Healthy Youth Ministries
Have Spiritually Healthy Leaders
My friend Ted read this first chapter and said, "Doug, you can't start your book this way; there aren't enough program ideas." My friend Lissa, on the other hand, read the same chapter and said, "Powerful beginning! Every youth worker should be required to read this material before ever starting youth ministry." Why the difference in responses?
Ted is twenty-two years old and just starting out in youth ministry. He believes a hyped-up, flashy youth ministry with slick logos, fancy calendars, big programs, and creative ideas paves the route to a healthy youth ministry.
Lissa is a forty-two-year-old, experienced youth worker who once walked in Ted's shoes. She understands the seduction of an enticing youth ministry idea. For several years she placed hype above health in her leadership. Youth ministry ideas were more important than intimacy with God. Programs out-prioritized prayer. She allowed her heart to become hard and later described herself as a spiritual liar rather than a spiritual leader.
Lissa is not alone. I also walked down that path. I, too, was always looking for creative ideas and fancy programs to make my youth ministry flashy. I've since learned, as has Lissa, that a healthy youth ministry doesn't begin with ideas, but with spiritual leaders.
When a church (or youth ministry point person) primarily values hype, there is little need for spiritual leadership. A non-Christian could become a "successful" youth worker at that kind of church by increasing activities, launching new ideas, and boosting attendance. With a little investigation, you probably wouldn't find any measurable difference between this type of youth ministry and a local non-Christian service club. Both use hype to attract.
This first chapter challenges you (and your church and youth ministry team) to develop a youth ministry in which the leaders rely on God's power. This is the essential and foundational ingredient for building a spiritual legacy of long-term health. In the long run, health is more attractive than hype.
My Journey from Hype to Health
I started youth ministry in 1979 as a volunteer for the junior high ministry at my home church. I loved it! Although I had no idea what I was doing, I knew God was using me and my energy to connect with students and care for them. Within my first year the junior high director left our church and I became the point person by default. (I was the only other volunteer!) One year later I still didn't know what I was doing, but I was sure busy doing it. I had our junior high group participating in everything I could find. If a flyer came to our church promoting an activity for junior high students, we went. I'd get a sample curriculum from a conference I attended and use it for Sunday school as soon as I returned. I was too busy and having too much fun to recognize or admit that I really had no idea how to build a healthy youth ministry or even that I was supposed to build anything. The ministry was nothing more than adolescent baby-sitting with some occasional Bible study. But since the students were entertained and attendance was up, everyone seemed to think we were a healthy youth ministry.
After being a volunteer for two years, I was offered a paid youth ministry position in 1981 as an intern with an established youth ministry professional. I was thrilled to get paid to do what I loved. I jumped at the opportunity and continued to do more youth ministry while I finished college and seminary. My life never slowed down. In addition to heavy school loads, I coached school teams for better access to the local campus. I planned camps, spoke to any group that would listen, and went to every youth ministry training available. My life was youth ministry, and I had become an expert at going, doing, and achieving.
In 1985 my youth ministry mentor handed me the leadership of what was considered to be a successful youth ministry. While I was thrilled, I was also driven by the need to prove I could "be the man." This pushed me to do more and to look for the bigger and better in everything I did (hype). I was out of the house almost every night of the week. While all of the activities and excitement assured that no one questioned my work ethic, I questioned everything. In the midst of all that was happening, I couldn't shake the emptiness of all I was doing. I was distant from the Lord and my heart was slowly hardening. No one knew of my weakening disciplines because everything looked good on the outside. I could "talk the game" as it related to my spirituality. I had become the poster child for Proverbs 26:23: "Smooth words may hide a wicked heart, just as a pretty glaze covers a common clay pot" (NLT).
As my inner life was hardening, my outer world of youth ministry was beginning to show cracks. Three main problems haunted me and left me continually frustrated: I couldn't create attractive programs like those of other churches, I wasn't sure that I was the right person for youth ministry, and I could never do enough to please everyone.
I was too arrogant to think these problems would get the best of me and too insecure to ask for help. But within a year of my new pastoral reign, God used these looming problems to soften my heart and teach me what I desperately needed to know if I was going to continue in the ministry. I wish I could have learned these lessons from a book, but to be honest, I don't think I would have slowed down long enough to learn from others even if they had written about it.
Instead, I was driven to an authentic dependence on the power of God to change my life and impact my youth ministry.
Problem 1: I Couldn't Create Attractive Programs Like Those of Other Churches
In my continual search for new ideas, the ultimate catch became the program that would please parents, bring students out in droves, and help students grow spiritually. I needed a power-house program that would move us from the minors to the majors. Not knowing any better, I studied the big league youth ministries and hoped that what they were doing would provide my answer. I tried to implement their programs into my youth ministry setting, but I didn't understand that there were too many variables to be copied and taken into my youth ministry context.
I was too immature to look for transferable principles that might help. Instead, I wanted an instant program to bring quick success. What I learned was that copying someone else's program always led to failure. Some program ideas worked for a while, but they didn't have the same strength in my setting that they had in the other churches.
Copying someone else's program
always led to failure
I thought that if youth ministry was about designing programs and I couldn't get programs to work, then maybe I shouldn't do youth ministry. I was depending on other ministries to provide my answers instead of depending on God to show me his plan for a healthy ministry. I was always comparing myself to other youth workers who made incredible programming appear so simple. My inability to create superb programs was fueled by my comparisons, and my self-doubt skyrocketed. I became convinced that I didn't have the knowledge and skills to do youth ministry well.
Problem 2: Perhaps I Wasn't the Right Person for Youth Ministry
During my first years in youth ministry, I remember standing in front of junior high students and basking in their looks of anticipation. I was young, fun, energetic, and well-liked. Their faces said, "This is going to be good." But only a few years later, when things weren't going as well, I saw a different look-one that said, "This better be good." Because I lacked knowledge and skills, I thought the students didn't like me anymore. Their enthusiasm waned, attendance dropped, volunteers found other church ministries to which they could devote their time, and our programs changed every time I spied on another youth ministry. Parents as well as church elders questioned what was happening, and I accepted all the problems as my fault. I constantly looked over my shoulder to see if other people were thinking what I was thinking-that maybe I wasn't the right person for youth ministry despite my having the necessary goods.
Even though I worked exhausting hours, the job wasn't getting done the way everyone seemed to want. Previously unspoken expectations surfaced, and they fueled my workaholic personality to fix everything, even though I couldn't specifically identify the problems. My desire for doing ministry had long moved from pleasing God to appeasing people. I wanted to be liked by everyone, and that desire moved me to my third major problem.
Problem 3: I Could Never Do Enough to Please Everyone
The critical breaking moment came in the wake of an attempt to boost sagging attendance numbers. I organized an evangelistic camp with the requirement that the only way students could attend was if they brought an unchurched friend. To my amazement, our students responded to the challenge. The power of God moved that weekend, and the majority of the unchurched students returned from camp with a new and meaningful relationship with Jesus Christ. It was the greatest camp I had ever experienced.
On the Monday following camp, I went into the church office eager to share the news with the church staff and hear the praise reports that I anticipated had been coming in all morning. As I approached the church office, my insecurity and pride mixed to create a fantasy in which I envisioned the staff awaiting my arrival and lining the entrance for congratulations and a chorus of "How Great Thou Art."
My fantasy bubble popped when the church administrator immediately asked, "Did you know our megaphone was busted this weekend and the church vans weren't returned to their proper parking spots?" I didn't know how to respond. I was speechless (which was a small miracle). This wasn't the greeting I had expected. In my state of shock, I stuttered something about reparking the vans and buying a new megaphone. Then I hung my head and walked to my office. As I sat at my desk, I thought, "Does resignation have one s or two?" Just then I received a phone call from a student's mother. I assumed that she was calling to thank me for her son's life-changing weekend. Instead, she said, "Doug, I have some problems with your leadership at camp this weekend." She went on to explain that the only story she had heard from her son was how the boys were lying around in their underwear one night passing gas on lit matches and laughing at the appearance of flames. She continued to chastise me for how irresponsible and dangerous that was-saying the boys could actually explode. (All I could think of was what a great video that would make!) I guess she thought it was one of our planned events as opposed to a random act of teenage silliness. Either way, I became the object of her anger.
I had been in the office for ten minutes, and already I had had two negative conversations regarding one of my best weekends of ministry. I left the office immediately. As I drove home, I couldn't contain my emotions and began to weep (not the watery-eye cry, but the body-convulsing cry). I thought about all of the time, energy, and emotion that had gone into the weekend. I mentally replayed the intense conversations, the numerous tough leadership decisions, and the faces of the many students who had become excited about Christ. In tears, I arrogantly concluded that after all of the work I had done this treatment was undeserved.
It was at this point, sitting in my car on the side of the road, that I felt the supernatural presence of God. I wish I could say there was an audible instruction; there wasn't. But I felt God impress on my heart as I had never experienced before. I sensed God saying, "Doug, you'll never be able to do enough to please everyone. Focus on me. Rest in me. Abide in me. When your heart is turned toward me, we can work together and do some good things." That was it. That was the moment that revolutionized my ministry! My three youth ministry problems were solved by this one soul-shaking experience. The answer was not in programs or in feeling liked or in pleasing everyone. The answer was in becoming the right person for youth ministry. I had left God out of the equation and had been doing youth ministry, using my own power. My heart had become hard, and I was spending all my time doing the work of God without being a man of God.
I was spending all my time doing the work
of God without being a person of God.
Not only did God work in the lives of students through that camp, but he also used it to do his work in me. My focus and dependence had been foolishly centered on my own ability to per-form (to do). Now I understood that if I stayed dependent and focused on God, he would empower me to be his servant and thus accomplish his purposes in my ministry.
How Does One Become a Youth Worker
Who Depends on God?
Many youth workers I talk to can relate to feeling inadequate about their gifts, their call into youth ministry, and their performance as leaders. Hope for these struggles can be found by focusing on God and his Word. The solution to my three problems changed my life and ministry, and drives me to increase my dependence on God's power and to develop my abilities as a spiritual leader.
Answer 1: Recognize God's Power Through Personal Humility
When my pride pushed me to create extravagant programs, God taught me humility. Through my broken-heart experience, I realized that, ultimately, programs don't work-God works. God doesn't need a program in order to work. He doesn't even need me. This realization brought humility when I finally admitted my very small part in God's work. When good things happen I need to recognize that they happen because of God's power and not my own.
God doesn't need a program in order
to work. He doesn't even need me
If you are someone who soaks up credit for success, humility may be a foreign quality. When you take credit for success, it is easy to lose sight of God's power. I never plan to take credit for God's work, but I have often found myself making a subtle shift in thought from the youth ministry being God's work to it being a result of my skills and efforts. I hate to admit it, but there have been many times when I've patted myself on the back when God deserved the credit. Sadly, I haven't taken the blame when things were going bad. Almost without exception, when things were rough I pleaded for God to strengthen "his" work.