I’ve been in youth ministry a pretty long time… Since back when handing out tickets to pizza parties was a thing. I remember a long-ago encounter that changed my outlook on ministry forever.
I had spent the day creating our youth group’s four-page newsletter using three font wheels, two ink colors, and one very fancy typewriter. I meticulously lined up the edges, properly secured the clip-art, and made sure the articles were all force-justified before heading to the mimeograph. (Look that up; it was a real thing.)
My wife offered to help me label and sort the newsletter for bulk mail to take to the post office (also a real thing). When she arrived at the church, she complimented the newsletter’s appearance. I was so proud! Then she innocently asked, “What else did you do today?” I pointed out my careful attention to detail on the newsletter and proudly announced it was my day’s main accomplishment.
She furrowed her brow and wondered aloud, “Do you think teenagers notice article length and italicized text? Is that really what matters most?” After hiding my fury at what felt like a dismissal of my hard work, I realized Jesus was speaking to me through those innocent questions. Of course my newsletter’s curb appeal mattered; it just didn’t matter most.
That sent me on a quest in almost every area of my professional life to define what’s most important. It’s a quest I continue. I’m discovering that we generally focus lots of energy and attention on areas that matter—but they don’t matter to the degree that we focus on them. In other words, every area of ministry matters, but we must be diligent in investing our best time and self in what matters most.
Take a look at your typical work week to see what areas might need more or less of your attention. Consider the time you spend:
- Choosing a youth group name, finding a logo, or designing an acronym to help young people remember the vision statement. Those things matter, but they won’t draw teenagers to or away from Jesus. Kids mainly invite friends to “youth group,” no matter its name. If they don’t like a particular design, they just might not wear a T-shirt. And vision statements are meant to guide actions; “recitable” is merely a bonus. It’s a win if young people can grab the gist of your group’s mission and vision, even if they can’t regurgitate it.
- Building a stupendous sermon. We’re lucky if kids can recount a half-dozen messages we’ve preached during a six-year span. Instead, they remember us and the volunteers who invest in them and point them toward Christ. This generation would much rather discuss biblical truths than listen to them being espoused from a pulpit or stage. So if you’re spending time crafting a 30-minute message using entertaining games and funny YouTube clips rather than helping kids engage with one another while they invest in Scripture, you’re not really hitting the mark.
- Having coffee or soft drinks with students. Don’t misunderstand: One-on-one time is vital. But for every get-together you have with a teenager, another should be happening with a parent or volunteer. Youth ministry isn’t only about your kids; in fact, I believe it’s mostly not about students. It’s about equipping the saints for the work of service (see Ephesians 4:12-13). Although one component of that is equipping teenagers, a much broader role is equipping adults who love teenagers and who love Jesus. If we spend the same amount of time investing in parents (who have the biggest spiritual influence in teenagers’ lives) and volunteers (who can multiply our efforts to reach kids) as we do in student hangout time (which is still vital), we’ll exponentially multiply our influence on our teenagers—as well as their spiritual growth.
- “Calendaring.” I love me a good calendar, but the adjective “good” is key. Youth ministers spend lots of time filling holes in our calendar or submitting requests so someone else doesn’t take our time, date, room, or theme idea. Plugging up open dates with random events is akin to plugging holes in a dam with chewing gum. And we’ve all seen how that cartoon ends. It’s not enough to know your teaching calendar and when camp is scheduled; you must think strategically. What happens after camp to fan the flames ignited within students? How does that mesh into the start of the school year and small-group kickoff? How can those events serve as next steps for kids to go deeper? Spend less time calendaring and more time strategizing.
- Praying, reading the Bible, and having quiet time. Okay, now my heathen is showing. Actually, I’m taking a selfie in this mirror because I sometimes spend hollow time in the Word so I can get back to work. Too often my prayer time is 10 minutes of “Help me do this, Jesus, and make that dumb calendar work.” My quiet time might be 90 seconds of peace before everyone’s crazy starts knocking on my door and mine rushes to answer. I know I must invest—all day, every day—in my growing, passionate, pursuing, prying, evolving, transforming relationship with Jesus. And I don’t.
The reason? Sometimes I get caught up in the edges of my newsletter. What’s your “newsletter” in the new year? What screams important at the expense of what’s most important? And what will you do in the coming months to shift your focus to what truly matters?