In a recent gathering of student ministers, the venue was a multimillion-dollar youth building. A wall filled with monitors and a cyber café greeted us as we entered the building and sat at a nearby '50s themed snack bar. Four students were absorbed in a videogame at an online kiosk. During the conference, the student ministers enjoyed the informal sitting areas, the state-of-the-art classrooms, and the spacious recreational facilities. Most drooled at the possibility of having such an asset in their own student ministry. But would a facility of this quality really make a difference in their student ministries? Leaders have long struggled with questions like this in the search to build the best ministry for reaching and discipling students. Is it the programming that makes an effective student ministry or the relationships? What about curriculum? Maybe if we had a skate park? If we only had better leaders! We need to write a new mission statement!
The search for the best in student ministry
While these are worthy concerns, they miss the heart of effective student ministry. The latest research in student ministry, the Exemplary Youth Ministry study, answers many of these questions and provides a portrait of the best in youth ministry. Churches of all sizes from seven denominations participated in the three-year study. These churches, located in all parts of the United States, represent the most effective youth ministries of today. Six thousand youth and adults completed extensive questionnaires (265-354 items) about all aspects of a church's youth ministry. Then, 21 congregations were selected for in-depth on-site visits. Research teams interviewed youth, leaders, parents, student ministers, other staff, and pastors. The result is a unique combination of statistical and interview data in a massive data bank which will help guide and shape youth ministry for years to come. Some of the most pervasive questions facing pastors and youth leaders today is how to reach and disciple teenagers, while also preparing them for a life of service. The purpose of the Exemplary Youth Ministry study was to identify congregations that consistently establish faith as a vital factor in the lives of their youth, discover what accounts for their effective approach to ministry, and make the results widely known for the benefit of other churches.
Analysis of the rich data bank from this study reveals nine "big ideas" that point toward excellence in student ministry. Some are surprisingly familiar, while others offer some new thoughts to ponder.
Big Idea 1: It's About God!
The best youth ministry doesn't start with buildings, budgets, charismatic leaders, or cutting-edge activities. It doesn't even start with emphasis on relational youth ministry. It is first and foremost built on a concrete sense of the presence of a living God Who is active among and through them on behalf of the world. It's about God, not us. The most effective student ministries are those who put an emphasis on prayer, authentic worship, and sensing the awesome presence of God. Teaching and emphasizing personal Christian disciplines are a priority. Effective student ministries spend the energy to provide sacred space, time, and practices in youth ministry. They give God the credit for success rather than looking to their creative synergies to build a ministry.
Big Idea 2: This God wants to transform and claim students' lives
This living and active God loves to see kids discover His presence and power at work in their lives. Youth ministry is largely about changing lives. This compels us to accept youth as they are, but to also engage them in life-changing experiences. In the most effective student ministries there is a central focus on discipleship and faith development. Students and leaders alike articulate, discover, celebrate, and call forth spiritual gifts. They hold up high expectations for students regarding knowing and living a life of faithfulness to Christ.
We can see examples of this in the great variety of excellent Bible studies. Small groups for study, prayer, support, action, and growth are everywhere. Students are guided toward service, outreach, and mission opportunities as an outgrowth of their faith.
Big Idea 3: This God is passionate about using kids and adults to change the world
The first Big Idea says it is all about God, but this Big Idea appears to be the other side of the coin. The best student ministry places an emphasis on the work and activity of the youth and adults in reaching out and bringing the world to God. In the 21 in-depth site visit interviews, a key phrase in every mission or vision statement had to do with evangelism, outreach, mission service, hospitality, and justice.
If we hope to do the best in student ministry, we must work hard to build a consistent desire to reach outside the walls of the church to the lost world. The best example of this is youth bringing their friends to church or youth group meetings. We see this in kids talking about their faith to their friends. We see youth serving in mission trips, mission projects, service projects, and community service ministries. We see deliberate efforts to make the youth group and the church hospitable and caring to the entire community.
Big Idea 4: Unless youth ministry matters to the congregation, it doesn't matter
Is it possible to have an effective youth ministry without a supportive pastor and congregation? Is it possible to have an effective youth ministry in a cold and dying church? These are nagging questions, but the answer, quite frankly, is probably not.
You might be able to have an exciting youth ministry in spite of the lack of pastoral support or a cold, uncaring congregation, but it is certainly doomed in the long run. A pastor can be supportive without knowing all the details of the workings of youth ministry. A congregation can be supportive without a lot of knowledge about what is going on in youth ministry. But the support has to be there-emotionally, prayerfully, financially, publicly, and verbally. It may be up to the youth minister to be the advocate standing in the center, building bridges between the youth group and the congregation and between the congregation and pastor toward the youth group. In the end, it will be worth it.
Big Idea 5: All of this works out through quality relationships
This is the starting point for most arguments for effective youth ministry. The heart of faith is relational. We learn about God best through relationships with God's people. Student ministry at its best is a picture of personal and communal relationships, like a mother who loves all her children, yet she loves each one individually. God demonstrates His love to humans by entering into relationship with us. We do the best youth ministry by reflecting this relational love. The most effective student ministries work had to build relationships. They develop community through small groups. Leaders passionately love them outside of Sunday meetings. They develop peer ministry approaches and significant worship and social interactions.
Parent ministry is a priority and parents are I equipped to be nurturing models for their teenagers. Student leaders can pass along positive illustrations of youth to the pastor for use in sermons.
Big Idea 6: It takes a team to do youth ministry
The love for youth and competent skills in leadership matters a lot. The pastor must be interested and skilled in leading the church to think theologically and strategically about effective youth ministry. Longevity of the youth minister and volunteer leaders is a key factor in exemplary youth ministry. Equipping, motivating, and supervising the leadership team is a necessity. Equipping and mobilizing youth to be leaders is a common theme in the best youth ministries.
The best stance for student ministry is built around a team approach. Churches must look for creative ways to match the skills and gifts of leaders in student ministry, including a comprehensive leader development plan. These leaders must also see themselves as ministers to adults, including other volunteer leaders, parents, members of the congregation, and the senior pastor. Effective student ministries work hard to develop youth as leaders in a variety of ways.
Big Idea 7: It's all about family and the family's influence
Exemplary youth ministries recognize the impact that families have on teenagers. They strive to reach the whole context of their students' world by ministering to their families. They also strive to reflect a positive family environment in the church's youth ministry.
Student leaders can achieve this goal by building a dynamic team of parents and student leaders and involving parents in the student ministry. Look for opportunities to minister to parents as well as gather their input. Work tirelessly to build a "family" feel in your student ministry. Build bridges between generations, between the youth and those younger and older in the congregation.
Big Idea 8: There are basic common practices that are effective
Basic and common do not necessarily mean boring. The proven and common program ideas may be the best for your situation. Don't be afraid to build traditions that don't look cutting edge. Common, ordinary student ministry programming done in extraordinary ways are common elements in the most effective student ministries. Quite often, excellent student ministries don't think they are doing anything out of the ordinary. They are simply doing quality Sunday School, mission and service projects, youth camp, retreats, worship times, and fellowship in meaningful ways.
Big Idea 9: There are unique, innovative, creative practices that are effective
Cutting edge and innovative ideas do not guarantee effective youth ministry. This is especially true when you copy someone else's program or strategy without concern for how it fits your own church and community. Contextualization is the key. Look for specific needs or opportunities and develop strategies and programs that meet those specific needs. Often this may mean taking a common activity or event and doing it in a unique way that fits your context. Developing a long-term strategy (a six-year strategy) beyond the quirkiness of unique, cutting-edge ideas is of critical importance.
The Biggest Idea: The Youth Ministry Culture
When all the elements of each of the youth ministries in the study have been identified and described, an impressive array of people, relationships, and activities emerged, but we still do not have the full picture of what is going on in these communities of faith and ministry. The genius of these places seems best described as a "culture" with its pervasive and distinct spirit and atmosphere that is larger and more powerful than its component parts.
In the most basic terms, it is a God thing. We observed time after time that the spirit and atmosphere of a church or youth ministry were difficult to explain. People would often just shrug their shoulders and say, "We don't know why this is a good youth ministry. It's just God!" Sovereign God has consumed the youth ministry and chosen in His perfect will to bless that youth ministry. The youth and adults were aware of that blessing and realized that it was not what they were doing; it was what God was doing.
The full results of the Exemplary Youth Ministry research project will be reported in a new book, The Spirit of Youth Ministry, scheduled for release in 20056. This book will present the findings, provide implications from the study, and profile congregations involved in the study. Additional information about the study can be found on the web at www.exemplarym.com.