Long-term discipleship strategies are great, but let’s be honest, they often don’t make you – the oft-maligned youth leader – look very good. When you’re focussed on a long-term vision, you can often become discouraged as the pews fail to fill up, and as members of the church begin to ask question about exactly what you do with your week. The temptation to shift the culture of your work towards short-term wins and a much more vacuous level of engagement, can be hard to resist.
Well I’m here to tell you: it’s time to lean in to that temptation.
I’ve come up with five steps which, when implemented properly, should see your numbers skyrocket and your approval ratings among the church elders soar. They may seem counter-intuitive, but in a world of so much uncertainty, is there really any point trying to think long term anyway? Here’s five sure-fire keys to making your youth ministry thrive – for the short term anyway.
1. Prioritise fun over faith development
Do you realise that there are a range of other entertainment options available to young people alongside your youth group? Scouts, sports teams, not to mention parties and the sorts of pubs and clubs which don’t check ID properly. How on earth do you think you’re going to compete with well-resourced, high-fun activities like these by holding a weekly Bible study series on Nehemiah? Answer: you can’t! Instead, you should seek to make your weekly programme as enjoyable as possible, filling it with games, pranks, and as much unrestricted phone use as the kids can handle. Remember: young people won’t remember anything you taught them in youth group, but they’ll remember you – so make sure they can hold on to some hysterically funny memories involving blowing up an old toilet, and a life-size game of Angry Birds.
2. Spend big on being the best
When you look around your church, it might feel quite small – but if you look around your community at all the churches there, you might actually feel like you’re part of a mighty army. This is wrong: those other churches and their your groups are your rivals and you need to crush them. The best way to do this is by strong-arming your church leadership team into massively increasing your youth work budget (telling them you want to beat the church down the road may genuinely help with this). You can then allocate cash to key areas including graphic design, marketing, inflatables and a banging TikTok account. If you want to be the best, you need to spend like the best.
3: Youth leader: You are the star
You know those dark, late-night moments where you wonder if any of this ministry would happen if it wasn’t for you? You were right. God is literally invisible and really quite unfashionable these days – so give young people a messiah-figure they can really believe in! Put yourself front-and-centre at every opportunity, make sure your face is everywhere, and consider whether it’s possible to insert your name into the title of the youth ministry. The young people will build a strong affiliation to you as their charismatic role model, and as long as you never leave, they’ll keep coming to your group.
4. Focus on the numbers
It’s all well and good to say that Jesus changed the world with 12 people, but to be fair to him, he didn’t have Instagram. Everyone knows, deep down, that bigger is better – and if you don’t care about numbers, how else are you supposed to win subtly disguised games of one-upmanship at local youth leader gatherings? Track your numbers, create impressive graphs, and post them online so that people can marvel at what the Lord is doing.
5. Help young people to build a ‘compartment’ for Jesus
Here’s perhaps the most important element of this whole strategy. Young people don’t want to be challenged – it’s a known fact. Instead, they want to be enabled to build a lifestyle full of great consumable options – and your youth group could be one of them! It’s important though that young people don’t feel like you’re encroaching on important other elements of their development, such as taking part in sports teams, playing video games, enjoying casual relationships and sneaking into the pub. For this reason, it’s vital that you ring-fence their ‘God time’ into no more than two bite-sized chunks, neither of which must ever be on a Friday or Saturday. In this way, you’ll never force them to choose between a boring worship evening and a kicking party...
You know I’m kidding, right? I suppose, if you actually wanted to build a youth ministry which didn’t prepare young people for any sort of lifelong faith, this is how you might go about it. And perhaps more worryingly, I recognise elements of my own youth work over the last 20 years in every single one of these ideas. But of course this isn’t how it should be.
If young people are going to develop faith for life, then they need to understand that God wants to be part of every single area of that life. Not because he wants to restrict us, but because he wants to enable us to live life in all its fullness (John 10:10). We have to give them a God who is big enough to be part of their whole lives – sports teams, science lessons, relationships and yes, even trips to the pub – and who not only has something to about all of those moments but is also fully present in every one of them.
This only happens when we as youth leaders make it our goal to introduce young people to God directly, and then get out of the way. It might not be very fashionable, but enabling young people to cultivate a direct relationship with God is by far the most meaningful and life-changing thing you could do for them. Our job as youth leaders isn’t to be the most hilarious, charismatic person they know, or to create the fun highlight of their every week. It’s to show them how to live with God at the centre of their lives, and then, day by day, week by week, help them to keep him in his rightful place for the long term.
We Are Satellites – a book to help young people put God at the centre of their lives – is available now from the Youthscape store, at a special launch price of £7.99.
Satellites 2021 – a brand-new summer event for young people – launches next year. Find out all about it here.