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Listening to the Natives

How often is a reinvention really, well, something new? I mean, Apple upgrades the battery life (supposedly) and takes away the headphone jack and suddenly we have an all-new iPhone. Mostly“new” really means a relatively unimportant gimmick is added as a feature, forcing us to upgrade. 

Get real Not new.  

And sometimes our attempts to reimagine and repackage youth ministry feels just like an iPhone upgrade. We change the ministry logo, decide to write our own curriculum, or add a cool event. These are NOT reinventions. They’re new approaches to the headphone jack. 

Youth ministry emerged as a thing because a bunch of grown-ups saw a need among teenagers and did something about it. They were called by God to serve as missionaries in a foreign culture, and they accepted that challenge. And, as any effective missionary knows, that journey starts with the “outsiders” listening to the “natives”—it’s the natives who are best able to define their needs, and best able to help the missionaries translate ministry strategy into their strange culture.  

Likewise, any reimagining of youth ministry means we must listen to the natives first! I don’t mean we assemble a consumer feedback panel”—asking teenagers how to upgrade our “product.” Instead, “listening” means we empower the natives with our leadership and our resources and our support to penetrate their own culture as “native missionaries.”  

No one can reach teenagers like teenagers. No one. They have the best ideas, the most to lose, the greatest footprint in their culture, and the deepest desire to bring the Kingdom to their kingdom. 

If we’re going to reinvent youth ministry, we need to look to the natives first… For example: 

  1. Don’t merely use them as a sounding board for ideas—give them real responsibilities for ideating, planning, executing and evaluating the idea 
  2. Coach them on your social media plan, then empower them to run it. 
  3. Most of us have adults leading our small groups, sometimes with a student assistant—how about we reverse that and make the adults the assistant? 
  4. Never let adults be the first faces kids see when they show up for your group.
  5. Give them guidelines, then ask your teenagers to build your ministry’s music playlists. 
  6. Have teenagers lead the game, run the café, or manage your set up/tear down process. 
  7. Always make teenagers the point people for a campus ministry initiative.

This article originally appeared in the ‘Reinventing Youth Ministry’ special edition of Group Magazine. Click here to request your FREE copy.

Photo by Eliott Reyna on Unsplash

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Listening to the Natives

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