Fall is a time of year when I look forward to many things. I look forward to the leaves changing colors, gaining an hour of sleep with the time change, the start of football and hockey seasons, picking apples and pumpkins, St. Louis Cardinals playoff baseball, bonfires, fall retreats and enjoying half-price Halloween candy starting November 1. With all this excitement and anticipation swirling about, there is one occasion that I often just forget about: Reformation Day. Many churches at least reserve a Sunday service to focus on the Reformation, which is a beneficial practice and a worthy reminder, but oftentimes that is the extent of it. I wonder if perhaps those of us in youth ministry sometimes need more of a reminder than that.

Here’s why I think that anyone involved in youth ministry needs to take a good hard look at the Reformation: oftentimes we are brought into a church to be “reformers.” When a new youth worker comes to a church or a new group of volunteers step up to lead, the expectation is that they are going to bring radical and noticeable change to the youth ministry there. The standards to measure this are that there will be more people, more events and more fun. If that’s happening, then revival has apparently occurred and great things are obviously taking place. But if that’s not going on, then the youth worker is sometimes seen as not doing their job well. The burden of the change rests on the shoulders of the church worker, and they’re expected to jump in and take charge of everything. It’s easy to see how people working in the area of youth ministry get overwhelmed by unreal expectations or end up getting burnt out because they needed to be the hands-on leader of every area of their ministry.

By looking at the early reformers of the Church at the time of the Reformation, we can gain a few insights into how we should respond to the call to be reformers in our own areas of ministry. The first insight is that Martin Luther and the other reformers of his time were not focused on making Christianity more popular, but more faithful to the Bible. It’s easy to think that youth need a place to be entertained and have fun and so we need to reform youth ministry to meet that need. Yet today’s young people have countless arenas in which to be entertained, but a lack of places where they can be challenged and given substance. So instead of focusing so much on having the most popular youth group at face value, look towards how you can bring God’s Word to bear on the various situations that teenagers face today. That focus on substance and the Gospel instead of just playing games will truly change people’s hearts through the Holy Spirit, and that’s change that matters.

Another insight from the early reformers is to give authority and meaning back to the congregational members instead of taking it away from them. The 16th century church was focused on the power and authority of the bishops and the papal leadership, with the laity simply being passive recipients of a message that usually wasn’t even in their native tongue. Luther, following the guidelines of Scripture, set to give the authority back to the body of believers rather than consolidating it with the so called “professionals.” The idea that all believers have access to God by their Baptism and have legitimate gifts with which to serve others and build up the church was totally different from what was being practiced. Yet it is so easy for professional church workers, especially in youth ministry, to come into a church and in effect replace all the work that volunteers were doing, whether they realize it or not. Those who were volunteering in the ministry start to think, “Well, I was just volunteering because there was no one else to do it. Now we have a professional here, so I’ll let them take care of it. I guess I’m off the hook now.” Instead of letting our lay people retire from ministry, we need to seek to work with them and see how we can best activate them in the ministry and train others to do the same. Our job shouldn’t be just about planning programs, but about developing leaders and seeking to make disciples and not just passive participants.

It’s easy to want to take youth ministry in a church and carry it all on your shoulders towards becoming a “successful” ministry, because then you get the credit for it. But then whenever you leave, the ministry has very little to stand on, because you were the only thing holding it up. Instead, seek to reform in a way that builds up the congregation and activates others in using their gifts in the ministry. Instead of basing our ministry on the latest greatest model or formula, we return to God’s Word and build our foundation on the Rock of Ages. When God’s Word abounds in a ministry and people are involved and growing as disciples through leadership, mentoring and service, that’s a ministry that’s successful, regardless of how many people are there. Pray for God to use you to create that kind of a reformation in your church this year.