What’s in Your Youth Ministry? Part 2: Grace

Last week, I posted the first post in a three-part series on three things that need to be a big part of our youth ministries. Today, we’ll cover grace.

Grace is one of those words that is so familiar to us—at least those of us in church circles—that we read right over it when we see it. Oh, yeah, grace. Of COURSE that’s a part of our youth ministry, because we believe in that whole saved-by-grace thing. But grace is not a part of your youth ministry or church just because it’s in your statement of faith. If we don’t insist on grace being a part of our youth ministries, then our youth ministries will simply become grace-less. It’s not that we don’t believe grace is important; we just assume it’s there, and we forget to constantly be a community where grace infiltrates everything we do. Here’s how to make sure grace is a big part of your youth ministry:

Give and receive grace as a person. Do you really believe that God’s love for you and Jesus’ work on the cross is a gift? Or is there a part of you that believes you’re just a little better than other people because you stay away from certain headline-grabbing sins? If your youth ministry is going to be characterized by the seems-too-good-to-be-true grace of Jesus, you have to really believe that without that grace, you are lost, dead, and hopeless. And once you believe that, you need to be a daily giver of grace to others. I’m not talking about a little trickle; I’m talking about your life being so characterized by grace that people think you’re nuts. Really. It’s tough for your youth ministry to be a place where teenagers learn about what grace really is if it’s leader is not the kind of person who knows much about it.

Be ridiculously loving to difficult people. If I asked you if there were any difficult people you interact with in your ministry, chances are at least a few teenagers and parents would come to mind. You’re not leading much of a grace-filled youth ministry if only the people you like get the best treatment. A way you can practice being a grace-filled leader is to love those who get on your nerves as well as those you enjoy being around.

Teach and preach on God’s grace every chance you get. The reason we show grace to others is because we first received grace from God: “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Ephesians 2:8-9). Don’t assume that the teenagers (or leaders) you speak to on a weekly basis already understand grace, even those who have grown up in church. It’s often those of us who have spent a lot of time in church that need to be reminded about God’s grace most often.

Make your church and youth ministry a home for those who have been rejected elsewhere. We live in a graceless world. Most—if not all—teenagers in your community and neighborhoods have experienced rejection from others because they were deemed to be not “good enough” in some way. Some may have even been rejected by a church in their past. Jesus tended to hang out with and lavish love on men and women who had been rejected. His followers are called to do the same, however inconvenient it might seem at the time.

How else can we lead and grow grace-filled youth ministries?

UPDATE: You can read Part 3 (Love) here.

Video of the Week: Neely McQueen – Five Things The Church Misunderstands About Girls

Neely McQueen has some great thoughts about how the Church often misunderstands girls. It’s especially helpful if you’re a male youth worker like me…check it out:

What’s in Your Youth Ministry? Part 1: Jesus

It’s just about September, which means that your fall youth ministry calendar is about to kick into high gear. For youth ministries, September is a new year of sorts, and it’s a great time to evaluate your youth ministry. Over the next week, I’ll be asking an important question: What’s in your youth ministry? Each post will cover something that really needs to be a big part of your youth ministry. Today, we’ll talk about…Jesus.

I know what you’re thinking: Isn’t that a given? Well, you’d hope so. But in reality, it’s not a given. In ten years of youth ministry, I’ve discovered that it’s hauntingly easy to have all the trappings of what “looks” to be a thriving youth ministry, but forget to make much of Jesus. Occasionally, I’ll pull up a message I delivered to teenagers years ago, and be totally embarrassed at the fact that Jesus doesn’t seem to make an appearance. I may have done the word studies well, had a captivating introduction, and even engaged a variety of learning styles, but there have been too many times when I forgot to point to Jesus. I wasn’t intentionally leaving him out; I guess I just assumed every teenager knew they needed to know Jesus, so I didn’t bring him up.

Keeping Jesus front and center in your youth ministry takes constant attention and effort. If you just assume that he’s always there because you’re a church, and you teach out of the Bible, and there’s really cool cross art in your youth room, then he’s really not front and center every week. Below are a few ways to make sure that Jesus isn’t marginalized in your youth ministry. But first, I need to make a caveat:

In this three-part series, you won’t find a post specifically dedicated to the Bible. Why? The main reason is this: you cannot separate Jesus and the Bible. The whole of the Bible speaks of and points to Jesus and his redemptive work. And what we know of Jesus comes from the Bible. I love the Bible, and I work to foster a love of God’s Word in my children and in the teenagers I work with. I write Bible study curriculum for youth workers on the side. So yes, I know it’s important. But I think there’s a very real danger in Evangelicalism of teaching from the Bible without really saying much of Jesus–as I’ve said above, I’ve done it myself too many times. When we do that, we are simply teaching information rather than proclaiming the redemptive work of Jesus. But that’s another post for another time.

Now that we’ve got that down, here’s how to make much of Jesus in your youth ministry.

Make much of Jesus in your life. I’m not talking about just having devotional times or personal retreats to refresh yourself. If you have not let Jesus completely take over your life, then there’s a good chance you haven’t let him completely take over your youth ministry. This isn’t a call to be perfect; it’s a call to be Christ’s, and to be his alone. One thing I did not count on when I became a pastor was the temptation to leave Jesus at the office. But I have learned that if I compartmentalize my life, there’s a chance that I will lead a youth ministry that’s compartmentalized as well.

Make much of Jesus in your preaching and teaching. Charles Spurgeon famously commented about his preaching, “I take my text and make a beeline for the cross.” Here’s a question you need to ask yourself when you teach, preach, or lead a small group Bible study: “Am I pointing to Jesus?” It is all to easy to get so caught up in the text your teaching out of that you forget to draw a connection to Jesus. This doesn’t mean that you have to teach out of the gospels or even the New Testament the whole time. It’s just that you make sure Jesus doesn’t take a back seat to anything, even the Bible.

Share about how Jesus has transformed you (and ask your leaders to do it, too). The reason you need to make much of Jesus in your youth ministry isn’t just because you have teenagers who don’t yet know him. We need Jesus each and every day to continually grow us, mold us, and transform us. Sharing about how Jesus has done that in your life isn’t just about sharing your conversion story. You need to continually share how Jesus is growing you and working in your life. This can be a very vulnerable experience, but if you’re willing to talk about your weaknesses and how you need Jesus every day, the teenagers you lead are more likely to see that they need him every day, too.

Celebrate Jesus changing lives. One of the most powerful moments as a youth pastor came this past summer when a number of students accepted Jesus for the first time or recommitted their lives to him. What made it so powerful wasn’t just that it happened; it was seeing their friends cheer them on and pray for them as they began their new journey with Jesus. When a lost teenager comes home to Jesus, there’s a party in heaven, so why shouldn’t there be a party in our youth ministries as well?

Worship Jesus and provide a variety of ways for teenagers to respond to him. Corporate singing–whether you’ve got 300 teenagers in the room or just a handful–can be a powerful way for teenagers to respond to Jesus. But it doesn’t have to be limited to music. Provide different ways for teenagers in your group to respond to what Jesus is doing in their lives. Create a prayer station with an interactive prayer activity. Or you might ask teenagers to answer a challenge from Jesus with a physical activity, such as writing on a card how they can answer Jesus’ call to love an enemy in their life and taping it to the wall of the youth room. It’s one thing to teach about Jesus; it’s quite another to actually help teenagers take practical steps in their journey to follow him.

How else can we make much of Jesus in our youth ministries?

UPDATE: You can read Part 2 (Grace) here and Part 3 (Love) here.

The Problem with Family-Based Youth Ministry

This is a post that I have started to write, stopped, deleted, and rewritten a few times over the past year. The reason I’ve been so hesitant to finish it and share it with the world is because I wanted to get it right, and I didn’t want to say something I never intended to say. So before I dive in, I want to clearly affirm something:

The responsibility of discipling a child–whether a preschooler or a teenager–lies primarily (although not solely) on that child’s parent. I think that’s pretty clear in Deuteronomy 6, among other places in the Bible. It’s a responsibility that I take seriously as a dad, and one that I want the parents in our church to take seriously, especially the parents of teenagers that I work with.

So now that you know that, let me dive into what I think of a family-based approach to youth ministry. There are many different ways to implement a family-based approach to youth ministry, but the general idea is that most of the resources (staff, budget, volunteers) is spent equipping and building up families of teenagers so that parents can disciple teenagers, rather than focus programming to connect with teenagers directly.

In some ways, it’s a great approach to ministry. It’s biblical in that it places the emphasis on parents being the primary disciplers of their kids rather than the youth pastor. That’s a really good thing. It’s empowering in that pushes parents to take responsibility for their role as parents in a culture where parents tend outsource the moral, intellectual, and spiritual development to “professionals” such as educators and youth pastors. I love that, and I try to do that myself: A couple of months ago a dad asked if I could come to his house lead a weekly Bible study for his kids, because their schedule wouldn’t allow them to attend youth group. I encouraged him to perhaps be the one to lead the study, and pointed him toward some resources that would help him do that. Empowering parents is really important. However, there is a major flaw in a family-based approach to youth ministry:

It focuses primarily on church insiders rather than those who don’t yet know Jesus.

Think about it: a big assumption of a family-based approach to youth ministry is that the parents want to be involved in the spiritual lives of their teenagers. I would love to live in a world where families are intact and teenagers have two parents who only need a nudge in the right direction to be the spiritual leaders of their home God created them to be. But that’s not the reality I minister in.

Most of the guests who are invited by friends to our church don’t have parents who are interested in Jesus–some are antagonistic toward him! I’ve had to drive students home because their parents were angry that they came to church in the first place so they wanted to make them walk the four miles back to their house. In the high school I’ve tutored in for the past four years, I met plenty of students with parents to whom it made no difference whether their teenager was at school, at church, or at a party with plenty of drugs. Sure, those are some of the more extreme examples, but the point is that for many teenagers in our communities, the parent-discipling-the-teenager approach isn’t a viable option.

The problem with a family-based approach to youth ministry is that the majority of teenagers who have parents that are available and even remotely willing to disciple their teenagers are insiders. And Jesus did not instruct his Church to focus primarily on insiders. He was very clear that we are to make disciples of people who exist outside of our current, tight-knit, church circles (see Matthew 28:18-20 and Acts 1:8 for starters). Yes, the teenagers currently in our church are a part of our endeavor to make disciples, but we can’t use that as an excuse to build programs that focus primarily on insiders. When we spend the majority of our efforts on the people who are already a part of our community, we become insider-focused instead of mission-oriented.

By all means, we need to encourage the families we know and who are present to spiritually lead their teenagers. Shout that vision from the rooftops of your church until you’re blue in the face. Don’t let parents abdicate the responsibility they have to lead their teenagers in a relationship with Jesus. For teenagers with those kinds of families, I would much rather see them around a Bible at their kitchen table or at a homeless shelter serving together than in our youth room. But when it comes to the teenagers who don’t have parents who will ever open a Bible with them (barring a miracle, which God is certainly in the business of doing), go to where they are, tell them about Jesus, put your arm around them, teach them at youth group, put them in a small group, and introduce them to caring adults who will point them to Jesus. It’s the best gift you could ever hope to give them.

Teaching Teenagers that Sex is a Gift

Someone pointed me to this article titled “How Do You Feel About Sex and Teenage Sleepovers?” by Soraya Chemaly on Huffingtonpost.com this week. The entire article is an interesting read as an example of a worldview that encourages “healthy” sexual activity for teenagers. What really hit me, however, was this paragraph:

If you aren’t comfortable with your own sexuality or challenging deeply-embedded ideas about sex being “bad,” can you teach your kids anything different? In defiance of socially conservative mythology, approaches that are positive about sex do not lead to licentiousness, STDs, abortions and despair. On the contrary, the more you teach children about healthy, responsible sex, the more likely they are to treat sex in healthy, responsible ways. In general, they are more knowledgeable, more emotionally mature about it and “safer” in the scary-sex way. It goes a long way to understanding why the rate of teen pregnancy is the U.S. is four times that in the Netherlands, for example. (Emphasis added)

Here’s the thing that bugged me most about that paragraph in Chemaly’s article: She’s right.

Well, not completely right. You don’t have to be in youth ministry very long to understand that teenagers who experience sexual relationships are rarely–if ever–unaffected by severe and painful emotional and physical consequences that are conveniently omitted from sitcoms where everyone seems to be hooking up with almost zero consequences at all. So for the most part, I disagree with the article, especially her main point that encouraging teenagers to have sex with their significant others is a good and healthy thing to do. The statement that she’s partly right about is the one I emphasized above:

If you aren’t comfortable with your own sexuality or challenging deeply-embedded ideas about sex being “bad,” can you teach your kids anything different?


Now, there’s a bit of a straw man argument going on here. If you read the whole article, it’s pretty clear that Chemaly thinks that only ignorant and bigoted people (no exaggeration) advocate for abstinence among teenagers anymore. To make her point, she tries to paint everyone who thinks that it’s not healthy for teenagers to engage in sexual relationships with the same brush. However, she’s right in that if we treat sex as something that is inherently bad–as many of us believe because of what we were told and not told about sex as teenagers–how can we teach teenagers what is good about sex? With that in mind, she asks some important questions:

Would you rather teach your kids that sex is dangerous and forbidden or that it is permissible and… well, awesome? Are you a “responsible-sex-is-good” parent, or more in the “scare-them-silly” camp?

In essence, it seems that she believes there are only two options when it comes to talking to teenagers about sex:

  1. Talk about sex openly and encourage teenagers to have sexual relationships, or
  2. Tell them sex is bad, evil, and wrong (and pray they never want to try it)

The problem is that all too often, we (parents and youth workers) somehow believe that these are the only two options as well. Realizing that the first option isn’t a good one, we fall back to the second one and try to scare kids out of having sex (which doesn’t work, by the way). To fill the gap, I’d like to offer a third way of approaching the conversation about sex: Tell the truth. Namely that sex is an amazing gift.

Some of you reading this are waiting for me to finish that last sentence. Perhaps you’d like me to add “that must be enjoyed within the confines of marriage.” Or maybe you’re waiting for me to quickly address the physical, emotional, and spiritual dangers of having sex before you’re married. Now, I understand the need to reiterate to teenagers the boundaries in which God created sex to be enjoyed–the ways that he designed sex to be best it can be. But perhaps we are so uncomfortable with sex that we are quick to attach provisos and conditions to it in a way that we wouldn’t with other gifts God has given us.

To be honest, I’m not really sure how this plays out practically in conversations between parents and teenagers and in youth rooms when the youth pastor gives the obligatory message about sex every spring. After all, sex is different from other gifts. It’s intimate in a way that to share with the world our enjoyment of it the same way we would a new bike we got for our birthday would degrade it. And yes, sex has the power to severely damage teenagers who find out too late that giving themselves sexually to someone else isn’t as carefree as their favorite TV shows tell them it is. But I wonder if maybe we started to treat sex a little more like the gift that it is rather than a problem, what we say about it–whether as parents or as youth workers–wouldn’t carry just a little more weight with teenagers.

Being a Church That Loves Hurting Teenagers

Last week, I was talking with an adult who was sharing about how she attended church as a teenager even though her parents did not. She had a tough home environment growing up, and this is how she described the small church that first introduced her to Jesus as a teenager:

“It was great: Nobody was yelling at me, and nobody was hitting anybody.”

As her words have rung in my ears and my heart over the past week, I have been reminded about how important a loving church family can be to a teenager who doesn’t experience that kind of positive environment anywhere else in their life. For my friend, belonging to church who loved her was the first step in her journey toward a relationship with Jesus.

I’ve also been thinking of how to ensure our church and youth ministry is a place where teenagers walk through the door and feel at home, like they are family. I know that all too many of the teenagers who visit our church for the first time live in homes that are difficult at best and abusive at worst. I want teenagers to walk into our church and experience love in a way that they perhaps have never known at home. But as I’ve tried to figure out how to create that kind of environment, how to make sure we’re doing what we need to be doing every week, I realized something:

You can’t program a loving environment.

Don’t get me wrong. Doing a great job in preparing your message or planning a well-run fall kick-off is important. But creating a place where teenagers are loved as my friend was doesn’t happen in the same way that we plan a retreat or create a new small group ministry from scratch.

Being a church that loves teenagers isn’t about creating a great youth ministry. It’s about being a church that is ready to welcome anyone that walks through our doors–including teenagers who may smile on the outside but are carrying around a world of hurt on the inside. I think it’s important to note that my friend didn’t feel loved because there was a team of trained youth volunteers who were experts at working with kids in crisis. As far as I know, there wasn’t a youth ministry in her church at all. Instead, a group of loving adults showed her that Jesus loved her through their actions. By her own admission, my friend wasn’t exactly the model of a perfect kid as a teenager. I’m sure there were days when she pushed back against the love that her church tried to show her, as all hurting teenagers do in some way or another. In addition, it would be years before she finally and fully embraced her Savior that her church first told her about. But she was loved nonetheless, because that’s just what her church did.

I want to be a part of a church and youth ministry that loves teenagers like the church that loved my friend when she was a hurting teenager. I want students who become a part of our church to see that it’s possible for people to really love each other–even if that simply means for a hurting teenager that no one’s hitting anyone else. At the end of the day, I pray that all of our planning, all of my message preparation, and the money that we spend on fun events would be second to one goal: That we love teenagers with the kind of unconditional love that Jesus first loved them with.

Because that’s the only way we’ll really make a difference.

The Downside to My Background as an Unchurched Teenager

Tuesday, I shared about my background as an unchurched teenager and how I believe that perspective helps me as a youth pastor. However, that background also has some drawbacks. To be fair, I thought I’d share those as well. Here’s the downside to my background as an unchurched teenager:

I don’t always understand what ideas will and won’t “work” in youth ministry. On Tuesday, I mentioned that a benefit to not growing up in church is that I don’t have a pre-set notion of what has to be a part of a youth ministry. However, there’s a flip side to that. Since I wasn’t a part of a church or youth ministry as a teenager, I haven’t experienced first-hand some of the great parts of youth ministry that’s not always taught in seminary. Because of this, I rely heavily on our volunteers who were part of a (often our own church’s) youth ministry as teenagers, as well as our student leaders.

I’m not always great at equipping parents and families. I have a three and a five year old, so becoming a parent has helped me in this area quite a bit. However, the fact that I didn’t grow up in church means that I don’t really know what it’s like for families who are trying to raise Christ-centered teenagers. I think youth workers who had parents that really tried to disciple them as teenagers understand a lot better than I do how to help parents be the primary pastors to their kids.

It’s difficult to view our youth ministry and church through the eyes of teenagers who have always been there. I don’t know what it’s like to grow up in church, so I don’t always connect with the experience of the students in our group who are struggling to follow Jesus as high school students. In addition, I don’t always do a great job of considering how to serve teenagers who genuinely want to be in church and in our youth ministry week in and week out.

Poll: Were You a Part of a Youth Ministry as a Teenager?

Yesterday’s post on my background as an unchurched teenager got me thinking about the youth ministry background the youth workers who read this blog:

Were you a part of a youth ministry as a teenager?

The Upside to My Background as an Unchurched Teenager

Growing up, my family didn’t go to church a whole lot. I remember attending church as a very young child when my father was sick with terminal cancer, but other than that, we were a Christmas and Easter kind of family. Eventually, we stopped attending church even on holidays. In fact, I don’t think I willingly attended church from the time I was in elementary school until I became a follower of Jesus when I was a freshman in college. Because of this, I was never a part of a youth group when I was a teenager. I attended a Young Life club a couple of times, but all I remember from those sessions is trying to mess with the leader during the opening “mixer” games, which I thought were kind of ridiculous.

Fast forward almost two decades, and I am now a youth pastor. I marvel at God’s sense of humor, as I now lead a ministry to teenagers when I as a teenager thought such a thing was a waste of time. The fact that I never really spent time in a youth ministry until I did so as a leader (and eventually a youth pastor) has sometimes made me feel like an outsider when it comes to youth ministry. Some of the leaders in our youth ministry were actually a part of our church when they were teenagers, and their recollection (both positive and negative) of their time in our church’s youth ministry makes me realize that there is so much I don’t get about youth ministry since I never was a part of one as a teenager. However, I believe that my background as an “unchurched” teenager has helped me as a youth pastor more than it has hindered me. Here are some ways I believe my background has helped me:

I am constantly looking at our ministry through the eyes of teenagers who aren’t yet Christ followers. In youth ministry, it’s an easy temptation to assume that we’re doing everything right because teenagers are showing up, and they don’t seem to be getting into too much trouble. But when I look at our church and the broader community that we are a part of, I realize that the vast, vast majority of teenagers in our neighborhoods do not know much of the Jesus of the Bible who died for them, let alone follow him. That thought haunts me, because I was one of those teenagers when I was in high school. I try to never forget that as I plan, lead, teach and serve.

I don’t believe youth ministry needs to be done the way I experienced it. I learned very early on in youth ministry that a lot of sacred cows exist in just about every youth ministry, especially for pastors and volunteers who had positive experiences in youth ministries as teenagers. Telling teenagers about Jesus and helping them grow in a relationship with him should always be our goal, but how we go about it–our strategy–will change over time. I’m not saying that my new ideas are always that great, but I am grateful for having been able to start with a clean slate when it comes to leadership in youth ministry.

I remember what it’s like to be a really confused volunteer. I became a follower of Jesus my freshman year in college, and by my sophomore year, I was volunteering with my new church’s high school ministry. I didn’t know the first thing about youth ministry, and I remember spending the first number of weeks (and a weekend retreat) wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into. Thankfully, the youth minister at the time was a great mentor and leader, and my role as a volunteer became clearer. I try to remember that experience for our new youth ministry team members who also were never a part of a youth ministry when they were teenagers.

To be fair, on Thursday I’ll share some of the downsides of my background as an unchurched teenager.