By Youth Specialties on September 14 2014
Original photo by Flee.
I work in a big church. I mean a really big church. My church has more members than my hometown has people! While I love my church and my youth group, I’d be lying to you if I said I didn’t, sometimes, miss the joy of doing youth ministry in a smaller church setting. I don’t miss it in a nostalgic sort of way, but I do miss the necessity of the youth in churches that are smaller.
Here is what I mean…
Smaller churches don’t have the option of letting youth silo and create the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” as easily as larger churches do. Most smaller churches I’ve worked with have to use their youth in larger ecclesial practices like being in the choir, reading scripture, serving on boards, helping with children’s Sunday school, being in the Christmas and Easter productions, running sound—and a myriad of other activities that ingrain them into the life of the congregation.
Does this mean that churches are “using” their youth to do the things they do not want to do? Maybe, in some cases. But it can also be thought about as a way of furthering the responsibility and ownership of the students in the greater church ministry. In smaller churches, there is such a great potential for students to acquire, develop, and practice leadership in an ecclesial setting. I owe so much of who I am in ministry and leadership to having grown up in a small church where I was given the reins of many projects at a youth-group age.
Often times I hear leaders of smaller church youth ministries wanting the benefits of a larger group: They want to do bigger trips, bigger worship, and bigger events. I totally understand this. I remember taking a group to a beach retreat center and having one of those massive groups there along side of us. In some ways, I was annoyed and in others I was envious.
But what I learned that week was pretty special. Our whole group could hang out in one of the rooms that we had rented—there were only about 25 of us, so every night we would all pile into that room, watch Shark Week, play cards, and laugh until we cried. It was awesome.
The other leaders and I had real and deep, meaningful relationships with each one of those youth. We knew them and they knew us. As I looked at the other, big group, I knew that kind of one-on-one connection wasn’t something that was as accessible to them. I was proud of my group, my church, and myself. I found the beauty in the small thing that day.
Consider your smaller church group a gift! Understand the number of students you have as a tool and an opportunity to do intense developmental and leadership training. Here are a few practical ways you can start…
Do not try to do things that you can only do in big groups. If you usually have eight kids in your youth group, don’t try to launch a grade-based, small-group ministry. Remember that just because it’s successful in other churches doesn’t mean that it’ll work in your church!
You have a unique opportunity to allow your youth ministry to be a ministry leadership lab for the students who belong to it. In larger youth groups, there’s often a premium put on “polished performance ministry.” There isn’t usually the same expectation in smaller groups. Take advantage of that by letting your kids lead! One of my favorite retreats I did at a smaller church included worship services designed, developed, and led by students in groups of three. It was incredible.
There’s no doubt that being in an arena with thousands of other youth is exhilarating and gives your students a great experience that they’ll never forget. Take your kids to these big conferences occasionally. It’s something different and something that will inspire them.
After you go to the big conference, don’t come home and try to copy the stuff you saw. You won’t do it as well (neither will I) and that’s not why your kids come to your group anyway. They come for the intimacy, the community, and the love they feel… not for pyrotechnics.
Stephen Ingram is the Director of Student Ministries at Canterbury United Methodist Church in Birmingham, AL, a coach with Youth Ministry Architects, and author of "Hollow Faith and [extra] Ordinary Time." organicstudentministry.com