We plan events, create Bible studies, and generally care for our youth. How often though do we stop and ask ourselves…….

“What do youth need from youth ministry?”

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Rev. Alice Cates serves as the Minister to Youth at Chester Baptist Church in Chester, VA (just south of Richmond). She earned her Master of Divinity degree from the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond, her Master’s in Social Work from Virginia Commonwealth University, her undergraduate degree in Theatre Arts from Campbell University, and was ordained to Christian Ministry at Biltmore Baptist Church in Glen Allen, VA. Alice greatly enjoys laughing out loud, preaching, spending time with her super rad niece and nephew, sunny days in the park, wrangling her bloodthirsty housecat Henrietta, and Netflixing.

Top 10 things youth need from youth ministry

Youth need their youth ministry program to provide a place to learn to study the Bible. They need to learn about Jesus Christ. These (hopefully) go without saying. So beyond that, what do students need from their youth ministry programs??

The list could no doubt go on and on, but I’ve finally narrowed it down. Here are the top 10 things youth need from youth ministry (in my humble opinion and in no particular order!):

  1. Adult leaders who are passionate about Jesus and passionate about working with teenagers. The temptation is there to try to fill those chaperone slots with any warm body, but we need to be intentional and prayerful about the people we trust to spiritually mentor our students.
  2. To know that they are loved, worthy, and uniquely created. Not for what they can do, or offer, or say, or pray… They are loved because they are God’s precious and unique creation. They are loved even when they doubt, even when they sin… even when they do not profess a belief in anything at all. They are loved- bigger than we are able to get our heads around. Hugely, immensely, unwaveringly loved!
  3. To know that they are a part of something much bigger than themselves/their youth group/their church. The idea of God’s kingdom is pretty incredible… that we are all active participants, working together to build the Kingdom with every act of love and grace. This great community of faith extends not only beyond our city and country, but also extends beyond the limits of time and history. We are all a part of something huge!
  4. To be reminded (again and again) that they are called. That we all are! In really big (sometimes scary) ways, and in smaller, day-to-day (and sometimes scary) ways. God is constantly reaching out to us- calling out to us- and once we answer one call, another is right behind it. God believes in us. God believes that we are capable of amazing things and calls us out beyond our expectations.
  5. To learn to connect with God (and that there are countless ways to do it!). We are each wired differently. Some connect most deeply through liturgy and spoken word. Some through music. Some through journaling. Some through play. Some through silence. Some through conversation… they need a youth ministry program that will introduce them to diverse methods for spiritual formations. We need to encourage them to be lifelong seekers, finding joy and excitement in the endless avenues through which we can connect with our awesomely creative God.
  6. To play. So much of our students’ lives are spent in tightly structured environments. Time to just “hang out,” play games, and get silly without any kind of agenda is so refreshing! Don’t be surprised if they don’t know what to do with themselves the first time you present them with this opportunity. They’ll figure it out! Of course, organized group games are great too- but a good balance of both is so good for our students!
  7. To have a safe place to ask hard questions (and to sometimes not have all of those questions answered). Some questions don’t have answers we can give. Sometimes the answer is simply, “that’s a really great and really hard question; I ask it a lot myself.” God is pleased when we are seeking. To stamp an easy answer onto a hard question cheapens God’s mystery and majesty. Let’s teach our youth that it’s okay (even good!) to wrestle with hard questions.
  8. To learn that the Bible is actually pretty awesome. The stories in the Bible are relatable and surprising and funny and weird and totally worth reading! It is so important to make these stories come alive for our students. What do you think is interesting/weird/shocking about the passage you’re teaching on? Share that! If we’re not excited about it and personally invested, why should they be??
  9. A healthy youth minister/youth leaders. We cannot expect to adequately tend the souls of our students we are not tending our own souls too. At least not for very long. Burnout happens. It happens quickly if we are not intentionally cultivating prayer time and committed to being lifelong learners.
  10. To know that the church is made up of imperfect people. People who will let them down, say the wrong things, maybe even hurt them sometimes. Moreover, you, youth minister, despite your love and passion for your students, are one of those imperfect people. We are all figuring it out together, and trying to do our best to love God and love each other as Jesus commanded. But sometimes we will fail. But just as God shows us grace, we show each other grace as well.

What else?? What would you add?? What is essential for your youth to have in a healthy youth ministry program?

Colby Whitaker

Colby Whittaker is the Associate Pastor with Youth and Young Adults at Hope Valley Baptist Church in Durham, NC. He studied religion and philosophy at Georgetown College and received his M. Div. from the Duke University School of Divinity. He is a native of the Bluegrass State but currently resides in Durham, NC with his wonderful wife and giant mutt of a dog. He spends too much time keeping up with television, movies and books. You can find him at @LoveLoudlyNC

If you’re reading this you probably already know that there’s no one all-encompassing answer to this question. There’s hundreds. Different times and places, different youth groups and even individual youth can all have very different needs. Some groups need more biblical literacy, others need more cultural awareness, some just need to get out and really dive into missions. But even amongst the diversity there are a few trends that seem to emerge between the diverse groups.

First, Youth need Youth Ministry that enables them to be the church today. We’re often fixated on Youth as the church of tomorrow, like seedstock set aside for a later date. But Youth need to know that they are already being called to advance God’s kingdom. Youth will either grow into or reject the model of ministry we offer them today. If that is a vision of the church as a passive institution which is mostly about entertainment and servicing the needs of its own members, that is the vision they will carry into adulthood.

Youth need a model of Youth Ministry that looks like the kind of adult Christians we pray they will be. You don’t build a sturdy house with faulty blueprints and you don’t grow a healthy garden from bad seeds. Where we start has to somehow indicate where we want to go.

That means leaders and pastors who are more coach than babysitter, equipping and empowering them to use their gifts. They need teaching that is focused on developing mind, body and spirit with real skills for life and mission, and genuine challenging calling that prepares them for the costliness of their faith. They need a congregation that is willing to make room for them in its life, trusting them to join alongside in real mission and worship, and also offering forgiveness and grace if occasionally they fall short. Our churches need to own their roles as teaching congregations, communities that mingle learning and doing.

Second, Youth need a community that challenges some of the dominant stories they receive from the world around them. Schools and the college acceptance arms race are driving many teens into unsustainable cycles of busy-ness and burnout. Materialism, relativism and self-centeredness are poured into youth by media and peer groups. Some youth also receive worldviews full of stereotypes and prejudices that distort their view of the world.

Youth need a Youth Ministry that teaches them to think critically about their world and its conflicting messages and navigate them in light of their Christian commitments. Youth need to be equipped to dig down into their own influences, loyalties and motivations and discuss them with open eyes. When everything else in their world is going a thousand miles an hour and never stopping, Youth Ministry should offer rest and stillness. When everyone else in their lives offers only one side of an issue, Youth Ministry needs to open their eyes to new perspectives and new ways of looking at the world. And they need to learn how to have those conversations in the language of their faith, guided by Scripture, tradition and the Spirit.

Third, Youth need a Youth Ministry that puts Jesus at the center. For every other want or need or accoutrement that we could include without Jesus we’re just another extra-curricular activity. Every event, every lesson, every trip or service project has to have Jesus as its center. We don’t  push back against busy-ness and advocate rest because it makes Youth better students, we do it because God instituted Sabbath and a pattern of rest. We don’t serve in the community because it pads a resume but because its what Jesus showed us to do. Youth need Youth Ministry that draws them into the example of Jesus, what Jesus would do and how Jesus would do it.

Finally, each group will have its own needs. The only way to truly know what a particular Youth or Youth Group need is to come alongside them and listen to them. There’s no magic bullet or one-size fits all model to meet every need. But by listening and getting to know a group and their context you can discover their unique needs.