Youth Director, Northwest Ministry Network
I know most of us, at one point or another, have sat back and just let our hearts and minds run wild dreaming about what God could do in our communities. None of us started out in ministry hoping to maintain or “reverse grow” what we are leading, but the reality of ministry in America today is that the vast majority of churches—and youth ministries—have plateaued or are declining. In different parts of the country, anywhere from 65 to 95 percent of churches are declining (not keeping up with population growth). At this point our motives deserve a serious check. This isn’t a conversation about how we can boost our egos or gain accolades as youth pastors and leaders. It’s a conversation about the rock-solid fact that God’s heart is for the people in our community to experience life and hope in Him, made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. So how do we lead the kind of growth that reaches those people?
The challenges that stop our growth are diverse and can be complex. Sometimes it’s a problem with our church/ministry culture, sometimes it’s circumstantial. Often, it’s the myriad of ministry tasks that so effectively distract us from actual ministry. Whatever your roadblock is, I challenge and invite you to revisit four core commitments that I believe we’ve all heard, but often get lost as we live out the day-to-day of ministry.
Clarify Mission & Vision
Do you have a vision for your community? If you do not know what you want for the average student in your community, you have a mission problem. If you don’t have a plan to get the average student from where they are today to that place, you have a vision problem. Vision not only sees what it will be like when the students of our community are experiencing the hope of the gospel, but also sees the road to get them there. So often we are not growing because we fail to admit that our ministry is perfectly designed for the results we are currently getting, and that starts at the top with us as leaders.
The good news is that vision is not far away, but it only comes when we start praying the right prayers and asking the right questions. I would encourage you ask these questions of yourself and make them a point of conversation with Jesus: What is God’s global mission, and what does that mean for my community? How could what I’m leading right now be instrumental in accomplishing that mission? What is God’s deepest desire for the people my students interact with every day? When you get to the point where you recognize it is impossible without a miracle, you may just be on the right track.
When we start to live out God’s mission, growth happens. Ed Stetzer says about churches:
“If they do what missionaries do—study and learn language, become part of culture, proclaim the Good News, be the presence of Christ, and contextualize biblical life and church for that culture—they are missional churches.”1
Resources for Mission: “Good Kids, Big Events, Matching T-shirts” by David Hertweck
Resources for Vision: “Visioneering” by Andy Stanley
Engage Students in Ministry
It’s incredible to me that while we can be so busy looking for the one tool that will grow our ministry, our greatest asset goes unused. When we step back from a performance-perfect picture of our youth ministry and realize that we are called to ministry with students, not ministry to students, we are set up for success. To use a sports analogy, a student hitting a double is as good as you hitting a home run. In other words, if a student can do something 60 percent as effectively as you can, they are better suited for it. The challenge most of us face is that we have not spent time developing students to the point where they can hit that 60 percent mark. If you want to grow, start using less energy producing and use more energy equipping—the fruit is exponential.
Resources: “Growing Young” by Kara Powell, Jake Mulder, And Brad Griffin – Emph. Chapter 2
Serve the Community, and Bring Students with You
If you want to grow wider, you must simultaneously grow deeper. In my opinion, serving the community is the best way to do this for several reasons. One of the most significant reasons why this strategy is effective is that it highlights how much you are—or are not—aware of the cultural realities in your community. If you aren’t close enough to your community to know where there is pain that can be alleviated by the people and financial resources within your grasp, you need to be. The only way to be made aware is to get out there. So, find a way to serve your community and bring students with you.
Serving will grow the students currently in your ministry and lead to exposure with those not yet in your ministry. I’ve seen over and over again when you give students a practical solution to a felt need, they become passionate. And when they are passionate about something, they can’t help but talk about it. When they talk about it their friends take note. So not only have you grown your students, but it will lead to influence with those who have yet to come into your ministry.
Resources: Start a conversation with your school principal and guidance counselors, who are often very aware of needs in the community. The Our Schools Matter Kit has resources that can help you connect with and impact your local schools.
I don’t buy into the idea that every unhealthy youth ministry has an unhealthy leader. There are too many variables. But I do know this—an unhealthy leader cannot lead a healthy ministry long term. The key component to long-term growth of your youth ministry is your intentional and lasting growth in your personal life. Jesus’ sacrifice was not made so you could work effectively. His sacrifice was for your redemption and out of that, you are invited to join Him in the work that is closest to His heart. Your soul health is not a trick of the trade. It is at the very core of a healthy understanding of the growth that God has in mind for your ministry.
Resources: “Soul Keeping” by John Ortberg, “The Emotionally Healthy Pastor” by Peter Scazzero
My prayer for you is that growth is not about job security, or personal accomplishment, which will always lead to a breakdown at some point. My prayer is that God’s mission would be alive in your heart and life to the point where you find deep delight in joining Him in His passion to bring hope and life to those in your community.
1 Ed Stetzer and Mike Dodson, Comeback Churches: How 300 Churches Turned Around and Yours Can, Too (Nashville, TN: B & H Pub. Group, 2007), 4.