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The Secret Sauce of Youth Ministry

Andy Stanley recently came under fire by suggesting that the secret sauce of youth ministry is in parents getting their kids to attend a large church. At least, that’s the sound byte that’s rapidly spreading around the Internet.

(Stanley did apologize and reframed his comments through hindsight)

The secret sauce of youth ministryIronically, my first volunteer youth ministry experience took place in the church in a large, suburban mega-church that effectively reached thousands of local students. After high school, I interned with them in a role that put me in charge of several hundred students.

I had no clue what I was doing.

The church was the same one I’d become a Christian in, and it did make a solid investment into training me. Still,  I was a young leader with 100% position and 0% wisdom. I’d only been a Christian for a couple of years, and now was in charge of more than 100 students.

So I did what many people might opt to do in such a situation… I faked it.

You’ve heard that before, right?

“Fake it ’till you make it.”

I looked at my peers who seemed to be effective youth workers and tried to be like them in practice and personality. If one of them was athletic, I’d swagger and talk like he did for a few weeks; if I found someone dressed in a way that students seemed responsive to, I’d use my next paycheck to shop at the same place; if a person’s ministry activities were working, I’d make sure our calendar reflected the same plans.

I felt like an impostor who was about to be exposed at any moment.

While I knew God had tapped me on the shoulder to do this, I started wondering if it was an accident – as if He meant to tap the person next to me but instead bumped into me on accident.

“Yikes, that touch was actually meant for someone in the Graham or Stanley family.” – God, in my head

I wondered if I was making any real investment into the students I’d be entrusted with shepherding.

Can you identify?

Not everyone who is working with teenagers feels like they know much about “youth ministry.” We’re all in this category to some degree, and it isn’t an insult.

Both veteran and rookie youth workers ask questions about what youth ministry is and isn’t.

You are involved in an ever-changing topic of study because teenagers are an ever-changing demographic.

The sharpest youth workers will even intentionally surrender the things they’re sure of so they can learn unique things about the young person in front of them. If you’re a good student of God and your youth, you can be as much of an expert about what “youth ministry” is as anyone else.

This is the secret sauce of youth ministry, and perhaps it is its only secret.

Saying "I don't know" is the first step to deciding to learn what you don't yet know.In Uncommon Wisdom from the Other Side, I outline how this is what Nehemiah did by spending his first burst of energy studying the condition of the walls of Jerusalem. Instead of charging in with positional authority, he took the time to understand what was really happening. In this way he could speak with integrity and not merely as someone the king put into power.

When you don’t have credibility, you really only have three options:

  • You excuse it, saying, “Nobody is perfect. Give me some grace.”
  • You fake it, saying, “My life is perfect. Give me some recognition.”
  • You own it, saying, “My life is imperfect. Give me some accountability.”

That last option is the only one that humbles you and provides a pathway to Jesus-centered living. Otherwise, we end up doing what teenagers do – find the loudest voice in the room and become whatever it says to become to be accepted. Students do a great job at walking into your church or youth group and knowing who they need to impress to be accepted. Adults, including youth workers, face the same struggle.

You don’t have to “Fake it ‘till you make it” if you “Live it so you can give it.”

About a month after I became a senior pastor, I received an email from a guy who told me he wanted to start a youth group in the church. We met, and I soon learned he didn’t even attend our services but had graduated from college and had (in his words) a “guaranteed way to grow a student ministry.” I asked, “What do you think about visiting with us for a month to get to know us?”

He never did show up.

About three months after that, a woman came up to me after one of our services. With quivering words, she explained that she didn’t know anything about youth ministry, but wanted to make sure students felt loved on. In her words, “I look at these kids, and they’re broken. We have something with Jesus that they need. If no one else minds, I’d be willing to help with that.”

Please tell me you already know which one I pursued.

An in regards to size, one view of Jesus’ ministry suggests most of his disciples were youth. Essentially, a youth group of 12. That seemed to work out well. The small youth group created a large Church–multiplication versus addition.

Perhaps it’s not about whether a church is small, but if it’s small-minded.

And maybe it’s not about if a church is large, but if it’s large-hearted.

Ya think?

On a related note, I had someone ask me how to lead change in a church where older Christians who never seem to change struggle with the changes youth ministry may require.

What advice would you give him on this?

Or, feel free to simply share your own questions about how you struggle in this area.

Let’s put this secret sauce to use together.


– Tony

One thought on “The Secret Sauce of Youth Ministry

  1. Leading change? Tough role. Small church, older congregation. Half the kid’s parents don’t even attend, the other half, well they have the same faithful parents. Real small church!! Dealing with kids today can be tough & rough: blended families, parent with life threatening illness, Wiccan parent. I just let the Lord lead and go with the flow. It has taken time, but finally the elders & youth are getting to know each others names, give hugs, share. Some are about to outgrow kids church, sister congregation has similar situation and invited us to join their evening youth group. Perfect timing, the Lord is leading and I just follow and bring the kids with me to Him.

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The Secret Sauce of Youth Ministry

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