Youth Ministry Lens #3
I sat in a restaurant watching my mentor and teacher draw a version of this pyramid on the back of a napkin. He was well known for a Sunday-night youth ministry program he had grown from a handful of youth into a regular gathering of 300 to 400 youth! What he explained was profound and humbling. He realized most churches are not destined to have this kind of attendance but he explained to me that the importance of youth ministry, in any size congregation, will not grow unless time and resources are concentrated on building and fostering a strong core of leaders, both adults and students. Growing a youth ministry is never about a single leader or personality. It is about a culture of caring leaders!
I ask youth ministers and pastors who work with youth this question: “How many youth can you keep up with on a weekly basis to know what they are thinking or feeling?” Depending on how the question is interpreted, most answer four to eight. It’s always a rather low number.
Reality! I have seen many churches, some quite large with full-time staff, that have small numbers attending. Why? The leader has reached his or her relational capacity.
You have two choices in your youth ministry programing:
One: Try to do it all yourself, resulting in small numbers and limited spiritual depth.
Two: Build a relational, caring, welcoming, and affirming leadership team of youth and adults, resulting in expanding numbers and greater spiritual depth.
That is blunt, but real! This works, not only for large churches, but also for small ones. Your core team may be four people; it may be 40 people. Whatever your situation, start small and begin building a team.
I like visuals. Note the pyramid, which has evolved from the napkin version. The layers illustrate program categories commonly used by churches for spiritually nurturing youth. What follows is an explanation of each level of the pyramid, starting from the bottom. Note that the larger the levels, the more expansive the influence on numbers of youth. Your congregation may arrange the levels differently, have different words for them, or even add other levels. The significance of the model does not change.
Your church may arrange the levels differently, have different words for them or even add other levels.
1. Family: A foundational faith formation strategy equips families to share and experience faith together. Much of the research in the last decades reminds us that the faith patterns and practices set in the home are the biggest indicator for future faith involvement. It is the largest level of the pyramid because it is influential for all youth, in both good or bad ways.
2. Community: Youth watch for real models and examples of faith lived outside the walls of the church. Youth want to know, “Who really lives this?” Community is the testing ground of authenticity. This level is about helping youth experience, notice, and hear the stories of people who live faith in the world. Then, give them the opportunity to discuss what they are observing about faith lived in their community.
3. Worship and Congregation: What happens in a church is broader than a youth program. Youth often connect in the church beyond, even without youth ministry events. Involving youth throughout the life of the congregation requires strategic planning that allows youth to be involved. Here’s my cry: “Youth are leading or they are leaving!” Churches that say, “We need you!” to each and every youth are churches that have youth leading in every aspect of the congregation.
4. Camp: Having more youth involved in camp and retreat experience translates into more participation during the year. These shared experiences build and strengthen relationships that create culture and community for you and your participants. Note the words shared experience! Look for experiences where you and your core team of leaders can be in the midst and lead your group. Dropping off kids at a camp and not participating with them does little to help grow your ministry community.
5. Groups: Small groups or candle-time discussions are where the trust levels increase, anxieties decrease, and youth feel free to talk about faith and life, wrestling with questions and ideas. In these discussions, peers become models and mentors to each other. I believe this to be the sweet spot of peer-to-peer youth ministry.
6. Service: Many youth will show up for service experiences before any other program. Why? Because they can see and experience something that matters. Youth go where they are needed! The goal is not to complete a service event, but to develop an attitude and practice of caring for others. Effective service learning includes preparation and reflection.
7. Fun: Fun is always an element whenever youth gather. Fun is part of who youth are! After youth have established meaningful, purposeful relationships, periodic extra events focused just on fun are great. It is important to note that this level is not the foundation of the pyramid. Churches often err when assuming youth ministry is based on bigger-and-better fellowship events, falsely strategizing, “If they have more fun, they might come to church more often.”
8. Unique: Various special interest opportunities exist in churches, including bell choirs, basketball teams, and musicals; even a few (bless them) clown-ministry troops still exist. These are often developed and led by a passionate, talented person. The special-interest groups are not meant for every youth, but they give a sense of purpose and pride to those who do participate.
9. Big: Involvement in larger group experiences such as concerts and youth gatherings allow youth to discover that the church is bigger than their own congregation.
Now, focus on the relational core in the middle. This is the core team of youth and adults. I believe all church programs for every age are reliant on relationships. This is especially true of youth ministry. “Kids don’t care what you know until they know you care” has been a youth ministry slogan for many years. Caring relationships are essential.
Note the first exaggerated pyramid illustration. See the problem! If a church program is led primarily by one person, the number of participants is going to be very narrow. It is not unusual to find full time youth ministers working with six to ten youth. Why? The leader has reached his or her relational capacity.
Now note the second exaggerated illustration. This wide pyramid illustrates what happens with a well-trained, well-equipped leadership team of youth and adults. Programs grow. Having more leaders results in the ability to maintain more caring, welcoming, and affirming relationships. Thus, the youth minister’s (or pastor’s) position is to raise up, equip, and nurture the faith and skills of a core leadership team.
Peer pressure is an amazing influence. A camp director once told me, “I see retreat groups come out week after week. Most have good program plans, but do you know what their participants really learn?” He paused. My attention perked. “They learn whatever the oldest youth in the group want to teach.” Youth influence the faith lives of other youth! So, stack the deck in your favor. A team of leaders who are well trained, who understand their role as caring, welcoming, and affirming leaders, creates an infectious, magnetic culture.
Adding leadership also grows spiritual depth. My personal observation is that I am a good teacher. The confirmation lessons I taught on the Lord’s Prayer were remarkable. Pure educational genius—or at least that’s how I remember them! But none of my youth prayed because of my amazing lessons. It was not until I started using high school peer ministers to lead groups at camps, at retreats, and in the midst of various programs that I heard all my youth pray aloud. Why? Spiritual practices are modeled and mentored. We learn things, like prayer, from real people who pray. As a paid pray-er, I don’t know that I am as effective as I would like to think I am. Build a team of real people, who are eager and willing to learn spiritual practices that they can participate in and share with others. Youth learn from their models.
What to Do With This Model
Share this with all of your leaders. Help each leader understand her or his role as part of the relational ministry core—especially adults, who are used to volunteering for typical roles of teaching a curriculum, providing transportation, or standing by a hallway to make sure kids don’t go down it during the middle school dance! Your adults will need help in understanding that their role is far more than volunteering or chaperoning. They need your help to recognize the influence they have as relational ministers. Sharing the visual of the pyramid is a great way to begin.
Share the model with your church leadership. Church leaders need to understand your strategy. “We need to build a team of leaders,” I told the first pastor for whom I worked. The pastor said, “That’s fine, but we hired you to be with kids. That is where I want you spending your time.” My previous experience had been with Young Life, thus my experiential reflex was to build a team of leaders. That is what I knew how to do. I did it, and the ministry grew. Seeing those results, that pastor went on to write his own doctoral thesis on Peer Ministry Leadership! He saw the results. He became a believer.
Use this pyramid as a way of evaluating your own strategies for youth ministry. Beside the levels, list the programs your church presently uses. Note which levels are your church’s primary approaches. You will be stronger in some than in others—celebrate your strengths! The goal is not to have every level be successful, but you may see levels that need a boost, or that don’t exist. How will you plan for these? Are there areas you need to spend less time on? How about that leadership team? Are you ready to strengthen or begin that team?