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I just slipped away from our church gym to finish this column. I wish you could be with me for the experience. Our youth group is sponsoring our “first ever dodge ball tournament”…complete with enough energy and testosterone to make you think that you were at the NBA playoffs! We got the idea a few weeks ago when we kept hearing about all the crazy dodge ball competition that was getting national TV time. Every fall, our youth ministry sponsors “The Pumpkin Bowl” (a flag football tournament that even Bret Favre would be proud of). But judging from the excitement and laughter I just experienced today in our dodge ball frenzy, our youth group is probably starting another proud, yearly tradition.

What’s my role in the competition? Well, I’m would definitely win the award for “loudest, most energized cheerleader” in the gym. I’m also getting my aerobic workout for the day, running up and down the sidelines, shouting for everybody. But since I’m leaving town in a day for vacation, I keep running back to my office to get some work done. Then I reappear in the gym, scream my guts out for awhile, and try to slip away unnoticed to get some more work done. Granted, I would be much more productive work-wise if I simply stayed at my desk, but that option today is simply unthinkable.

You see, I’m living out youth ministry’s seven biggest words; and I’ve learned a long time ago that this principle is a simple one that you cannot violate if you want to experience effective youth ministry. What are the words? I’m so glad you asked: “The one who spends the most time wins.” Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But just trust me. Aside from loving the Lord and making Him smile, these seven words comprise the “big one.”

Cults and gangs have long known the power of “the big seven” and have modeled it in their outreach. But sometimes, in the middle of all the time crunch and stress on programming, I think we’ve lost sight of it in Christian youth ministry. There just isn’t any substitute for “being there.” And as families become more disconnected and dysfunctional, the power of these seven words only picks up more momentum. No matter how cool you may be or how dynamically you communicate each week, your ability as a leader to deeply influence today’s youth culture for Christ still comes back to establishing some form of personal, relational connection with your students.

But here’s the good news. It doesn’t even need to always be you. (Obviously, if your youth group is over 3 students, you are not breathing a sigh of relief.) You see, today’s teenagers have departed from the Messiah complex. They don’t need to all experience a personal connection with just the main leader. They just need to spend some time outside of church with someone they deem to be a part of the “inner core” of your youth ministry, whether that is a quality student or a volunteer adult. The day of deeply impacting the youth culture for Christ by merely hosting weekly services has long ago vanished. Your weekly youth meetings need to be quality; but that just “loads the bases” for a homerun later in the week through personal interaction.

Let me briefly hit a few simple “tricks” I have learned to multiply my time in youth ministry and to help me live out “the big seven” on a daily basis:

  1. Create a “SIP” (“system in place”) that mobilizes other adults, college people, or key student influencers to connect with youth group participants in a specific way. Don’t make this system too difficult. Just divide your group up into smaller groups of student names and phone numbers. Then ask potential leaders to call or hang out with “their kids” on a personal basis at least once every week (or every other week). Meet with your emerging new leadership group at least once a month to encourage them and provide some simple accountability. Remember the “KISS” principle (“Keep It Simple, Sweetheart”).
  2. Use the telephone. Granted, most of us are not real crazy about more phone action; but the phone allows the students to hear your voice and feel a personal sense of connection. Be prepared for kids to sometimes not be too talkative over the phone and even make you feel like a pretty big looser. But those vibes are deceptive. They still really appreciate the personal call, even if all they did on the other end of the phone was to grunt.
  3. Give people the “focused 60 seconds.” I used to think that people needed large blocks of time to really feel connected with. Granted, some situations certainly require quite a bit of time. But I’m constantly amazed at how much genuine friendship I can communicate with a teenager in a short amount of time if I just give them all of my focus, energy, and attention. It boils down to the old principle, “Wherever you are, be all the way there.”
  4. Practice “On the way” ministry. Have you ever noticed how many times in the New Testament it reads something like, “And while Jesus was on the way, He…”? I think Christ Himself had way more people He wanted to connect with than He had hours in the day to accomplish it. So He strategically seemed to make use of His time as He went from one place to the other. Trying to model Jesus’ example, I often do “on the way” ministry as I walk from one side of the building to the other. In like manner, I rarely run an errand without someone else in the car with me. Just make use of the “in between time.” You’ll be surprised at how often you can recapture some vital minutes of relationship-building.

Well, I’ve just returned from my 7th run to the gym today. You’ll be pumped to know that Matt and Charity’s team has “captured the gold” in our youth ministry’s history-changing, first-ever dodge ball tournament. Granted, this column has taken me most of the day to write because of the interruptions. But that’s OK. To a bunch of teenagers who call me their leader, I’ve spent the day living out “youth ministry’s seven biggest words.” By the way, there is a new guy named “Jordan” who now thinks I’m pretty cool. All in all, it’s been a great day in the life of this youth leader.

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