“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light”
These beautiful words of promise from our Lord give us tremendous comfort and hope in difficult times. But how do they apply to youth ministry? I think here the simple answer is the best one. Simply put, our youth ministries are mean to be a place of rest.
Getting Rest on Your Radar
Youth ministry is not meant to be just one more thing for teenagers to do among a huge list of to-do’s and other activities. One of the key components of God’s church is that we cultivate true rest that the world cannot offer. And yet as I look over my years of working with youth, it took a while for the idea of rest to be even on the radar at all. Things like excitement, interaction, fun, learning, and growing were on the priority list. Rest didn’t make the cut because it wasn’t even on the ballot. It’s not that hard to imagine why. As the youth leader, people want to see you getting the youth active, involved, and having fun. Whatever you need to do to boost the numbers and help the kids have fun, do that. Prayer isn’t exciting enough, so don’t worry about it. Worship isn’t as fun as games, so cut it.
Now, I’m not saying that we need to get rid of the fun, silly, and energetic aspects of youth ministry. There is certainly a lot of positive relationship building and discipleship that happen through games and interactive activities, for example. Do that and do it well. But know that youth have so many options to find fun, entertainment, and excitement. They have far fewer options to find any kind of rest, much less the true rest that Jesus offers.
This really hit home for me a couple of years into being a youth worker. I had a really excited and young group of regular attendees in my youth group. They, more than previous groups I had led, loved games, retreats, and almost any exciting idea I had. Reverse Charades in particular was a favorite game that would lead to guaranteed laughter and memories made! As I was trying to plan for the next school year with this group and praying for these students and the friends that they were inviting to join, I was led to try something completely different. It was something that had impacted me as a young adult: a relaxed prayer and praise service once a month.
In the place of the games and some of the more “exciting” parts of our programming, we would have an extended time of worship and prayer. Instead of two songs, like we normally did, we had six or seven. We had at least ten minutes of time where they would gather in small groups, share prayer requests, and then actually pray for one another. The whole environment was subdued, relaxed, and meant to be an opportunity for youth to slow down and be recharged by God’s gifts in worship, prayer, and God’s Word. Totally different from what it seemed like our group was into, but I suspected it was more of what they needed.
I had hopes, but I really had no idea how it was going to catch on with the kids. But once we kicked it off, each month when we had Prayer and Praise night, the excitement grew and grew! I quickly had a number of youth that told me, “Prayer and Praise! Those are my favorite nights!” They shared about how busy and overwhelmed they were at times with school, sports, and everything else going on. What they needed was rest. Rest in the Word. Rest in Prayer. Rest in knowing that our sins are forgiven and we are made free in Christ. Rest through the encouragement of the Body of Christ. We even opened a few of our Prayer and Praise nights to the rest of the congregation and as it turns out, parents and adults need that kind of rest too!
Helping Youth to Rest Well
From then on, with the great need for rest firmly on my radar, I considered that need in all of our programming. Here are a few ideas for your youth ministry to help your youth rest well:
- Consider the amount of your programming. How many events do you have? How late do your events go? Overall, we trimmed back on our total number of events, because our youth were overcommitted in a lot of areas. At times we combined events, like doing some service projects during our normal youth group time instead of having two separate events. Your context and specific group will determine your overall activity level, but keep rest on the radar as you plan. You don’t want to overwhelm the families that are active and committed.
For example, one change that we made was that we switched our overnight lock-in’s. We found that our teens were leaving early either because they had sports the next day or couldn’t afford to be wiped out for the next few days. Instead of getting rid of them completely, we switched to “Midnighter Lock-Ins”, going from 7pm until Midnight, that way we had a full evening of programming, but everyone left wanting more rather than dead tired. We ended up increasing our numbers each time we did a Midnighter Lock-In, because it was a time for a lot of fun, and allowed for rest.
- Consider the consistency of your programming. While you don’t want to have too much on the calendar, if you meet too sporadically that it’s hard to build deep relationships, you may be missing out on a wonderful opportunity. Restful youth ministry is strengthened by deep, caring relationships which are fostered best by regular (oftentimes weekly) interactions. It also helps when youth know that there is a consistent day of the week or month that they can be looking forward to rest and recharge via the church. Seek to be the constant in the midst of their changing world and lives.
- Rest is different from inactivity. To rest well involves recharging and refueling ourselves. A good night’s sleep recharges us for the next day. Healthy food refuels our body. Having good, encouraging conversations refreshes our emotions. Worship refuels us spiritually with God’s promises and gives us the hope, comfort, and joy in Christ alone that we need. All of that is what I would consider “resting well”. Most of the time when we seek rest, it is zoning out in front of a screen or some kind of media. That may be inactivity, which is kind of helpful, but it is not refueling and recharging us. True rest does that.
For youth ministry, think of how you can refuel your teens (and adults!) in these various ways. Refuel them physically through food and drink that don’t result in an immediate crash. Allow for time for large group game and discussions to energize the extroverts in your group, but also small group conversation or prayer to energize your introverts who thrive on individual interactions with close friends. Have an intentional emphasis in engaging in worship, study in God’s Word, and prayer time to recharge everyone spiritually. Rest doesn’t have to mean inactivity. In fact, oftentimes it is extremely active- focused on refueling and recharging.
- Pass on the skills of resting well. The above ideas about worship, sleep, and nutrition are universally true. But we all also have individual ways that we can rest well. Help your youth to identify how they are refueled and recharged. Is it through being outside, reading a good book, being with a large group of people, solving a problem, or building something? This will vary from person to person, but helping your youth to discover what that is for them specifically and then to help them to see that they need to use their down-time for those refueling activities can be so helpful. Teach on Bible study topics like boundaries, Sabbath rest, and emotional health that will ground the group in Scriptural truths while giving them the skills they need to rest well.
Jesus has called us to be a people of rest. He’s built it into the fabric of our world, as He gives us the gift of the Sabbath day, the day of rest, each week. We as the church are commanded to keep that day of rest holy, which means teaching and modeling how to rest as we center our lives around God’s Word and Sacraments. Teens have burdens of sin, expectation, achievement, and appearance they are trying to keep up. Yet, God alone offers us forgiveness and rest. Youth ministry is a great opportunity for the church to carry out that aspect of discipleship. Augustine once famously wrote, “Our hearts are restless until they rest in Thee, O God.” That is the primary gift that we can give in a restful youth ministry: a chance to rest in God.
I experienced this on one of the first mission trips I led. I was in charge of the spiritual programming for our group as we went to serve at a camp ministry working with adults with special needs. It was an intense week! Our group was exhausted. By the middle of the week, we made our afternoon Bible study optional in case kids needed to rest instead. What I was amazed is that none of our group took that option! They came to Bible study to find rest, to recharge, to be refreshed through the Word. We can learn so much from our youth sometimes! In the midst of a very busy schedule that was taxing physically and emotionally, these teens knew that they needed God’s Word and His people to keep them through. May our youth ministries become that opportunity for our students each and every week!