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I gave the sign a position of honor in one of my earliest youth ministry offices. The words still echo in my head often:

“If you compare and compete, you’ll live in defeat.”

You would think after nearly four decades in exciting, full-time youth ministry that I wouldn’t deal with those mind games any more. But in all honesty, I think we all struggle with painful comparison and competition occasionally in our lives. After all, we live in America where only “gold medal winners” are trumpeted. Unfortunately, part of “comparison and competition game” spills over into even the youth ministry trenches.

So since Dr. Phil isn’t anywhere around, let me share some of the ways I’ve dealt with this “dreaded duo” in my own life and youth ministry:

1) Prioritize the art of “do it yourself encouragement” in your personal life. Remember poor old King David in the Old Testament when his family, houses, and cattle were destroyed by enemy troops? David’s response? The Scripture simply reads, “And David encouraged himself in the Lord.”

For me, “do it yourself encouragement” involves controlling my thought life and choosing to focus on the positives around me, rather than dwelling on the negatives. Trust me. It’s easier to write about that choice than to practice it. But the voices inside your own head will always be your greatest source of youth ministry encouragement or youth ministry defeat.

2) “Murder” the attitude of competition in your life by sending an encouraging note or email to a person you secretly compete with in your own mind. I don’t know how it works, but I promise that it does. It probably pivots around the Scriptural principle of, “If you want to be the greatest in the Kingdom, learn to be the least.” Life in God’s Kingdom often comes through purposeful death to parts of our human self-centeredness. So “murder” part of the competition in your life by being encouraging to someone who stirs that very sense of competition up in you.

3) Clarify what “rabbit” you want your life to chase. You know the principle: “If you chase two rabbits, both of them will get away.” And in like manner, youth ministry has a lot of different facets (“rabbits”). So take some time to determine how God has wired you up and what “youth ministry rabbits” you are going to most prioritize. What appears as success for others in youth ministry is probably not going to be God’s version of success for you.

Maybe your “rabbit” involves leadership development, one-on-one discipleship, worship, evangelism, or reaching at-risk kids. Granted, youth ministry demands that we minister in all of these areas. But if God has wired you to be a one-on-one discipler, youth ministry success is probably not going to involve building a huge group numerically. Without coming to terms with this, it is easy to look across town at larger youth group and internally feel like you’re not cutting it.

4) Remind yourself often that you “play for an audience of One.” Most of us wouldn’t worry so much about what others think about us if we realized how little they really do! So I often remind myself that if I’m doing my very best to please the Lord, everything else is going to eventually come into line.

When I was in middle school, I had a short-lived career as a track star. I even made it to State Finals. (Impressed, aren’t you?) At the state championship race, there were thousands of voices lined up along the cross country path to cheer us on. But I quickly learned to tune out all of their voices and listen for only one voice that I wanted desperately to please. That, of course, was my coach.

So as my run in youth ministry has progressed, the “voices” have often become noisy and confusing. Their shouts have brought the dreaded duo of “comparison and competition” to the forefront on countless occasions. But as I’ve matured in youth ministry, I’ve learned to tell myself often, “I’m running this race for an audience of One.” And borrowing from God’s words to His son, I choose to believe the Father is saying, “This is my beloved daughter, in whom I am well pleased.”

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