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From the Belly of the Apocalypse

My home-based youth group (called Pursuing the Heart, Not the Recipes) meets every Tuesday night—20-ish teenagers from six churches and five schools, and from freshmen to seniors.

When the college students are on break, it balloons up to 25 or so. The environment is highly interactive, experiential, expeditionary, and “discovery-based”—that means I hand over to kids the responsibility of exploring and discovering truths. My job is to set the stage for that environment, create boundaries around it, and interact with passion and precision to what they’re uncovering. It’s a powerful, transformational approach. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father” (John 14:12). That’s one of those “Sure, Jesus…” promises—we hear it but don’t believe it…

But I believe it. Some nights, it feels like I’m living in it…

So, when we could no longer meet face-to-face I started exploring platforms and virtual tools that would allow me to replicate our interactive environment. After test-driving many, Zoom was the clear winner. I saw youth pastors all over Twitter and Facebook struggling to morph their conventional approach (a sermon or message, linked to a small-group time) into something much more conversational and participatory. They were discovering that students who are forced to participate virtually, sitting at home alone in front of a screen, quickly lose interest in a “one-way communication” environment.

And I believe this is our beauty-out-of-ugly moment in youth ministry.

Pandemic restrictions have forced everyone to explore new ways of engaging students in a “teaching” environment, and that means higher levels of interaction are becoming a necessity, not a luxury. This has always been true in youth ministry—the pandemic has simply pulled back the curtain on the “fake wizard” we’ve been propping up for years. I mean, talking at teenagers has never been as life-changing as talking with teenagers.

In the two months since we went virtual, I’ve learned how to use the incredible tools the Zoom platform offers to create an experience that feels very close to what my teenagers are used to in our face-to-face meetings. And they have loved it—now we have 30-ish kids showing up every Tuesday, including some who used to be in our group but have since moved out of state. The experience has been exhilarating for me, opening up new avenues for creativity and risk-taking. So, early on, I decided to offer a four-week coaching series called “Interactive Virtual Youth Ministry” for interested youth workers—we filled the first “cohort” with more than 30 leaders in just a few days, so we added a second cohort. In these four coaching sessions I’ve helped participants understand and learn to use the basic building blocks for an Interactive Virtual Group.

The approach they’ve experienced (along with the tools and strategies and ideas they’ve practiced) is scale-able. I mean, it works for a group of six teenagers all the way up to a group of 100 teenagers, and more. They had many chances to interact and ask questions or make comments along the way. And I showed them how they can use these skills in their face-to-face group experience, when all this craziness is in the rear-view mirror. Interactivity is the future of youth ministry—if we don’t morph to this approach, young people will continue to “vote with their feet” because “participatory learning” is central to their identity.

So here’s what I’ve learned and observed along the path of this adventure—both in leading a virtual group and coaching others to do the same…

  • If we will take seriously what we are learning about teenagers’ relationships with one-way communication, we can finally shift our “normal” approach away from short lectures and labored, poorly-crafted questions during small-group-time to something that fully engages and fully respects students.
  • If we will shift our focus from teaching kids how to “try harder to be better” using Scripture passages as our battering ram, and turn it toward a singular pursuit of a deepening relationship with Jesus, we will experience the “greater things” Jesus promised.
  • Teenagers can do more, say more, and understand more than we typically give them credit for. When I hear “my teenagers can’t/won’t/don’t” I think it’s masking the real problem—it’s not that kids aren’t able to engage in deeper truths, most ministries simply don’t know how to create an environment that actually facilitates it. When we ask bad questions or relegate teenagers to the sidelines, their true capabilities are masked.
  • We’re about to head into an even bigger challenge, as more and more churches and organizations and businesses open up, but certainty about what’s “right and safe and important” to do remains elusive. We’ve never before needed the skills of improvisation as leaders more than we do now—check out this piece on improv ministry for more on that.
  • Youth workers are amazingyour courage, creativity, perseverance, self-sacrifice, and flexibility astounds me. You are not “hirelings”—you “own” your flock, and that means you’ll lay down your life for them. And you are. Over and over. Way to go—you’re my heroes…

 

Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

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From the Belly of the Apocalypse

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