Real youth ministry isn’t about making nice. It’s about making waves. It’s more than Kumbaya around the campfire; more than bowling and pizza. It’s spiritual jazz; organic, always evolving, never the same.
Real youth ministry isn’t for the faint of heart. Like jazz you have to be open to discovery, surprise. It’s called real youth ministry because the youth are THE curriculum. It meets them every moment right where they are, right now.
Real youth ministry is much more than just “practice” ministry for ministers-to-be. It requires the youth “leader,” “senior” minister and even the congregation, to a step back, listen – really listen – to the youth, and then hang on.
The youth are THE curriculum – LISTEN.
Listen, don’t talk – every chance you get. Listen when you’re driving them to bowling, camp, work camp, retreats. The most effective youth facilitators are transparent, not the focus – no matter how musical or creatively talented you are.
It’s fine to have your “lesson plan,” activities outlined, what you feel is important for them to know and understand when they leave. But the youth are THE curriculum. So anchor a bungee cord to your learning objectives. Then listen to their responses. And this is where the spiritual jazz comes in, let the discussion riff as their issues surface. It is spiritual jazz after all.
Schedule informal gatherings between the formal gatherings. These could be mid-week drop-ins with no agenda. The youth can simply be. And you can be there with them – no topics, no objectives. What are their issues, concerns, and dreams? Listen.
Get the youth to plan the programs/activities – and listen. Shadow some of the youth for a day – from daylight to dusk – home, to school, to home. What do you hear/see in their lives that point to curriculum?
They can say they’re bored, they want change, but then they’ll cling to their favorite rituals – listen. Listen. The group dynamic changes every year. This sister is not her graduated sister. Listen and change. Listen and change. It’s spiritual jazz. Riff on.
Show up when you say you will. Do what you say you’ll do. And keep confidentiality. They have to know they can trust you without fail.
Senior Minister as Champion of Real Youth Ministry
Spiritual jazz is at the heart of a champion senior minister. S/he loves the challenge. S/he recognizes a vital, relevant youth ministry keeps a congregation youthful and growing as well.
It’s an integral part of his/her whole ministry. Real youth ministry serves as a healthy reminder that the world keeps changing. It keeps the congregation connected to those changes.
The champion senior minister knows each youth by name. S/he facilitates their active participation in the wider church (ministries/committees/task forces). And s/he finds appropriate ways to participate in programs, work camps, retreats, lock-ins and other youth activities.
The champion senior minister creates opportunities for the youth to be a visible and contributing part of the overall church – not just brought down off the shelf for Youth Sunday once a year.
Most of all, it is evident to the youth that the “senior” minister genuinely values their input. It is evident s/he LISTENS.
Being a youth or a parent ain’t easy.
There are 168 hours in every week. Most of their time is involved with school, classes, activities, friends – and family. That means the time available for church youth-related activities is only a small percentage of those hours.
Real youth ministry recognizes this. It provides parents with supportive programming such as a youth group for parents. This type of program gives parents the opportunity to connect with each other, share, vent, provide individual input/concerns about the program/their youth…what’s working, what isn’t. You can have a licensed therapist available if appropriate.
Real youth ministry helps the whole family; it can help parents and youth gain a better understanding of where the other is coming from; understand the importance of listening to each other, respect and compassion.
Real youth ministry as if YOU mattered
It’s critical that YOU know YOU; that you treat you as you treat the youth – as if YOU mattered. Know your boundaries, your limits, and your goals.
Set aside time for you, for your family, for the youth sponsors who need your ministry as well. Real youth ministry should feed all involved.
Listen to yourself. Recognize and take time to step away, to renew, refresh and re-grow your spirit. It will keep you and your spirit young. Take your spiritual temperature frequently. And you’ll know when and how it’s time to leave.
Real youth ministry is always now; it is spiritual jazz, celebrating authentic, spontaneous experiences, responding to challenging, changing times with organic, real answers.
David Stevenson created/wrote TeenText, a weekly, lectionary-based youth discussion guide for 10 years, published by the Education Center. He was a youth leader at First Plymouth Congregational Church (UCC) in Denver, CO for six years. For the last three years, David has volunteered with at-risk kids at a weekly after school program. He has eight grandkids and strongly believes that our youth are the curriculum and that real youth ministry is spiritual jazz.