(chess pieces photo by philippe julien)
As I talk to youth pastors I am always curious about how their youth ministry facilitates growth. Over the years I have looked with an inquisitive eye to see why some youth ministries have growth and others haven’t by analyzing developmental patterns and searching for a common threads in multiple youth ministry settings. I am always curious about youth ministry growth phenomena. I began to explore this idea in a previous post: Theory of Critical Mass.
In order to begin to understand youth ministry growth, one must take a behind the scenes look at why some youth ministries have massive growth and gain huge momentum.
So how do I measure youth ministry growth?
Three words: Function.Multiplication.Health.
Here is a list of 11 ridiculous things that keep youth groups from growing:
(1) Copying another successful youth ministry – it is okay to learn from other youth leaders, but to copy them really hijacks your creativity to contextualize a youth ministry structure that aligns with your church culture and community. It is imperative for youth pastors to program according to their OWN surroundings, culture, and circumstances. It is fine to borrow ministry practices or ideas, but to completely copy a cool-hip youth ministry is not right.
(2) Trying to do it all – Reggie Joiner in The Orange Leader Handbook shares that you might need to write a stop-doing list. Construct a list of activities to cut out of your programming that will allow you to be more effective with your strategy. For example, I know of a church who canceled their mid-week programming because their students wanted to serve locally during the week. So they cut their midweek programming and are now running a homeless ministry. Joiner also highlights the idea that your job as a leader is not to wrestle your ministry toward complexity, but rather toward simplicity. It is better to do a few things well instead of doing too many things with mediocrity. Select 2-3 things your youth ministry does really well and only do those things. Adding more things does not necessitate growth.
(3) Recruiting the wrong adults – assembling the right youth ministry team is paramount. Make sure to recruit people that will energize you. In the book Good To Great (which I wrote a book review about here), Collins wants organizations to first focus on the quality of the people on their teams before they worry about growth. Collin states: Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – then figure out where to drive it.
(4) Calendaring the same events recurrently – I have seen youth ministries do the same events for years. One of the catalysts for stimulating growth is constant change of event scheduling. You have to mix it up. This doesn’t necessarily mean that you need to change your ministry strategy all the time, but you might want to change the events that demonstrate the strategy. Youth pastors have to continuously explore new opportunities that will help to connect students with Jesus. Sure, going to camp every summer can be a great opportunity for students to deepen their relationships with Christ…but if that is followed by the same exact event happening every August, the same movie being shown every September, the ever popular bowling night each October, family fun nights every Friday in November each year…well, you get the idea.
(5) Dismiss parent feedback – Parents should have a voice in your youth ministry. It is not wise to blow off parent feedback. Ultimately, parents are entrusting the spiritual shepherding of their children to you, so pay close attention to what parents are saying about you and the ministry. A few negative parents can kill the momentum of your youth ministry in a matter of months. This doesn’t mean that you should do whatever parents want and tell you to do. Your ministry should, however, reveal a partnership with parents if the students themselves are going to grow into a mature relationship with Christ. You see students for a few hours each week. The work you do with students and the changes in their lives will either be strengthened or crushed by what happens at home.
(6) Forgetting about strategic and intentional evangelism – I think we have forgotten how to evangelize. Look at the book of Acts – evangelism was the central focus. When people get saved not only do the numbers increase, but so does the excitement for what God is doing. Those involved in leading others to Christ are strengthened and empowered. So let’s make sure that youth ministries are out there bringing the Kingdom of God. Greg Stier argues, in chapter 10 of the GreenHouse Project, that youth ministries need to make evangelism their #1 priority. He also argues that many need to revampt their methods for evangelizing. You are not making evangelism a priority unless you are doing it relentlessly and consistently in your ministry. Honestly strong evangelism efforts will definitely 1) get your students focused on how to love others outside of their youth group bubble and 2) growth your youth group.
(7) Ignoring fund raising – Money makes everything happen. However fundraising is hard!! A lot of youth pastors tell me that they just don’t have any (or nearly enough) money in their budgets. With this being an unfortunate truth many face, it is up to each youth worker to fund the vision and mission of their youth ministry. Do not shy away from or be ashamed of fund raising. Get creative in how you fund raise. One of the easiest ways to fundraise is to get the message out by telling people why you need $$$$. The older generation loves to financially contribute to “making” this next generation a better generation. You need to discern who are the right people who have money and want to financially invest in the lives of teens. Make sure to be compelling by describing how their precious coin wiIl be used. Always doing something special for the individuals who contributed money to your youth ministry. Throw them a party or a dinner, just do something!!! I really wish I learned the insane importance to fundraising early on. I wrote two posts: 1) how to write a youth ministry Christmas wish list and 2) youth ministry fund raising tips that might help get you started. Be sure to share ideas that work with your friends and colleagues.
(8) Failure to set goals – Goals give you the ability to create your youth ministry future in advance. They can make your youth ministry grow, expand, develop, and possibly transform. Compelling goals contain two key components: identifying your youth ministry goals and identifying your youth group mission. What do you want in your youth ministry? Something magical happens when you take generalized impulses and start defining them more precisely. Why does your youth group need it? What will it give your youth group? Reasons come first; answers come second. When you get a big enough reason to accomplish something, you can figure out how to do it. Plus we work for God and He can make anything possible!! Possible areas to set goals in: Programming attendance, outreach events, retreats/camps, student spiritual maturity, mission trips, family ministry, service events/student involvement, and leadership development.
(9) Information overload – Just pick a ministry strategy and philosophy that works and stick with it. Trust me, there are thousands upon thousands of theories that tell us how youth ministry “should” be done. It is easy to read all the latest books, attend all the conferences, and feel overwhelmed. You will find yourself stuck as you try to decide what strategy will best work in your youth ministry context. Feel free to experiment with different youth ministry strategies, but do not feel like you have to implement all of what you come across. Use what works for you, get rid of the rest.
(10) Forgetting about the children’s ministry – Youth and children’s ministries need to be in alignment. Youth pastors forget that the kids in the children’s ministry will eventually play a vibrant role in their youth ministry one day. This is why it is wise to support the children’s ministry. It is an investment for the future. If the youth pastor knows what the kids have been taught and that their parents have been taught that they are the primary spiritual leaders, the transition from children’s ministry to student ministry will be so much easier. If a youth ministry can retain and transition all the kids coming from the children’s ministry to the youth ministry, then this will be instant growth. I always had a difficult time retaining 5th graders as they transitioned into 6th and into the youth ministry.
(11) Not celebrating what God has already done – It is too easy to lose focus on what God is doing in our youth ministry because you and I are powering through programming— moving from event to event. Failing to remember and celebrate what God has already done is a momentum killer. Celebrating the victories helps generate a momentum where everyone is excited about what God is doing and realizes He is in fact moving! Take time before you give your talk at youth group to invite students to share testimonies. Ask students to share about what God is doing. Share with the rest of the youth group what God did through a few students last weekend at the homeless shelter, etc. The important thing to remember is to stop and give praise for what God is already doing. We are always needing reminders of what God has done for us, this is why He gave us communion, baptism, the resurrection, the birth of Jesus, the Bible, the Church, and His people.
My two questions for youth pastors:
How do you define youth group growth?
What other ridiculous things have you learned that keep youth groups from growing?