Eleven Principles of Youth Ministry
Professional ministry can be a precarious business; it’s easy for people to get lost in the shuffle and chewed up by the machinery of “big ministry”. With kids, who need special care, this is even more precarious. Youth ministry is often the least funded, because kids are not a priority; too many view it as professional babysitting until kids can grow up and be contributors and producers. And this should not be so.
As one who has walked between these worlds, please accept the following hard-learned principles I have tried to make real in all I have done, and hope yet to do, in youth ministry.
- Keep your promises.
So many kids come from broken homes. Fathers, especially, tend to fail to keep their promises: I’ll play ball with you tomorrow. I’ll be there for your recital. I’ll be home in time to kiss you goodnight. We’ll go see that movie.
The message kids get is, adults can’t be trusted. Don’t be one of them. Keep your word no matter what it takes. If you make a commitment to do something for or with a kid, do it. A broken promise does incredible damage. Everyone fails, but too few even consider this a big deal. It is a HUGE deal to a kid. Help them, by your faithfulness, build that trust that eventually translates to a greater trust in God.
- Don’t blow your class.
How old are you? Be that age. It’s a mistake to “try” to be “cool” to “relate” to kids.
I believe kids don’t want you to come down to their level. I believe they want to be spiritually raised up to your level. Raise the standard higher. Grab their hand and lift them up. A hero isn’t “one of them” as much as someone whose life, purpose and character make them hunger for that kind of life.
When you “try to relate” it fails. Just relate to the universal needs of the heart of all kids: the fears, the loneliness, the need for love and for meaning and purpose, to the hopes and hurts and joys. And the silly laughter and spontaneity and childlike embracing of life and God and love. That’s real, and they’ll know it. Beyonce, viral videos and culture trends will soon be in yesterday’s archives. Only how you connect to kids at a heart level will remain in memory, and in true eternal things.
- Kids are not a project.
Professional ministry generally treats people like notches in a gun belt; numbers to increase their own visibility, viability and credibility. People become a project.
In my early days of ministry, I adapted the “psychospeak” of my fellow pastoral counselors, and began speaking of those who I ministered to as my “counselees.” God forgive me. Later, I moved that over to phrases like, “I worked with this kid,” as if the hurting young person who trusted me enough to share their deepest secrets and wounds was a “work.” “I worked with them.” How can a labor of love based on such precious trust be called “working with them”? God forgive me – again. God help us to dispense of such pretentious, arrogant and self-elevating nonsense. Kids are not a project to be worked – they are precious lambs to be loved, nurtured and grown. It is not their fortunate lot to be blessed by “my” infinite gifts and graces – but in reality my humbling privilege to serve them.
- Don’t drop kids when they aren’t kids anymore.
We place so little value on longevity in relationships anymore; marriages and friendships that last are increasingly rare. Yet the value of long-term relationships can’t be measured.
Modern youth work is not designed for this. It’s like school. You graduated; have a good life, goodbye. And yes, kids grow into life and in some measure outgrow their need for us.
But I learned an astonishing thing when the 86 year old woman who had raised me in Jesus, taught me, and loved me when I was still a kid, died. As I went through her things, I found a box of letters from grown men that she had taught Sunday school when they were boys – sixty years earlier! She never lost touch, nor did they. They all wrote of the profound influence she had on their lives. What a revelation!
We as youth ministers are taught to be teachers and entertainers, not necessarily disciplers, or fathers and mothers in the faith. And that is a great loss.
I told one young man who had grown to be a son in the Lord, “Even when I’m 80, you’ll still be my kid.” I think it matters, that kids know they don’t cease to be of value to us just because they grow up and move on. I was recently talking to someone who had one of his older youth becoming withdrawn and angry. As I thought about it, I realized it was like having a child, raising them, then having another: If you give all your attention to the new child and very little to the older, that child will feel rejected, useless and replaced. And as my friend moved into other things and other youth, his young friend felt that. Like in a family, a new child needs extra love and attention – but the older child needs to be included, given responsibility, and a reaffirmation that they are still just as special, just as loved.
- Hype fades; the Word remains.
I think there is some value in entertainment for kids, especially in getting the interest of unsaved kids. Young Life uses games and fun to a tremendous benefit for the Kingdom of God, and they have tremendous success in reaching kids through the avenue of these tools, and I support that 100% in that context. But beyond that, in some ways I am struck by the utter lack of entertainment in the New Testament. I think games and entertainment can be used by God, surely. But it is never a substitute for the power and presence of God. I’m okay with using the media to evangelize through music, the arts, etc. But face it – we’re glutted with it. And most of it is FLUFF. It’s smoke and glitter. And the fruit? Who knows, really? God uses what He will. But my heart longs to see kids drawn, not by hype, but by the Anointing poured out through vessels committed to giving the pure and powerful Word of God.
Most Christian music is designed to sound like the world, and many artists are just waiting to “cross over” to the big boys’ secular market. I thank God for the few who keep it pure and powerful.
Fluff Christian entertainment will pass, and little of it will transform. Seek for the higher, the eternal, that which will transform kids into living flames of fire.
- Be a flawed hero, not a plastic saint.
Apologize when you’re wrong; admit when you blow it. If you hurt someone, make it right. And above all, if you don’t know the answer to something, don’t make it up. When kids see you as you are, and yet see God still mighty in you, using you, blessing you, touching you, they will know God can do the same for them.
- Have a heart coated with steel and filled with compassion.
Kids can hurt you. Oh, boy, CAN they. Their words are often careless and thoughtless, cynical and sarcastic, mirroring the world that surrounds them. Most of the time, they don’t mean to hurt you. But they do. And you need a steel-plated, Teflon coated, non-stick heart. But not impenetrable. Understand that even when they mean to hurt you, it’s rarely really about you or toward you. It’s hurt and anger over school, rejection, parents, any number of things. Take the blows, cry later, then let God show you what’s behind their hurt. And let it go. Be mature enough to place their need above your hurts.
- It’s not as much what you say but who you are and how you love that matters.
My pastor has been my mentor and spiritual father for many years. His messages are straightforward, powerful and cut right to my heart. And of the hundreds of messages I’ve heard from him, several have been life-changing – literally. So many principles he’s taught remain rock solid principles of my life and ministry.
But in the end, it is who he is in my life that has had the biggest impact. He invested in me – trusted me – befriended me – picked me up when I fell flat on my face and gave me hope that God was not through with me. He was vulnerable, caring and real. He was- and is – always there for me.
Okay, try to be relevant if you need to, or “cutting edge” as they say – but it is your true essence in Jesus and how that changes kids that will remain.
- Trust is not a given – it is earned.
I have a small problem with the term “accountability.” It’s not used in scripture, except that “we must all give account before God.” “Accountability” was actually a corporate world term used long before the church stole it. I believe in authority in the Kingdom, absolutely. And ALL of us need relationships that are honest, challenging and healing. None of us should go it alone.
However, when you mix “accountability” with “professional ministry” and the opportunities for abuse and control are very real. I have ministered to dozens of people and kids who were chewed up by such abusive leaders and churches. Some are still trying to heal years later.
You DO have an accountability before God to protect your kids. Sometimes from each other.
But kids being “accountable” is only beneficial in the context of trust, and trust is not a privilege you assume as a leader but a sacred trust you EARN. One of the most profound things my pastor ever said to me is, “You have to earn the right to speak into people’s lives.” And with kids, that trust is hard-earned. It doesn’t come and shouldn’t be demanded automatically, but comes when they know you are safe – and that they really matter to you. Then, “accountability” will be freely given, natural, real. Are you willing to let that happen in time, willing to prove yourself trustworthy of that kind of dangerous trust?
- True discipleship is built on real relationships.
What’s the difference between a kid who grows up and has fond memories of their youth group and youth pastor, and a “lifer” – one who goes on to produce much fruit? Much of the time, it’s the difference in investment in relationship. Elijah and Elisha, Moses and Aaron and Miriam, David and Jonathan, Jesus and the 12, Paul and Timothy…life begets life…one life poured into the other, true spiritual parenting. Paul said, “We were willing to give our whole lives for you, so dear you were to us.” A Hireling is doing a job. A shepherd surrenders his life for his sheep. That’s the difference between professional youth pastoring and true youth shepherding. It’s that simple. If it’s a step for you while you wait for a “real” job as a pastor, God bless you, but move on. Kids need shepherds who are committed to them IN THE NOW with no ulterior motive but who do it because they are….shepherds.
Youth Ministry can be as mercurial and passing as adolescence itself – or an enduring, life-changing window for both kids and yourself. Build with strong materials – real relationships – invested relationships – trustworthiness, faith in their calling and potential, transparency, the solid Word of God, genuine love and commitment. If you do, it will truly bear “fruit that remains.” And YOU will be blessed because you did not settle for a quick cheap imitation, but gave it all for the real thing.
- You can only give what you have.
That is a multifaceted statement. From one angle, it means that you are limited. You can’t do or be everything. Team ministry is wonderful. For myself, I am very limited. I’m terrible at games – but others are great at doing games. I’m a teacher and a listener. I can’t do what it isn’t in me to do. Know what you CAN and are CALLED to do and let others help you with the rest.
From another angle, this statement means that you cannot give if your cup is empty. I am a true believer in the truth that the best ministry comes from what God gives to you directly. I know you’re busy. But if you are so busy that you have to scramble at the last minute to come up with a message, then your kids are going to get stale bread.
Life changing truth is truth that comes new and fresh from Father’s hand. And THAT is your first ministry, your first priority. Otherwise, you’ll be stuck forever looking for clever things to keep kids coming back week after week.
There is nothing as powerful, attractive, life changing or compelling as pure truth poured out through a yielded, listening youth shepherd who has cared enough to wait to receive from the hand of God what He has to say and give.
If youth pastors did this, I suspect the “clever games for bored and spoiled Christian kids” book industry would go belly-up in a quick hurry.
Unrealistic, you say?
Let me ask you a question: Why is the Word of God never enough?
The fault is not in the Word, but in our failure to receive that Word in a powerful, NOW revelation which when delivered will bring down the Shekinah presence of God.
Sure, let’s play games! But let’s do it because it’s fun, we all need to laugh, it makes kids feel at ease, and US less sanctimonious.
But make no mistake – it will never be a substitute for the undiluted Word of God. That is to be the ultimate standard, the ultimate goal – to let that Word penetrate and transform the hearts of every young life God has committed to our care.
Let’s redefine youth ministry – God’s Way – if we do, is there any limit to what He will do?