Not long ago I got off the phone with a “profoundly unhappy” mom whose daughter is a regular in our youth ministry.
She launched into a long, emotional tirade about our ministry’s openness to “those kids”—teenagers who don’t yet love or follow Jesus. She complained that her daughter was a “model teenager” until she met one of “those kids” at our youth service.
I listened, hung up, and let out a long sigh…
It’s a youth ministry dilemma—how do we tailor a ministry that reaches both disciples and “pre-disciples”?
I’ve had decades of experience and experimentation trying to balance my approach to this tension. Here’s what I told that angry mom—my over-arching priorities for a “bi-believer” ministry (where both believers and non-believers coexist):
1. Create an atmosphere of authentic friendship—it’s an absolute necessity, whether you’re trying to impact believers or non–believers. Focus on building a culture of warmth and friendliness—it’s your “golden ticket” to retaining those who already love Jesus and attracting kids who are still far, far away from Him. Fail the friendliness test…and you fail. (Check out my book Thriving Youth Groups: Secrets for Growing Your Ministry for pragmatic ideas on how to create a “friendship culture”—just go to group.com and plug the title into the search box.)
It’s a youth ministry dilemma—how do we tailor a ministry that reaches both disciples and “pre-disciples”?Click to tweet
2. Pepper your teaching with“bridge-statements” that intentionally connect your topic to non-believers. With just a few smart tweaks to your language, you can make a discipleship emphasis relevant to a teenager who’s not yet plugged into Jesus. For example, let’s say you’re focusing on prayer. At the front end, and again mid-way through, say something like: “Maybe you’re here and you don’t yet have a friendship with Jesus. That’s okay—we’re super glad you’ve come. Tonight we’re exploring what prayer looks like—the good news is that Jesus loves you so much that He’s already listening to you. And prayer isn’t complicated—sometimes it’s as simple as, ‘Help, God!’”
3. Host an outreach night every two months that’s specifically geared to reach teenagers who don’t already know and follow Jesus. Pick the brains of some of your sharpest teenagers as you decide on a theme, title, and approach that will appeal to their non-Christian friends. Create cool tickets that promote the theme and give them to your kids to pass out two weeks in advance of that night. (Color copiers or insta-print services make tickets really easy and cheap to create.) Emphasize creativity in that outreach, and make sure you tell stories and make it personal.
Jesus is, of course, the model for effective bi-believer ministry . He helped His close friends grow in their love for Him while simultaneously hanging out with outsiders like Zaccheaus. Prioritize both believers and pre-believers and I promise your life will never be boring.
This article originally appeared in the ‘Reinventing Youth Ministry’ special edition of Group Magazine. Click here to request your FREE copy.