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The little girl immediately began to beg her momma to stay up with her. "Please, Mommy," she said. "I'm so afraid of the dark. Please just sit up with me for a little bit. I promise that I'll fall asleep really fast tonight!"
The mother's heart was torn, but she was so ill that she knew she simply could not sit by her daughter's bedside on this night, no matter how frightened the little girl was of the darkness. She wearily shook her head and then said: "Darling, I'm just too sick. I can't do it for you tonight. But I'll be in the very next bedroom. I'll leave the night-light on. And besides, remember that Jesus will be right here beside you all night."
At these words, the little girl could no longer choke back her tears. Amid her sobs, she pitifully whispered an immortal line. Crying, she said, "But Momma, right now I need Jesus with skin on!"
After three decades in full-time youth ministry, I think that story powerfully summarizes what real youth ministry is. It's being "Jesus with skin on" to the teen-agers the Lord brings to us. More than a sermon, a song or an activity, today's youth culture comes to our local churches just looking for someone who will be "Jesus with skin on" in authentic ways. That is why John 1:14, speaking of Jesus, says, "The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood" (The Message).
Effective youth ministry involves leaving the ivory tower of our church and loving teen- agers enough to emotionally move into their neighborhood. Allow me to share a few principles with you that will result in this kind of healthy, relevant youth ministry. Before we begin, please realize that there are many youth groups around the country--but not nearly as many true youth ministries. So take the time to read carefully and dialogue with your teen-agers. I hope you'll find some principles that will provide you with a few simple feedback points to make sure you have a true youth ministry, not just a youth group.
Keys to a Healthy Youth Ministry
1. Make sure your church has three legs on its youth ministry stool. Significant youth ministry can be compared to a simple, three-legged stool. If one of the three legs is shortened or removed, the ministry becomes shaky and will hold very little spiritual weight. The three legs on your youth ministry stool are: (1) pray your guts out; (2) work your guts out; and (3) love their guts out.
The youth pastor or lay leader who concentrates on these three vital areas will be a powerful tool in the Lord's hands for impacting teen-agers. However, please realize that if one of these "ministry legs" is weak or nonexistent, problems will inevitably occur.
Whether your ministry is run by a layperson or a paid staff individual, ask these three simple diagnostic questions: (1) Does our leader pray his guts out for the teen-agers? (2) Does our leader work his guts out to make sure worthwhile things are happening? and (3) Does our leader authentically love the guts out of the teen-agers in a fashion that makes clear that they are sincerely cared about?
2. Realize that today's teen-agers don't want youth groups, but youth families. No, the teens won't show up at your local youth ministry and say, "Show me love and help me feel like I belong around here." But if you could hear what their hearts were really saying, you would realize that a sense of belonging and family is the bottom line for most of them.
They will quickly forget your Scripture text for the evening, but they will remember the warmth they felt when they talked with you that night a couple of minutes after your message. They will forget how large your crowd was for the service, but they will remember how different individuals in that crowd related to them and made them feel like part of the "in" crowd. They will even forget how many people responded to the altar call at the conclusion of the service, but they will remember the hugs and warm affirmations they heard personally at the end of the night before they walked out the door.
In his most current youth-oriented survey, George Barna reports that 43 percent of today's American youth culture has recently considered suicide. Not surprisingly, the painful results of splintered families are reflected in almost every set of youth culture statistics. That's why any youth ministry that strategically positions itself as a warm, loving family is a youth ministry that will be attractive in the eyes of today's teens.
3. The single most important decision regarding a youth ministry is the choice of its leader. The old adage is painfully true: "We teach what we know, but we reproduce who we are."
Every youth pastor or lay leader knows how quickly they see themselves reflected in the teens whom they lead. Thus, the choice of the leader is paramount. The true spiritual hunger of the leader will eventually become the true spiritual hunger of the teen-agers. Every aspect of his or her spiritual life will eventually be reflected in the impressionable lives around them.
Though one's spiritual life is paramount, I wish I could say that every godly youth leader is a great one, but honesty would make that statement impossible. I have known many incredible people who love Jesus with sincerity, but who are mediocre in their ability to attract teens and relate to them. Thus, a healthy youth ministry must be led by a person who has a God-given ability to draw and connect with teens. The personality profile of different effective leaders will be very contrasted, but a few non-negotiables should be mentioned here.
The effective youth leader needs to have an outgoing, fun-loving personality. He needs to truly love teen-agers and have the ability to let them sense that love in a genuine way. He needs to have a healthy degree of self-confidence and self-esteem that will not be easily rattled when the rough times come.
He needs to have verbal skills that allow him to communicate in a motivational and authentic manner, both in and out of the pulpit. And he needs to have the kind of unspoken "youth culture magnetism" that makes him draw teens, whether he is at a basketball game, in a shopping mall or at a local restaurant.
Do all youth pastors and volunteer leaders have these qualities? Probably not. Yet we often find our youth ministries thwarted because we simply have a "good guy" as the leader--a good guy who loves Jesus very much, but who has little power when it comes to relating to today's youth culture.
4. When attempting to reach the MTV generation, creativity is essential. In my generation we had longer attention spans, if only out of sheer politeness. We would listen to a rather bland three-point sermon and then respectfully respond at its conclusion. Those days have long ago passed us by.
Now every time I stand in front of my youth, I am competing with the "invisible competition" that spends billions of dollars to capture its audience's attention every night. MTV and other programs change the visual images they use every split second to capture and maintain the interest of their viewers. Thus, I must communicate the gospel in a creative and captivating way if I truly expect to make an impact.
Every week in Cross Current, we use skits, dramas, student sharing and the like to creatively mix up the routine. Youth leaders themselves do not need to be drama directors. They simply need to mobilize teen-agers around them to come up with creative ways to communicate powerful, changeless truths of God's Word.
Because this generation is so techno-savvy, teens in your group can easily make fun videos on the topics you discuss in your weekly meetings. In short, the real key to being creative in youth ministry is not so much to be a creative point-person as it is to be an organized, delegating point-person.
Creativity can go beyond drama and video to extend into things such as meeting locations. We have hosted unforgettable youth evenings in locations ranging from a graveyard to a garbage heap! If your youth service is always highly predictable, you're doing something wrong.
5. Discipleship must be more than a frequently used term. It must be "fleshed out" on a weekly basis with a specific strategic plan, which is embraced by the leadership of the youth ministry.
>Ministry is full of catchphrases, and in youth ministry "discipleship" is one of those common terms that is often talked about but rarely strategically planned and lived. In my own personal framework, discipleship is not so much a set of books or curriculum as it is just "being there." To disciple someone apart from relationship is virtually impossible. Thus, discipleship in Cross Current builds strategically around our small group ministry. More teens actually attend our weekly small groups than attend the larger youth services on Wednesday evenings.
Many powerful youth ministries have used other means to disciple their teens. Some have used a weekly Sunday school gathering taught by exceptional people to be their "bottom line" in discipleship. Others have focused their discipleship endeavors around breaking off their youth ministry into small discipleship groups once every four weeks or so.
The specific methods of discipleship are many and varied. But every youth ministry needs to ask two simple questions: (1) What vehicle are we using for relating to our teens on a personal basis to help them grow in God? and (2) How are we going to get them into the Word in a relevant and consistent manner that will impact the way they live their everyday lives?
6. Remember that spiritual warfare in reaching today's youth culture is no longer a nice-sounding concept. It is a spiritual mandate. Scripture has made it clear to us that we "wrestle not against just flesh and blood, but against principalities and powers and rulers of darkness in high places" (see Eph. 6:12). At the time of this writing, the warfare that is going on in the heavenlies for today's youth culture is painfully real to me.
Just recently, I hung up the phone from talking with a broken mother whose son I had related to several years ago. He attended our youth ministry only occasionally, but was a brilliant young man who found himself deeply depressed and confused. In short, he was found dead in his college dormitory. He put a gun to his face and literally blew his brains out. It was my painful honor to speak at his funeral.
Reading over a note he left right before he took his life, I am captured by the degree of spiritual warfare that eventually brought him to his ultimate conclusion. Granted, most young adults will never put a gun to their heads because of demonic oppression. Yet I strongly believe that most of today's youth culture will sense and feel the weight of spiritual oppression in their lives on a regular basis, though they obviously will not know what to call it.
In pre-service prayer before Cross Current each week, we teach our students to pray scriptures back to the Father and to use the authority of God's Word to "clear the spiritual atmosphere" so people will be able to hear and respond with clarity. Even more important, effective youth ministry must be grounded in spiritual authority that can cut through the deceptions, mind games and confusion energized by the enemy's camp. No true victory in heaven ever goes unchallenged in hell, especially in the life of an aspiring, teen-age world changer.
Please realize that a healthy youth ministry in today's culture is one that avoids being weird--yet it is one that authentically prays and does battle in the invisible realm as much as in the visible one. Apart from significant prayer, youth ministry efforts may look good but will have very little significance from an eternal perspective.
More Than Just a Program
When my husband, Sam Mayo, accepted the senior pastorate 12 years ago at First Assembly of God in Rockford, Illinois, the youth ministry drew about 30 teen-agers a week. The budget was extremely tight, so he asked me to take the group until funds made a full-time youth pastor's salary possible.
I had already been in youth ministry nearly 20 years at that point. Quite frankly, I felt way too old to begin all over again. But hesitantly, I agreed to lead the youth ministry briefly, until funds made a full-time youth pastor's hiring possible.
Twelve years later, I am still fulfilling the interim position, and I'm having the time of my life. People call and visit weekly, wanting to know the "formula" behind the incredible numerical and spiritual growth that now finds us close to 1,000 teen-agers each Wednesday night. But the answers are not glamorous ones. The bottom line is just putting into place a strategic plan (for us it was cell groups) whereby teens are loved and cared for one person at a time. I never envisioned Cross Current becoming a very large youth ministry.
Rockford First Assembly itself runs approximately 2,000 individuals each Sunday. Thus, the normal "10 percent figure" for successful youth ministry set our sights at approximately 200 students. The growth has continued, however, because we have always put our priority on taking care of kids, one person at a time.
Recently, I had an overnight party at my home for about 70 high school seniors. No, our house isn't large enough, and no, I don't run immoral co-ed slumber parties. You're probably wondering why, at 51 years of age, I still push myself to host such events. The reason: I still do things like this because I realize that no matter how large or successful the Cross Current youth ministry may appear on the outside, I'm not in true youth ministry unless I continue to stay at the grassroots level and take care of teen-agers myself.
Youth ministry isn't the size of the corporate group gathering on Wednesday nights. It's more accurately measured in the size of the leader's heart for his or her kids. In short, if you are too busy in the ministry to still take care of some teen-agers personally, you are simply busier than God wants you to be. My spiritual edge and my three decades of wholehearted passion for teens pivot around my continued determination to stay involved with individual teen-agers' lives on a daily basis.
Obviously, I can't be strongly committed to all of them. That's why I prioritize training a leadership team around me who can be "Jesus with skin on" to the teens in their individual cell groups. But valid, effective youth ministry is not nearly so much about the program as it is about the people.
The task seems overwhelming, but I remind myself often that to some mom and dad somewhere that one teen-ager is the most important person in the world. I then realize how privileged I am to partner with those parents and to spiritually love and care for their kids. Authentic and life-changing youth ministry always takes place one person at a time.
What Teens Care About
1. Teens today don't care how much you know until they know how much you care. Youth want to be reached by someone who honestly cares about them. Though I have college degrees, I must honestly say that the students in my youth ministry are unimpressed with my theology or profound collegiate wisdom. They don't even care that I speak around the nation and write articles for magazines. They simply want to know that I, or other leaders whom I train, care for them personally.
2. The youth ministry that prays together and plays together, stays together. It's a delicate balance and one that is not always easy to find. But healthy youth ministry necessitates both praying and playing.
At the overnight event at my home, we didn't have a scheduled devotional time during the evening. Instead, we exchanged gag gifts, played stupid games, went out to eat at Perkins at midnight and ate more food than my refrigerator thought possible. Our youth leaders and I have earned the right to speak serious things into some of our teen-ager's lives just by taking time to hang out with them and have fun in their kind of way.
I had a private conversation with a young man about some spiritual issues that I never would have heard about at the end of a normal youth service. Another guy sheepishly brought me a little ceramic angel. Trying not to be embarrassed, he said: "I brought this for you tonight. I know it must be a pain to have all of us over all the time, especially the way we wreck your house, but you've been an angel to a lot of us. I just wanted to give you this dumb little thing to let you know we appreciate it."
No, I don't get many "angel moments." Quite frankly, youth ministry is often an unappreciated vocation. The point is that without the fun, unspiritual moments relating to the teens in your ministry, you'll rarely claim the right to be deeply listened to on eternal issues.
The church world has communicated to our youth culture that being a Christian is full of don'ts, rules and high level boredom. Thus, effective youth ministry has to develop its own kind of fun and family time together.
3. Authenticity, honesty and vulnerability are the keys to this generation's hearts. In the church world, we often specialize in what I call TRT, or Typical Religious Talk. Teen-agers have a very low tolerance for this.
Any valid ministry will be born out of a brand of Christianity that communicates the real deal. Don't bother trying to make teens think you are perfect because they know otherwise. But they are more than forgiving about your shortcomings and your own struggles if you remain transparent rather than super-spiritual in your communication with them.
4. Though the message in youth ministry remains sacred, the methods do not. Perhaps one of the toughest parts about being in youth ministry for three decades is the fight to remain a "flexible wineskin." Though the biblical principles of the Word remain constant, the methods that are used to communicate those principles effectively to today's youth culture change often.
The world of youth ministry used to involve overhead projectors and puppet ministry teams. Today's youth ministry wraps itself around loud music, video projection and computer technology. The tragedy is that often youth leaders choose the wrong hill to die on; that is, we go to war over music volume or hair length, when those issues are truly more cultural than they are issues of spiritual conviction.
Implementing Healthy Youth Ministry
1. Prioritize either finding the right youth leader and/or adding value to your present youth leader on a consistent basis. If a senior pastor is looking for a competent, full-time youth pastor, I suggest he call another youth pastor whom he admires and ask for possible recommendations. As with most specialty vocations, it takes one to know one. This approach is a great starting place. Keep in mind that having a degree in youth ministry doesn't automatically make a person an effective youth pastor.
When a leader is determined, whether they are full time or a lay volunteer, invest some finances in sending them to key youth training events. Investments made into the motivation and the training of your key youth leader(s) will be investments well spent.
2. Meet with the leader at least once monthly to bring encouragement and to position yourself as his greatest cheerleader. Youth pastors and leaders will work hard for a senior pastor who truly appreciates their efforts. So, affirm, affirm, affirm! Many of the young youth pastors who are entering full-time ministry now crave working for a senior pastor who positions himself not just as a boss, but also as a spiritual father and mentor.
>That kind of relationship is only possible when regular appointments are put on the calendar. Those I am closest to have a consistent slot on my calendar each week. Our time together is usually over coffee and lunch somewhere, and the conversations may not sound too profound. But consistently meeting with an individual and determining to be encouraging during those appointments builds a deep and lasting relationship.
Just allow your youth pastor, or leader, to feel that as the senior pastor, you deeply care about the youth ministry. When this kind of spiritual parenting and ministry encouragement is present, extraordinary people will be willing to make the sacrifices to work on your team.
3. Support your youth ministry leadership team when the normal isunderstandings arise with older adults in the church. I am not saying that your youth pastor will never do anything wrong or stupid. Nor am I saying that you should never correct him or her privately. But please realize that effective youth ministry will inevitably rattle well-intentioned adults in your congregation.
Whatever the issues are, your youth pastor needs to know that you as the senior pastor will not sacrifice him as a political pawn whenever an affluent adult gets upset. Effective youth ministry is done in a style that relates to teen-agers. That very fact will make effective youth ministry sometimes a little offensive to adults who are understandably disconnected with this generation of teens.
4. As the senior pastor, make positive "one-liners" often from the pulpit, affirming the teens and the youth ministry. Those kinds of statements will go a long way to let the youth feel that their senior pastor is really "cool" and "on the same page" as them. The teens in your church don't so much want you to use their language or understand their latest video games. They just want to feel that you are really proud of them.
5. Once or twice yearly, consider hosting something personally that will make the teens in your church think their senior pastor is the greatest. It doesn't have to be anything big. Maybe just ask them over to your home for a summer cookout or for a Super Bowl party. The event needs to be youth-oriented, so ask and receive counsel from other leaders and teen-agers as to what would go over well with the teens in your youth ministry.
Realize that the actual event itself will be secondary to the reality that "our senior pastor asked everybody over for a cookout!" Then notice the following Sunday, when you begin your sermon, how the "listening quota" of the teens will take a dramatic turn upward. Small kindnesses from the senior pastor make a big difference in a teen-ager's attitude toward the church and Christianity as a whole.
6. Occasionally ask some of the teens privately to tell you one thing about which you can support them in prayer. You'll probably see the teen-agers struggle for words at that moment, but the mere fact that you would take a minute to personally hug them and ask them for a window into their world will be huge to them. Simple actions like these will give you a far greater spiritual impact in a teen's life than the most impressive Billy Graham pulpit moments. The rewards for this kind of "Jesus with skin on" ministry are immense.
I shared memories at the young man's funeral that I spoke of earlier in this article. There are no words to make this tragic suicide "all better" for his family and friends. I hadn't even seen the young man since he had left for an out-of-state university three years ago. So why did his parents request that I be the person to speak? It's because, in a nonglamorous way, he was one I deeply cared for several years ago.
When he was a senior in high school, he came to the same kind of parties I mentioned earlier. He laughed, he played pranks and late into the night I earned the right to hear his heart in a fashion that his parents now want publicly communicated. Was it easy? Not on your life. But Jesus never told us that valid youth ministry would be easy. He only told us it would be eternally worth the price tags.
Jeanne Mayo is a youth pastor at First Assembly of God in Rockford, Illinois. She is sponsoring the National Youth Leaders Conference on April 23-26. For more information or to register online, logon to www.nylc.net, or call toll free (877) 394-NYLC (6952).
Clark, Rice, et al. New Directions for Youth Ministry (Group Publications)
Donahue, Bill. Leading Life-Changing Small Groups (Zondervan)
Johnston, Ray. Developing Student Leaders (Youth Specialties)
Mayo, Jeanne. Youth Ministry University, Volume I, (YouthChurch.com)
Pratney, Winkie. Fire on the Horizon, (Gospel Light)
Robbins, Duffy, The Ministry of Nurture, (Youth Specialties)
Spader, Dann, et al. The "How To" Series (Sonlife Ministries)
St. Clair, Barry. Reach Out Strategy (Reach Out Youth Solutions)
For more youth ministry resources, including the latest books and curriculum, log on to Strang Communication's YouthChurch.com Web site at www.youthchurch.com. Visit www.ministriestoday.com to explore other ministry resources.
Or view our complete list of FREE newsletters and downloadable resources.