Our Main Goals for Youth Ministry
What do we typically expect from youth ministry in the United States?
EXPECTATION #1: A YOUTH CULTURE THAT IS ATTRACTIONAL TO DRAW STUDENTS
The burning question is: how can we structure our youth group in order to maximize the number of students who come?
Let’s offer lots of fun games. Add unhealthy food as a draw for hungry students—pizza, cupcakes, soda, ice cream. You’re also taught from the Bible, but it’s typically on the lighter side. The cynics tell us: “We dare not challenge teens with teaching that is substantial, deep, and theological. That’s too much.”
Some will supplement with sleepovers, camps, or retreats—all meant to draw the native teen out of his daily context to offer some relational bonding, more fun, and more teaching (again, typically on the lighter side).
EXPECTATION #2: A YOUTH CULTURE THAT IS A SEPARATE SUBCULTURE OF THE CHURCH
Some churches encourage, fund, and facilitate a separate youth culture, independent of the rest of the church. Maybe they offer a youth service, which runs at the same time as the main service. They provide options, like a theatre with different movies playing in different rooms. Parents attend the main church service, teens go to the youth meetings, and the younger kids enjoy children’s church. Everyone gets their needs met, so everyone’s happy.
Some churches won’t go that far; they don’t split everyone up or tailor the programming to meet each age group’s needs. But even if we’re all together in church, the youth still find ways to separate from the church body. I remember at a previous church watching the teenagers sitting together in the balcony, apart from the adults. They always sat as a group—a youth “church” within the larger church.
The youth group sitting separately stood out to me. It didn’t bother me at the time, but it does now.
THE TRANSFORMATION OF CHBC’S YOUTH GROUP
When I arrived in DC in 2007, the youth group was small (3-8 kids). Amidst the high turnover of youth leaders, and the relatively small number of students, we made a humble effort to help the few kids. In 2014, Charles arrived. He had a lot of experience working with teenagers, so over the next few years, he reached out to teens and their parents and built relationships with them. Before my eyes, over the next few years, everything changed. By the time we hit 2019, we had 50 to 60 teens from multiple churches gathering once a week for teaching, games, and small groups.
Granted, 50 to 60 kids is small compared to many youth groups in suburban churches, but for a city church, it’s fairly big. Families of high schoolers don’t tend to stick around in the city but retreat to the suburbs for better schooling options.
Scott was the father of one of our teens. Unlike most parents who simply dropped off their kids, he came to our youth meeting. Before he committed his kids to our youth ministry, he wanted to check us out. His feedback was encouraging, and it’s an illustration of our first goal for youth ministry—to build a program around solid, biblical teaching.
Scott, a two-star general in the Airforce, had seen several youth groups over the years. Most of those youth groups had a lot of fun and games, but weak teaching. So, he was delighted to see how substantial Charles’ teaching was to our teenagers—it was robust, theological, and embedded in the biblical text. It stood out.
We had youth retreats, good old-fashioned fun, and food to feed the kids (like many youth groups). But the centerpiece of our youth ministry was rich expositional teaching.
THE ELDERS’ DIRECTIVE: BUILD A CULTURE OF DISCIPLING OUR TEENS
As the youth group quickly grew under Charles’ leadership, I asked the elders of Capitol Hill Baptist Church (CHBC) to speak and give us some direction. I didn’t want to get out ahead of their leadership. After all, Charles and I were both men under authority.
Over a series of meetings with the elder board, we discussed a variety of goals for youth ministry, brainstormed with subcommittees, and prayed for direction. One priority emerged: foster a culture of discipling with the teenagers. They wanted us to build a bridge from the rest of the church into the lives of our teenagers.
Most church subcultures exist as isolated islands—the married folk, the single folk, and the teenagers all hang out with their own kind, with little intermingling. Married folk invite singles over to babysit kids, but they wouldn’t ask singles to join their family vacation. Single folk get together for fun and fellowship. Rarely do singles request married folk to attend. A few married or singles volunteer with the youth group, yet seldom would the rest of the church interact with those teenagers outside of the youth ministry. In a typical church, walls exist between these social groups. Little effort is made to cross over, apart from occasional conversations on Sundays after church.
The CHBC elders had built a culture of discipling that overcame many of these social barriers. Married and singles are invested in each other’s lives—and by the grace of God, it’s the normal way our church lives together. But our next step was to foster a culture where the church learned to disciple the teenagers. Apart from singles volunteering for youth ministry, or married folk asking teenagers to occasionally babysit, there was little interaction between the church body and teens.
When I use the term “culture of discipling,” I mean it is the personality of the church to disciple, evangelize, and shepherd the teenagers. Think of it this way:
- It’s not a formal program, like a youth ministry, but it’s an inclination of many church members to deliberately invest in the teenagers of the church.
- Members don’t have to sign up for anything or get permission to love the teens.
- It’s normal for the members to take initiative to love the teenagers and do them spiritual good.
This culture is what the elders asked Charles and me to help build. If mark number one of a healthy youth ministry is solid teaching, then mark number two is a culture of discipling.
WHERE DO WE START? PRAYING TOGETHER AS A CHURCH
We’re at the early stages of building this culture of discipling teens. It feels a bit like building the airplane while flying it. But the most important first step we’ve taken is to pray.
On Sunday nights, our church gathering focuses on praying together. Pastor Dever often shares a prayer request like: “Let’s pray that we’ll grow to be a church where we’re committed to discipling our teenagers.”
I’ve noticed an unexpected additional benefit when we take the time to pray. Mark is the primary preacher for our church. He’s the primary culture shaper of our congregation. So, when Mark communicates a prayer request (whatever it is), it’s not just a prayer request; it also creates an expectation.
At our Sunday night prayer meeting, Mark shares many requests related to discipling: “Let’s pray that we would be a church who asks each other hard questions”; “…who will be invested in each other’s lives”; “…who studies the Bible together.” And now: “…who will disciple our teenagers.”
When he states these things, he’s encouraging us to ask for the Lord’s help. But he’s also saying: This is how we should live as Christians. This is what we should strive for as a church.
OUR PRIORITIES: TEACHING AND DISCIPLING
I’ve personally seen the benefit of youth ministry in the lives of my own children. I’m grateful both as a parent and a pastor for the teaching and for the members actively discipling my kids.
My hope is that in the years ahead, we’ll communicate solid truths, destroy social barriers, and watch members pour into our teens. Pray with us that the Lord would see fit to grant us these things.