When I began helping a new church start develop a youth ministry I told myself it would be short-term, just long enough to see the few high school students I was close to walk the stage at graduation. Oh, how things have changed. Next month I will attend the graduation of those who were in 6th grade when we started, and next August we’re welcoming 50 new 6th graders into our program. Have I told you how much I look forward to attending their graduation in 2022?
This crazy journey has shown me a few things about starting and maintaining a youth ministry in a new church start—3 valuable lessons for anyone in youth ministry.
1. It’s not about the space, It’s about the atmosphere.
When we started our youth ministry, we met in an old building with no windows, low ceilings, and a roof that leaked when it rained a lot. We have since moved to a new space that the youth got to help design, but our students routinely express how much they miss that old place. It might have had flaws, spills, and smells, but it was theirs.
Even with our nice new space, we have kept a tradition of being creative with where we meet. We consider Braums, TCBY, and Chick Fil A our own youth space, and just as much quality ministry has occurred there as in our office. The whole city is our youth room. Not coming from a big hip space became our blessing, not our problem.
No matter where we meet, we’ve learned that the key is the atmosphere, making everyone feel welcome and valued. One Wednesday evening early in our ministry, we dropped a few youth off outside a vibrant church with a large youth ministry—fancy lights, loud bands, and absolutely nobody that my students knew. I still have the claw-marks on my car seat from one young girl who really did not want to go into that room full of strangers.
When we picked them up a couple of hours later, we headed to Starbucks and discussed what that experience felt like. Did they feel welcomed? Acknowledged? How can we make visitors at our own church feel those things? These students immediately began investing in visitors and in other youth, helping turn our atmosphere into the loving place it needs to be—no matter what our space looks like.
2. It’s not about the program, it’s about the vision.
Starting a youth ministry at a fairly new church definitely had its programming limitations. As we grow year after year, it is definitely tempting to make our programs bigger and more elaborate. Crazy programs are always great, but we’ve learned to ask ourselves “Why are we doing this?”
Our programs should always serve our vision. Of course, different kinds of programming serve different aspects of your vision. Large events focus on bringing new students into the program, students who might not feel comfortable jumping into weekly small groups right away but are totally comfortable with a city-wide scavenger hunt. Our weekly Bible study exists primarily for our core group of students. That consistency helps them grow and develop relationships, and isn’t that what this is all about anyway?
Furthermore, the vision of the youth ministry should mirror the church’s vision. That means we push our youth to engage in the church as a whole. I recently attended a church council meeting and witnessed two of our youth in action, fully participating in discussion and voting alongside adult members of the congregation. That is success—students not only attending church, but being a part of the church, willing to serve the church, and actively participating in the vision of the Church as a whole.
3. It’s not about you, it’s about them.
As adults, it’s often easy to feel like we should run things. After all, we have those organizational skills, a grasp of our vision, and experience with what works and what doesn’t. However, we have learned that successful youth ministry is about listening, and listening well.
We’ve developed a core youth leadership team that we invest in heavily, with the intent of them investing in our other youth. We talk about our group’s vision and programs. They help us make almost all the decisions. They tell us what works and what doesn’t, and how we can improve.
Focusing on the youth also means focusing on the parents. Mark Devries described doing youth ministry without parents is like driving a car without an engine, and I cannot express how true this really is. We have learned to plug parents in every chance we get. We send out monthly parenting tips and discussions. We give weekly descriptions of our small group lessons with follow-up questions so these conversations can continue at home. We plant seeds on Sunday, then provide parents the water and fertilizer to grow them.
Overall, it’s about keeping a proper perspective on the youth ministry. If this is for the youth, it means involving them and their families in every step of the process.