Over my ten years of ministry in Tampa, I have been a part of several “youth networks” or regular gatherings of youth leaders from churches in my community. Some were healthy and lasted years. Others were unhealthy and fizzled out quickly. Some were denomination specific. Others were ecumenical.
A question I have often returned to is: “What’s makes the difference?”
Why are some youth networks helpful and life-giving while others…aren’t?
To help your network feel more constructive and less competitive, try these three steps.
Step 1: Ban Talking About Numbers
A competitive network will feel like everyone is focused on numbers.
“How many youth came to your youth group last night?” “How many students did you take to camp this summer?”
These questions can be harmless but might easily lead to feelings of insecurity and competitiveness.
A constructive network asks questions that are not based on numbers.
“When has a middle schooler opened up about God at your youth group?” “Did any of your students take a next step in their faith at summer camp?”
Constructive youth networks realize that the main indicator for a healthy youth ministry is what God is doing in the lives of the youth; not how many youth are showing up.
When you find yourself feeling territorial about your youth program, remind yourself that God will use every available means to reach the youth you care about. When one of “your” students goes to another youth group for awhile it can be easy to become resentful. Resist this urge and instead pray that God will use those leaders to reach that student’s heart for God.
The individual ministry matters a lot less than the result. If that youth opens up his or her life to God, it really doesn’t matter what ministry environment it happened in.
Step 2: Embrace Paul’s “Seeds and Water” Analogy
Paul gives good guidance when he reminds early Christians that God is ultimately responsible for a person’s growth in faith. When early Christians were arguing about whether it was better to follow Paul or Apollos, Paul reminds them that we all follow God.
“After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow.” 1 Corinthians 3:5-6
Let’s play a little game and re-write this Scripture for a modern youth context.
“After all, who is that big church down the street that all my youth are now going to? Who is my ministry that I am putting so much time and effort into?” We are only God’s servants through whom the youth believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. My ministry planted the seed in your hearts, and your ministry watered it, but it was God who made it grow.”
In your network, realize that youth may come to your program for awhile and then may try out another program for a bit. This is an example of one ministry watering and another planting. It is all a part of God’s design for ministry.
As a network, do your best to embrace this teaching. When you do, it will lead to celebrating the times when God plants in your ministry but waters in another ministry.
Step 3: Authentically Share About Your Life
Youth ministry is hard! And many outside of youth ministry don’t really understand it. Fellow youth workers should be some of the most understanding people to talk to.
Constructive networks will create ample time to hear from one another. Talk about ministry highlights and what you are currently enjoying in ministry. Share about the challenges and about the kid that just drives you crazy.
Pray for one another and for each other’s ministries. “Rejoice with those who rejoice. Weep with those who weep.” (Romans 12:15). Authentically share your lives with the people who know youth ministry the best (a.k.a. fellow youth workers).
Other youth workers can emphasize with the highs and lows of ministry because they are in the trenches with you. View them as partners in ministry.
When your youth network embraces these three steps, you will begin feeling more constructive and less competitive as you do your part to expand the kingdom of God.
David Bonnema is the Associate Pastor at Palma Ceia Presbyterian Church in Tampa, FL. He received his Master of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and his Bachelors from Whitworth University. More writings can be found at WWW.BEYONDTHESERMON.COM.