Needs of Young People
When we try to determine our theological/philosophical basis r youth ministry, we look, of course, to Scripture. We at first have difficulty finding answers related to youth ministry because Jesus didn’t have a youth ministry. To call his band of twelve his youth group” is unfair to the text. The first century didn’t have an adolescent culture as we know it.
However, we do learn something about all the facets of Jesus’ -growth. During his youth years, Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52).
The example of Jesus points us to multidimensional growth that covers it all:
1. Intellectual growth: “Jesus grew in wisdom”
2. Physical growth: “and stature”
3. Spiritual growth: “and in favor with God”
4. Social growth: “and men.”
Luke 2:52 can’t be taken in isolation from the rest of Scripture -as a mandate for a ministry that is equally balanced in all of these four areas. The Scriptures themselves assert priorities: obviously spiritual growth is more important than physical growth. But growth is a total unit; the various facets of growth work together. We cultivate our intellects and we work for good relationships because they work together to help us toward spiritual growth. We don’t grow exclusively in one area without also growing in another.
Jesus’ growth, summarized in Luke 2:52, provides us with a good theological example to consider as we build a basis for programming and meeting needs. Before we start planning our activities, Bible studies, or meetings, we must take into account all the growth taking place in our students and all the growth we would like to see in their lives.
BALANCING NEEDS AND PROGRAMS
As we address the various growth dimensions of our young people, we need to be asking some specific questions to help us be realistic about the programs we plan.
1. Who are we trying to reach? We already discussed the significant difference between trying to reach an unchurched student and winning a religious rebel. Even within the church, the needs of students vary greatly. As I look at our youth ministry, I am overwhelmed by the diversity:
* The students in our youth ministry range in age from twelve to nineteen (some youth groups have a larger span if they include collegians).
* They come from a dozen communities and twenty-one high schools and junior high schools.
* They come from diverse family backgrounds; single parents, stepparents, Christian homes, non-Christian homes.
* There are young men and young women (need I say more about diversity?).
* Some students don’t separate personal faith from going to church with mom or dad; others are genuine believers; still others are rebellious or apathetic or uninformed.
* Some have been in our youth group and church all of their lives so that nothing we offer is exciting or new; others have just joined from churches that had no youth group, and they are excited about anything.
How can any program meet the diverse needs of such a broad range of students? A seminar on dating will leave some students out, and a discussion about the biblical view of abortion will meet needs for a few. But any way we look at it, the needs vary from one student to another.
One year our church was building a new sanctuary and classrooms, and the space available for our meetings was very limited. As a result, we combined our junior high and senior high ministries for “Super Week” (our four-evening equivalent of youth Vacation Bible School). We had a good program, an excellent speaker, some student testimonies, and a lot of fun, but by the middle of the week, the older students stopped coming. By the end of the week, the audience was seventh graders to ninth graders and only a few committed high school students. What had happened? We had tried to reach too large a group, and the social needs of the older students hadn’t been met. As a result, they had withdrawn.
Very few programs can meet specific needs for a broad diversity of students. Programs that do are often one-way programs (speaker to audience or musician to audience) and may meet needs only superficially.
Most youth groups specialize rather than try to get all of the students together at once. Junior high ministry is separated from senior high ministry (which is separated from college age ministry). The young men are separated from the young women (especially when we talk about sex); the Sunday school classes might include classes for each age group.
The rationale for such specialization isn’t so much that the needs change so dramatically over the years (although a junior high boy and twelfth-grade girl are very different) but rather that the social needs are so great. Psychologists refer to teenagers as having “other-directed” personalities: what others think about them and how they respond to them is the most important part of their lives. Thus a student’s preoccupation with others in the group often will keep him or her from responding at all even if the speaker or topic is profound.
Not only do we have to specialize because of the diversity of students already in our youth group, but we also need to plan for the student who is new to our group and has never been to church. Duffy Robbins, youth ministry professor at Eastern College, voiced this dilemma: “How do you lead a Bible study when you have church kids who have memorized John 3:16 alongside of the searching non-Christian kid who thinks John 3:16 is the bathroom on the third floor?”
Again the answer calls for specialization. Evangelistic Bible studies or low-key spiritual activities may help incorporate such students into the group so that they will be willing to learn more. But unless we meet these non-Christian students where they are, they are not likely to come back.
I’m not against big group meetings; they can meet needs for intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social growth too. Too often, however, we equate big activities with meeting lots of needs.
2. How will we try to reach these students? The adage “you can draw more flies with honey than with vinegar” applies here. Very few students will respond to activities that are advertised as being “challenging,” at least at the outset. More will respond to terms like “fun,” a “blast,” or “exciting.” We have to design our programs to meet the needs of students.
Sometimes large-group programs can provide an exciting “crowd mentality” that will let students be proud to bring their friends. In our outreach efforts, students get excited about the program, and they may commit themselves to coming. When asked to bring friends to an event, students often respond, “Well, who else is coming?” Translation: I will come and I don’t care if it’s a small group, but I don’t want to bring friends unless a crowd is guaranteed.
Big programs usually don’t meet the deepest needs of students. The overweight girl who wants help in losing a few pounds certainly won’t share this in a large group. The student from outside the group won’t express deep spiritual interest in front of a sea of unfamiliar faces.
To meet needs, youth ministry must offer small groups where caring, discipleship, and growth can take place. Effective youth ministry is most often done one-on-one, making it necessary to have a staff team to share the load.
This is the message of youth ministry veteran E. G. von Trutzschler:
The most effective way to meet kids one-on-one is to go places they go, and do things with them. Many youth pastors are just hirelings—they produce a program. A youth pastor with a shepherding mentality, rather than that of a hireling, will produce a ministry. He wants to accomplish several things. First he wants to give his young people a taste of what he has—a personal faith in Christ. Secondly, he wants to help them mature and begin grooming them for the future—training and developing them so that they, too, can minister)
A balanced program of large group, small group, specialty group (men/women, etc.), and one-on-one ministry is the best way to provide the maximum number of avenues to meet intellectual, physical, spiritual, and social needs.
3. What needs will we try to meet? Can anyone program or meeting meet all four areas of growth needs? I don’t think so. Instead, we must choose which needs we are aiming at, and then we can choose the best approach to meet those needs.
Last year we began a monthly outreach meeting that featured athletics, drama, rock music, and a speaker. The goal was to attract students who didn’t attend church. We met that goal, but in the process, some of our core students became disinterested because their needs for fellowship and comradery were not being met at these big meetings. The solution? We added at other times some activities that were “body building” rather than evangelistic. If we had tried to meet our students’ fellowship needs at the outreach meeting, the outreach would have been compromised.
Before we organize a program, we need to look realistically at what needs we can meet through our groups, our budgets, and our personnel. A discipleship Bible study will not meet the spiritual needs of students who are not yet Christians. A bike trip together may alienate students who are non-athletic. A special Father’s Day activity will not succeed if sixty-five percent of our students are from single-parent homes.
We also must target specific activities—especially those activities geared to reach new or fringe students—to meet needs for a sense of acceptance. Although the spiritual dimension is our highest goal, social acceptance is more important in the mind of the student. Just as the starving person asks the missionary concerned only about saving souls, “Will there be bread in heaven?,” the average teenager, preoccupied with a desire to be liked, will ask, “Will there be friends in heaven?”
“Adults too easily forget how disastrous it is when a young person blows his chances for group acceptance,” writes Tony Campolo in The Success Fantasy. “Should it take place in a church gathering, there is a strong probability that the young person will never come back to the church again!”2
The bottom line is this: no matter how stimulating our teaching may be and no matter how appealing our program may be, the student comes to an activity with one basic question: Will I be accepted? If we don’t plan with this need in mind, we may find ourselves with attractive programs that don’t draw students.
4. Are the needs I’m trying to meet ongoing or one-time needs? Some needs are not the primary responsibility of the youth group. Intellectual growth and physical fitness are traditionally the responsibility of the school system (although if we are working with a high number of dropouts, we may consider offering a remedial reading program or a GED [graduate equivalency diploma] program as part of our youth ministry). The youth ministry has higher degrees of responsibility for social needs and spiritual growth.
Even within these categories, some needs can be addressed once or twice throughout the year without becoming a regular part of the ministry. Seminars that we have hosted about leadership, improving your study habits, and dating have addressed a variety of intellectual and social needs (from a spiritual perspective), but they have occurred once in the year.
Other needs have been a constant part of our ministry planning. The need for social acceptance is ongoing, as is the need for spiritual growth in the basics of faith. These needs are harder to measure, but they are continual needs that should be factored into the program.
Some programs will meet more needs than the program is targeted to meet. A weekly Bible study can be targeted to meet a need for spiritual growth, but the relationships within that study can generate growth between peers (social needs) and can challenge the student to think more deeply about God (seeing faith from a viewpoint that is intellectually rational).
We always should try to meet as many needs as possible in our programs. Extended time together—twelve hours on an “all-nighter” (where we are locked in all night, without sleep), thirty-six hours in a “Planned Famine,” or more than fifty hours on a retreat—gives us opportunities to encourage growth in every area.
As we try to meet the needs of our young people, we need to become aware of where they are hurting, understand what they need from us, and then try to address this through our relationships and programs. All of this means that we stay in close touch with the young people and the world out of which they come.
1 “Youth Ministry is More Than a Meeting,” in The Youth Leader’s Sourcebook, Gary Dausey, ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1983), 39-50.
2 Tony Campolo, The Success Fantasy, (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1950), 51.
The above article, “Needs of Young People” was written by Paul Borthwick. The article was excerpted from chapter six in Borthwick’s book, Organizing Your Youth Ministry.
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.”