How to Keep Your Youth Ministry Focused on Jesus
By Rick Lawrence
You work hard to plan great activities for the kids in the youth ministry at your church – Bible studies, service projects, games, discussions, retreats, mission trips, and more. But does every part of the youth ministry directly connect kids to Jesus?
Despite your best intentions, however, you can easily end up spending time and energy on activities that don’t really point the kids to Jesus. Here’s how you can keep your youth ministry focused on Jesus:
Take an inventory of what you’re doing. Consider everything you’re currently doing in youth ministry and honestly discern whether or not each activity is connecting kids to Jesus. Whenever you recognize something that’s not doing so, ask God to show you how to change your plans so that you’re either doing new activities or shifting the focus of your old activities.
Ask the Holy Spirit to transform your mind. Pray for the Spirit to renew your mind each day so you’re constantly aware of what Jesus is doing in your everyday life. Help the kids in your youth group notice and articulate what Jesus is doing in their everyday lives, so they’ll see the relevance and importance of a dynamic relationship with Him.
Deconstruct kids’ wrong ideas about Jesus. Break down misconceptions that kids in your youth ministry have about Jesus so they won’t be deceived and will be ready to hear and respond to the truth about Him. Teach kids critical thinking skills. Encourage them to ask questions rather than just accepting concepts they encounter about Jesus, holding those concepts up to the light of biblical truth to see whether or not they’re reliable. As kids study accounts of Jesus in the Bible, have them ask three questions about whatever passage they’re reading: “What did Jesus really say?” (What was the context of His remarks – who was He speaking to, where was He speaking, and why was He speaking?), “What did Jesus really do?” (In the context of “normal behavior” in His culture, what impact did His actions have on those who heard Him – both positive and negative?), and “How did people really experience Jesus?” (What is the array of emotional reactions people had to Jesus, and why did they react that way?). Encourage kids to ask surprising, specific, and personal questions about Jesus and His kingdom. Use humor and satire to expose kids’ false mental models of Jesus.
Show kids what a passion for Jesus looks like. Model a passionate relationship with Jesus in your own life so the kids in your youth ministry can see what it looks like and be inspired to draw closer to Jesus themselves. Make a habit of talking with God about everything in your life, holding nothing back. Pay close attention to God’s voice speaking to you, and alert to the story of His work unfolding in your life. Set aside one or two days a month to go on a spiritual retreat.
Follow Jesus’ example when discipling the kids. Remember how Jesus helped His disciples grow in their faith: He conferred on them the spiritual authority they needed to do the job; He started them out with a doable challenge; He gave them specific boundaries for their responsibilities; He told them to expect God to meet their needs along the way; He told them to look for people who were open to what they had to give; He told them to expect trouble and not be surprised when it came; He showed His trust in them by not shadowing them as they ventured into the unknown; and He helped His disciples debrief their ministry adventures after they returned. Let these same principles guide you as you disciple the kids in your youth ministry.
Mentor kids. Learn how to listen carefully and to the kids’ thoughts and feelings. Give them your full attention and don’t judge them for what they share. Offer wise and encouraging feedback. Notice what God is doing in each of their lives, name it, and help them understand why it’s important. Lead kids to discover who Jesus says they are, so they can begin to see themselves as He sees them. Urge kids to spend some time in quiet prayer asking, “Who does Jesus say that I am?” and writing down the insights that result. Give kids who’d like to share their experiences opportunities to do so. Encourage your kids to discover, develop, and use their natural talents and spiritual gifts. Let them know that you’re thinking of them and praying for them every day.
Help kids evangelize. Understand that effective evangelism is a marathon rather than a sprint, so be patient. Encourage kids to share their faith with their peers through one-on-one relationships. Urge them to pray frequently, tell others about Jesus often, and invite people they know to church regularly. Help them make sharing their faith a habit they incorporate into their daily lives.
Lead small groups wisely. Create a relaxed and welcoming atmosphere for the kids feel like family members. Keep discussions on track with the right momentum, clarity, and direction. Help kids reflect on their experiences in youth ministry, interpret a biblical truth that’s connected to it, and then apply that truth.
Urge kids to be bold in their outreach. Motivate kids to serve others as Jesus served so they can bless others and discover more about Jesus and themselves in the process. Stretch them out of their comfort zones by encouraging them to do something that seems scary, like creating a new worship service for the church, doing a work project in a place that makes them uncomfortable, or reaching out to people whose problems are beyond their ability to solve. Introduce managed crisis into kids’ lives to motivate them to trust Jesus in new ways.
Teach kids to engage the culture. Help kids engage the culture around them rather than adopting it or denying it. Get to know what types of movies and television shows they’re watching, what type of music they’re listening to, what types of Web sites they’re visiting, and what types of video games they’re playing. Consider using this material (if it’s not too profane) as a launching pad to explore truth as revealed by Jesus. Force kids to solve problems that require critical thinking. Teach kids to think critically about their cultural influences by asking these questions about the content to which they’re exposed: “What’s the overall message, in one sentence?”, “What ‘truths’ is it teaching?”, “What promises is it making?”, “Who’s sending the message, and why?”, and “Are these messages, truths, or promises that Jesus honors? Back up your answer.”
Counsel kids with love. Offer tangible love to the kids in your youth ministry by entering into the crises and feelings they experience to remind them of who God is and who they truly are as people. Encourage kids to offer the ugliness of their lives to God and invite Him to transform it into something beautiful. Help kids understand how God is using their struggles to accomplish good purposes in their lives. Ask God to give you the courage you need to visit the dark places in kids’ souls and not be dissuaded by the doubt or negative emotions (like fear and anger) they may express. Give kids the persistent, focused attention they need. Join God to help bring life where there’s currently death in their souls.
Treat volunteers well. Make the time to train your volunteers thoroughly and build caring and committed relationships with them. Let them know regularly how much you appreciate their contributions. Support them with the resources they need to do their jobs well. Take their feedback seriously, consider it carefully, and follow up with any ministry changes that should be made.
Treat parents well. Be determined to connect with the parents of every kid in your youth ministry. Keep them informed and pursue personal relationships with them, making time to talk about what you see God doing in their kids’ lives. Equip them to deepen their kids’ pursuit of Jesus by considering how they might join in youth ministry activities, lead some activities, and enrich their kids’ spiritual growth at home. Serve the parents in whatever ways you can, such as by making positive comments about their kids, offering classes to help them help their kids grow spiritually, and mentoring them.
Communicate wisely. Go beyond principle-based teaching to incorporate story-based teaching into your youth ministry. Use your own stories and other people’s stories to reveal who God is, and what life is like in His kingdom. Inject small group discussions into your message time. Engage kids with experiential learning activities before, during, or after your message. Use games, drama, or object lessons to spark discussions. Give your small groups spiritual topics to explore on their own and let them potentially discover more about that topic than you have.
Help kids develop a countercultural mindset about their lives. Encourage kids to refrain from just falling into the prevailing cultural mindset of “more, fast, easy, and fun” pursuits. Urge them to connect everything in their lives to Jesus instead.
Rick Lawrence is executive editor of Group magazine.
Adapted from Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry, copyright 2007 by Rick Lawrence. Published by Group Publishing, Loveland, Co.www.group.com.
The material is copyrighted and should not be reprinted under any other name or author. However, this material may be freely used for personal study or research purposes.
This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”