STRONG CHURCHES HAVE STRONG YOUTH MINISTRIES
BY HERB MILLER
Congregations that fail to provide effective junior and senior-high youth groups that meet on Sunday evening or a weeknight damage their present effectiveness and amputate their futures. (The chief exception
to this rule is churches in retirement communities that restrict property ownership to senior adults.) The following principles produce optimum results when groups consist of ten to forty teenagers. Page two
describes the unique natures of micro and huge youth groups.
1. Understand the unique purpose of youth groups. Some church members are convinced that evening youth programs should be like Sunday school, with refreshments. Sunday evening or weekday youth groups are primarily experience-centered, rather than content-centered Christian education. Learning the multiplication tables in the fourth grade is content-centered. Learning how to ride a bicycle is experience-centered.
2. Meet at the same time each week. Most effective junior- and senior-high youth groups meet weekly, not monthly. Pick the best time of the week for your group to meet, and stick with it. Groups that switch
meeting times every few weeks gradually disintegrate. Should junior- and senior-highs meet together or separately? In churches where the two groups meet together, total attendance seldom exceeds eight to twelve, and most of the youth are junior-highs. The senior highs drop away, disdained by the “immaturity” of junior-highs (how soon we forget how we behaved in the life stage through which we just passed).
3. Meet at the same place each week. The best meeting place is the church. If possible, provide space (one room for junior-high and one for senior-high) that youth can decorate to suite themselves. Few groups flourish by meeting in a home.
4. Structure every meeting in a balanced way. Some church members say, “Those kids don’t need entertainment; they just need to study the Bible!” Adults at the other extreme say, “Kids need to learn that the church is a fun place!” Either extreme kills a youth group. Put five components in every meeting: recreation, business session, study, worship, and food. Doing them in that sequence works best.
5. Provide numerous leadership opportunities. Elect new officers twice a year, rather than annually. Officers should involve all of the youth in planning everything the group does.
6. Coordinate junior- and senior-high planning. About August 1, sponsors from both groups should meet with the pastor or youth director and the Christian education leaders to make plans for starting the
year. About every three months, sponsors from the various youth groups should meet as a youth council with appropriate staff members and youth planning groups. Most midsize and large churches (more than 150 in average worship attendance) should employ a part-time or full-time youth director, and that person is responsible for developing and leading the youth council.
7. Use the same sponsors all year. Yes, some church leaders say, “Why not just trade off sponsors from month to month?” Others say, “Let’s ask the parents to take turns.” That approach is fatal. Such groups usually crash and burn about three months off the launch pad.
8. Use the right combination of sponsors. Two couples for the junior-high group and two other couples for the high-school group work best. Why? (a) Sponsors need someone to talk with about complicated situations. (b) Sponsors are easier to recruit. (c) Two couples reduce the tendency of administrative detail work to fall on the pastor or the Christian education chairperson.
9. Select sponsors who can communicate with youth. For some kids, a youth sponsor may provide the only opportunity to talk about personal problems with an understanding adult. Church members often say, “We
need sponsors who are in their twenties.” Similar age does not automatically produce expertise. Adults of virtually any age make effective sponsors, providing they possess the motivation and skill to communicate with the youth.
10. Expect sponsors to face and deal with discipline challenges. Group squabbles and troublesome individual behaviors are often learning opportunities, sometimes the best learning opportunities of the entire year. Two principles are essential: Be firm! Be kind! Not one without the other! Both!
Sponsors have at least one big, unexpected discipline challenge on every out-of-town trip. They should stay calm, discuss the matter with at least one other sponsor, and figure out how to cope with it. In extreme problems, a sponsor should go immediately and talk with the parents as soon as the group gets back into town. Most parents handle such matters in a reasonable way if they have all the facts.
11. Select effective fund-raising procedures. Look for large projects that require much work and group involvement but produce sizeable income. Examples: An annual dinner theater, produced by high-school
youth and sometimes involving junior-high youth and several adults. A quarterly “Eat Lunch with the Church Bunch” prepared by junior-highs or senior-highs and held on Sundays after morning worship.
12. Understand the age-related needs of youth. Junior highs are shy and more sensitive to criticism or approval than are senior high youth. If they thought they could get the truth from their sponsors, the big
question junior highs would most like answered is, “Do you really like me?”
High-school youth need a spirit of group belonging, and a high degree of esprit de corps powers strong groups. High-school youth often exhibit tremendous personality changes in brief time spans very mature
at one moment, very immature a few minutes later. High-school youth are quite conscious of peer acceptance-even more so than their parents, whose behavior is also extreme at this point.
Micro Youth Groups Are Different!
“With only four teenagers in our church, how can we run a strong youth program?” The following principles enable big youth work in micro groups.
1. The pastor must lead. In most such churches, clergy must maintain direct involvement with the youth program. The ideal is pastoral guidance with a lay couple leading. However, willing, capable laypersons are not always available.
2. Do not elect officers. Make decisions by consensus.
3. Plan monthly recreational events. Only by doubling in size can tiny youth groups gather a sufficient crowd for fun social events. The nature and content of the monthly “fun thing” is not the crucial issue;
its magnetic attraction ability is!
4. Plan two out-of-town “fun” trips each year. One in the summer and one in mid-winter works well. Ask youth to invite one friend. He or she does not have to be unchurched, since your motive is not evangelistic.
These guests serve the important purpose of enlarging the group enough to make the trips more fun.
The church budget should underwrite part of the trip’s cost, perhaps travel and housing. Youths should pay for other parts, such as food and recreational activities. Do not hold fund-raising campaigns to finance
these trips. Let the youth raise their money individually. In small youth groups, working together in fund-raising projects does not create the same fellowship and unity that it does in large groups.
5. Plan a special subgroup for the two or three high-school kids. Consider a pastor-led, every-other-week, Bible study, with no recreation or business. Make this a strictly high-school thing! Allow the junior-high Sunday school class to meet that group’s study needs.
6. Start in September and stop in May. Do one fun trip in the summer.
Gigantic Youth Ministries Are Different!
Huge groups of 100-700 kids are not just larger versions of ten-to-forty-member youth groups. They differ in two primary ways.
Giant groups differ in their central organizing principle. Despite the importance of a highly skilled, paid youth minister, mega youth groups are not solo-personality led. Big groups center on an idea or goal, not
on one person. Often, that central organizing principle is “reaching unchurched kids for Christ.” (Since 75 percent of people who will ever become a Christian in their entire lifetime do that before age eighteen, this seems like a sensible focus.) Music is often a powerful magnet in building large groups. Unlike the typical ten-to-forty-member youth group, mega groups focus on the existing social networks of teenagers, not just on the teenagers in that particular congregation.
The large group usually has several subgroups that meet weekly for Bible study. Generally speaking, the youth ministry has several tracks. Example: One church has 150 youth in Sunday school. On Friday night,
thirty kids that show up at the coffeehouse ministry are involved at no other time of the week. Another ten kids who participate in one of the weekly accountability groups do not attend other youth functions. Still
another twenty-five kids attend only on Sunday night.
Giant groups differ in their leadership style. Most large youth groups have more adult volunteers per 100 youth than do smaller youth groups. The efficiency of scale observed in business corporations seems to
operate in reverse in youth ministry.
Although volunteers and paid staff may attend youth leader seminars sponsored by churches with giant youth ministries, youth leaders are mostly home grown and locally trained.
Growing and maintaining a large youth ministry requires a paid leader who can do more than love and communicate with kids. He or she must have skill with LARGE youth groups. Most churches with such groups hire a mature- in-both-years-and-perceptions, inspiring, and skilled pastor, teacher, preacher youth director. His or her motivations and strengths were usually honed in another large church with an oversized youth ministry.
The Bottom Line
Who has better opportunity to exert life-changing influences at crucial stages of life development than youth sponsors do? With what principles and procedures does your church build and maintain effective youth ministries?
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY HERB MILLER, AUGUST 2001, VOLUME NINE, NUMBER TWO. THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.