The promise of a new year is also, always, the promise of a “new you.” In my life, the promise of a “new you” translates to a deep desire to be a better youth worker. I look out on the sea of perfectionistic, entrepreneurial, social-media-tethered teenagers and ask myself: How can I help them boldly live for Jesus? There’s something different about this generation—the old tricks of the trade don’t work the way they always have. A new year, with the promise of a new ministry-you, leads us to deconstruct our ministry back down to its foundation, then rebuild it in a fresh way.
Setting New Goals
1. Become a better student of my young people.
The conventional wisdom is that today’s teenagers are technoholics with the attention span of goldfish. The research may undergird this view, but we often draw the wrong conclusions from it. How do we know what goldfish are paying attention to anyway? Instead of labeling my students, I want to study them better. So I started out the year by asking every teenager in my ministry to write down the top three things they are struggling with. And I’ve started a “Mind Meld” challenge that attempts to uncover the truth behind the headlines about teenagers—as they walk into our gathering every week I’ve posted a question for them to answer on a sticky note.
It might be “What’s one misconception adults have about teenagers?” or “Is fast food so yesterday, and why?” I have a volunteer stand at the front, and as kids stick their answers on our whiteboard, they get a raffle ticket for a small prize. The following week we talk through their answers to the question. Also, I’ve asked my small group leaders to check in weekly with their response to this question: “What’s one new thing you learned about your group this week?” Their answers could be silly—“They all hate Taco Bell” or serious—“I found out none of my students have ever memorized Scripture before.”
2. Raise up more student leaders.
In my early years in ministry, I bucked against allowing the youth in my group to lead in significant ways. I treated them as mere participants in the ministry, not instigators of it. Of course, I saw the error of this mindset, but the responsibilities I allowed them to take on were marginal and “safe”—they passed out papers and help with set up. I soon realized that if I was going to genuinely empower them, I had to train them to lead. If I lowered the bar for them, they kept it low. When I raised it, they wanted it higher. Slowly but surely I moved my ministry into a youth-led approach.
I recruit carefully, and I set clear boundaries around their leadership. But they help come up with our ministry themes, preparing and delivering talks, leading worship, running our sound system, planning ministry activities, and finding games we can play together. They recruit teams of people to help them lead their peers. It is messy, a load of work for me, and entirely worth it. This year, I will cut back on my presence in the front of the room and let my youth take that place, more and more, instead. As adults, we partner with our kids to ensure they stay on track, are held accountable, and can get their hard questions answered.
3. Going deeper into the wilderness.
I’m a Lord of the Rings geek, and one of my favorite lines is: “Not all who wander are lost.” I love this line because it reminds me that exploring the unknown is central to our calling. In a world driven by social media, it is easy to assume that our youth want merely to be entertained. I’m finding this to be opposite of the truth. Today’s kids want to ask hard questions and go deeper into the word of God. They no longer want to know if God is real, they want to know what it looks like if he really cares about them.
The moral foundation of this generation is subjective, and they like to filter it through their circumstances. This means the truth of Christ and his radical love can be lost on them. So I’m spending more time training our small group leaders how to graciously handle tough topics. And we’re discovering that creativity is critical in what we do. I’m not afraid to try new things and take new risks to help students know the heart of Jesus better. This approach has generated more discussions, stations experiences, and even drawing activities on the calendar than we’ve ever had before.
If I am a student of my teenagers, then I can better find leaders and know how to help them lead. And as leaders step up, we gain the traction we need to try new approaches to impacting our students. I can’t wait to see how the new year leads to a new ministry.