On a recent call with Alan Roxburgh, author of Structured for Mission, I heard Al say two really compelling things. First, people are no longer hardwired to go to church like they once were. Second, given this changing culture, those of us who work in the church need to constantly reexamine what it means for our ministries to be healthy. In Al’s words, “What we mean by the word healthy needs to be interrogated.”
Our current cultural reality means that we can no longer judge the health of our ministries by our numbers. It’s entirely possible to have a youth ministry of 100 kids that is very unhealthy but have a very healthy ministry of 10 students.
With that in mind, here are 10 characteristics that I use to examine the health of my youth ministry. Healthy youth ministries…
1. Welcome teens: Whether teens are there for the first or hundredth time, in a healthy youth ministry, teens feel comfortable enough to be themselves. They feel confident enough to express their opinion, even if it differs from everyone else in the room. Regardless of what they say or do, they feel as though they belong and that they will be missed if they are not there.
2. Foster relationships: Most youth workers believe in the power of relational ministry. But how do you know whether or not your ministry is relational? To me, a youth ministry is healthy relationally if the relationships that are being formed within the church walls extend outside of them. In other words: Do the teens in your ministry – especially those who go to different schools – hang out with each other outside of church events? If they do, you’re doing something right relationally.
3. Support teens: Healthy youth ministries support teens (and their families) in their everyday lives. They serve as a resource for teens and their families when life is going well in addition to the times when life sucks. They are present in the lives of students, not just on Sundays and Wednesdays but throughout the week.
4. Engage teens: Are the teens on your roster active in your ministry? When teens attend a youth ministry function, how engaged are they in what’s happening? Are they sitting there like lumps on a log, bored to death or are they actively participating in whatever it is you’re doing? The more engaged teens are in your ministry, the more healthy it is.
5. Take risks: Healthy youth ministries refuse to settle for the status quo. Instead, they take calculated risks knowing that (to steal the old John Ortberg title) if you want to walk on water, you have to get out of the boat. Healthy youth ministries dare to dream big, knowing that growth (of any kind) seldom happens without risk.
6. Develop leaders: In healthy youth ministries, both adult and student leaders are constantly encouraged to grow as leaders and followers of Jesus. Growth happens through formal training and discipleship as well as through more informal channels. Additionally, leaders’ growth isn’t just confined to extra programs designed specifically for them. Instead, leaders also grow spiritually through your regular weekly gatherings. In healthy youth ministries, growth is mutual – leaders learn from teens and teens learn from leaders.
7. Share leadership: Healthy youth ministries are NOT centered on the charisma or personality of any one person. Instead, leadership is shared in some way, preferably between a team of adult leaders and a team of student leaders. A healthy youth ministry is one in which you know that even if you’re absent for a week (or multiple weeks), ministry will continue.
8. Form teens spiritually: As leaders in healthy youth ministries grow, so too will the teens involved in them. Healthy youth ministries embrace doubt and give teens a chance to vocalize and examine their questions in community with other faithful believers. They examine Scripture and wrestle with it’s meaning in their lives, helping teens to make sense of the world around them. In so doing, healthy youth ministries cultivate a love for Scripture and more importantly, a love for Jesus – the One whom all of Scripture points toward.
9. Focus on Jesus: I was stunned when my research (published in The Jesus Gap) revealed that 56% of surveyed teens either did not believe or did not know if Jesus was God. If Jesus is the one on whom Christianity rises and falls, then healthy youth ministries constantly teach teens the basics about Jesus: Who he was, what he did, and how he makes a difference in their lives. After all, it’s hard to know, love, and follow someone you don’t know.
10. Take faith beyond the walls of church: Healthy youth ministries challenge teens to follow Jesus beyond church. To do so, healthy youth ministries help teens apply their faith to everyday issues by wrestling with issues that teens care about and challenging them to think about the role their faith can and should play in their daily decisions as well as things like their vocation.
Your turn: What characteristics do you use to diagnose the health of your youth ministry and why?