church, I have put together a working document of teaching illustrations which use all five senses and can be effective in a congregational setting for my pastoral staff.  I send this to them updated every few months so they can pull ideas from this as they plan their sermons.  Because of my relationship with them, they are open to such “outside-the-box” sermon illustrations.   Now that they’ve been trying them out for several years and hearing the positive feedback from the entire congregation, such five senses ideas are a common Sunday morning experience.  This is just one way I’ve helped our church become teen-friendly.  During Sunday morning services you can always catch me taking notes here and there.  That is when I get inspired as to how the youth ministry can be a part of the service for next week or the next church calendar season.  And because of my relationship with the pastoral staff, I very often get my way.

What if you work in a dysfunctional church?  They do exist.  In this process, you need to ask yourself why you are there.  For example, if you have power-hungry, top-down leadership, you could turn into a power-hungry, top-down leadership youth leader as you try to protect the youth ministry from the leadership.  You didn’t mean to become this and you probably wouldn’t see it until it was too late. The intentions were honorable but in the end, this church may be a bad fit.  It may be time to let go and find a church that will look like the youth ministry you want to grow.

The blessing in all this is when you grow a youth ministry that looks like your church, you will be blessed with the reward of longevity.  You will be able to be around to see your sixth graders graduate from high school.  Maybe even see the ones currently in the nursery graduate.

Another blessing from longevity which comes from growing your youth ministry to look like your church is the trust you gain.  When church leadership and parents know you are going to be around for the long haul, they will more easily get onboard with what you are planning because they know you will be there to see it through to the end.  They also have learned that the entire church will be affected by your “crazy” plans—and be excited about it.  That means full support.  What could you do with full support?  Start dreaming.  It is worth growing your youth ministry to look like your church.