Youth ministry is it’s own little animal within the life of a congregation. It is a delicate dance of navigating expectations (your own and those around you), dispelling myths, pointing out miracles (and perhaps performing a few of your own, like, say, getting soda out of the carpet), and allowing your heart to be filled and your spirit drained by your kids over and over and over again.
After a five-year stint as a senior/solo pastor I returned to my “roots” as a youth minister. Through this return to the world of lock-ins, mission trips, messy rooms, and sacred conversations, I was reminded of the stark reality that the world moves fast and the daily realities of American teenagers has changed a whole heck of a lot. At first, this was a shockingly harsh reality for me to discover.
Throughout my first year at my current congregation I would come home many Wednesday and Sunday nights and ask my wife, “Am I really that out of touch?” I didn’t yet understand that I couldn’t just impress upon my new youth group what had worked in the past. The rules of the game have changed and old norms and customs don’t truly apply to the new paradigm. What was true even just a few years ago is not necessarily true today.
Here are 10 truths for doing youth ministry in today’s rapidly changing world…
1. The Question is Not “If” we will use Social Media, but,”How?”
Ten years ago, Facebook was just becoming a thing. Now, there is a new platform coming online almost daily. These new communication platforms provide a wonderful space for sharing, but they can also be perplexing, and perhaps even a little frightening for those of us who are still learning how to navigate them.
2. Lock-Ins are a Timeless Treasure.
There are some out there that seem to believe that Lock-Ins are an outdated thing of the past, but there is nothing more sacred than that time at 3:00 a.m. when everyone is past exhausted and conversation and laughter happens spontaneously.
3. Teenagers are not (and don’t want to be) the FUTURE of the Church.
Perhaps the greatest lie we have ever told our kids (and ourselves) is that they are the “future.” When we use that language, what we are actually saying is, “wait your turn.” Meanwhile, teenagers are longing to make a difference NOW, and to know they have a voice NOW. If we don’t provide them the opportunity to get involved and make an impact today, they will find (and are finding) another organization who will.
4. There is nothing more sacred than unplanned conversation.
Ministry, like life, is meant to be organic. Teenagers know when we are trying to force the conversation or attempting to solicit certain answers/questions out of them. When things are forced, it creates an awkward situation for adult and teen alike. Sacred conversation happens when we allow shared time to flow naturally, at its own pace. This is true in a ministry setting, and it is true in our own homes.
5. When it comes to “program,” less is most certainly more.
It seems like every moment of our teens lives are programmed for them. From the moment they wake to the moment they (finally) go to sleep, they bounce from one scheduled activity to the next. How many of us have had our teens say, “I’m tired,” as they lay on the couch in the youth room, not wanting to participate in our tediously planned night of ministry? The last thing our youth need when they come to church is more “programming.” What would it be like if we moved away from program, and focused much more on prayer, presence, and the building of relationships between one another and with the One who brought us together?
6. Teenagers are still woefully understood (and they know it).
Our youth are crazy, unpredictable, complicated humans. They ask questions that do not have answers, do things that defy all rational comprehension, lash out in anger and frustration one moment and then immediately turn around and cling to us like they need us more than anything. It can be so difficult for us as parents and youth leaders to understand why they do the things that they do. Sometimes we even ask, “Why?” Here’s the thing, just as we don’t understand them, they don’t really understand themselves. Just as confusing as the body, mind, and spirit of a teenager is to us, we need to recognize that it is even more so to them. We do our teens or ourselves no justice by expressing the frustration that comes from our confusion to them.
7. Teenagers want to learn, but they do not necessarily want to be “taught.”
8. Safe ground is Holy ground.
The world is a beautiful place, but it is also a frightening one. Our youth come to us at Church out a variety of contexts, not all of them are the safest and most secure. No matter what we are told, our teens come to us seeking sanctuary and an hour or two where they know that they will be safe and protected. It is when our youth know that their minds, bodies, and spirits are safe from judgement, condemnation, ridicule, and pressure, that they will, over time, begin to open up and share the deepest longings and questions of their heart. We may sometimes wonder why our youth are not sharing, talking, or paying all that much attention and often it is because they are trying to figure out if this space is safe and these people around them can be trusted. Each teenager reaches their own conclusions on their own time. This process cannot be forced.
9. “Numbers” do not matter, but Growth does.
Perhaps the greatest trap to ever befall youth ministry programs is the trap of the “numbers game.” We all have fallen into it. We seek to compare ourselves to other programs based on the number of youth who come to our weekly programs, how many we take on mission trips, and how many go to summer camp. Programs have been judged and youth ministers have been hired and fired based on the numbers game. But here’s the deal, numbers do not matter. Jesus himself only had 12 followers. Ministry cannot and should not be judged based on how many kids we are able to cram into a room. But while numbers do not matter, growth does. Ministries should be evaluated based on how they are growing trust, relationships, community, authenticity, and the desire to serve.
10. Teenagers desire to experience the very real love of God and desperately want the Church to be the place where that experience happens.
The Church has gotten a bad rap over the years and we are often told that teens do not need or want the Church any longer. This is hogwash. The Church can be and still is the place that most of our youth associate with God. They need and want God in their lives, and they also need and want the Church. The burden is NOT on them to conform to our programs, our theology, or “the way it has always been done,” but instead the burden is on US to meet our youth where they are, to provide safe space, and to help facilitate a meeting between our teenagers and with the God who created them and loves them more than they will ever know.
Rev. Aaron Todd serves as the Minister for Education at First Christian Church-Midwest City, OK . Among other things, he focuses on youth, children, young adult, and family ministry. He is married to Debra, who is also a Disciples pastor, and together they have a 3 year old son named Zach and a precious baby boy named Josh. In addition to their human children, they have a 5 year old dog named Amos (named after the prophet). Check out his blog,