Overcoming Challenges in Youth Ministry

We’ve been discussing the challenges that we face in youth ministry. This week, let’s take a look at ways we can overcome these challenges.

How can we effectively meet and/or overcome the challenges in youth ministry?

Jacob Youmans, director of the DCE program at Concordia University Texas answers:

The youth worker must find ways to connect to the lives of youth outside of the church campus. The days of planning great programs and expecting people to come to us is over. We need to find ways to connect with them in the places they go versus expecting them to come to the church facilities. Instead of bringing a friend to church we need to encourage students to bring the church to their friend. Instead of a programmatic basic ministry, we need to think of ministry as organic. It grows out of our listening and loving. We actively listen to the needs, concerns, wants, and desires of our students and out of love for them create education and support systems (maybe even programs) that meet those needs. So much of youth ministry is contextual — based on community, family, environment, culture, socioeconomic status, etc. So what it all boils down to is listening to and loving youth.

Most youth ministers can talk a good talk about relational ministry; however, we need to understand that we cannot view the relationships we make with students as a means to an end…the “end” being when they connect to Jesus or not. Relational ministry needs to view relationships as the means and the end. Relationships need to be viewed as life-long relationships. Relationships take time to build. They are messy. They are time consuming. But there is no short-cut. We have to be in relational ministry.

I also believe we need to teach a proper understanding of the word “relevant.” Everyone wants and needs to be relevant in their ministry; however, the definition of relevant is “related to the matter at hand.” And we often confuse “us” as the matter at hand and how Jesus can connect to us. But with a proper understanding, we see Jesus: His life, death, and resurrection as the matter at hand and we need to be asking, how do our lives relate to that?

We need to find ways to embrace the idealism of youth and show them how they can change the world. We cannot just be known as a group that talks about things. We need to be known as a movement. The movement of the Hope of Jesus that can change the world! Youth are craving a movement and are sick and tired of an institution that just talks. We as youth ministers have a powerful opportunity to model that movement. Have your students ever seen you witness to a non-Christian? Not argue, but witness? Have they seen you broken-hearted for the lost or for the problems that inflict the world? Have they seen you be the hands and feet of Jesus? To model these things is a great opportunity!

Leah Abel, DCE at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Oviedo, Florida, answers:

It is easy to become overwhelmed by all of the individual needs amongst our youth.  Everybody’s got a story and that story deeply impacts the way one hears the Gospel and understands its implications for life.  As youth ministers, we need to be listeners and learners who are aware of those issues, struggles, and diagnoses.  We also need to be clear of our role and our limitations in addressing those needs. How might we do that?

First, we must multiply leaders.  Lone ranger youth ministry is the wrong way to go!  We need to enlist the help of more adults to be a part of the spiritual lives of teenagers.  This will allow more students to get the personal care and attention that they need.  We need to provide training and guidelines for chaperones, mentors, and church leaders to assist them in building discipling relationships.  Enlist trained counselors to serve as advisors for you.  Consult teachers for ideas on engaging students with special needs.  Seek out workshops, articles, and learning opportunities for yourself and fellow youth ministry volunteers to address issues with which your students are struggling.

Second, we must manage the expectations of students and parents.  I have often had a parent share her frustration and ask for a “magic bullet” solution to the struggles in her child’s life.  Other parents insist that an entire program or event should be rearranged because it doesn’t appear to be “working” for one teen.  It is essential to be clear with parents about our role in their child’s life.  Our primary focus is in facilitating their spiritual growth.  Although we deal with the child as a whole person, our scope must be focused on their spiritual needs.  Additionally, we need to be intentional in youth ministry programming to nurture the faith of all teenagers, rather than making quick changes to please a “squeaky wheel.”

Finally, we need to daily remember [be convinced] that we don’t make the Gospel relevant to people’s lives. It is relevant to their lives. Our job is to help them see that the God we serve is a God who works in and through the myriad of issues that plague us this side of heaven.

Steve Meyer, a civil engineer who volunteers with the senior high youth at Timothy Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, answers:

We can’t just ignore technology, just like we can’t ignore youth culture. That doesn’t necessarily mean we have to submerge ourselves in the culture. It’s the old challenge of being in this world but not of this world, a challenge that dates back to Biblical times. We have to teach our youth to survive and thrive as Christians in a post-Christian society. While the specific solutions may be new, the base solution is the same: meet them on their level. Jesus ate with sinners, youth leaders in the 70s picked up guitars, and youth leaders of today need to text and use Facebook. We also show we care by attending their sporting events, plays, and concerts from time to time.

Now, obviously, this is a challenge, because none of us has the time to attend all the sporting events, plays, and concerts while also posting on Facebook and sending text messages…oh, and living our own lives and spending time with our own families and friends. It’s key to use these things as opportunities and not burdens. Take a couple of buddies from church to a youth’s hockey game on Friday night. Even better yet, take a couple youth along, too. Not only are you showing your youth you care, but you’re providing social interaction for yourself, your friends, and your youth in a relaxed environment. Not into sports? Take in some culture at your youth’s upcoming play. Grab some dinner beforehand with your spouse and make a date night out of it.

When it comes to Facebook and text messaging, our group has really embraced technology. We have a Facebook “group” on which we post photos and events. When a new event is posted, youth have an opportunity to RSVP, which helps us plan for food and rides. We also send out reminders as we get closer to events. Of course, getting them to commit to an RSVP is a challenge in itself. Many receive Facebook notifications using their phones, and don’t even login on a computer anymore. And good luck getting them to check their email; they’ve moved on to the next thing. Text messaging is now their primary way of communicating. Get their cell phone numbers, and program them into your phone. And then upgrade your text messaging plan.

Text messaging was a huge help at the National Youth Gathering this past July. As plans changed throughout the day, and meeting places and times changed –bam — instant update sent out to all 19 of our youth at once. Of course, I was charged for 19 messages each time, but a small price to pay. Now that the youth all have my number in their phones, they’ll also text me from time to time. Maybe they forgot what time an event starts, maybe they’re letting me know they can’t make it anymore, or maybe they just need someone to talk to. Sometimes it’s a homework question (being an engineer, I tend to get math and physics questions), sometimes it’s excitement over a grade, and sometimes it’s a prayer request.

When it comes down to it, it’s all about reaching them where they are, and connecting to them, using the tools and opportunities set before you.

What do you think? How are you overcoming the challenges of youth ministry? We’d love to hear from you, so share your thoughts in the comments below.

Published October 22, 2010

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