Since 1994, I have had the privilege of mentoring students through various youth ministry leadership responsibilities and serving as a full time youth pastor for almost 13 years. In these past 20 years of serving students and their families, observing their behaviors and passions, interacting with them at camps and on mission, creating & partnering with them to reach their peers through whatever godly means possible, I have come to one conclusion: Every church should be more like a healthy youth ministry. Notice I said HEALTHY. Let’s not be too naïve in thinking student ministry is a crucible of perfection. It’s not. But it IS a crucible for life lessons and spiritual growth. In fact, your church’s student ministry may very well hold the key to spiritual breakthrough that you’ve been praying for in your church and community for years!
Lead Pastors, it is not my desire to foster pride in the hearts of your youth pastor or students. Rather, I simply want to encourage you to listen to the creative ideas your youth pastor may have. Any youth pastor worth his/her salt will submit to the authority God has placed him/her under, and his/her students will follow the same example. If you choose to walk in the humility of reverse mentorship from your youth pastor, he/she will still need your wisdom and guidance, but you may need his/her insight and pulse on the culture and the families you’re leading as well.
“Why does my church need to be more like a healthy youth ministry” you ask? Well, to satisfy your itching inquiry, I shall divulge 7 main reasons why more adult, a.k.a. “BIG Church”, services need to take some pointers from students in their environment of spiritual community.
Most youth ministries that teenagers find worth attending and who have any sort of energy and excitement about them, have something even more important: they’re hospitable. They actually WANT new students to come to their youth group. They WANT their friends with their tattoos, drug & alcohol issues, sexual addictions, anger problems, and family hurts and pains to come to the one place your students actually believe their friends can find freedom and life transformation: YOUR friendly neighborhood youth ministry. As a result, new students feel like they belong, because they’re welcome to belong, and that’s half the battle (Yo Joe!).
- COMMUNITY + FRIENDSHIP = LONGEVITY
Not to belabor the point, but when a person feels like they belong somewhere, they tend to stay and build deeper and extended friendships. I’ve seen it happen over and over again. One of the main reasons this happens is through shared experience. Mid-week youth services are key to those shared experiences. Not to take away from the awesome experiences and moves of God that can happen at a mid-week or Sunday youth gathering, but I have found that youth camps and mission trips can be highly impactful as well. I have had the opportunity to counsel at, help direct, create, coordinate and lead over 100 youth camps and missions trips, and one thing that is common among all of them, well, 2 actually, is: 1) Students connect with God in a unique way, and 2) they connect with each other in ways a mid-week or a Sunday service simply cannot facilitate. We would regularly facilitate and take part in at least 2 camp experiences per year (Winter & Summer) and at least 2 major missions (Spring and Summer). It may be impractical for adult focused church to go on so many trips, but why not take a year and try something new? Perhaps a marriage encounter in the Spring or a family camp in the summer? Missions trips also are life blood to any healthy, forward moving ministry. Don’t just leave it to your students. Take time off and as Jesus commanded, GO!
- PASSION FOR JESUS & PEOPLE
Have you ever seen a group of teenagers go crazy at a rock concert or display their passion at a High School football game? Now mix that very real passion with foundation of Truth, motivated by the excitement of KNOWING that they know God and that He knows THEIR name! Students will often do what adults do 10x more passionately! I haven’t developed an app that can calculate that number, but I’m pretty sure it’s accurate. If we were as passionate about loving God through worship and service with all our heart, soul, mind and strength and loving our neighbors as ourselves as healthy youth ministries do, I believe the Church would be a more revolutionary place across all denominational lines. Youth ministries, based in Scriptural foundations and freedom in the Holy Spirit, are foundries of leadership development.
I want to reiterate this reality: youth ministries, based in Scriptural foundation and Holy Spirit driven pursuit, are foundries of leadership development through spiritual transformation. I’ve witnessed so many students from broken as well as healthy homes become great leaders in their marriages, families, jobs, and friend communities simply because they were willing to literally bow their knee to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, bum rush the Altar (Yes. I said “Altar”), and give all to Jesus! Through powerful encounters in prayer and worship, they allowed the Holy Spirit to heal them from past hurts as well as allowed their pride of “spiritual heritage” to fall so that God could fill them in a fresh way so that they could become the people God designed them to be. Too many churches have allowed this life-giving method and tool of “altar ministry” to die off in exchange for quicker, sleeker, more “relevant” gatherings. I’m not against a solid, quick, tweetable word from God, but I’m also not against extended preaching and prayer & worship time so that where of 2 or more people gather and agree in prayer, life-transformation can occur (Matthew 18:18-20). Students tend to have soft, moldable hearts. Is it any wonder that God has consistently used teenagers throughout Biblical history to serve Him mightily: Joseph, David, Esther, Mary, etc… Does every student submit themselves to God this way? No. I’ve seen many push God away and remain hard-hearted because they loved disobedience and pleasure more, but this did not and should not stop us from passionately seeking the presence of God for our lifelong sanctification and deliverance from sin and evil. Church, let’s humble ourselves and learn from soft-hearted students. Allow God to give you a heart of flesh where you once had a heart of stone so He can mold you. See Ezekiel 36:25-27.
- SHARED EXPERIENCE, FUN, & DISNEYLAND
Healthy Student Ministries are FUN! Our churches should be fun too. By fun, I don’t mean weekly games of Chubby Bunny or relay races, although there can be a place for that occasionally :-). I’m talking about the very essence of our group identity. Meaning the fun begins in the heart as students look FORWARD to coming to church gatherings or attending their small groups to be with their friends, worship God, and learn from the Word and each other. When I would lead our Summer So. Cal. High School Summer Camps to Newport Beach and Disneyland, I didn’t look morose or express disappointment at the burden of joy our students and my family and I were about to experience together. I would get VERY excited and prep my heart for the awesome time of enjoyment I was about to have with my student friends and family! Shouldn’t the Church be MORE fun than Disneyland? We serve the God of the Universe and He gave everything for our salvation! Should we not be reverently joyful and excited at this truth!? Fun is a state of being, not simply an occurrence. Too many “BIG” church settings are stuffy and lack the excitement of enjoying life IN Christ, together. As Gimli from “The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers” said, “You’ll find more cheer in a graveyard.” Somewhat, I understand how churches get to that point. In our desire to revere and honor God (and we should never stop doing that), we tend to think reverence means we cannot express joy in His presence and the presence of the church. Please don’t misunderstand me, there is a time to reverently bow the knee in worship and hold solemn silence and adoration of God in His holiness and power out of respect and honor, but joy should still be present in our hearts! I believe it is highly acceptable to transition into moments of joy and even laughter when we are enjoying the presence of God and encouraging each other in song and shared experience, as Ephesians 5:18-21 directs us. If more churches had fun, expressed through joy, I think more people would WANT to attend church with us.
- RELEVANT/AUTHENTIC EVANGELISTS
By “Relevant”, I don’t mean the quasi-church shock value magazine, or compromising with the culture to “look cool” so people can feel better about our “cool” Jesus. Side note, Jesus doesn’t need our help being “cool”. He’s doing fine on His own. We just need to be concerned with being Authentic, which will make us relevant by God’s standards. We should embrace 1 Timothy 4:12 and follow the example of students that understand their culture and their friends and who care enough to be IN their friends’ world without compromising their faith and purity before the Lord. This is the place where many students are my HEROES. Every Monday-Friday, 9 months out of the year, from 7 am-3 pm, and at extra curricular activities, students are MISSIONARIES to their campuses and their friends. They daily risk being ridiculed as they gather for Worship Wednesdays at the flag pole before school starts, or invite their friends to a comedy show with pizza in their school gym via their campus club, or when they muster the courage to ask their un-churched friend, “do you want to go to youth group with me?”, or even better, “Do you know Jesus as your Lord and Savior?”. Students tend to be much riskier when it comes to authentic evangelism than their adult counterparts. We adults can learn A LOT from teenagers who are full of the Holy Spirit and courage and are relevant, not because of a class on “being relevant” or from reading a magazine, but because the God they serve is faithful to help them. After all, who is more relevant today than the Creator of the Universe?
- CHILDLIKE KINGDOM PURSUERS & REVIVALISTS
“Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it,” (Luke 18:16-17).
There is a reason those younger than 18 years old are still considered children, and therefore legally under parental authority. Children need their parents for guidance, wisdom, provision, and love. Parents also need their children to remember innocence, joy, and…love. In the same way, the Church NEEDS her children, in particular, her teenagers. If Jesus, the Head of THE Church says to become more childlike, and the Apostle Paul reiterates this truth to Timothy in 1 Timothy 4:12, to not let anyone look down on his youth but rather set an example to ALL believers in matters of faith, life, purity, speech, and love, then shouldn’t we today also heed these words? Healthy youth ministries tend to display GREAT examples of godliness to their parent church. I believe healthy youth ministries have the potential to LEAD the church through passionate pursuit of God with humility into church-wide revival, and who knows after that. Why else does the Church exist? Is it to simply host events and more events, as good as they are? Isn’t the purpose of the Church to display the glory and life-transforming power of God?
If more lead pastors and “BIG” churches would occasionally pause their agendas, staff meetings, events, etc… and simply spend some time in their student ministry environments such as mid-week services and even camps & missions in order to capture their HEARTBEAT, then maybe, just maybe we may see significant change for the better in churches throughout America. The key here is heartbeat. Don’t spend time critiquing how they could be more smooth and polished in their delivery of music, transitions, and messages. That will squash what God may want to do in your heart. Of course they have room for improvement. They’re young. There should be a time for those conversations, and they should listen to your wisdom. That said, make a point to listen to and observe what the Holy Spirit is doing in them in THAT MOMENT. It’s not about program and method as much as purpose and heartbeat. Your student ministry just may very well hold the key to the church breakthrough you’ve been praying over for years. I mean no disrespect to pastors and seasoned leaders when I write this, but go ahead. Let somebody else run the ministries you would normally lead, and go spend time with your youth pastor, volunteer youth leaders and students. You just might get some new and fresh inspiration from God while you do. It won’t only be acceptable to utilize some of their practices and ideas, but it may be necessary.