I was at Hills Alive festival in Rapid City, South Dakota. They asked if I would speak to their local youth ministers. I gave them a few topics to choose from, and they chose “Things I Learned from some Great Youth Ministers… and a few Bad Ones.” I figured I’d choose 3 things I’d learned over the years, because God has given me the gift of knowing some great ministers. I stretched it to 5, then to 10. I ended up with 21. I don’t know how many I’ll share them here, but it seemed that I should at least start a new blog series. So in addition to walking through Romans, I’m also going to start a new series on Youth Ministry. So for my loyal readers, you can send your church’s youth minister to check these out. Who knows? They might even help.
Youth Ministry Nugget #1: Love your kids.
I know this one sounds obvious, but you can’t overlook it. I think many times we look for the newest games or videos, the coolest talks or worship bands, when our students really just need to be loved. They need us to show them the love of God by loving them ourselves. We cannot compete with the world’s entertainment. And our students have already tried that and found it lacking. They are still seeking fulfillment from it, but they have not found it. They will not find it in our entertainment either. However, they do have a deep need to be loved, whether they know it or not, whether they act like it or not. And in receiving love from us, hopefully they will turn to Christ and finally find the One who fills their emptiness. Love your kids. Love them individually and specifically. Love them with the love of Christ which is above and beyond anything you or I have to offer.
Youth Ministry Nugget #2: When you have a student that is hard to love, pray.
I promise, no matter how loving and kind-hearted you are, eventually you will have a student in your ministry that is hard to love. They may be angry; they may be distant. They may be arrogant; they may be unkind. Pray. Don’t just ask God to make them different; ask Him to give you His heart for them. Ask Him to show you their value. Ask Him to stir affection for that student in your heart. I believe He will.
Youth Ministry Nugget #3: Create environments where students can be known and loved.
This is almost a corollary to Nugget #1, but is important enough that I felt it deserved its own number. Loving students is almost an abstract concept. But creating events and environments that are purposely geared towards that is very concrete. How can we create a ministry where the focus is not that students are entertained but that they enter into community, that they are known and loved? Now obviously this can’t be forced. You can’t welcome a visitor into your group and then make them tell you their darkest secrets and force them to believe that you love them anyway. That won’t work. No one will ever come back to your group. But I do think we can make this a priority.
When I was in youth ministry with my friend Matt, who is now my pastor, we had college interns every summer. We would usually have 4 college students come in for the summer to do ministry alongside us. Matt would sit them down day 1 for orientation. His talk went something like this: “Your basic day here is going to look like this. Show up at 8:30. From 8:30-9:30, study your Bible and pray. From 9:30-11, get on the phone and set up times to meet with students. After 11, I don’t want to see you again. Be with kids. Lunch meetings, frisbee golf games, anything. Find what it is that makes that kid tick and connect with them. Go shopping or play video games. Find a door into that kid’s life.” Now to be honest, the job of most youth ministry interns is to do all the stuff that the youth minister doesn’t want to do. They have to carry and clean. Come early and stay late. And our interns did some of that too. But their primary job was to connect with students. They had the time and opportunity that we often did not, to pursue a kid on their own turf. To dedicate hours, days, months even to building up trust with someone who desperately needed to trust someone, but couldn’t find any reason to do that. Looking back at that time, I realize that those were some of the most important things we did.
If the only time you’re spending with your students is from a stage into a dark room, I doubt they are feeling loved or known. To be honest, I don’t remember a single lesson any of my youth ministers taught. I do remember going to a new church and the associate youth minister taking me to lunch. In just the last few months of my senior year, I built a closer relationship with him than I had with any youth minister before. Because he took the time to spend with me.