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11 Principles of a Successful Youth Ministry

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11 Principles of a Successful Youth Ministry

  1. 1. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA 11 Principles of a Successful Youth Ministry Principle #1 Student ministry is discipleship ministry. Ephesians 4:11-16 describes different types of ministries Christ established within His Church and their stated purpose is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry…so that we may no longer be children.” The Church was designed as a place of support and training for believers for the expressed purpose of transforming them into mature believers. Student ministries, like the vast majority of ministries in the Church, are ministries designed to disciple their target demographic, namely students. The primary goal is to help students “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ,” to help them become mature believers. There’s a popular idea out there, especially among students, that the Church is a place to bring lost friends so they can hear the gospel and get saved. There’s nothing wrong with bringing lost friends to Church and the gospel should be proclaimed from our lecterns and presented at our events. But that’s not the main purpose of the Church or a student ministry. Evangelism, according to the Great Commission, should be done “as you are going,” meaning as we Christians live our daily lives “in the world” we are to be evangelizing at the same time. Evangelism has to become part of our daily lifestyle. The Church’s role lies in training believers to make this change to their lifestyles. So while we can and should present the gospel at our student ministry events and develop a student ministry outreach program, our bigger concern is preparing students to share the gospel on their own. This preparation and training is discipleship. Now there are some ministries within the Church that aren’t bent primarily toward discipleship. A weekly visitation program will usually focus on evangelism, and appropriately so. Remember, discipleship isn’t the only thing a Church does, it’s just the main thing a Church does. The same is true for a student ministry. As a ministry within the local Church the student ministry is not exclusively, but primarily, a discipleship ministry, concentrating on the maturity of believing students. Principle #2 Student ministry constitutes only a part of the broader ministry of the local Church. While the purposes and principles of student ministry are the same as those of the whole Church, the methods used to disciple and reach students are markedly different. There are a number of legitimate reasons for this, but this fact has created a disturbing and dysfunctional phenomenon. Youth groups have a tendency to become their own little entity, a separate church of sorts. In Ephesians 4:13, Paul makes it clear that the Church exists so that “we all attain to the unity of the faith.” A youth group that intentionally or
  2. 2. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA knowingly creates a segregation between students and the rest of the Church denies this unity of the faith, is not truly joined to the Church, and is not properly a student ministry. It is true that student ministries have specialized meetings, unique events, and tailored curriculum. This is true of most targeted ministries like children’s ministries, men’s ministries, widow’s ministries, support group ministries, and any number of other target specific ministries. There’s nothing wrong with this, it works well, it’s allowed by Scripture. But every leader of every targeted ministry has to have in mind a unity of that ministry to the rest of the Church, especially the student ministry. Student ministry is a revolving door ministry. At some point, students leave the student ministry to directly engage the broader Church. Sometimes this is immediate and sometimes not, depending on if there’s a college and career kind of ministry. Either way, students get used to the way student ministry works and that is markedly different from the way the rest of the Church operates. That means the student ministry must intentionally prepare students to engage and join the broader Church by the time they graduate. Some students, mature for their age, are ready to engage the Church before graduation. This should absolutely be encouraged. A student ministry must never stifle maturity. That should be a dream for student pastors! There are, on rare occasions, students who are just well beyond their peers in regard to maturity. These students usually come out of very solid Christian families. They are ready to engage the whole Church. They are ready to do ministry. They are mature believers for their age. Let them be! Don’t try to force them into a mold in your student ministry just because they fit the age range. If anything, encourage them to come into the student ministry with the distinct intent of discipling their peers. But don’t stifle their maturity. And remember, too, that these students are very few and very far between. Principle #3 Student ministry focuses energy and resources on specific objectives and purposes. Luke 10:38-42 tells of when Jesus went to the house of Martha and Mary. The text says, “Martha was distracted with much serving.” Now serving Jesus is a good thing, it’s a very good thing. But when Martha complained that Mary wasn’t helping to serve Jesus, but instead sat to hear Him teach, Jesus told her, “you are anxious and troubled about many things, but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her.” Martha was doing something good, but Mary was doing something eternally good, something necessary. A student ministry could involve itself in many noble causes and try to accomplish many good tasks. But attempting to focus on many good things will keep us from achieving the necessary things. I once had a parent suggest that I, as the student pastor, sit down with every student every year to do specific, in depth vocational counseling. He wanted me to tell his seventh grader what he should do for a living a decade from now. That didn’t fit with the purposes of student ministry and so I chose not to do that (which
  3. 3. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA he didn’t really like). Instead, I did a month long series on “Finding God’s Will for Your Life.” I gave general, biblical principles about how to know God’s will and then applied those to choosing a vocation. That fit with the purposes of student ministry. What he wanted me to do was comparable to asking a soccer coach to teach his team how to play the cello; that’s not what soccer is about! Promoting physical health, providing a safe place to keep students off the streets, giving students something to do to keep them out of trouble, being an alternative to “secular” activities; these are all good things, but that’s not what student ministry is about. Soccer clubs and scouts do those things and are purposed for those things, and that’s just fine. But student ministry is more than that, which means a student ministry may do some of those things, but they’re a secondary benefit, not a primary purpose. In other words, a student ministry may run a sports camp, but it’s purpose is to share the gospel with the students, not promote athleticism (though it does that too). Because a student ministry is part of the broader local Church, the purposes of the student ministry are the same as the broader local Church (just like the fact that the Church is primarily a discipleship ministry and so is the student ministry). There are a number of ways to describe, categorize, and view the purposes of the Church, and they all fall under ultimately glorifying God, but there are five generally agreed upon purposes of the Church. Those five are discipleship, evangelism, fellowship, service, and corporate worship. A strong student ministry, while focusing on discipleship, will accomplish all five purposes and do it in tandem with the rest of the local Church. Discipleship is two things: maturity and equipping. Paul states that we are no longer to be children, but we are to grow up, mature, into Christ. This is where our teens are, moving from childhood to maturity. This is why student ministry is primarily a discipleship ministry, aimed at helping them become mature Christians. Paul also states that believers are to be equipped to do ministry, and this is one of the reasons He gave us pastors and teachers. Jesus commanded that we all make disciples as we go about our daily lives. Part of doing that is teaching disciples how Christians ought to live, thus helping them to maturity. Evangelism is simply sharing our faith with unbelievers. Jesus made it clear that discipleship should happen in everyday life and relationships. Because discipleship doesn't begin until after salvation, evangelism must also be something happening in everyday life and relationships. Evangelism in daily life certainly requires a fundamentally different lifestyle from those around us, but Paul says that is not enough. We must alsotell those around us why we are different. Peter says the same, requiring us to always be prepared to answer anyone who may ask for why we believe in Christ. While evangelism should happen within our natural relationships, Jesus states that it will also happen in unnatural ones as well. This is why we must seek to expand the realm of our relationships through outreach and missions work. Fellowship is sharing common things with each other. Biblical fellowship is about sharing life and living it together. The New Testament Church's idea of fellowship meant
  4. 4. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA getting involved in each other's lives behind the superficial mask we all put on when we're in public. True fellowship means being real, authentic, transparent, and honest with each other. King David certainly enjoyed the company of fellowship, and having fun, enjoying each other, is absolutely part of biblical fellowship. But Jesus took the concept of fellowship beyond fun to love. Real fellowship is about loving each other in a deeper way, requiring a deeper involvement in each other's lives. Service is meeting the needs (specifically, the physical needs) of others, especially those within the family of God. Paul equates serving with loving, because serving expresses love. Love is the common denominator between service and fellowship; they go hand-in-hand. Paul encourages us to take every opportunity we have to serve and love each other. A student ministry seeks to provide such opportunities. Corporate worship is expressing our opinion of God collectively, as a group. Several New Testament authors emphasize different aspects of worship including serving God, showing reverence to God, showing devotion to God, and the formality of worshipping God. In these, God is always the focus and recipient of worship and they all denote expression. A related concept is glorifying God, which is concerned more with the opinion men hold about God than expression. Paul describes Christians as "one body". This is because God deals with men both individually and corporately, and thus we involve ourselves with corporate expressions of our opinion of God. With this understanding of corporate worship a student ministry will join with the rest of the local Church to worship God on a regular basis. Principle #4 Student ministry is ministry to students, by students. Paul made it clear that all of the saints are expected to do ministry (the five purposes of the Church) and that includes believing students. Their youth is no excuse for neglecting ministry nor is it cause to expect less of them in ministry; students are capable of amazing things. As a student pastor, my job is to minister to students and equip them to do ministry themselves. This involves training them, giving them the tools they need, and establishing their authority to do ministry as believers. Training in ministry is not just giving a lecture, but holds the idea of hands on experience. Students need to do ministry to learn how to do ministry. And they can do it among their peers, in day to day life, just like the Great Commission expects. Student ministry is ministry done to students and by students. Principle #5 Student ministry concentrates on Bible teaching, not entertainment.
  5. 5. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA Because student ministry is a discipleship ministry, the Bible is central to everything it does. Discipleship is about spiritual maturity into Christ, and it is through the Bible that we know everything we do about Christ. In fact, all facets of theology come from the Bible as do our principles for practical living. To disciple someone on any level must include helping them understand the Bible. Student ministry is not glorified baby sitting. When a youth group is more concerned with keeping students busy and out of trouble, it becomes glorified baby sitting. Entertainment based youth groups are always trying to out do themselves with bigger and better programs just to keep attendances high. Now there’s nothing wrong with having fun, but the way a ministry attracts people is what they have to do to keep people. If the most attractive thing about a youth group is the bigger and flashier program (the entertainment factor), the students are lost when you can’t afford to be bigger and flashier. But if a student is primarily attracted to a ministry because of solid Bible teaching and a group of people who care about them, then grounding them in that ministry should be no problem since solid Bible teaching and a caring ministry is what is biblically commanded anyway. Principle #6 Student ministry builds expectation for students to mature in their faith and take responsibility for the own spiritual lives. In Ephesians 4:15, Paul is speaking in the first person, plural saying, “we are to grow up in every way into Him.” Paul is speaking as one of a group of believers and he is placing on each believer the responsibility to grow up and mature. In that day and today, the group in which Paul included himself and held an expectation for consisted not only of adults but also students (who were much closer to being adults in Paul’s day than they are today). While it is ultimately God who brings believers to maturity, he uses His Church of people to do it and gives individuals responsibility for their own spiritual growth. In a culture of “it’s their fault” and “I couldn’t help it,” students are let off way too easily concerning their spiritual lives when it’s school and sports that are interfering. Even Christian parents have told me their students don’t have time to do a fifteen minute Bible study on their own three times a week because their school workload is too heavy. There is a serious priority problem in a statement like that and God certainly won’t be “understanding” about the matter. Student ministries have to move students and their parents to a point where their priorities lie more in spiritual maturity than high GPAs and state champion marching bands. This will be one of the greatest struggles, frustrations, and victories of a student pastor.
  6. 6. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA Principle #7 Student ministry creates role models for students. Paul was much more bold than I am when he said in Philippians 3:17, “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.” Paul was telling the Philippians to follow his example and the examples of others who are following him. Student ministries create role models for students and students will follow them. You reproduce, spiritually, what you are, so anyone looking to work in student ministry must recognize this incredible responsibility and this is why there must be a high level of selectivity in who is permitted to work in student ministry. Not everyone is suitable to be such a role model yet. Being a role model has more to do with your lifestyle than what you teach verbally and formally. Students are smart and will recognize hypocrisy; if hypocrisy is found in a role model without humility, students will lose all respect in that role model. This is true, not just of students, but anyone. A role model must model the role of a mature Christian. That doesn’t call for perfection, but it does require a greater degree of spiritual maturity and humility. It is that humility that will maintain a student’s respect despite our imperfection so we can share with them our spiritual maturity. Principle #8 Student ministry follows Jesus’ model of concentric circles of depth and formality. Students are not at the same point spiritually nor do they have the same level of interest in spiritual things. Student ministry must adapt to that much like Jesus did. In Jesus’ ministry there were different levels of spiritual depth and different levels of formality depending on who he was addressing. Jesus did not try to reach the same level of spiritual depth with everyone His ministry touched and his level of formality changed as the crowd demographic changed. When Jesus spoke to the masses, He used parables to fit their level of understanding. When He met with the twelve disciples He explained the parables and spoke more directly. Even among the disciples, Jesus was relationally closer to Peter, James, and John. And among those three, only John is called the “beloved disciple.” Jesus’ depth of spiritual discussion with any given person or group depended on their spiritual depth, interest, and dedication. When Jesus spoke to the masses, He gave a sermon standing in an amphitheatre or at the bottom of a hillside or from a boat, a very formal style. The twelve disciples were taught the deeper things of God as they walked along the roads and through the fields with Jesus, a less than formal setting. They were able to learn more from His example than the masses because they were with Him daily.
  7. 7. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA The Bible rejects favoritism, but that is not to say a pastor or ministry shouldn’t tailor to those receiving the ministry. Jesus was much closer to Peter, James, and John, but that doesn’t mean He showed favoritism. Favoritism is rejecting one in favor for another, not focusing on one more than another. Jesus simply invested His energies where they would best be received. Student pastors have been accused of favoritism when they focus time and energy on their student leadership teams. This isn’t favoritism; it’s investment in students who are most likely to carry on ministry with their peers. Student ministries recognize and use different levels of spiritual depth and formality to accommodate the spiritual depth of the student or group of students, the goal being to move them all toward maturity in their faith. Principle #9 Student ministry invests where the gospel is accepted. When Jesus sent out the twelve and then the seventy-two to preach the gospel in the towns ahead of His arrival, Jesus gave specific instructions on what to do with towns that rejected the disciples and their message. When a town rejected them, the disciples were told to “shake the dust from your feet” and leave. Jesus declared those towns accursed. The same principle is true for the Church and for student ministries. When someone continually rejects the gospel, we must leave them to God and move on, hoping God does a work in their lives between now and the next time we meet them. A student ministry cannot afford to constantly chase after students who have no spiritual interest. It is an act of futility. That does not mean we should not chase after a believing student when they go astray. Jesus says we should leave the ninety-nine (temporarily) to find the one and rejoice over the one. But that is in the context of dealing with believers, not in trying to evangelize unbelievers. When Jesus says not to continue throwing pearls before swine, He’s speaking of trying to share the gospel with people who have continually rejected it. In student ministry we should chase down and rescue stray believing students. But students who have shown hostility toward God should be left to God. Principle #10 Student ministry occurs inside relationships built informally but intentionally. There is a movement within the Church to what is called “relational youth ministry.” The idea behind this says the sole purpose of a youth group is to build relationships among students and with adults. If a friendship can be established between two people, one being a student, then that youth group has accomplished its purpose. This philosophy springs from the fact that relationships are one of the single most important things in students’ minds. And it’s true that relationships are vitally important to students and adults alike; people were created to have relationships. The problem with this philosophy
  8. 8. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA is how it stops short. The Great Commission says “make disciples,” not “build relationships.” Relationships are a necessity to discipleship, but building relationships alone doesn’t accomplish anything eternal. It’s the discipleship inside of relationships that makes a spiritual impact. Students are not prone to reach out to adults, particularly one’s they don’t know well. There’s a generally cynical attitude, sometime ever so slight and even among Christian students, toward adults. This is also true between any two students who have any differences between them. That means more mature Christians have to go out of their way and intentionally build relationships with students, the goal of which being discipleship. This sounds almost like an ulterior motive as if we only want to get something from these students, but really it is about the student. We don’t want something from them, we want to give something to them. But they’re not going to care what we have to share with them until they know we care about them personally. The way relationships are built inside of a student ministry is also a key stone factor. Formal relationships, like assigning an adult to teach a particular Sunday School class or placing someone in a small group to moderate discussions, can seem fake or obligatory to students. This is not always the case; sometimes formal relationships do just fine on their own, but they usually need some help to be effective. Informal settings, where there is no stated spiritual agenda, are great opportunities to build relationships and can eventually develop into teachable moments. These teachable moments are never planned and cannot be specifically prepared for. This means that they flow out of your own lifestyle and personal knowledge and experience, a model for the students to follow. This makes it real for the students and impacts them more than most sermons ever will. To give an example of each, I used to get together with four for five guys from the ministry on a semi-regular basis to get wings and catch a movie. This was intentional, informal relationship building. I didn’t like the wings and I wasn’t always interested in a movie, but I wanted to hang out with these guys so they knew I cared about them and so they would care about what I had to share with them. One time our student ministry did a retreat at a children’s camp that had old iron furnaces in the hills in the woods. During the free time on Saturday we ventured up to these furnaces and I got the idea to show the students what a key stone was in these structures. It helped them make so much sense of the passages that speak of Christ as the key stone of the Church. This was a teachable moment. A student ministry can’t plan for or create these moments; that can’t be done by the nature of teachable moments. A student ministry will do what it can to make opportunities for informal relationship building and teachable moments, but the burden lies on each individual involved in student ministry. Doing student ministry means finding these opportunities and taking advantage of them. Principle #11 Student ministry is used to build students, not the other way around.
  9. 9. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA Youth groups have a tendency to focus on attendance numbers and impressions. Numbers and impressions can be two minor indicators of success in a student ministry, but they’re only minor. A student ministry finds success in maturity marks in the students. When the concern is mostly on numbers and reputations as a youth group, the youth group has become more important than the students in it. A student ministry has to thrive on the discipleship of the students involved. The structure of the ministry is never more important than the students themselves. If the structure, policies, or traditions of the ministry hinder the students’ growth, then change the ministry. Students are not involved to be exploited for the sake of the ministry; the ministry is there to be an advantage to the students involved.
  10. 10. Phillip Ivey Monroe, GA Youth groups have a tendency to focus on attendance numbers and impressions. Numbers and impressions can be two minor indicators of success in a student ministry, but they’re only minor. A student ministry finds success in maturity marks in the students. When the concern is mostly on numbers and reputations as a youth group, the youth group has become more important than the students in it. A student ministry has to thrive on the discipleship of the students involved. The structure of the ministry is never more important than the students themselves. If the structure, policies, or traditions of the ministry hinder the students’ growth, then change the ministry. Students are not involved to be exploited for the sake of the ministry; the ministry is there to be an advantage to the students involved.

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