In the old 90s song “What A Girl Wants,” we hear Christina Aguilera sing, “What a girl wants / What a girl needs / Whatever makes me happy sets you free.”
Have you ever noticed how we cave to popular culture in our youth programming?
How we have to match the up-and-coming trends? Just take a look around your youth room. Do you have a ton of technology? Does your worship team play all the new and upbeat Christian music? Do you have tons of sugary snacks to bring students in? Are you always looking for a new game, gimmick, or outreach program to bring in more kids?
We all use these tools, and most of us use them effectively—but is this what youth ministry should be?
Should we strive to be the popular place, the place students want to go because we’re cool, the it place in town? Or should we instead be gospel-centered places of refuge, revitalization, and freedom?
Yes, we teach the gospel, we help make disciples, and we minister to broken youth. But my argument is that we need to have the proper foundation upon which to do these programs. We shouldn’t attract students with lights, loud music, sweets, froyo, inflatables, and activities no one else is doing—we should attract them with the gospel. The gospel is what should be bringing students into our youth groups and into our churches. We can argue that we need to make the gospel relevant to our culture, but the reality is that the gospel transcends all time, all cultures, all demographics, and all age groups. Jesus knew this, and he understood youth ministry.
In the New Testament, we read about how Jesus led an amazing group of youth. He took eleven young men—and one adult who didn’t know how to keep his mouth shut—and he used them to ignite the greatest revival in history. Jesus worked with troubled kids, bullies, liars, thieves, and rebels—and he didn’t bring them in with sugary treats, technology, and bold outreach. Instead, he brought them in with honest teaching, interpersonal relationships, a multiplication model, and constant prayer—and then he let them go. Are we modeling that? I believe we need to model the programming Christ established. Will you step out with me and let the revival come?
So how do we begin? I’m not saying we need to rid our youth groups of candy, games, outreach events, and craziness—these are all good things. Instead, I believe we should rethink our purpose and how we do things. I suggest four things:
1. Unabashedly preach the gospel.
This may seem like a no-brainer, but the reality is that the gospel isn’t always as present as it should be. How much time do we devote to games, snacks, hangout time, movies, etc. How much time do we preach the Word of God and proclaim salvation. Does one outweigh the other? We can see what our priorities are by how much time we spend there. I’m not being critical of youth pastors and their programs—I’m in this place as well. Even as I write this, I’m strongly convicted that I need to evaluate how I do ministry. This is meant to be a rallying cry for us to stand upon our convictions and drive them home. Let’s put the gospel back in the center of our ministries where it deserves to be!
2. Become a safe place.
We probably all assume that our youth programs are safe places for students, but I think we miss things. I think most of us can say there’s no bullying in our programs, but what about gossip, sarcasm, judgment, and disrespect? These things can drastically alter a youth group’s DNA and make it a place students do not wish to be. Youth groups need to be places that build their foundations on the gospel and then seek to promote love, peace, forgiveness, and grace. We need to educate our students on the dangers and problems associated with these attitudes and heart issues.
Another way to be a safe place is to constantly reinforce that students can be themselves, there is no judgment, there are people they can talk to, and they can trust us. I cannot overemphasize the importance of trust. We need to keep our word with students, and they need to know that they can go to the pastors, leaders, or volunteers for advice, direction, or help. Bring in volunteers who are gifted in counseling, make connections with licensed counselors inside and outside of your church, have crisis-care information at the ready, and talk about the challenges students face. We need to be leaders who won’t sweep messy and difficult issues under the carpet. We must talk about hard things; we must educate our students on how to walk through these times; and we must show our students we support, love, and care for them.
3. Start from the ground up.
We need to be a praying generation. This is something God has been stirring within my heart, convicting me in areas I fall short. We need to be praying more for our volunteers, our students, our ministries, our churches, and our world. If we’re not falling on our knees to ask God to change our world, our towns, and our students, then we’re missing the mark. When we read in Acts about the early church, we see that everything they did was covered in prayer. In Acts 2, we read that it was through prayer and seeking God that thousands were added to their numbers. When believers prayed for boldness in Acts 4, God gave fishermen, tax collectors, zealots, and the uneducated the ability to proclaim God’s Word. Throughout Acts, we read about countless times prayer brought about salvation, the sending out of disciples, and discipleship!
Prayer can and will transform our programs! Are we praying enough? I’m sure most of us pray during our personal study times, during staff meetings, at home before meals, and with our spouses and children—but when was the last time we prayed over our churches, our youth rooms, or where we do counseling? When was the last time we brought volunteers, student leaders, or parents in to pray for that week’s meeting? Prayer must be part of our foundation or we’ll never experience the growth the early church did. I’ve often wondered why one of my program isn’t growing more. Why has it remained stagnant? And then the Holy Spirit grabs my heart and says, “Get on your knees, you foolish man! You can’t do this. Only I, the God who placed you here, can.” Are we praying enough? I know I’m not. Perhaps if we rallied our volunteers, students, parents, and church staff and prayed fervently, we would see an explosion happen for the bride of Christ.
4. Be prepared for a revival.
I think we need to ask ourselves if we’re truly ready for revival to come. If we cry out in prayer, God is inclined to move through his people. Are we ready for that? Can we see youth groups and churches bursting at the seams as God fills the church? Can we see schools and towns changing? Can we see the world changing? This is the vision John has in Revelation when he sees people from every tongue and nation singing and worshiping God! This is an amazing picture of what is coming—are we ready? Are we doing our part to share the gospel with those we minister to? Are we content to be where we are? May it never be! Let us be ever willing to cry out for this!
So what should we do to prepare?
- Have leadership ready: Get a team of volunteers, student leaders, and parents in place to help disciple, pray for, and walk with people who come to the church.
- Put the priority on God: Always preach the gospel, always give God glory, and always direct others to him.
- Be prepared to make changes: Look to grow the church and not be tied down to a location, facility, program, or way of doing things. God sent the disciples out with no place to lay their heads or any understanding of the world outside of their country, and look what happened: the church—the bride of Christ—came into existence!
- Be in prayer: Be in constant prayer about what God is going to be doing. Always look to him for guidance, direction, and understanding.
- Get other youth groups and churches in on this: Don’t be an island—look to be ecumenical and inclusive with other gospel-believing churches. God is going to do great things not through one program or church but through all of his people. Bring others in
We need to stop trying to do things our way and be willing to let go of our programming so God can be the one to run the show. Let us love unabashedly; serve without hesitation; always give God the glory and control; and reach our students, families, and the world with the amazing truth that is the gospel.
Nick Mance is a youth pastor in Iowa and is married to his wife Elise. Nick has served in a variety of ministry capacities for over ten years and is a writer, blogger, speaker, and communicator specializing in student and family ministry. You can find him on Twitter @nick_mance & his personal blog at nickmance.blogspot.com.