5 Steps to a Healthier Youth Ministry

It was one of those nights again.

Youth group was a disaster.

The students were not motivated to be serious.

The leaders were frustrated.

I had a hard conversation with a parent about a student’s issues.

By the end of the night I was exhausted.

I remember sitting with my wife and saying things like, “if the harvest is so ripe then why do I feel like I am beating a shovel in the dirt” and “I feel like I should cancel youth group next week.”

If you have been in youth ministry for any amount of time, you have most likely faced these seasons of struggling. You have faced these times where it feels as though you are pushing a boulder up a snowy hill. These times can be isolating and exhausting. Many have even quit ministry as the pressure for success became too much. But the call of ministry was never supposed to be this easy picture-perfect life. The best ministry did not just appear. If you are experiencing a trial in your youth ministry, be open to the lessons God may want to teach you through it.  

If you are struggling right now in ministry, here are a couple of things to think about, try, and remember. I strongly believe these 5 things will help you in creating a spiritually healthy environment in your ministry.

1. Create a relational culture

If you are helping out in youth ministry right now it is probably because God has placed a desire in your heart to love teenagers. Your volunteers in some way probably feel the same as they dedicate their free time weekly to be around teenagers. Now, look at your ministry: how much time are you allowing for your leaders to spend in small groups with students?How often are you and your leaders spending time with student outside of church functions?

Jesus embodied discipleship through relationships with people. He was a wandering roommate with his disciples and spent time intimately with sinners and saints alike. Therefore, to create an environment of true belonging and community among leaders and students, you need to focus on cultivating a culture of authentic relationships.

Andrew Root wrote in his book Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry “Ministry is about connection, one to another, about sharing in suffering and joy, about persons meeting persons with no pretense or secret motives. It is about shared life, confessing Christ not outside the relationship but within it. This, I learned, was living the gospel.” We need to be intimately involved in our students’ lives and we need to encourage our leaders to be just as connected.

2. Invest time into developing leaders

If I was to ask the question to your leaders “what is it like to follow insert your name here,” what would they say? Would they say that you are encouraging and involved in their lives? Would they say your are cold, distant, and authoritative? As youth ministers we set the tone of our ministry with our attitude and investment. You can’t expect leaders to care for students if you don’t take the time to care for your leaders. Leaders not only need constant encouragement but need to be thoroughly trained on how to truly minister. We can’t expect leaders to know how to handle all of the issues that come with ministering to teens on their own. We need to be helping them navigate the relationships they are building with students. We need to be a source of wisdom and hope for them. You cannot build a ministry on your own no matter how hard you try. You cannot minister to every teen by yourself. A successful leader is not someone who does everything with a little help but is someone who leads and empowers others to lead on their own. I heard one youth pastor put it as “you are truly the youth pastor of little youth pastors as much as you are the pastor to the youth”.

3. Include students in the conversation of vision

If your students seem disconnected and apathetic about the direction of your ministry you may have the wrong vision. God has given you the group students you have for a reason. One of the greatest things my youth pastor ever did for me was give me say into what our youth group should do and be. This could mean many different practical things. Maybe you need to survey students about what could change at youth group or what would make them want to bring their friends. Maybe you need to launch a student leadership team and delegate responsibilities to some of your students. Student ownership is key to growing a ministry. If students don’t feel like the ministry is truly theirs they will continue to be apathetic about what happens at youth group.

4. Focus on what matters

Theodore Roosevelt once said “Comparison is the thief of Joy.” Many times as youth pastors we think the grass is greener at everyone else’s church or youth group. We begin to focus on making youth group fit this christian cultural standard of cool that is never really obtained. Here is the secret though… teens aren’t impressed. The truth is that entertaining teens never successfully disciples them and no matter how cool youth group is they will still be thirsty for more. This is why we as youth ministers need to be careful about how much we make youth group about games and goofiness. Not that those things are bad but what matters most is that we are showing them Christ, in relationships and in the word, and raising them up to be biblically competent Christ followers.

5. Redefine what true success is for your ministry

How do you define success right now in your ministry? Is it that you have ten more kids than you did last month at youth group? Is it that your middle school boys didn’t clog the toilet with Gatorade bottles this week? You as the pastor of your ministry need to define what the word success really means. God has given you the flock that you are leading -  are you being faithful in raising them up? I met with an older youth pastor recently who had done a massive outreach event at his church. Over a thousand students attended this event surrounding Halloween. I remember sitting with him and being so impressed thinking that he probably feels amazing. I will never forget his reaction as he told me that he felt like its was such a waste. “Who cares if a thousand kids attended if none of them come back next week or truly give their life to Christ.” For him success was truly defined by the ability to make disciples not the ability to have good attendance or to properly entertain. Have you ever considered that maybe your youth ministry is only supposed to be fifteen students right now? Have you ever considered that, like in the parable of the talents, maybe you need to be faithful with what you have been given before receiving more? So pray and ask God before building something that isn’t in his design and know that he already sees you as his child. Your faithfulness as a leader to serve the teens in your ministry pleases the heart of God and as long as you are teaching his word it never returns void.