Successful youth ministry is about the life-altering reality of the gospel, not gimmicks
Youth ministry. The words alone are enough to strike fear in the hearts of even the most seasoned, accomplished ministry professional. They bring to mind laborious, draining efforts that don’t always have the results we want. How did it get this way? Why do church’s youth pastors tend to have such a high turnover rate?
Out of a genuine desire to impact the next generation, many respond by trying to make church so entertaining or cool that young people will be too impressed or comfortable to walk away. So, expensive stage lights are installed and a café is set up. Nothing wrong with those things, but the problem is: When we give young people what we think they want—or even what they tell us they want—and deny them the life-altering reality of the gospel, we fail to give them the one thing they truly do want: something real.
The few short years I’ve been blessed to serve as the director of Eagles’ Wings 9-month Internship and three-week Summer Discipleship have been a real crash course. Nothing like learning as you go! But as I have prayed, improvised and stumbled my way through, I’ve encountered some good news—actually, the Good News.
The key to successful youth ministry is the simple and enduring gospel of Jesus Christ. Instead of focusing on look, feel and quantity in our youth ministries, I believe we need to be guided by presence, identity and purpose.
Presence. One of my favorite parts of the year is when the co-leaders of the Summer Discipleship Program and I take a dozen teenagers to a remote cabin in Western New York (with no cellphone reception) and simply get out an acoustic guitar and get in the presence of God. If we skip a session to do more hiking, it’s not long before the kids complain and let us know they want more of these authentic, intimate times with the Lord.
Identity. At a young age, people are concerned with the issue of their own identity. Who are they? Where do they fit in? If we want to form their identities for the good, we’ve got to be truly involved in their lives so that our message to them has a relational context. This is what gives us authority and influence in their lives. This generation wants brutal honesty, and we have the truth that will set them free.
Purpose. When young adult groups become self-referential, the gospel and power of Jesus Christ simply isn’t needed. Why do we treat adolescence as merely a test run of life? If we don’t offer youth something that taps into the passion and power they sense within themselves, they’ll quickly find that MTV does. Our mission can’t be attendance; it’s got to be teaching them that they have a mission.
The good news is: The gospel wasn’t just real 2,000 years ago; it’s real right now. The gospel isn’t boring; it’s exciting. It’s the strategic marketing hook we’ve been looking for elsewhere.
Young people will only truly understand the gospel if they’re given the chance to do it. They need to find themselves in the Book. They need to find where they fit into the big picture. Don’t just tell them the Bible is true; let them see it for themselves by living it out—sort of how the disciples were in the presence of Jesus all the time, gained their identity from Him and all the while were engaged in the mission of accomplishing God’s will on the earth. How did we miss that? Jesus is with us and wants to work with us to accomplish what He started.
Mark Passarella has been serving at Eagles’ Wings since 2007. Mark oversees and brings leadership to some of the various discipleship programs that Eagles’ Wings offers including the 9-Month Internship, Advanced Ministry and Summer Discipleship programs. Mark is excited about seeing a generation live with passion, radical purpose and wisdom in God. He and his wife, Gabi, were married last September.