Lessons Learned from a Brief Stint in Youth Ministry

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My current congregation has always had a youth group but the church itself has never known what to do with it.

In the years before I got here they often ran 50-60 teens on Wednesdays.  However, on my first Wednesday 4 teenagers showed up.  Last night we had 25.  Our high was 36.  Our low was 2.

Next week will be my last Wednesday.  There will be 6 kids that I handpicked to play video games with.  The week after that there will be zero and I will be in Salt Lake City.

As you can tell by the numbers it has been a crazy ride.  A year ago I died to youth ministry, telling my congregation that youth ministry was not in our DNA.

At that time I was meeting weekly with 2 kids to watch movies, play games and eat pizza.  Those were some wonderful times.  I invited a junior high girl to come join us and she brought friends.  .  .a lot of friends.  Suddenly we had a youth group again and still no idea what to do with them.

We served them dinner every week.  If it wasn’t unhealthy they did not eat it.  We caved and gave them sloppy joes, hotdogs and pizza.  We tried singing with them.  They talked over the songs.  We tried do a Bible study.  They talked through the lesson.  We showed movie clips.  They talked through the movie clips.

We settled on 15 minutes of lesson and 15 minutes of small groups.  The junior high talked through the lesson and the small group.  The senior high talked through the lesson and stared blankly through the small group.

One night a girl jumped/got pushed off of our 15 foot high deck.  Miraculously she was okay.  Last week the teens tried to climb onto a train passing by our building.  The train conductor came out and yelled at them and me.  Every night someone cries from getting tackled or punched or insulted.

So, yeah, it has been a wild ride.  But when all is said and done here are some things I have learned.

1) If you Open It They Will Come

When I tell my suburban youth pastor friends that we run 20-30 un-churched kids they gasp and say, “You must be doing something right.”

Well, I am not.  In a small, impoverished town where the teens don’t have theaters, coffee shops, gas money, amusement parks etc. if you open your building they will come.  Drawing a crowd is not the problem.  Doing something structured and beneficial with the crowd is the real challenge.

2) Respect That They Are There By Choice

Before I arrived our youth group had gone from 35 to 4 because the adults had invented a whole bunch of rules and structure that made the group feel like kindergarten.

If the parents make them come, you can have control.  The parents in our community look at it as a reward for good behavior.  My favorite line was, “If I am good, mom lets me come here.  If I am bad she makes me go to the other church.”  So anything you do that punishes the kid for showing up turns into them storming off with all their friends.  One night we had 20 for dinner and 5 for the lesson because one person got mad there was a lesson and left.  The friends and siblings followed.  I felt an inch tall.

3) Youth Group Only Works as Outreach if You Befriend the Parents

I just don’t buy the way to reinvigorate a church is through the children and teens.  I have heard of it happening, but seldom.  However, when it has happened, I think it is because the pastor intentionally engaged the parents.

So when the weather got cold in November we suddenly had a line of cars and SUVs picking kids up at 8 o’clock.  So I hung out on the street at 7:55 and walked up to every window, introducing myself and getting to know the parents.  Last night I had three conversations at car windows where we laughed about life and I listened to them tell me about their stress and frustrations.

In fact one of the kindest compliments I have yet received was given to me.  A grandfather told me, “I am not religious at all.  I really don’t want much to do with it but when I talk to you my heart lets me know there is something wonderful in you.”  I cried on my way to the next car.

4) Numbers Matter Less Than We Even Say They Do

If you read any book on ministry it will talk about how little the numbers matter.  Every pastor I know has those lines memorized and we quote them to each other all the time, usually to provide comfort.

But none of us really believe it.  We obsess over the numbers more than teenage girls obsess over their body image (and for the same reasons).

Yet in my case, this last year of youth ministry has completely cured me from the numbers game.

My biggest mistake was not getting rid of some of the kids sooner.  The sudden surge in numbers was so miraculous that I was afraid of squandering what God had done for me.  So I let kids get away with things that I should not have.  I should have said the line, “If you don’t like it, you are welcome not to come” way more often than I did.

Surprisingly when I did say that line, the kids always came back the next week and mostly behaved.

Still, the reality is that you can do things with 10 kids that you just can’t do with 30.  You can memorize the names of 10 kids.  You can play games that are controlled and fun.  And you can get them to love each other like you love them.  With 30 that is nearly impossible.  You are just babysitting.

5) Adult to Teen Ratio is Everything

You cannot have too many adults helping run a youth ministry.  I used to think the best adult to kid ratio is 1 to 1.  Now I am reading it is actually 5 adults to every 1 teen.

But the adults must be willing to engage the teens both in church and out of church.  If I could do it over again I would intentionally invest in 5 adults from our church over 3-6 months before even restarting youth group.

The sessions would not be training sessions.  They would be discipleship sessions.  We would study Scripture and talk honestly about our frustrations of today’s youth.  I would let them in on the research I know and listen to their ideas as well.  We would pray together and dream together.  And, yes, I would gently reprimand the adults for the lousy attitudes they have towards youth.

After that 3-6 months I would journey with the adults as we engage the teens in our community.  We might pick just two or three youth to begin with and take them out for pizza or hiking or roller skating or shooting.  Then we would build from there.

But that is neither here nor there.  It was what it was and it was as fun as it was frustrating.

The good end to the story is that last Spring a group of people in the church decided to start an archery ministry.  Due to safety concerns and equipment, we can only have 12.  So we hand picked the 12 from our roster.  We picked kids that we knew could behave and learn and grow.

In addition, we have 7 adults who stepped up to help and every Tuesday the 12 teens get one on one archery coaching from those 7 adults.  It is amazing and miraculous and what we should have been doing all along.  That ministry will keep going after I am gone in a few weeks.

And that gives me a great amount of hope.

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