During an area youth leader’s meeting earlier in the year, I listened to a number of ministry leaders articulate their plans, events, and major ‘thrust’ areas. The subjects discussed were probably not surprising: summer camp, mission trips and problems with attendance in a world of competing priorities. As the conversation began rolling into discussions of how to reach more students and reinforce the participation of those already attending, I began to notice a disturbing trend which I fear is not unique to our regional group.
Our world is very tactile in nature. Let me explain what I mean by this. ‘Tactile’ is a fancy engineering term used to describe things with which you can physically touch and interact. In my day job as an engineer for the Navy, we often experience situations where operators have to learn to trust things that aren’t tactile. A good example is a new computer system which performs calculations in the background that older sailors are used to performing manually via navigational charts. Even though they may trust the engineers, there is a human tendency to not trust that which cannot be seen. Due to this distrust, it’s not surprising that when faced with situations of student retention and growth, ministry leaders often default to ‘tactile’ attractions; bigger trips, fancier prizes and more elaborate games will SURELY have teenagers begging to be in our youth group!
The problem with this tactile approach to ministry is that it attracts participants who are attracted to the program, not necessarily to the Good News.
As ministry leaders, we must be constantly evaluating every decision we make with regards to our programs and asking ourselves if we are seeking the glory of God’s kingdom by equipping and training disciples or if we are seeking to glorify our religious 501(c)(3) organizations. If we honestly think the problem with our ministries is the lack of the correct prize or summer camp, haven’t we already admitted that the world has won over the gospel?
What Is Your Purpose?
Another lesson I have learned in my day job is that any endeavor without a purpose is almost certain to fail. As youth ministries, what is our purpose? Paul describes the purpose of the church, in general, in his letter to the Ephesians.
Furthermore, he gave some people as emissaries, some as prophets, some as proclaimers of the Good News [think missionary work], and some as shepherds and teachers [think Bible study and discipleship]. Their task is to equip God’s people for the work of service that builds the body of the Messiah, until we all arrive at the unity implied by trusting and knowing the Son of God, at full manhood, at the standard of maturity set by the Messiah’s perfection. (Ephesians 4:11-13 CJB, editorials in brackets)
I can’t think of a better purpose statement for any church ministry than “…to equip God’s people for the work of service that builds the body of the Messiah.” When we begin to view our youth ministries in this frame of reference, it may become easier to understand the dangers of sinking time and resources into program building in the name of ‘outreach’. The problem with prioritizing the strengthening of a program in our staff meetings, our budgets and our annual plans is that it replaces the God-given purpose of the church with our own ideas of “what the body of God really needs” as if we are somehow more qualified to define our own needs. At worst, it leads down a slippery slope where our faith begins to lay in the programs we have built rather than in the truth and power of the Word of God.
It’s About Priorities
In discussions with some of my spiritual mentors, the question was posed ‘what’s wrong with someone building their program’? The short answer is this: nothing. There is nothing inherently wrong with building a strong youth program that goes on amazing trips and has awesome prizes each week. As Paul writes in 1 Corinthians, all of these things are perfectly allowable, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s all beneficial. The difference between ‘allowable’ and ‘beneficial’ is where the priority lies.
One thing I have tried to enforce in my staff meetings this year has been to measure every trip, game, prize or event against the measuring stick of how it supports our purpose of equipping teens. For example, at the beginning of the year, we established a $10 “limit” on prizes we handed out each week. By limiting the amount of money spent on prizes, it forced us to consider what behaviors, accomplishments or actions we wanted to reward. It drove us towards rewarding things like bringing Bibles to class and remembering lessons taught the previous week. Ironically, it almost completely eliminated winning prizes for winning games or “ice breaker” events. The impact we have seen are students who retain more information taught between youth group events and more active participation in the discipleship they are being offered. They don’t even care whether they get a prize for winning a competition or not.
Another example I will share involved the creation of a Sunday school class. There was a significant concern by a number of people that the Sunday school class would be bad for the program because it split the numbers we had on Sundays in half. Some were concerned about the breakdown in the sense of ‘unity’ and others were concerned that it made the program appear fragmented. At the end of the day, the decision was made to follow through with creating the Sunday school class because that is what was needed to meet the spiritual needs of our youth. The result was a class which ended up attracting a previously inactive teen into our program and the deepening of faith in another middle schooler. By pursuing an option that made no programmatic sense, God was able to be glorified through the deepening of faiths for these two teens.
When the priority is on the program, we are relying on the power of the things we have created. When the priority is on God, He is capable of doing unimaginably beautiful things.
How Do We Avoid Mixing Priorities and Leading With Purpose?
For the most part, many of us are probably on board with the idea that we should prioritize God over our program (though a little reminder never hurt; I’ve already gone back and changed a couple plans just since writing this article!). The real question this: what can I do to guard against mixing up my priorities? How can I ensure that I am leading with ‘purpose’ and not with ‘program’?
I hope you are ready for what might be an unsatisfying answer: work on you. I know some were probably hoping for an easy “10 Step Process to Better Youth Programs,” but good youth ministry starts with godly, grounded youth leaders. By ensuring that our own hearts are firmly planted in the Will of God, it will become nearly impossible to make decisions without prioritizing the purpose God laid out for the church! That means getting back to the basics: pray, study, worship.
In our passion and zealousness to serve our youth, we must make sure that our own souls are being constantly refilled at the well of God’s Word and that we are constantly listening for God’s still, small voice calling to us. When we live day-in and day-out with the guidance provided by the Holy Spirit, we will not be able to help but to prioritize the things of God over the pursuit of any kind of worldly ‘program’ or ‘organization.’ For me, I am confident that when I stop trying to build a program and instead try to follow God, He will create something far more glorious than anything I could have ever hoped for.
Joseph Pack is the student ministry coordinator at Bowling Green Baptist Church in Bowling Green, Virginia. Joseph’s emphasis with students is drawing distinctions between faith as the world sees it versus faith as is taught through the Word. In his day-life, he is an aerospace engineer for the US Navy. Joseph’s messages, commentaries, and contact information can be found on his blog at SAVETHEGENERATION.COM.