The Positives of Youth Ministry

WRAYM-front-coverThere is enough negativity out there directed at youth ministry that when I saw the title of this book I knew I just had to get it! Mark Oestreicher has been in the “business” for quite a while now. I have aged in my ministry to youth following the career and writings of Marko. And just about anything he has written on the topic of youth ministry has been very thought provoking and enlightening.

Marko begins his book by pointing out the importance of youth ministry in stating that “The church is called (see: the New Testament!) to share the gospel and grow disciples, to be the presence of Christ on earth. In a world where youth culture exists, this simply must include adults who are cross-cultural missionaries, willing to embody the gospel into that cultural context.” (p. 24). So the question becomes, how can we do this effectively?

Marko continues his book by expanding on 6 values that great youth ministries embrace. The first value is The Long View. “the humble youth worker knows and lives a ministry approach that actively practices faith in God to transform lives, knowing we are powerless to change hearts.” (p. 49). This is vital for youth pastors to understand. Sometimes we want to see results now as an affirmation of the time you spend ministering to youth, but we must realize that we need to be patient and faithful in what God has called us to do, trusting that the Holy Spirit, in his timing will bring to light what that teen needs in her/his life. All we can do is plant seeds. It is up to the Holy Spirit, in his timing, to grow those seeds. Marko goes on to explain that “As much as we might try to control the beliefs and behaviors of teenagers, we’re powerless to transform lives. That’s God’s role, not ours. Of course, I don’t desire that any post-youth grouper walk away. But their stories and their journeys are not mine to control. All I can do is be faithful in the here and now while trusting God for each teenager’s future. The Long View leans into humility, trust, and hope.” (p. 54)

The next value is the Power of Small. Marko’s point here is that what really works in youth ministry is “a caring, Jesus-following adult engaging a small group of teenagers.” (p. 57). No matter how big a youth ministry might get, there is power in making sure to break it down into small groups. Youth ministry needs to be relational. In a large group context it is hard to do that; but to break that down into small groups where real relationships and dialogue can happen helps in the process of developing faith. In a small group a teen is known, recognized, loved and is given a voice to share about their lives and their faith journey.

The third value is the Role of the Holy Spirit in you and your ministry. It is important to make time to listen and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit in your ministry. Now this is not to say throw out any planning and organizing and just “let the Spirit lead”. I have know people like that and the irony is they go to the same scripture references and tell the same stories as a lack of their preparation. Marko states that “your best youth ministry will never come from excellent brainstorming; your best youth ministry will always be the result of stepping into God’s dreams for your ministry.” (p. 68). God has plans for our youth ministry and it is important to be aware of that. You want to be on the same page in which the Holy Spirit is leading. We are being invited into a much bigger plan and purpose we could ever imagine. Listen, pay attention, and be open to the Spirit’s leading and prompting.

The forth value is Integration over Isolation. Marko says that “we’ll see long-term faith more often when we work to decrease the constant ghettoization of teenagers and help them find meaningful belonging in the life of the church.” (p. 73). Some people have reacted to the isolation of youth ministry by stating that youth ministry is unbiblical therefore banishing it from their churches. I think this is a huge overreaction. It is important to have a place specifically for the youth but we must also look for ways to integrate them into the life of the larger church. Let teenagers get involved in other areas of ministry through the church, sing in the choir, play in the praise band, attend the main services. At our church we close down the youth Sunday morning class on every 5th Sunday so that we can go down and attend the worship service together. If we don’t do this, then church will seem foreign to them when they graduate out of the youth ministry. They will be less inclined to integrate into the life of a church away at college unless it looks and feels like youth ministry. That is not healthy. Integration into the life of the larger church is important. They need to connect with other generations. To strictly separate each generation within the church does not help anyone. It is important to help integrate everybody on all levels.

The fifth value is Embracing the Role of the Parents. In this Section Marko points out that we youth workers need to listen, communicate, equip and involve parents. I couldn’t agree more. It is important for us to come along side of parents and be a source of encouragement, and love, recognizing that the parent is the number one spiritual role model for their teen, not us. This isn’t to say, as some churches have done, that we throw away youth ministry in favor of family ministries, expecting parents to be their teen’s “youth pastor”. Parents need help and having other adults pour into their teens’ life is invaluable. But we must understand the importance of the parents. We should regularly communicate with them, we should honor them as the primary role to their teen, we need to equip them to be great parents, and, as I have always done, use them within the youth ministry! Get them involved! They are the best resources I have in my ministry.

The final value that Marko lays out is in the area of Contextualization. He states that “In an age of splintered youth culture. great youth ministries have discerned an approach to ministry that is wonderfully unique to their context. . . . The best youth ministries are always weird. They have a high degree of self-awareness about their uniqueness, and they celebrate them.” (p. 95). The fact that my current youth group has a plastic mascot taken from one of the three wisemen in a nativity set and we call him Hoku and he goes on almost every trip with us I think shows off our uniqueness and weirdness! Anyhow, it is important to know your context in the particular community that God has put you in. In the 4 churches that I have served at in my lifetime, each had a very different cultural context and my approach to ministry changed and adapted to their needs.

A final thought that Marko closes out with is that “A youth ministry anchored in faith believes that God is at work.” (p. 108). There are a number of books out there that will tell you what is wrong with modern day youth ministry. Some are very good books that we need to read and wrestle with. Some are just bad. But overall, if you want to have a great youth ministry you can’t go wrong with incorporating these six values into your ministry. Marko leaves us with a great foundation to build a successful youth ministry.

God Moments

youthministryLately I have been feeling a little discouraged when it comes to my ministry. Not a big deal, nor is it something I really want to get into here, but I do want to share some God moments I have had over the past week where God clearly showed Himself to me as an encouraging sign that things are happening with our youth.

A week ago I had a parent of one of my teens contact me and asked if I would come over to their house to chaperone a Bible study since both parents were not able to be there. I didn’t think much of it and I was available so I said yes. I assumed this was a CRU or Young Life event where there would be other adults. When I got there, there were a handful of teens from the youth group as well as a bunch I have never met before. The Bible study started and I didn’t see any other “adult leaders”. As I sat and observed, I began to realize that this teen was the initiator of this gathering. She put it all together, invited her friends, and opened up the Bible and shared about her favorite characters! And not only that but some of her references were clearly from things I could tell she learned from our youth group either in small groups or mission trips. This warmed my heart!

A few days later my son came home and told me that he got nominated to a club at school called the Hope Squad. (To learn more about Hope Squad as an organization go¬†HERE.) Anyhow, I learned from my son that this was a group of teens who were nominated by their peers to be a resource at their schools for suicide prevention. The fact that he was nominated by the student body made me a proud father. To know that his peers see him as one they can go to for help, encouragement, and support means a lot to me as a father. Well, it turns out that there was a parent’s meeting that was mandatory and my wife was unavailable, so I had to go. Not that I mind going up to the school since I am a youth pastor but when it involves “mandatory” parent’s meetings it can cause me to grumble just a little bit. So, I get to the meeting and realize that the 40+ teens who were asked to be leaders in the Hope Squad for Loveland High School were all the leading candidates who were nominated by the whole student body. Teachers and the school administration had nothing to do in deciding who was a part of this. The whole student body were supposed to write down 3 teens that they would trust to be a resource that they would feel comfortable talking to if they needed help. While I was beaming with pride that the student body felt that my son was worthy of this, I began to look around the room and discovered that about half the parents there at the meeting were parents of teens from my youth group! The fact that so many teens from our youth group have such great character and empathy that the majority of the student body would nominated them to be a part of the Hope Squad had me walking out of that meeting on a spiritual high! I felt God’s presence as He smiled at me and reminded me that they get it, they are listening, and they are applying what they are learning in small groups and missions.

So fellow youth pastors and youth leaders, don’t get discouraged. It is easy to fall into the mindset of whether or not you are making a difference. You are! It may not be in your timing or the way that you imagine it to play out. But you are making a difference. Live out your faith. Meet them where they are at. Be consistent and persistent.

As an intern back in the ’90’s, my mentor taught me that youth ministry is a “delayed gratification” ministry. In the moment, it is easy to think whether you are making a difference or not. But you have to be patient. All I can do is plant seeds and trust that the Holy Spirit is going to spark life into them. Sometimes it may happen in a moment, but often times it is a process that at times, can go on well beyond high school. Just be consistent. Love the teens entrusted to you. Teach the Bible and live it out for them in your own personal life. May God bless your work!