A youth minister’s job description can be summed up this way: Make disciples of Jesus who will go out of make other disciples of Jesus. When researchers at LifeWay surveyed 4,000 people about their spiritual lives and growth, they came up with these eight “attributes of discipleship:”
- Bible engagement
- Obeying God and denying self
- Serving God and others
- Sharing Christ
- Exercising faith
- Seeking God
- Building relationships
- Unashamed transparency
The survey results made it clear that “Spiritual growth does not happen by accident,” according to Ed Stetzer, LifeWay Research president.
That’s why youth ministry is more than just fun and games, as those in the field know. You’re always on the lookout for ways to reach the core kids in your group, the fringe kids in your church, and unchurched kids throughout your community. As the list of attributes above reveals, connections are essential—young people connecting to God, you connecting with young people, and you staying connected to God yourself.
For discipleship to happen, the gospel must be the focus. If you want something to get noticed—to stand out from the shadows—put a spotlight on it. This is exactly the thinking behind the way players are introduced at a pro basketball game. Because of the spotlight, you notice only individual players as they come on to the court—you don’t notice the coaches, the bench, the hoops, the fans, the referees, or even the basketball. These are all important components of a game, but the spotlight edits what the fans pay attention to. And nobody complains because the chairs or trainers are overshadowed; they came to see the players play.
When it comes to discipleship, here’s what it means to spotlight the gospel:
- Live it out. Your example, more than any program or study or strategy, is the most profound way to spotlight the gospel for students. Living out the gospel means loving the unlovely, being kind to those who are mean, refusing to defend yourself when it seems impossible to let something go, and seeking out those students to whom no one else will go. The more kids see adults living out the gospel, the more they’ll understand what it means for them to do the same. Students need to see how Christians live out their faith when things are going well and when things are going terribly.
- Reference the gospel in conversation and from the front. Everyone expects us to mention a few verses in our youth talks, but how often do they hear us use biblical references when it’s not expected? When you talk about an upcoming mission trip or service project, reference how the disciples served and why. As a lead-in to prayer requests, tell them Jesus’ story about the “friend who needed three loaves” in Luke 11. No, we’re not talking about mini-sermons; just natural, reasonable connections to the gospel. It’s about living and speaking the stories and truths of God’s Word intentionally.
- Take your focus off the peripherals. One quick, effective way to turn the spotlight on the gospel is to point it away from the non-gospel aspects of ministry. I don’t mean we eliminate the peripherals—just that we spend much less time focusing on them. Talk more about your fascination with Jesus than your fascination with technology, for instance.
Another way to move the spotlight off the peripherals in your ministry is to take regular breaks from them. We don’t have to have a cool video or a new game or a funny illustration every week. When we use these things as spice instead of the main course, our teenagers will know what our ministry is really all about.
- Listen as an entrée to invitation. The more broadly and deeply you listen to students, the more likely they are to invite you to spotlight the gospel in their life. And when you show teenagers that they matter enough to be listened to, you show them they matter to Jesus.
When we spotlight the gospel, we ultimately spotlight the God who thought it up. And when people come face-to-face with Jesus, they are forever changed!
Don’t miss significant ministry opportunities to connect with students God places in your life for a season. Here are some discipleship tips from hard-learned lessons:
- Be accepting of churched teenagers. Churched students can be so conversant with grace that they lose perspective on sin. Although we should appropriately confront sin in our students’ lives, we must also recognize that churched students will make lots of mistakes. We must love churched students with no strings attached—just like the way God loves us.
- Offer words of challenge and encouragement. Have you noticed how negatively the average adult views teenagers? Churched students have many adults who speak the truth into their lives but few who speak the truth in love. I wonder how Peter would have responded had I pulled him aside and encouraged him to put his knowledge to action and be a better leader. I wonder what he would’ve done if I’d challenged his answer whenever he gave a “Sunday School answer”: “That’s right Peter, but how does this situation play out in your life? How would one of your wrestling buddies react if you stopped participating in inappropriate conversations or using language filled with sexual innuendo?”
If you speak truth without love to churched students, you might just be a jerk. If you speak love without truth, you might just be a pushover. We have to follow Jesus’ example and speak the words of a prophet with the heart of a shepherd.
- Provide a place of stability. Many kids feel disassociated by the radical changes they’re experiencing in their lives. Even churched students live in homes filled with sin and confusion. Every teenager needs a place of rest and stability and health. The good news is that God works miracles in kids’ lives not only because of us, but also in spite of us. If we take seriously Jesus’ words to make disciples of all nations, we need to ask God to help us be more consistent and caring for the churched students in our lives.
Learn lessons from your mistakes, learn to love better, and let God’s love for the church inspire you to be a better youth pastor to churched students.
Salt and Light
In Matthew 5:13-16, Jesus calls his followers to be salt and light:
You are the salt of the earth. But what good is salt if it has lost its flavor? Can you make it salty again? It will be thrown out and trampled underfoot as worthless.
You are the light of the world—like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.”
For context, it’s important to consider a Bible-times society without electrical lighting and without refrigeration as we know it. Salt served as a preservative, and light was much more noticeable in the dark because there weren’t streetlamps and neon signs everywhere.
Because Jesus’ followers act as his ambassadors on earth, young people need to hear that they’re 24/7 Christians. Our mission as salt and light lasts every day of every year. It’s not a simple task. It’s intense and often demands a lot from us. But it’s the only way to live a rich life.
From A to Z
Linda Moore Spencer, a youth ministry volunteer in Massachusetts, adopted this mission statement in her small group of teenagers: “Practice the Presence of God.” To define that mission statement and make it practical, they went through the alphabet to come up with a phrase starting with each letter. It’s a great primer for Christian living.
Achieve the attitude—You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had (Philippians 2:5).
Become the beatitude (https://bible.org/seriespage/7-beatitudes-matthew-51-12)—My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Galatians 2:20).
Cultivate the consciousness of Christ—Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10).
Develop the discipline—If any of you wants to be my follower, you must turn from your selfish ways, take up your cross daily, and follow me (Luke 9:23).
Emulate the eternal; eschew the evil—You must be holy because I am holy (1 Peter 1:16).
Fight the flow—Don’t copy the behavior and customs of this world (Romans 12:2).
Grasp the grace—O Lord, who are we that you should notice us, mere mortals that you should care for us (Psalm 144:3)?
Harbor the hope—Await the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, who will bring you eternal life (Jude 21).
Imitate the I Am—Imitate God, therefore, in everything you do, because you are his dear children. Live a life filled with love, following the example of Christ. He loved us and offered himself as a sacrifice for us, a pleasing aroma to God (Ephesians 5:1-2).
Jump-start the jubilation—Always be full of joy in the Lord. I say it again—rejoice (Philippians 4:4).
Kindle the kindness—Share each other’s burdens, and in this way obey the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
Live the life—But you must remain faithful to the things you have been taught
(2 Timothy 3:14).
Mimic the Maker—Since we have been united with him in his death, we will also be raised to life as he was (Romans 6:5).
Nullify the naughty—Don’t sin by letting anger control you. Think about it overnight and remain silent (Psalm 4:4).
Ostracize the outward—[They] pretend to be pious by making long prayers in public. Because of this, they will be severely punished (Luke 20:47).
Practice the presence—Genesis through Revelation.
Question the quest—Preach the Word of God. Be prepared, whether the time is favorable or not. Patiently correct, rebuke, and encourage your people with good teaching (2 Timothy 4:2).
Rouse the righteous to redeem the ragamuffins—Let us think of ways to motivate one another to acts of love and good works (Hebrews 10:24).
Stomp Satan—The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Romans 16:20).
Taste the truth and try the trail—Taste and see that the Lord is good (Psalm 34:8) and I am the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6).
Uphold the understanding to utilize the umbrella—Hide me in the shadow of your wings (Psalm 17:8).
Voice the victory—Shout joyful praises to God, all the earth (Psalm 66:1).
Walk with the Word—In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God (John 1:1).
Xalt the Xrist—Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness (Psalm 34:3).
Yearn for Yahweh—As the deer longs for streams of water, so I long for you, O God (Psalm 42:1).
Zoom like Zechariah—The Lord gave this message to the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 1:1).
“I just can’t relate.” That’s a common knee-jerk reaction when kids without previous church experience arrive in our youth programs. Instead of trying to figure out how to approach any remaining differences among people, we remember these important truths: Sin is sin. A hurting heart is a hurting heart. And kids of all backgrounds need to be taught how to belong to Jesus. Whether they’ve been hearing about him their whole lives or are new to this relationship, all kids face the challenges of navigating society’s many land mines.
To begin, we approach ministry entirely the way Jesus did—through relationships. He was always purposeful and focused, doing everything with the goal of grafting others into his family. Jesus preached to crowds and touched the broken. When he spoke to his disciples, never did he delineate, “You grew up in the church, so you get it, but you’re a tax collector, and…well, you know about them.”
Instead, Jesus realized that each person needed to learn what it meant to belong to him. At every turn, he said, “Okay, I just told that story, did you get it?” Ninety-nine percent of the time, the disciples’ answer was “no.”
Yes, kids who’ve been raised in the church inherit a foundation of background and perspective. Yet hearing something isn’t the same as taking it to heart. We must ask “churched” and “unchurched” teenagers alike, “Do you get it?”
The playing field is more level than we realize. It has nothing to do with whether or not we can relate. Relationships depend on showing up, listening, and learning about another person. “What is your greatest point of need?” is a question we all want answered. Everyone faces pain, disappointment, and suffering. Growing up with a bunch of Christians doesn’t safeguard us from the world’s scars. No matter our background, we all struggle with our humanness, which seems counterintuitive to belonging to the God of the universe.
Today’s generation is waiting for us to show up and engage. The time has come to put off excuses about not relating and start developing relationships.
That’s where the gospel comes in. Remember the story of the boy who offered his highly inadequate lunch to Jesus—to share with thousands? That was an absurd offering, really—an absurd act that led to absurd blessings. Absurd faith. Can you imagine the courage of that young man, pushing his way through the crowd, clearing his throat, getting the disciples’ attention? His words must have sounded ridiculous even to him: “Uh, excuse me…could you use my lunch?” Did he have any idea that Jesus would do something spectacular with his meager offering?
Absurd faith is what it takes to build relationships with kids.
- Give what you have, and don’t pretend it’s more. In other words, be real. We can all do the math: five loaves + two fish = not enough. There’s no point in pretending it’s more. The best thing we can give teenagers is our real selves—and that’s not enough, either. So many of our young people are desperately seeking their own identities, anchored in nothing real. They don’t need a youth worker who’s doing the same. They need adults who will listen. Care. Ask questions. Remember. Laugh with them. You’ll build the relational bridge necessary to share hard truths.
- It’s inadequate, but offer it anyway. Some people probably had bread in their hands that day but didn’t offer it up because it seemed stupid. We may never have the right words to change a young person’s life, but we must speak anyway. We may get rejected, but we must try anyway.
- God multiplies the simple things we offer. Scripture is full of this truth. So swallow your fears and step out in faith. Say “hi” to a kid who’s trying hard to avoid your eye. Face rejection. Smile. Ask questions. Show up (Brennan Manning says the key to our life with God is to “show up and shut up”). Reveal yourself and watch God work. With absurd faith, offer what you have. And expect that in time, God will use your relationship with them in absurdly beautiful ways.
Really Getting to Know Kids
How do we teach, pastor, and lead when access to kids’ real lives—and real thoughts, struggles, and emotions—is barred and compartmentalized for church?
- Puncture your assumptions. We’re not experts on adolescent thinking. Yes, we’ve grown up through adolescence and yes, we’ve studied adolescence and yes, we love teenagers. But all of our knowledge and expertise is built on the shifting sand of our assumptions about their secret lives.
It’s dangerous to assume we know our kids well. Time and time again we’ve been disappointed by the life decisions our youth group kids have made. Just when we thought their faith was so deep, another disappointment whacked us. It’s easy to mentally beat ourselves up because, obviously, we must have missed some things that could’ve prevented these heartbreaking choices.
But let’s grab the perspective of battle-scarred wisdom. We’re their discipler—that significant “other adult” in their lives who is passionate for Jesus and passionate for them. For some of our kids we’re the most significant adult in their lives. But we never assume we know all about them anymore, and we recognize that their parents know more about them than we do.
- Focus on the underlying reasons they come to youth group—to understand and worship God, to find a “true family” environment where they can be themselves, and to discover their purpose in life. Today’s teenagers are oh-so-busy, so it’s all the more remarkable that so many are scheduling youth group into their hyper-drive lives. Teenagers want to talk about the really big questions in life—it’s a significant part of their daily conversations. And in their secret lives, they really struggle with these questions. Maybe, just maybe, we can help them find some truth, some answers. So our primary job is to teach the truth—that’s why they’re coming to church (of course, some parents force them to come, but those who fight it the most secretly want it the most).
If we used to focus our biblical teaching on topics such as suicide, loneliness, love, sex, dating, alcohol, and so on, we now focus on faith foundations. The “big topics” in their lives come up anyway, and we can weave them into our foundational teaching. Start by pursuing the great truths that fuel a Christ-following life—the real reason they come to church—then loop their everyday issues into that pursuit.
- Most Christian parents truly desire to “disciple” their children, but they often don’t know how to do it and struggle to find time for it in the family schedule. Parents are wrestling with so many demands that masquerade as priorities. They need someone who’s passionate about making it easier for them to pass on their faith and lay the groundwork for better communication with their kids. We are that someone. We can use our knowledge of kids to help parents feel better equipped in their discipling efforts.
For example, plan a yearly “3×4” gathering. It’s a night when both parents and young people come together to explore a topic such as “Those Big Church Words.” Together pursue the meaning behind the words we robotically throw around in church but have little real knowledge of their foundations—words such as sanctification. The public goal is to help teenagers understand these words with help from their parents. The subversive goal is to help many parents understand these words for the first time so they can better disciple their kids.
- Plant and water. How many times have you thrown your heart into your teaching only to watch it crash into a wall of blank faces? Well, our words are penetrating our kids’ hearts far more often than they let on. We don’t know what’s going on inside when they’re alone in their bedrooms or driving in their cars. But former youth-group kids reveal that they’re always mulling over what we tell them, comparing it with all the other messages they’re hearing. And our words stand out because they come from someone they respect and who actually likes them. No, their lives don’t reflect truth all the time. But they can now look back on their lives and see God’s hand moving. And we are key people, helping them to experience God intimately in their lives.
Framing Discipleship as a “Should”
Jesus isn’t trying to should you into loving him. That’s our misguided strategy, not his. He wants to invite you to know him much more deeply, then let’s see how that impacts your love for him.”
Heretical shoulds try to push students into religious imperatives, and that’s why we’re so exhausted in ministry. Instead, a “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) approach is invitational, and takes a fraction of the energy.
When kids grow up in church and can walk you through the building describing major life moments that occurred in its nooks and crannies, it’s a beautiful thing. But instead of leading to good news and grace, our teachings can turn into laws and gates.
How can we ensure that our ministries produce disciples rather than Pharisees? Jesus’ 12 closest followers avoided turning into Pharisees, so maybe it’s as simple as doing and saying the same things Jesus did. That might not be as easy as it sounds; after all, he’s God. But it’s worth considering as we pray for and plan our ministries.
What if we taught kids to embrace Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount? What if we practiced loving our enemies together? What if our ministries modeled and taught reconciliation the way Jesus did? What if we taught students that they don’t need to be gatekeepers but instead get to be the loved and the lovers? That’s so much more attractive to teenagers; after all, who doesn’t want to be loved?
Youth ministers don’t have to avoid talking about other religions and worldviews. We can just do so in the context of loving our neighbors. We don’t have to stop talking about non-Christians. We can just do so in the context of inviting them to the wedding party. No one—not even lifelong Christians—deserves to be there. But thankfully, Jesus’ grace and salvation are free to everyone.
Growing up in the church doesn’t have to guarantee that someone will turn into a Pharisee. Instead, imagine a youth ministry that raises up fully loved disciples who love exactly as Jesus did.
Mark Upton, a former youth worker and current pastor, offers these wise words: “If anyone asks you about your ministry, tell them you’ll let them know in 10 years.”
Like any ministry profession, youth pastors want to see changed lives. At the same time, we must view ourselves as sowers—we plant gospel seeds for later harvesting. Because we crave validation, we default to behavior-modification strategies that promise tangible proof of impact. A kid carrying a Bible to school, signing a chastity pledge, or sporting a faith-related bracelet may seem like a marker for spiritual progress, but if these outward signs are an attempt to follow a “Christian code of behavior” rather than heart transformation through the Holy Spirit, then they may not reflect lasting life change.
Don’t Ignore “Fringe” Kids
Most ministries focus on their “core” kids, and even celebrate that approach as an effective strategy. But it’s what you do with the kids on the fringe of your ministry that really fuels your impact.
Have you ever noticed these warning signs?
- You call some kids by name and others by a default greeting, like “Hey, man.”
- While the core group is worshipping like crazy, the rest of the group sits patiently on the sideline for 30 minutes as leaders talk over and around them.
- The team goes weeks without realizing a student has been MIA, while core kids are noticed right away if they miss a single event.
- You don’t know the hurts and needs of most kids in the group because you haven’t pursued them at all.
- You invest a lot of time learning games for icebreakers but little time learning the names of students you don’t know.
- You treat the same handful of teenagers to lunch over and over.
- You habitually pray over youth talks and event plans but spend little time praying over the kids.
God didn’t call you to serve a core group; he called you to serve the entire group. Your job is to love all teenagers well. Here are some practical ways to do that:
- Pray for all students, by name. Mirror God’s posture toward young people. Their needs will begin to surface, and you can start entering into their stories and loving them one by one.
- Redefine the roles of adult and student leaders. Acknowledge every teenager who comes through our door. Investing in student leaders in new ways. Challenge “core” students to recognize and serve those around them, looking out instead of in.
- Study every component of your youth ministry through the lens of inclusion. No matter what it is—worship, a lesson, or a game—if it bends toward excluding anyone in the room, rework it. Encourage kids to journal, paint, or write on a prayer wall. Shorten your lessons and break into small groups to engage every student. Stop playing games that create spectators; instead, choose games that encourage participation and enhance your sense of community.
- Recruit adult leaders who feel called to mentor. Adults shouldn’t just know kids’ names and a few fun facts about them; they should know their stories intimately.
- Determine to acknowledge, affirm, and celebrate all students, all time. Commit to learn students’ names and to use them always. Pay close attention when teenagers are absent, and contact them right away. Swap stories at leader meetings so you’re more aware of what’s going on in student’s lives.
Don’t Be Exclusionary
Unchallenged exclusion in youth ministry leaves kids to question whether the love of God we proclaim is real. Exclusion hides who Jesus really is. It confuses a Lover who longs to be close to all of his children with a God who favors perfection. We’ve been called to assure our teenagers, through inclusive and authentic relational youth ministry, that God did not come to earth to extend his love to one kind, but to all kinds—Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, clean and unclean, heterosexual and homosexual, introvert and extrovert, goth and prep.
It’s time for us to stop giving preference to those who play by the rules, look the part, and boost our ego. The flow of teenagers leaving the church won’t be halted until we stop showing partiality and start building a reputation as the most inclusive community our students know.
While Jesus’ early followers looked for reasons to exclude the unclean, diseased, and sin-ridden of their day, Jesus looked for ways to serve them. He identified with anyone who wanted to be included in his Kingdom—taking a drink from the woman at the well, drawing a line in the sand, sitting and eating with prostitutes, feeding the impoverished, and healing the outcast and diseased. By refusing to exclude anyone from his mercy and grace he reached beyond his core, making them witnesses called to testify of his indescribable love and forgiveness for all.
Don’t Objectify Kids
We’ve reduced teenagers to an identity that is tied to their pursuits, rather than who they are as people. Wherever teenagers and adults come together, kids are likely to be objectified instead of enjoyed for their true essence. Teenagers should never be defined as a means to an end. Our pursuit of them must always treat them as the end itself.
Surprisingly (and subtly), those of us called to youth ministry are also guilty of objectifying our teenagers. Our promotions are performance-driven—tied to the number of bodies that show up for our events. Our leaders (and our peers) christen us successful if our strategies boost our numbers. So we default to techniques that are beholden to numerical growth more than spiritual growth—and we objectify our students in the process.
Youth pastors, like teachers, gravitate to desirable students. And we massage our guilt by telling ourselves “I have more in common with him/her” or “I can’t possibly minster to everyone effectively.” When we “slot” teenagers like this, we objectify them. I mean, they sense that our love for them is tied to how well they perform. The gospel is robbed of its power when it is subjugated to the same performance-driven agendas our students must negotiate in their everyday lives. Instead, we must “humanize” kids in order to disciple them.