The good news is that Jesus is still in the business of finding the lost, giving new life to the dead and drawing the sinful and separated into an eternal relationship with Himself. The Gospel is still “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek” (Romans 1:16).
So the question for us is:
How can we, in our youth ministry, be used by God in creating a culture where the Gospel can be effectively shared?
God’s Word is powerful and effective. His people are not always good at sharing it. So, this article is simply about shaping our youth ministry culture to more effectively share the good news.
“Culture” has many definitions and can be a very complex concept to discuss, debate and theorize over. I’d like to propose a very simple definition for the sake of what we’re talking about here: environments and opportunities.
An environment creates a feeling, an impression, about a person, group or place— warm and friendly, engaging and exciting, stale and boring, closed and distant—that sort of thing.
Opportunities are programs, activities and events that create an environment and allow people to engage in and with that environment.
Environments and opportunities are complementary, they feed and strengthen one another to create a culture. The feeling of the culture encourages the activities and events. The activities and events create impressions.
Like I said, we could spend a lot of time adding to and refining this definition, but these are the two greatest factors that we can affect. So let’s get started.
1- Lean on God (through the Gospel) to do the heavy lifting.
“No one can come to me unless the Father who sent Me draws him,” Jesus said (John 6:44). That takes a lot of pressure off us to do everything “right to get people in the Kingdom.” Jesus will take care of the drawing and converting. He knows who He wants to bring in through the ministry He has called us to and placed us in. Our job is to rely on Him in prayer and trust He will lead us.
Action: Be intentional in prayer. Seek His leading. Pray for your youth and adults to move by His leading. Pray for hearts for those outside the Kingdom. Pray for the lost. If you skip this step, the rest will be just going through the motions.
2- Get a team to fail with.
“…though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken” (Ecclesiastes 4:12). Most of us will be trying to change a culture we’re already immersed in. Which means we are going to a place where we have never been before trying things we have not done before. Which means an occasional crash and burn. So you want to gather a team of both youth and adults of appropriate size for your ministry with a spirit of adventure and who can apply first aid.
Action: Find a few FAT people to help you get things going (Faithful Available Teachable).
3- Assess– What first, and then Why.
“Prepare your work outside: get everything ready for yourself in the field, and after that build your house” (Proverbs 24:27) Don’t jump into coming up with all kinds of great ideas before you figure out the culture you already have and finding out what creates it.
The first step is to figure out the What—what is our current outreach culture? What impression, what feelings does an unchurched person receive when they connect with our ministry? What activities and events do we have that engage the unchurched? Are we a place that attracts and welcomes or makes it difficult for the unchurched to connect?
The next step is to figure out the Why. Sometimes the Why is pretty obvious: we don’t have any intentional events or our services are all in English and we’re in Japan. Other times, the why is hidden in clique relationships, a history of isolation or a variety of more subtle influences. So as you ask the Why as the follow up to the What questions, make sure you dig deep enough that you are confident that the Why is accurate.
One youth group I knew couldn’t understand why visitors didn’t join the group. They were in fact a friendly and faithful bunch and really enjoyed being together. It took an outsider to tell them that they enjoyed being together too much. There was no room for outsiders to “break in” to their already established relationships. Once they understood the Why they were able to come up with a What to counter-act it.
Action: Ask Questions. Here’s a starter list of questions to ask youth and adults to assess the What and the Why of your outreach culture
- Do you think an unchurched person visiting our ministry would feel welcome? Why or why not?
- What things do we do that make the unchurched feel welcome?
- What are some things that happen here that might make the unchurched feel unwelcome? Why?
- What do we do that is intentionally for the unchurched?
- What activities & events do we have that reach the unchurched?
- What impression would an unchurched person get if they… (came to worship, were in Sunday School, attended Youth Night etc..) Why? (after each of these)
Come up with 10 or 15 questions to help you figure out the current temperature of your outreach culture. If you really want to get an objective viewpoint, ask your youth to invite some unchurched friends to be “mystery shoppers” at a few different activities and events. Promise them pizza or ice cream afterwards then take the youth and their friends out for a debrief session.
4- Set an intentional and specific strategy.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son…” (John 3:16)
God responded to a lost and condemned world and provided its only hope. He provided a very specific solution (Jesus) for a very specific need (lost people) in a very intentional strategy (Birth, death and resurrection of His only Son).
God knew exactly who He wanted to save. He knew exactly how to do it.
If we want to create an outreach culture in our ministry, we need to know exactly who it is we’re trying to reach. That will help us determine the how.
Too often in ministry we design programs and come up with ideas without real people in mind. We have a vague notion of who’s “out there” but never drill down to specifics. So, our first step is to identify real unchurched youth.
One group was frustrated because they’d have “friend days” and publicized their events in the community, but no one ever came. As they were struggling with what they could do, one of them realized that all his friends needed to do servant hours to graduate from high school. So they organized a free car wash for the community, invited their friends to sign up to serve and knock off some hours, and then had a barbeque afterwards.
That’s a great example of a strategy that was both intentional and specific.
Action: Poll your youth and adults for real names of unchurched youth.
Do some prayerful brainstorming on what their needs are and what parts of your ministry might connect with them. If you will simply take time to pray over real people’s needs and listen to the Spirit, your group will start seeing things you are already doing that can simply be tweaked. Or, they will see things they need to start doing to connect with the unchurched.
Start with a few simple activities or events that specifically target these unchurched kids. Tweak and adjust as necessary.
Note: There are some things that are pretty deep discipleship level stuff: Jesus did not take the masses with Him to the Mount of Transfiguration, nor commission them to go out in two’s to cast out demons and heal the sick. Parts of our youth ministry the unchurched will not be able to grasp and the results could be painful. So what we’re talking about here is those parts of the ministry that are designed to connect with and welcome the unchurched. As they grow in their connection and faith, then the deeper discipleship opportunities will be appropriate.
5- What gets recognized and rewarded gets repeated.
“Do not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deuteronomy 25:4)
I know it, it’s a stretch, but bear with me. In over 30 years of ministry I have witnessed an incredible amount of what I call “Church Expectation Abuse,” especially when it comes to youth.
First Lutheran’s youth decides to clean the church kitchen as a servant event, and all they hear is how they missed a spot. John, a visiting sophomore, places a first time offering of three dollars in the plate and the usher scowls and eyeballs him for being a cheapskate. You get the picture and know what I’m talking about—the ox does the work, but doesn’t even get a nibble of the grain, all in “Jesus Name…”
In creating an outreach culture, we need to be very intentional about recognizing and rewarding efforts. For a lot of groups and youth, this is high risk territory—“What if I bring my unchurched friend and he thinks it’s stupid?” Recognition and reward communicates grace.
Here’s some ideas that one youth group used to encourage an outreach culture—
Bring an unchurched youth on the ski trip and half your way and their way is paid. Bring two and all three of you are free.
Get three unchurched friends together at school for lunch and the youth leader will bring your choice of sandwiches or pizza and serve you on campus.
For every unchurched friend you bring to events, you get points. Points can be redeemed for cool merchandise.
At meetings, youth that brought unchurched friends are publicly recognized. They are encouraged afterward by personal notes from the adults and youth workers.
Action: Create an appropriate recognition and reward system for your ministry. Letting both youth and adults have input into the process will create momentum and energy toward creating an outreach culture.
Well, there’s a simple outline for a huge task! Again, the good news is that Jesus is still in the saving business and has called us as His church to be about our Father’s business. He has given us the Gospel and His Spirit for the heavy lifting, and invites us now to learn to follow Him as He opens our ministries to the unchurched. God be with you in your efforts to create an outreach culture in your youth ministry!