Rethinking Our Approach to Youth Ministry

This past year, I worked with a struggling church in San Francisco. One of the Elders there complained to me about how hard it was to get their youth to come, let alone get involved in the youth group. He said the church even purchased a Wii to draw them in, but they still had no interest in attending. Despite the church’s efforts, the youth’s commitment level continued to dwindle.

This culture as a whole approaches youth ministry from the wrong mindset. Often times we believe that we need to attract our youth to Christ by appealing to their interests or preferences. Our youth are constantly distracted by the flashing lights of media and the trends of fashion.  The church needs to realize that this world will always be better at entertaining our youth then we will. Just as in pop culture there are different genres to attract different types of people our efforts to attract a certain type of student often do not work for other types of personalities and people. The Gospel is not so divisive. When people are under the influence of the Gospel, they are all drawn in together, no matter what gender, race, culture, or age. We are all one in Christ.

The Gospel is the key to youth ministry. Many people, even youth leaders, do not have a clear understanding of the Gospel or how it actually plays out in people’s lives once they have accepted it. The Gospel is so much more than “ask Jesus into your heart and He will make everything better” – in fact, when people “come to Christ” with this mindset, and things do not work out for them what do they say? “I tried God and it did not work for me.” This reaction almost word for word saturates the College campus. A lot of these kids grow up in the church, but have no understanding of what the Gospel is or how God wants to work in their lives. The truth is that many ministries share the Gospel at every meeting, then the kids have heard the message so many times, but there is still no understanding. These kids need personal interaction at the proper time.

We as youth leaders need to take the time to pray for each of our students individually and care about each of their needs. I remember when I used to complain to God about how few students were coming to our Christian Club, but God taught me that year that I need to invest in who He brought me. Why would He give me more students if I was not impacting the lives of the ones He already brought? It’s a stewardship: “To the one who has, more will be given” (Matt 13:12). So I learned to pray for who was coming, and try to minister to their needs.

We need to take a personal interest in them. I strongly believe in the concepts of multiplication. Robert Coleman expounds on this topic in his book The Master Plan for Evangelism (Coleman, Robert. The Master Plan for Evangelism. Revell, 2006). I strongly suggest this book anyone in ministry. Just like Jesus reached the world through investing in 12 men, we can do the same. Jesus ate with them, traveled with them, and lived day to day with them. They experienced everything together. And Jesus said “everyone, after he has been fully trained, will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).

There are at least two types of people in your youth group. The first type, are the ones with promise and potential. Through the Holy Spirit we can discern that there is spiritual interest in them and most likely that they have a relationship with God. This is where we as leaders need to take the time to sit down with them, asking them their stories to see if they have actually accepted Jesus as personal Lord and Savior through understanding of the Gospel. It is essential that they accept the fact they are sinners worthy of hell, but Christ saved them from it. This can be done through asking discerning questions to see if they are saved. In fact, each of us as leader need to know for sure where each of our students  stand with the Lord.

The second type might be only coming because their parents make them or some other reason, but they do not want to be there. As far as you can tell, there is no spiritual interest. The thing not to do is force the Gospel on them as many times as possible until they accept it. The best thing to do in that situation is make sure they know you love them and are there for them. Not in words only (and there should be words), but actions as well. Show personal interest in them, and be there for them when they need you. Fast and pray for them, and lovingly warn them of the road ahead. One day something will happen and you will be there for them when they fall (they will fall). At that point you will have someone who is on fire for God, because “her sins, as many as they are, have been forgiven, and that's why she has shown such great love” (Luke 7:47).

If you want your kids to keep coming back, please be real with them. You are flawed. You know it. They know it. Be vulnerable. There is no use pretending to be perfect. I am not just talking about in your past; I am talking about current struggles. Show discretion, but let them in on your life, so they know that you are human too. With that said, get a handle on things that they are dealing with, both through personal interaction with them, and through having a finger on the pulse of the culture they are involved in. Mark Driscoll has a lot of good things to say about this. He talks about reading magazines for teens, just to better understand the culture of the people he is trying to relate to. And he does a great job of relating from the stage, but if I may be critical, with such a big church on different campuses I don’t know how he can relate individually with so many people. I believe this individual investment is especially vital. You can have them watch Mark Driscoll videos and then personally invest in them as individuals.

When you are discipling these students, remember that the most important thing is relating your life to them and transferring your love and passion for God to the next generation. Challenge them to live out their life for Christ. But remember that they don’t know what that means yet. So often our youth are inspired to live for God with no direction. They need to know that they don’t have to be a pastor. No matter where God puts them they are to be servants of God first. The first step for any new believer is baptism. The next thing they probably need is to develop a consistent quite time with God. Teach them how to pray and read the Bible for themselves. When they do that, they will grow spiritually more than you could ever do. Keep them immersed in the Word and spend a lot of time with them. Find the areas in their lives where they are doing well and encourage them. Also find areas they need to improve and show them how to do that.

Remember that the Gospel is the key to youth ministry. My friend Bobby Campbell said “The Sheep know where the food is.” Many students today are spiritually starving. It is our responsibility to spend hours in prayer and contemplation as we prepare to give them something valuable each week. This is our stewardship. These are our sheep. They will come if they know they are going to be fed.

Tim Nicholls
Tim's Facebook Page
January 23, 2011