Lessons Learned from a Brief Stint in Youth Ministry


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.


Becoming Multi Generational to Save the Multi Generational


The Cross Country season ended last Friday and this week finds me working from home so that my 2 year old daughter can work on her potty training.

While at home I am reading a book that compares and contrasts ways of doing youth ministry.  I will write a fuller review of that book on Friday (hopefully).  I am also pulling together our annual All Saint’s Day service and working on a sermon for the following Sunday on 1st Corinthians 9.  All of these have me thinking cross-generationally.  Cross Country led to many great insights about today’s youth that will certainly inform my reading of the youth ministry book.  Our All Saints Day service has me thinking about the wonderful contributions of the elderly who have passed away recently.  And 1st Corinthians Chapter 9 contains every evangelist’s and missionary’s favorite Bible verses that certainly relate to the age groups:

To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. 23 I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.1

Over the last 2 and a half of years I have endeavored to become old to save the old and young to save the young and middle aged to save the middle aged.  This has not been easy but it has been beneficial.

The reality is that in the last 80 or so years the world has changed substantially.  For one example, the oldest members of my congregation remember buying their first refrigerators.  Those slightly younger remember their first televisions.  The middle aged remember that first microwave.  I remember my first computer while the teens and kids remember their first tablets and smart phones.

Of course technology is only one way to illustrate the change.  I could also talk about the changing family structures, the changing geopolitical borders and the changing of language itself.

In fact within a month of starting my pastorate I had a conversation with a Baby Boomer where he annoyed me by complaining about Bill Clinton who apparently made us more vulnerable to an attack by Russia.  I spent a lot of time wondering why he cared so much and why I was so annoyed about it.

In the end I realized that Russia was not the bad guy when I was growing up, except in James Bond movies and even James Bond spent more time befriending them than killing them.  However in the world of my older friend, the Russians were enemy number 1 and any show of weakness to them was enough to discount an entire 8 years of Clinton’s Presidency.  (Well that and the extra marital affairs)

That realization, that my world was incredibly different than my older parishioners, has led down many rabbit trails of small discoveries.   Another “aha” moment came when I realized none of my board members were getting my emails because they only check their emails once a month.  On the other end of the age spectrum, I also noticed the young adults and teens were ignoring my emails because email is for Spam.  Snapchat and Instagram are for meaningful connections and Facebook is as antiquated to them as VCR’s are to me.

All of these examples are illustrations of what sociologists call “the cohort theory.”  That theory simply claims that it is easier to categorize and understand someone based off of the year they were born over against where they were born and who they were born too.

It should go without saying that “The Cohort Theory” has its limitations.  For example, I have also discovered that a love of firearms extends across generational lines in my town but if you travel to the nearest city the hatred of such is multi-generational.  More than that, marks of adult maturity (budgeting, work ethic, control of addictions, emotional health, etc) seem to be easier to categorize by family, not by age or region.

Still, in a world that has changed remarkably over 100 years, there is great value in understanding people based off of their generation.  By comparing and contrasting the different age groups in my community I have found more practical applications than I anticipated.

So this post is the introduction to a week long series about learning to be old to save the old and young to save the young while also giving the middle aged their due.  Along the way I will recount my discoveries in attaining a local phone number so the elderly will believe I belong here, learning what this Instagram thing is all about, trying to understand Baby-boomer cynicism without becoming cynical and putting together Powerpoints that entice the young without letting the old know how addicted to technology I am.

Spoiler Alert: I have learned the cartoon-y the Powerpoint the better.  Also make fun of them some of the time but not ALL of the time.

See you all tomorrow where I will discuss becoming Silent to save the Silent Generation.

How the Internet Taught Me to Like Teenagers


Internet lists ruin my life.  For example I was recently looking at a list of the best video games of all time and Final Fantasy 6 wasn’t even in the top ten.  That annoyed me.  Another list said “Inception” wasn’t even in the top 50 movies of all time and that angered me.  Still another list said that the worst Star Trek movie was “Star Trek 5” and.  .  .I actually agree with that.

Still my lovely wife recently showed me another list of church sayings that supposedly get us young types (millenials they call us) all bent out of shape.  Being a Millenial pastor, I eagerly clicked on the link and revved up my righteous indignation drive, sure I was going to agree with the author on all accounts.  I quickly perused the article getting ready to yell a hearty amen and pump my fist in the air as the author called us out on all 5 dumb churchy sayings.

Holding my fist poised by the side of my head, I read the first paragraph which told me I should hate the words, “The Bible clearly says.  .  .” and, to my delight, I do hate that phrase, despite the fact that I use it quite often to prove my point about what the Bible clearly teaches.  Still, people who disagree with me about the Bible’s clear teaching shouldn’t say that, especially if they aren’t a Millenial.  So I belted out, “Aaaaaa-mmmeeeennn!” while pumping my fist multiple times.

With my fist hanging victoriously over my head, I read the second phrase “God will never give you more than you can handle.”  Here my fist dropped a little because while I seldom use this phrase, I do hear it a lot and it has never annoyed me.  But I got to thinking that maybe that phrase isn’t nearly as true as people claim and that maybe not everything in life does come from God, like cancer or tornadoes or dumb internet lists that don’t recognize Final Fantasy 6 for the greatness it is.  I was starting to feel reflective instead of indignant.

With my fist un-clenching, I read paragraph 3 where the internet told me I couldn’t “love on” anybody, especially youth groups and young adults (of which I am one).  This was perplexing because over the last two years I have been trying to start ministries for both teenagers and young adults at my church.  In exasperation I would call my former youth pastors, describe to them the teens and adults in my community, and ask the age old question, “What do I do?!?!”

And they would reply with one phrase, “love on ’em.”  At the time I knew exactly what they meant and so went about the business of loving on ’em, which in practice took the form of saying “hi” to them at the park and in the grocery store and asking them, “how are you?” and pretending to care when they answered.  Then I would go home and check off another “loved on person” in my notebook.

In fact I got so good at “loving on ’em” that they sometimes felt loved enough to ask me questions about God and the Bible.  Occasionally they felt so loved upon that they would ask me to fill out reference forms for college scholarships and summer jobs.  I was that good.  It was like I had a Masters in Loving On ‘Em instead of a Masters in Divinity.  In fact, I was so confident in my loving skills that when the lousy internet told me as a Millenial I should be offended by that phrase, I nearly broke down crying.

Because, here is the thing, the internet is right.  “Loving on” is degrading and insulting and a bit creepy.  It is a cheesy and ridiculous sentiment and people my age and younger can see right through fake sentiments to the arrogance which feeds them.  They want nothing to do with those types of adults.  And the reason “love on ’em” took off as a church phrase is that us evangelical Christians have a fair share of pride hiding behind our sentimentalism.  Those who grew up in the church really believe today’s youth (churched and unchurched) are worthless and the only way to make them worthwhile is to “love on ’em” which really means, “throw love down to them from our position of superiority.”

But the youth I work with aren’t worthless.  Surely, they have their unique set of difficulties like abusive homes and the drug scene.  I also wish most of them were not as sexually active as they are and they also struggle to connect with each other.  But behind their brave facades and smart phones, they are quite likable.  They have interesting hobbies, kind personalities, wonderful humor, and a hearty work ethic.  They care about their families and friends, even if they don’t always know how to show it.  They want to succeed and do well in a world where arrogant adults are stacking the chips against them.  In fact, the more I get to know the young adults and youth in our community, the more I find that God has been at work in their lives long before I met them.  In fact, that echoes the title of this website, “Go-Before Grace” which eludes to “Prevenient Grace” which goes before us.

It isn’t enough to love on them, as if they needed our proud pity.  Instead we should be kind and compassionate and bear with them in love (in fact, the Bible clearly says that.)  To me, this means coming alongside them, enjoying their presence, listening to their joys, cares and concern and choosing to walk through life with them no matter what.

I think this is relevant because the churches I have been a part of are saturated with the types that want to “save the youth” and not always in the theological sense.  These are the people who volunteer for youth group so that they can throw down the love that will “teach them respect” and show them how to “work hard” and convince them to “stop taking drugs.”  But the youth I work with are plenty respectful, work harder than most adults I know and not all of them do drugs.

I hurt for the churches who let those adults near their teenagers.  These proud teen sponsors are doing way more harm by “loving on ’em” than the world has all ready done.  And I would venture a guess that the particularly troubled youth and young adults among us never had anybody in their life who liked them for who they were.

So instead of “loving on ’em” I want to just like them.  This might look like laughing at their jokes and listening to their songs and hearing their opinions and sharing their pain.  All of that might be a good deal harder than just saying “hi, how ya doing?” at the park.  It might take a whole lot of time and effort and resources and I definitely will feel a fair amount of pain myself, but it just might pay off in the end.

So thank you internet lists for ruining my life again.  The world really is better for it.