If I was to ask you what is the most important part of your work with young people, I wonder what your answer would be? And if I was to visit your youth work (virtually, in these days, of course!) would that most important element be obvious?
Having worked alongside lots of different churches and wonderful, committed youth workers I know that the main thing they want to do is to introduce young people to Jesus. But I can’t help wondering if what we are actually doing with them isn’t really about this at all? The experience of the past year with the pandemic, and all the implications of it, has resulted in many, many young people disconnecting from churches. In fact, in a Thrive survey we discovered 86% of youth leaders struggling with this very issue. If the young people were growing like Jesus, would they be leaving, or are they finding different places to grow their faith?
The simple question I’m asking is, ‘is the main thing actually the main thing’ in your ministry?
Here are five questions to help you think through any changes you might need to implement:
1. Do I want to be remembered or make Jesus known?
There’s the ‘right’ answer, and the ‘real’ answer to this question! Perhaps most of us don’t know ourselves well enough to be able to answer this question truthfully. I’ve been involved in youth work over twenty years and I have lost count of the number of extrovert, charismatic, ‘look at me’ youth leaders that I have met. Indeed, at one time it was almost the preferred character for churches to employ, presumably with the logic that if the youth leader is engaging and attracting enough, then young people will want to get involved with the church. But is this what should be our priority? Yes, of course we want to be liked, and we want to be accepted, youth ministry will be very difficult without, but shouldn’t we be attracting people to Jesus?
I mentored a youth worker a couple of years ago who was honest enough to say that he really wanted to be a Christian celebrity, seeing himself on a national stage and preaching. I admire him for his refreshing honesty in this, but equally I am concerned over the truthfulness of the admission.
2. What if things have a habit of changing suddenly?
What we are learning over these recent months is that nothing is guaranteed. Just because things happen in a certain way, doesn’t mean they always will do. We don’t know what is going to happen next but God does. Are we putting our faith sufficiently into his hands, as well as our ministry, our lives?
3. What’s happening in each person’s life?
Not being able to gather together physically has led many youth leaders to spend more time contacting young people individually, and sometimes their families, to see how they are doing. Dropping off simple gifts or care packages, giving a quick phone call to the home, checking in has proved a useful way of knowing how people are doing. Why has it taken a pandemic to remind us of the importance of valuing each individual in our ministry?
4. Is fun disguised as faith?
Having fun is an important part of community and, indeed, of growing up, but I wonder if we have mistaken people growing in faith actually by seeing people enjoy themselves more. Did young people come to our activities because they looked forward to the next quirky game the leaders might have planned or because they knew that something funny would probably happen? When we take a group away for a weekend, do they return talking all about the games and the activities or their encounter with God? Perhaps we’ve been using the wrong measure for the ‘success’ of our ministry?
5. If you could only do one thing, what would you do?
The pandemic has meant we have had to stop doing lots of things. What if going forward you could only do one thing with your young people each week, what would that one thing be? What would you want to do? Then, when you’ve thought about what that is, think about your current work and consider where you see that one thing right now. Perhaps you need to change your focus, or at least sharpen it.
Now, the danger with this blog post is that it may come across as hyper critical, that I’m saying all youth work has been failing, a fraud. That is not it at all. I love what it taking place across churches but I know, as many of you do as well, that there’s something not quite working in how we as God’s Church conduct our youth work in these days, it’s not seeing more young people growing more like Jesus, and we need to change.
My prayer is that we will be the generation of youth workers to make that gear change, to take the Church to a new place in our reaching out and discipling young people, that we won’t see more young people walking away from our churches, but many, many more young people being welcomed into our churches.