I have been blessed over the last 12 years with the opportunity to work with youth and their parents in some capacityeither vocationally or as a volunteer. I have had the privilege to work with so many great and godly young people during this time. I have seen a lot of families get youth ministry right, and I have seen a lot of families get it wrong. Through the grace of God I believe He has allowed me to get some things right, while other times I have failed. But I am always trying to do a better job. After 12 years of ministry with youth and their families, these are 12 reflections (in no order but the last one) I have on that time.
1. Children often reflect their parent’s level of commitment to the church.
It is pretty simple. If parents aren’t making a commitment to reading their Bible, praying, and serving the church, most often neither will their children. This is not always true. I have seen plenty of teens who are greatly committed to the Lord, and their parents are not. I have also seen parents who are godly saints and their children dreadful delinquents. However, in general children mirror their parent’s level of commitment to the church and to the Lord.
2. More Bible and less fun.
Our world, at least in America, is filled with entertainment. Even the church sometimes feels the need to compete with it. I know that I have felt that pressure during my years of working with youth. While there is nothing wrong with good wholesome fun and entertainment it should not be what Youth Ministry is built on. At the end of the day, we need to be spending more time in Bible study than we do in organizing and playing the latest games. Entertainment and games have their place, but woe unto us if that is what the Christian kids are coming to church for. We need to spend more time properly understanding and teaching a passage, than preparing a game night.
3. Investment into the parents life is vital . . . they are their kids primary youth pastor.
Let’s be honest, the youth pastor (and even the church) only gets about 100 hours a year with your teen. It is near impossible to properly disciple a group of youth in 1-2 hours a week. Parents, however, get a few thousand hours a year to spend with their children. If a youth pastor wants to impact a kid, they need to impact and invest in their parents. The parent is ultimately the primary discipler of their children. The parents are the youth’s primary youth pastor. By spending time with their parents and helping to equip the parents to disciple their children will greatly increase the discipleship of the youth. Yes, the youth pastor has a huge responsibility, but parent have even more.
4. Quality over Quantity.
It is so easy to get caught up in the numbers game in the typical American church. One thing I have seen in my past 12 years is that high numbers do not always equate to a high view of God for the students in that ministry. While it is great to have a large amount of youth in your ministry, I believe the emphasis needs to be more on the quality of the ministry than the quantity of it. Are the kids that you are teaching growing to hate sin more . . . love God more . . . serve God more? If the answer is yes, then I would say the quality of your ministry is good. Numbers are great, but don’t sell yourself short and feel that you are not having an effective ministry if you only have a small group. Jesus took a small group and turned the world upside down.
5. The Youth are the church today, not just the church of tomorrow.
I am sure you have heard some older saint say, completely well-meaning, that “The youth are the church of tomorrow.” I know what they are saying, but anyone that is a repentant follower of Christ is a part of the bride today. There is so much that youth can do for the Kingdom that many adults would have a hard time doing. The youth will be the elders, deacons, pianist, and Sunday school teachers of tomorrow, but they are the evangelists and “foot washers” of today. Get them involved (if you they are not already) and let them BE the church.
6. Youth ministry is still a valid ministry . . . if done right.
The biblical way is the only way. There is a biblical way to do youth ministry. There is a movement today that teaches that youth ministry is not biblical and should be done away with. I have heard the arguments and have gleaned much from listening to those who lovingly teach this. Nevertheless, I do see a biblical purpose in youth ministry (Titus 2, Gal. 3:24, etc). I agree that so much of how we do Youth Ministry today is foreign to scripture, but I am not ready to give up on it. There is a biblical frame work that can be constructed (i.e. “The family equipping model” of youth ministry). We just need to make sure that all that we do in youth ministry has a biblical foundation, not just a pragmatic one.
7. One-on-One investment is invaluable.
Teenagers value honesty and relationships. One of the best ways for them to see you and trust you is one-on-one. Jesus spent a lot of time with his 12. He also spent a lot of time with just 3. He invested in them. Some of the most meaningful times I have had in my ministry have been through one-on-one discipleship (both formal and informal) with different students. You cannot do this with all of them. Nonetheless, when it is possible, do it. It will be a worthwhile investment.
8. Give them SOME ownership.
Teens have some great ideas on how to reach their own. Yes, it is true that many are not fully developed spiritually yet, thus the need for adult guidance; but I have seen wonderful growth in the lives of teens when you give them biblical guidelines and allow them to take some ownership in what they are doing. None of us simply like to be lectured. Most of us, I think, want to be told what to do . . . and then go and apply it. Teens are no different. Give them direction and give them guidelines, but give them some ownership in the ministry and see if the ministry and the youth do not grow spiritually.
9. Service projects are good, but Gospel-living is better.
Over the past 10 years or so I have seen so many youth groups start to do service projects in their communities. There are even entire summer and winter camps that are built around doing service projects. I rejoice in the fact that youth ministry is striving to put feet to their faith in DOING something for the Kingdom and not just expecting to be served. However, my fear is that so many leave their “Jesus” behind when they leave the service project. God has called us to live a gospel life, not just a gospel moment. Let’s not get so caught up in the moment of serving someone in the name of Jesus that we hold that on a higher pedestal than the everyday life where we are supposed to be living for Jesus. Let your whole life be a project for God, and not just a few hours on Saturday.
10. Conferences/Camp can be dangerous, but can also be delightful.
I have been to my share of summer camps and winter retreats. Some have been great, while others have been . . . uh, not so great. I will be honest: sometimes I dread going to these types of things. Often, a partial gospel message is presented and an alter call extended. So often it is the same youth who are making the same decisions year after year. I get frustrated at times because I feel the people on stage are playing with people’s emotions. Often 2 weeks later, nothing has really changed in the life of that person. The gospel did not capture them . . . emotion did. For this reason, I think these types of things can be dangerous. On the other hand, I have seen the Lord use these camps in a mighty way for His glory. It is an awesome thing to see the Lord bring someone to their knees and witness their life changed forever. This is delightful. So my conclusion is that we simply need to be discerning what camp/conference we choose and try to make sure that it is one that is gospel-centered and God exalting.
11. More of a mentor and less of a “friend.”
When I first started youth ministry I was 21 years old. What I wanted was for these youth to see me as a cool older brother. I enjoyed being that guy for several years. That is until I started to see my role in light of Scripture. When I started to see myself as a mentor who would speak truth even if it hurt in a loving way, rather than a “friend” shying away from truth because I didn’t want to lose their friendship, my approach to ministry really changed. Ultimately a youth pastor is an elder, biblically. There is a long list of things an elder is supposed to be . . . and a buddy who just wants your love is not on that list. Friendship is great, but in youth ministry it MUST come second to the elder/mentor role.
12. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of Youth Ministry.
When all is said and done we are called to fear the Lord. “What is the chief end of man? Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.” What is the chief end of youth ministry? It is the same as the chief end of man. You glorify God by first fearing him. Making much of Christ must be the starting point and finishing point to any youth ministry. There are a wide variety of ways to do this within the youth ministry context. No matter what we do, let us all make sure that the fear of the Lord is in view. Let’s make sure that Christ is the hero in our ministry. Let’s make sure the He is the one getting the glory, and not our cool little group.
I have greatly enjoyed my 12 years of ministering to/with youth and their families. I pray that as long as the Lord desires to use me in this capacity that I will continue to reflect and move on those things that honor God the most, and put to death those things that elevate us and diminish Him.
Soli Deo Gloria,
Adam B Burrell