Next week will mark ten years since I first convinced someone to actually pay me to work with teenagers and lead a youth ministry. Since I love what I do, it doesn’t really feel like it’s been ten years (although some of those years felt longer than others). But in some respects, ten years is a long time–especially when I think about the fact that my soon-to-be kindergartener will be entering 10th grade in another ten years. Considering that length of time, I feel like I ought to have gained a wealth of knowledge–perhaps a treasure trove of youth ministry “secrets”–that I could pass on to youth workers who are where I was ten years ago: In their early 20s, ready to change the world, and without a clue about what they’ve really gotten themselves into.
Unfortunately, I have no secrets to share–unless “secret” is another word for “Really Dumb Mistakes I Made That You Should Stay Away From.” But I have learned–and sometimes believed in–a number of Youth Ministry Myths that are alive and well today, but are very, very unhelpful. Here’s a few of them:
There are 7 Secrets to Being an Effective Youth Worker. Or 3 secrets to a great outreach event, mission trip, or small group ministry. It’s a myth, because there are no “secrets” to any kind of ministry. I’ve made it a practice to meet with youth pastors I really respect to pick their brain about how they lead their youth ministry and to occasionally observe them in action. When I find out their “secret sauce” for a great youth ministry, I find that they really don’t have a secret at all. Usually, under the hood of a solid youth ministry is this: Solid, Christ-centered and Holy-Spirit driven leadership; compassion and love for teenagers; and a team of adult leaders who simply want to see God glorified as he transforms the lives of teenagers and their families through a relationship with Jesus. There are many great strategies, programs, and leadership techniques that can help us be more effective as leaders, but there is no “secret” to a great youth ministry (so stop trying to find it).
This program/curriculum/mission trip/conference will save and transform your teenagers. There are great organizations, trips, and publishing houses out there, and by all means, use them wisely–many of them are worth every penny you spend on them. But even the best ones are just tools, because it’s the Holy Spirit who works in teenagers’ lives, not programs or events. Don’t be surprised if something that was great two years ago doesn’t have the same impact that it used to. And don’t buy into the myth that if you could just find the right trip or small group curriculum, it will revolutionize your youth ministry. If you’re new to youth ministry leadership, let me share with you a piece of information that will come in handy: Much (if not most) marketing among Christian organizations and curriculum providers is downright sinful, because some organizations will do (and tell you) just about anything to get you to buy what they are selling. But that’s a post for another time.
Growth in numbers = effectiveness. Growth in numbers is great. It was celebrated in Acts, and we are foolish (and a little lacking in trust in God’s abilities) if we believe that the days of God bringing thousands of people to Jesus at once are far behind us. But if you think you’re only doing a great job if numbers are going up, then you’re in for an anxiety-riddled and insecure career in youth ministry.
Smaller youth groups create better relationships. I’ve seen a small youth ministry be more dysfunctional than you can imagine, and I’ve seen amazing relationships fostered among teenagers in large churches. It’s not about the size, it’s about the environment. Can it be challenging to create a family feel in a larger youth ministry? Absolutely. But whether Christ-centered relationships are happening in a youth ministry depends more on the leadership than the numbers.
Younger adults make the best youth leaders. While I love recruiting college-age adults to be on our team because they usually have a good amount of energy and free time, the leaders I really covet are those who have been around the block enough to know what it’s like to follow Jesus through plenty of difficult times. If you’re new to youth ministry, do yourself a favor: find some great, Jesus-lovin’ adults in their 40s or later to be on your team. You won’t regret it.
If you’re great with teenagers, you’ll be a great youth pastor. Anyone can be great with teenagers. All you have to do is love them unconditionally and with an abundance of compassion, and they usually will enjoy being around you. But not everyone can be a good ministry leader. Unfortunately, many youth pastors are hired because they are great with teenagers, but they lack the maturity and skills to be a leader in their church–this was certainly my story when I started out. Most young youth pastors need to work on their leadership skills more than their relational ministry skills.
What are some of your favorite (or not-so-favorite) youth ministry myths?