17 years ago this month I took my first youth ministry gig. It was part-time and I held it for two years. Since then, I’ve served students — mostly junior high and high schoolers and their families — in churches in Missouri, Illinois, and Texas.
With the anniversary month coming and going, I’ve been thinking back on my time in the trenches. Trends have come and gone, but there are three timeless student ministry pillars that I know I’ve gotten right.
Small groups have been the meat and potatoes of my ministries the whole time. Sometimes it was by necessity (my first youth group only had 4-5 kids), and sometimes it’s by design (in our current setting, we have a bunch of groups of 6-8 kids each). This ensures kids are known. It ensures we’ve got our noses in the Bible in a conversational way. It insists that people feel cared about — it’s hard to not be when a leader is managing a group of less than 10.
For those in ministry twice as long as me, this is not shocking. Small groups have been the backbone of many churches and youth groups over the decades, and for good reason. They will always be the backbone of ministries I’m associated with. They work. Kids in small groups are much more likely to stick around as they age in, and even age out of, student ministry.
[ My first youth group…sorry guys. ]
The Rule of Thirds
This realization came to me later in my ministry career, but it’s probably the most valuable. Most student pastors are hired to work with students. I do not view student ministry that way. Not any more. I think my job can be split up into thirds — and they should be pretty equal thirds.
- A third of my time with students
- A third of my time with parents
- A third of my time with volunteers
Even in a smaller ministry I think this applies. I have always worked really, really hard to communicate well to parents — face to face, via e-mail, etc. It has been invaluable that in each of my ministry settings I’ve had face time on the main stage in front of adults — preaching, giving announcements, introducing communion, etc.
If parents are going to trust you with their kids, the least we can do is make sure we invest in them as parents.
Also, one of the best decisions I ever made was canceling our Wednesday night program for two years and having a small group in my hope of our volunteers and their spouses. We grew as a team exponentially. It was awesome. We’ve done way better ministry ever since.
Don’t Segregate Kids Every Chance You Get
Kids — teenagers especially — should go to the main worship service. They should serve in your church. They should be side by side with adults in serving the community or on mission trips. Churches that push teenagers out of the life of the whole church are asking for them to abandon the church altogether upon graduation.
Over the course of my ministry this has been true in almost every instance. In some places is easier to implement than others, but encouraging it, fostering an atmosphere where it can be so, and noticing and rewarding it are key.
I’ve done a lot of things wrong in 17 years (we’ll save that for another post), but if I had to press rewind and start all over, those three things would be things I’d repeat without any hesitation. If you’re new in ministry, I’d encourage you to really think those through. There are other things that may be just as valuable, but those three are the big ones I recognize as essential to success in ministries I’ve been a part of.
Ministry veterans, what would be in your Top 3?