the three components of great youth ministry

have you ever said something, off the cuff, then realized after you said it that there’s more truth to it than you even intended? that happened to me yesterday.

i’m in orlando, speaking at the especialidades juveniles (spanish YS) convention. i love these things. after attending so many of them in argentina and guatemala over the years, i haven’t been to one in a couple years, and i’d missed it. the energy is higher than at the regular NYWC. the attendees are noticeably un-jaded. they are genuinely eager. and that’s infectious.

i was teaching a 2.5 hour “super curso” on youth ministry 3.0, of course with a translator. i’d barreled through the cultural creation of adolescence, the extension of adolescence (both the beginning and the end points), the three tasks of adolescence, and the shifting prioritization of those tasks. the standing room only group in the room was totally engaged, and asked fantastic questions. their body language was all “i’m in”. so, i should have closed it out with a handful of suggestions and patted myself on the back.

but, with about 15 minutes to go, i had a sense. call it the holy spirit, or call it reading something subtle in the responses, or — more likely — just stepping outside of myself for a moment and noticing how passionately i was speaking (hyping?) about this stuff that is, to one extent or another, merely my opinion and conjecture. i had this sense that i was burdening my latin american youth working friends with a bunch of technology that they didn’t need (i’m using technology in the broadest sense here, meaning the systems and methodologies and scaffolding we construct and perpetuate).

i stopped. i said,

let me be clear about the three things that are necessary for great youth ministry:
1. you like teenagers.
2. you are a growing follower of jesus.
3. you are willing to live honestly in the presence of those teenagers you like.

after i said it, i thought to myself, “that was actually true!” it had a sense of surprise to it.

my friend kurt johnston, who shapes me and my youth ministry thinking more than he probably realizes (mostly through the depth of his character), responded, when i asked him to give a 7-minute “soapbox rant” at the middle school ministry campference, by ranting about how ‘the youth ministry sky is not falling.’ he wasn’t only responding to my ongoing “we must change or die!” diatribes, to be sure; he was responding even more so to the panic so many feel in the wake of so many voices telling us we’ve got it wrong, we’re doing it wrong, our teenagers will all fall away, this is the last generation of christians, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah (crap, am i making a living by spreading fear, just as those i’ve always railed against?). sometimes i think kurt gets a little too much orange county sunshine. but i also think he’s onto something.

do we need more theological reflection in youth ministry? yup.
do we need to rethink our assumptions and practices? sure.
do we need to study the changing face of the american teenage experience and adjust accordingly? yes.
do we need a revolution in youth ministry? i think so.

but what we don’t need is to replace one technology (“programs are the answer!”) with another technology (“post-programming is the answer!”).

what we need, and why i’ve always felt that some of the best youth ministry happens in little churches with zero technology, is:
adults who like teenagers
adults who are actively growing in their own faith
adults who will live authentically in relationship with those teenagers they like

i’m gonna keep harping and ranting and instigating. but i can’t get caught in the trappings of a “new way” of doing youth ministry, and i don’t want to lead others down that dead end. and, really, a little sunshine ain’t such a bad thing.

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8 Responses to “the three components of great youth ministry”

  1. Chase November 6, 2011 at 12:24 am #

    Here Here.
    It’s been a privelage for me to serve in a church with adults who genuinely love kids. I say this because I see the adults grow in their spiritual walks which is aided by the growth they’ve witnessed in the kids in the church. We used to think “youth ministry is where it’s at (7-12 grade)”, now we’re focused on newborn to man-childs living with their parents :)

    If you walked into our church you would see children serving communion with grey hairs, youth helping lead people into worship, and as you walk in the doors you would be smiled at by a child and adult greeter team duo. This is how we’ve seen our kids and adults grow.

    But if you came into our church 1-2 years ago, haha, you would turn around and walk out because you’d be frowned at by the nay sayers and probably avoided by the comfortable. They go to a church down the street now because of a revolution happening, and I’m not sorry.

    Truth like you mentioned Mark hurts when some feel it is flipping “their” churches life upside down, from programs to people (relationships), from complacency to actual growth (Not in numbers growth.)

    Great stuff, thanks Mark and Adam! My kids are loving your “YouTube you can use” too, very practical! We open discussion with them.

  2. Kevin November 7, 2011 at 12:25 am #

    What if you fit all three but are struggling with “success” because your having trouble with the young adults you work with and their passion and excitement about the kingdom at hand? Sometimes I feel like all I can do it do the core things well and know that I am “planting seeds” but sometimes I grow tired of not seeing fruit, not seeing change. Any advice with that? For me, that would be GREAT.

    • marko November 7, 2011 at 7:57 am #

      hey kevin — a few thoughts, none of them easy or simple (all based on my assumption that by “young adults you work with” you mean the students you’re ministering to, not the group of leaders):
      1. my first “component” (that you like teenagers) is really loaded. i think it’s easier, in some ways, to love teenagers than it is to like them. liking them is close up, and involves an involuntary enjoyment of them. i’m wondering if you’ve lost that — maybe for a season, maybe for more. that could mean that a break is in order.
      2. it could also be that you’ve been so caught up in the details of doing youth ministry for so long that you haven’t spent enough time doing what would rejuvenate you the most.
      3. and, at the end of the day, maybe we need to redefine (in many ways, recapture an older definition) of what a youth worker is. maybe you need to re-imagine your role.

      and, yes, patience is tough at times, bro.

      • Kevin November 7, 2011 at 11:13 am #

        Thanks Marko, this helped! I will take time today to reflect on the three you gave me. I really appreciate number 3.

  3. Kurt Johnston November 8, 2011 at 7:26 am #

    Marko, I think you have laid out a wonderful foundation for youth ministry. If you can ONLY do three things….do those three. However, youth ministry is probably healthier, and better, if we build from there.

    And….I think….this is where it gets fun! Some might add to the foundation a more attractional, program based strategy. Some might add to the foundation a more missional strategy. Denominational and theological specifics might be part of what gets added, too. And some may choose to add very little, if anything, to that foundation.

    Nobody argues with the need for a structure to have a solid foundation. What is built on that foundation, however, becomes an issue of preference, style, setting, etc.

    Maybe the same holds true for youth ministry.

  4. Kurt Johnston November 8, 2011 at 7:31 am #

    …sorry, I forgot part of my reply:

    So, instead of looking at a particular “style” of ministry and critiquing the crap out of it (which so many of us love to do…) we instead take a closer look. If the foundation seems to be solid; leaders actually like teenagers, are growing closer to Jesus themselves and are living authentically with those they like…we set differences aside and applaud each others efforts.

    Of course, this wouldn’t make for very exciting books, workshops or late-nite round table discussions at conferences. And why be effective when we can be controversial!

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