25 May 2016

Three "Don'ts" for Youth Ministry

Nothing quite terrifies a student like making eye-contact with their small group leader and knowing he or she hasn't done quiet time in a week.

Nothing quite chases an kid off the basketball court like knowing his youth pastor is going to seize the opportunity while guarding the 3-point line to ask that question again.

Such can be the mindset of the teens in our youth groups, even ones whose hearts genuinely want to pursue Jesus, and especially those who are merely trying to keep you from asking uncomfortable questions, when we become spiritual badgers rather than patient shepherds.  I remember being on that side of the table or court, swallowing my Adam's apple as I tried to think of reasons (as opposed to excuses) why I hadn't done my quiet time.  And often a student's own embarrassment is what causes them to be defensive -- far more than any question I might ask.  But the difference between a student who, through the power of the Spirit, learns to overcome weaknesses and pursue Christian maturity and one who falls away because he/she can't overcome a sense of deep moral failure, often has much to do with the operating methodology of well-intentioned youth leaders.  Often, those of us who find ourselves in youth ministry don't take into account the long-term impact our modus operandi will have upon impressionable students' lives.

Be mindful: I didn't say it's our fault as leaders that some of our kids walk away from the faith.  We can't change hearts even if it is our privilege to shepherd them.  But we are responsible to be faithful stewards of the roles we've been given.  In this regard, faithfulness means hearing and understanding students' struggles and thought processes, meeting them where they are, helping them to see clearly how the truth of the gospel directly impacts the nooks and crannies of their lives, introducing them to the powerful aid and presence of the Spirit abiding within them, and resolving to be edifying even in moments of stern rebuke.

In my case, the youth pastor who often had to tell me to buckle down and do my quiet time eventually became my mentor, and later my boss and one of my closest friends.  But not everyone has the same rosy experience.  Not every student walks away from youth ministry feeling like they were cared for, or that their spiritual needs were met.  And we won't reach every student who passes through our doors.  But we should commit ourselves to removing all possible obstacles in order to effectively reach teenagers with the gospel.

Here are three simple "don'ts" I've experienced in one capacity or another, both as a student who grew up in a church youth group and as a servant of God's Word to teenagers.

Don't terrify your students.  Picture a puppy who knows it's bathtime.  Can you see the ears back, the tail tucked between the legs, maybe even the trembling paws?  Big dog or little dog, the knowledge that you are approaching with a big towel and a bottle of canine shampoo can debilitate them all.

Conversations with our students shouldn't always be "bath time."  We need to temper our approach to asking tough questions and giving stern warnings.  For example, there's a difference between the way I directly ask questions of a boy in my office who, of his own volition, asked to talk to me about his troubles, and the way I ask questions of a boy who hasn't asked my advice and is talking to me in the hallway about a girl he's dating.  Counseling students in either regard requires sensitivity and discretion.  I can't just be an unwieldy spiritual wrecking ball, crudely smashing down their humanistic walls without considering the potential destruction such an approach could wreak.

I think I should take a quick step back and qualify what I mean by "counseling."  I believe that all of youth ministry is a form of counseling -- whether I'm playing soccer with my students, hanging out at the sign-in table with them, teaching them from the pulpit on a Wednesday night, or actually sitting in my office with one of them who has asked for help, I'm engaged in an ongoing counseling process.  In that regard, in each of these settings I need to learn to ask good questions, carefully and strategically, and to give advice with sensitivity.

In other words, you don't need to ask your students every single time you see them whether or not they're up-to-date on their quiet time, whether they've engaged in that difficult conversation with their parents yet, if they've made up with so-and-so.  Those conversations can arise organically, certainly, and I shouldn't be afraid to ask the tough questions, but I also don't want to give my students reason to duck into a classroom when they see me coming down the hallway.  Like Jesus was with His disciples, we need to be ready to seize teachable moments for what they are.  But not every conversation you have needs to be invasive.  Surgeons don't just dive right in and start cutting, even when they know there's cancer in there somewhere.

I'm of the opinion that we do a lot of damage to our long-term relationships with our students by failing to engage in small-talk with them and simply getting to know them.  This is not a waste of time, nor is it putting off the hard stuff.  It is trust- and relationship-building.  Talking with your students about their school, sports, activities, relationships, and their hobbies demonstrates to them that you do care about what is going on in their lives, and aren't simply pursuing one agenda.

And by doing this, the moments when you do choose ask the tough questions will become all the more potent.

We aren't trying to create negatively-encourageable legalists who check the Quiet Time box every day and in order to feel good about their spiritual temperature.  We are trying to inspire passion for Jesus Christ, for living righteously and digging deeply into the Word of God.

Don't terrify your students.  Engage your students.  Learn to encourage and challenge without being a nagger or a Big Bad Wolf.

Don't just be your students' buddy.  This is the flipside of the same coin.  It's great to be friendly with students, laugh at their jokes, tease them, and otherwise enjoy their company.  This is a huge benefit to youth ministry -- the ability to simply enjoy spending time with the students God has placed in your youth group for shepherding.  I personally am blessed and honored to serve a wonderful, wonderful group of teens as well as a mature and engaging group of college students.  But as fun as it is to play games, share jokes, and talk about the upcoming Marvel movies, you absolutely must remain the leader and authority figure for your students before you are their friend.

This is accomplished through a number of different approaches.  My list is by no means exhaustive.

One way is simply by intentional use of a title -- i.e. "Pastor Dave."  Maybe this seems obvious, but a title conveys authority.  I actively, consciously, and verbally submit myself to Pastor Dave when I address him by this title.  I speak differently to Dave when I address him by his first name alone.  In that moment, Dave becomes an equal, not an authority figure.  Of course, if you're like me and your official title is "Youth Director," not "Youth Pastor," the nickname needs to be a little more creative.  Youth Director Dave is wordy, so he could just go by Mr. Dave and that would work too -- especially if there's a significant age difference between Dave and his teenage students.  I violate my own rule because I'm just "Justin" to my students (both teenagers and college students), but I maintain that where a title is given by your church or organization, it should be used appropriately.

Two, don't waffle on rules.  This applies as much to a rule you make up during a ridiculous game, as it does upholding standards for youth group conduct.  If your students see you going back and forth on rules, they are more likely to challenge you when you attempt to put your foot down.  And the more you are prone to waffle, the more likely you are to concede the point and allow your students the final say on things.  Maybe it seems like a little thing, but a leader who sticks to his word is a leader that garners respect.

Third, find the appropriate balance between leadership and friendship.  I don't think this is a matter of turning the authority on and off: I think this is a matter of the consistent character you display to your students.  If you lead a college group, this can be an increasingly difficult line to find, most notably when you're not all that much older than those you're leading (as is my case).  Be a leader.  Don't just try to act like one.  This requires a level of maturity and self-discipline that many who find themselves in the position of youth director or youth pastor unfortunately don't possess.

I deeply value the relationships I have with my students.  In fact, there are a number of my college-age young adults whom I would consider friends and partners in ministry.  But as much as I enjoy the time I get to spend investing in these particular individuals, I'm still their leader.  I still have a responsibility to guide and direct, a priority that surpasses simply hanging out.

Fourth, discern, understand, and manage the climate of your youth group.  Are your students a bunch of troublemakers who openly disrespect your lay staff?  Then you need to be firm, ALWAYS back up your leadership team, and maintain an authoritative stance even during game time.    Don't hesitate to rebuke -- gently but sternly, in private or in public, and involve parents where problems persist.  Is your group a bunch of laid-back, churched kids who have no problem taking instructions?  Then you don't need to be nearly as heavy-handed and authoritative.  Are they naive and suggestible?  Then engage with them with clear focus: take advantage of the teachable moments and give instructions where appropriate.

Don't just be your students' buddy.  Be a mentor.  Shepherd and cultivate.  We do this by being burdened for our students' spiritual growth -- to the point where we aren't hindered by fearing what they think of us.  Love them enough to address their shortcomings head-on.  Love them enough to know when speaking into these situations is appropriate.  Love them enough to walk with them through repentance.

Don't be a pacifier.  At the church where I serve as youth director, we have always operated under the principle that teens should be treated as young adults.  That means we don't have a separate "teen service" on Sunday mornings, and it also means that our two-hour youth group meetings consist of a full forty-five minutes of worship, prayer, and teaching.  We also have game time and maintain a regular calendar of fun, fellowship-oriented events -- certainly.  But these are not the emphasis.

Our "draw factor" is not our bottom line.

Here's what I'm getting at.  We can't sacrifice preaching.  Furthermore, we can't sacrifice mature preaching.  That is, we must not mistake palatable and relevant preaching for watered-down preaching.

We don't have to cut the wine, we just have to offer it in sips.

The richness of the gospel -- its cover-to-cover, Scripture-wide implications and nuances -- are things I want my students to know, understand, and experience in their own lives.  This goes far beyond the typical, true-yet-blandly-oversimplified news wrapped in a bow that knowing Jesus makes life better.  In order to teach teenagers about an infinitely majestic, powerful, loving, and active God, we need to whet their appetite for deep, intangible things.  We need to teach out of our passion for our own relationships with God as well as our own hunger to know Him more deeply.  But as we delve into theology, we also have to wade out into the deep end with our students.  Of course, this assumes we are studiously practicing the self-same, nose-in-our-Bibles methodology that we should be preaching each youth group gathering.

Now, by "mature teaching" I'm not saying every series you do should be a discourse on free-will/predestination, communicable/incommunicable attributes, cessation/continuity of Spiritual gifts, eschatology, angels/demons, or church government.  But we can teach on those things if we are actively leading our students into deeper relationships with Jesus Christ.  Of course, if we are to touch on any of the aforementioned topics, that means we also have to scrap the prototypical youth ministry "get-em-in-and-get-em-saved" mentality.  If each week you have a room full of regular attenders, you don't need to beat them with a salvation message every week.  That's not being sensitive to your students' needs, nor is it building upon an already-laid foundation.  If, on the other hand, you have lots of visitors each week, it's great to touch on the good news -- especially if the Spirit is blaring all kinds of internal alarms that you should -- but the goal of youth ministry isn't (or shouldn't be) to have large numbers of students coming to Christ.  It should be to consistently preach the gospel in a way that leads in spiritual maturity.  Don't fall into the numbers trap -- that is, counting raised hands during every invitation so you can feel like God is working but never move on from a five-point gospel presentation.  Developing spiritual maturity in your students is far less quantifiable than raised hands, sure, but it is not immeasurable, and it certainly shouldn't be our secondary priority.

Jesus told the apostles to make disciples, not converts.

Does your teaching encourage students to actually open their Bibles during your lesson?  Does your teaching encourage them to get into their Bibles outside of youth group?  Does your teaching explicitly challenge erroneous ways of thinking and living?  Does it encourage students to sacrifice their own needs for the needs of those around them?

Does your teaching just till up the soil or does it also plant seeds of truth?

Does it even break open the surface of the ground?

Why we as a church assume teenagers aren't capable of growing in spiritual maturity is somewhat baffling.   Teenagers don't need to be spiritually coddled.  To the contrary, they need to be instructed in how to begin walking with the Messiah who saved them at VBS when they were eight.  They need to be warned of the dangers of temptations that will mercilessly ambush them as they step out in greater and greater independence from their parents.  They need to be reminded that Jesus died for the sake of followers who would follow Him carefully and self-sacrificially -- not for their right to watch Netflix and only dust off their Bibles when life gets difficult.

Far too many youth ministries relegate to themselves the duty of keeping a calendar of fun events, sharing some uplifting, moralistic thoughts, and not much else.  Far too many youth directors think it's enough to simply get teens in the doors of a church (and maybe that is an accomplishment for your students!).  But if we never crack open the Word of God to directly challenge our teens' way of living and thinking, then we are only validating the underachieving American mentality that all we need to do to be "spiritual" is be kind to others and considerate of alternate ways of life.

Fun events and gentle, peaceful messages can pack the couches and folding chairs on a Wednesday night, but it can't give teenagers what they truly need on a spiritual level.  On the flipside, we can also be aggressive manipulators who attempt to do the work of the Holy Spirit, guilting kids into raising hands during invitations rather than speaking to the heart of the gospel and allowing God Himself to reap the harvest.  Don't settle for either of these -- being an energetic leader with a great calendar of events who merely gives teens a good feeling about who they are, or a tough-cop bully who makes students feel like they have to earn God's love or squirm beneath His wrath.

Be more.  Be a discipler.


I'll freely confess that I am imperfect in each of these areas and continue to grow in my understanding.  But praise God for the freeing and humbling knowledge that I am merely a servant -- that this ministry is His, not mine, and it does not need me.  God can just as easily raise up someone else to shepherd FBC's teenagers.  Yet He has chosen to use me for the time being, and that is an enormous privilege.

May we each be faithful to uphold our individual callings with joy, with fear and trembling, with sacred and somber regard for what is required of us.

To Him be the glory!