“Methods are many. Principles are few. Methods change often. Principles never do.”
I first heard this saying while attending an evangelism training years ago. It caused me to ask a lot of questions and discover the deeper “why” behind the choices I made in ministry, especially as it relates to reaching young people.
This year as the Church navigates COVID-19, protests, social distancing, cancelled trips, and failed expectations for 2020, we’ve been forced to try new methods. We’ve had to adapt, all with the goal of continuing to love people well.
But, even when things change, some things remain the same.
Through my experience working with thousands of youth ministries across the globe, and in varied contexts, there are a few essential principles that help youth ministers cultivate thriving youth ministries. When these principles are in action we see young people’s faith blossom in its authenticity, we see youth begging their friends to come and see for themselves what God is doing, and we see an infusion of life, passion, innovation, and service within the local church.
Principle 1: REAL
Monologue to dialogue
Where can young people feel safe to give voice to their doubts and questions? Usually, I would say small groups, but I visited a handful of my small groups when pastoring in Chicago-land area and what I saw made me rethink that answer.
The small groups naturally drifted towards content cramming. Rather than cultivating relationships, content transfer became the goal. Getting through the questions was a bigger “win” then having meaningful, honest, and real conversations.
Having worked with a number of youth groups, I’ve learned that this is a very common problem.
Attentive listening is not a natural skill-set and needs to be developed over time, through training that starts with the leadership and works down from there.
At Alpha, we quote David Augsburger often who says in Caring Enough to Hear and Be Heard, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” Whether we’re meeting in person, or virtually, people are still longing for real connection, which always starts with having someone listen to you.
Principle 2: RELATIONAL
Engaging the journey
When young people share their story of coming to faith in the person of Jesus, it’s as varied and relational as that individual is themselves. It looks like a unique journey they’ve been on with Jesus, not like a cookie cutter experience.
If we want to cultivate thriving youth ministries, we need to develop a culture that relationally engages people in this journey. We need to develop leaders who are interested, rather than interesting. We need to cultivate mentors who seek to understand, rather than be understood. We need communities that will journey alongside our young people as they journey alongside Jesus.
This journey can’t be scripted. It must be lived.
Principle 3: RELIANT
Explanation and experience
Our explanations about God aren’t enough. Students want, and need, to experience God’s love, power, peace, and closeness for themselves.
As a youth minister for 10 years, I was really good at controlling outcomes. I could get students to sign up, get them to come to my event, create “moments,” generate traction, but these were hollow compared to the times when I abandoned the outcomes and created space for God to move. It took me a while, but I finally learned that one word from the Lord carried more weight than a trillion words of my own.
If we want to see young people experience the love of the Father, we need to create space for him.
If you are like me, you may be thinking, “He’s already here, why do I need to create space?” You might already be mentally reciting countless verses about how Jesus is with us and for us. These are promises we cling to! Yet, being present and engaging his presence are a bit different.
Let’s say, I hosted a party for my best friend and invited you. Then I talked for hours about his story, his passions, and his character, but didn’t let him talk at all. You’d leave knowing a lot about my friend, but you wouldn’t really know him, even though he was there with us the whole time.
Every illustration breaks down, but at the end of the day we don’t want students to just hear explanations about Jesus, we want them to have an encounter with Him so that their faith is rooted in a demonstration of his goodness power, not in persuasive and eloquent words.
Thriving youth ministries create space for students to encounter Jesus Himself.
Principle 4: REPRODUCIBLE
Empowering young people
When students enter high school, especially if they’ve grown up in our ministries, they often ask themselves, “What difference does my faith make?” They want to be on the frontlines, engaging in the mission of seeing God’s kingdom come.
If you look back on your own faith journey, there was more than likely a moment when someone saw something in you and acted on your behalf to activate that potential. Consequently, your faith blossomed. You learned you had a unique contribution to make and through that you saw God do incredible things through and in you.
We also see this in the disciples that followed Jesus. They were empowered to join the work Jesus was doing in the world.
The difference between those who truly empower others and those who like the idea of empowering is, again, about making space. We must be willing to make space for the relational investment required, while giving away authority.
Thriving youth ministries listen to their youth and let them lead. It isn’t enough to fill slots on a team, or fill gaps with young people, we need to share in the mission together.
When we can invite and empower youth into the mission of God’s Kingdom with us, we create youth ministries that, despite challenges like those thrown at us in 2020, will thrive and grow.
Jordan is the National Director of Alpha Youth for Alpha USA. He has been leading in local youth ministries for over 10 years and is passionate about serving other youth ministers to see even more young people discover and develop a relationship with Jesus. He is a husband to Amy, and together they have four children all under the age of 8.