Do you have a favorite restaurant, a place you love to go?  A place where you do lunch meetings or take family when they come from out of town?  A place where the food is incredible and the wait staff greet you by name?

This feeling is what students can experience when stepping into effective student ministry. A place where “patrons” feel at home and enjoy a sense of connectedness serves well as a metaphor for creating a vibrant youth ministry program. The metaphor plays out this way:

The youth leader serves as manager of the youth ministry restaurant, creating an atmosphere and an experience that leaves youth wanting more. As the manager, the youth leader must oversee two main things: the wait staff (adult leaders) and the food (curriculum).

A quality wait staff is also essential to the success of the Youth Ministry Café.  A good manager spends the majority of his or her time in youth ministry serving and equipping the adult leader wait staff so that they might most effectively impact the lives at their tables.

It is important that adult leaders know how to meet students where they are. Not everyone that comes in to the youth ministry restaurant is ready for the specialty of the house (a full course of Jesus). Some people may just want water or a soda before they risk the menu. The manager’s job is to equip the adult leader wait staff to challenge each individual to discover their hunger, take a risk, and order.

The manager must convey to the adult leader wait staff that they are the key in the discipling ministry of the restaurant. Leaders need to get to know their table of youth (4-8 in all) so they can facilitate student faith discovery that will nourish souls.

Adult leaders also need to be equipped to challenge students stuck ordering the same side of “contentment” to try a piece of “share Jesus with others.” The adult leader wait staff shouldn’t tell the youth what to order from the menu, but they should make enthusiastic recommendations, facilitate discussion, and lead their tables on the journey to faith discovery.

Part of the manager’s role includes keeping adult leaders focused on main purpose of the restaurant, which for this manager’s congregation is: “to invite all youth to experience Jesus’ love.”  Any time a youth walks into the youth ministry restaurant, the time they spend with the other patrons should be designed to help them experience Jesus’ love. When youth experience that love they will be freed to live out that love to others.

By understanding the needs of the patrons, the manager and the adult leader wait staff can design a great menu.  Menu variety is essential to the success of the restaurant.  The students are entering with a variety of hungers and it is important to meet them.  At any given table you may have an order of “need help coping with divorce,” with a side of “seeking contentment,” a bowl of “I don’t fit in,” and a specialty dish, “tell me more about Jesus.”  A variety of menu options are important, because next week the order is bound to change!

Students return to the youth ministry restaurant again and again, not because it has an arcade and a pool hall, nor is it because they never taste a bad meal. They come because they have found caring adult leaders, who accept them where they are, challenge them to try new things and to apply these things to their lives. Youth who come to a youth group meeting looking to be entertained initially look at the Bible as if it were a menu printed in French, but a trained, loving adult wait staff helps these youth experience and develop a passion for the strange things they see in Scripture…to develop a passion for the new language.

It is a joy to see students leave the youth ministry restaurant uplifted, challenged, loved, and nourished, ready to go back into their lives to tell their friends about this great place that they have to try. What a privilege to rejoice in the beauty of watching Mr. “Side Order of Contentment” bring his friend into the restaurant for the first time and respond to his friend’s question, “What do you recommend?” with, “Oh, you gotta try the specialty. It is to die for!”

Published July 2004