Tasha and I weren’t raised in the church. The tradition in which we found faith had a very guarded view of the Holy Spirit in general and supernatural stuff in particular. In fact, we heard more than one church leader semi-jokingly talk about the Trinity as the Father, Son, and Holy Bible.
Needless to say, our understanding of the supernatural was stunted and malformed. As we pursued kingdom life, God graciously placed people in our lives who helped us grow, learn, and experience the supernatural in ways that weren’t weird.
What we describe as supernatural is simply God’s Kingdom breaking into our natural world. For us, this plays out in youth ministry in two ways:
1. Make space for the Holy Spirit.
We regularly engage kids ranging in age from 12 to 17. Some attend public school, others attend private school, and another group are home-schooled. Some kids come from traditional nuclear families, while others experience the menagerie of 21st-century family dynamics. For many years, we felt responsible to provide them with specific, tangible ways to live out the truths we were exploring. We were determined to be as specific as possible. But if you have 10 kids in your group and want to give each of them two or three specific ways to live what they’re learning, you might need a list of 20+ things. As the group grows, that number grows too. Instead, we now offer a shorter list of possibilities. We then give kids space to engage with the Holy Spirit and listen to his specific words for them.
I (Tim) like being the answer man. My focus is to connect deeply with teenagers through my words. I like making suggestions they can incorporate into their lives. And I like being the go-to person who reveals exactly what God wants kids to do. But if I create—either intentionally or unintentionally—a dependency on me for their spiritual growth, is there any room left for them to become dependent on Jesus?
We started small, adding a moment of silent reflection at the end of gatherings giving space for prayer and response. From the start, several teenagers shared what they sensed the Holy Spirit was saying to them. The precision, depth, and pointedness of their responses reminded me that God knows these kids at a level reserved for their Creator.
2. Make space for others.
Tasha and I have 50 years of youth ministry experience and eight college and graduate degrees between us. We’re good youth leaders. If something related to youth ministry needs to be done, we can probably do it better than others in our church. As arrogant as that sounds (and feels), it’s probably true about you as well. For a long time, we thought that was the best arrangement because we want to do everything “with excellence” (don’t even get us started on that phrase).
When you spend time on a middle or high school campus, you realize kids have massive responsibilities in those settings. They may be a director, A/V assistant, and prop manager for the school musical. Some are directing, engineering, editing, and producing daily announcement videos. Others are equipment manager for bands and sports teams. All carry the high-pressure responsibility of maintaining good grades to be admitted to the right college. Teenagers are accustomed to managing genuine responsibilities in most areas of their lives. Often, when they participate in youth ministry, their “leadership” is often limited to setting up chairs, folding and handing out bulletins, and saying 10-second closing prayers.
What if youth leaders and adult volunteers stop trying to do everything we can think of to make youth ministry fun, relevant, creative, spiritual, dynamic, and surprising? Instead, what if we trust the Holy Spirit, who dwells in young Christ-followers, to empower them to make youth ministry fun, relevant, creative, spiritual, dynamic, and surprising?
I (Tim) like being in charge. I’m a “jack of all trades, master of none”. For me, there is genuine enjoyment gained from being involved in lots of things. I struggle to let students take ownership because inevitably they’ll either mess something up (at best) or turn it into an epic fail (at worst). At times, I may stifle teenagers’ Holy Spirit nudges in an effort to keep things “excellent”. Can I really be surprised when most older high school and college-aged kids walk away from church involvement? Would you stay at a place where you felt you had nothing substantive to offer?
In our setting, we invite teenagers to serve however they sense the Spirit leading. Kids lead worship, teach, lead Bible studies, emcee, run games, and set up chairs. They cut and fold bulletins, remove trash, order pizza, pick prizes, plan, make phone calls, and more. Each young person has an adult or two helping, in case they get stuck. But we’re careful to not stop teenagers from failing; that’s a normal part of life. Instead, we help them navigate the “now what?” that surfaces after a failure. One of our ministry mantras is “When students lead, sometimes (not always) quality goes down, but group participation always goes up.”