This is another installment of one of my team members leading out to their peers in our youth staff meeting.


I was in 10th grade the first time I ever attended a youth group. I wasn’t Christian at the time, but of course my girlfriend was. Why else would I be there? Her dad was even a pastor so she was, you know, super Christian. Part of the rule for dating her was I had to attend church with her family on the weekends and attend the Monday night youth bible study.

Eh, why not? 

I didn’t have too much else going on. Her parents always bought me food which was pretty sweet. I figured I’ll just get this church stuff out of the way to appease her parents, and then me and her can find some time to make out somewhere later in the week (that was just my honest thought process as a high-schooler).

So I show up Monday night. It was a real country-style church on some ranch. Horses everywhere kind of thing. We walk in and right off the bat there’s all this whispering that she’s dating a guy who isn’t a Christian. Instant judgement and side-stares.

I swear if one more person says the words “unequally yoked” I’m gonna hop on one of these horses and dip.

We sit in a big circle and a conversation breaks out about In-n-Out: “OMG[osh] can you guys believe JOHN 3:16 is written on the CUPS??” 

I’m sitting there nodding my head in all the excitement, but I’m super confused.

They seem pretty jazzed about this. Who the heck is this John guy? Is 3:16pm some holy time of the day?

So I make the terrible mistake of actually asking out loud, “hey guys, what’s John 3:16 mean?”

Right away everyone starts laughing. Even the youth pastor was letting out a little chuckle. “You don’t know John 3:16?? You’re definitely not a Christian then if you don’t know John 3:16!”

Then they all recited the verse together…  out loud… in unison.

Well I definitely hate John 3:16.

I sat through the next two hours with my arms crossed not saying a word. Just hoping to get through it. I might have even prayed to God for the very first time that He would strike some lightning and burn the building down just to have some reason to cancel the rest of this thing. 

The bible study finally ends. Thank God. Afterwards, the youth pastor pulls my girlfriend aside and tells her, “hey, so it was cool you brought him today, but this group is really just for Christians to grow together. He’s not really Christian enough to be here, and we’re a little worried he won’t be a good influence on the others.”

Hold up, what? Look homie, I didn’t even want to be here. You don’t know my name. You don’t know anything about me. Just enough to know I don’t belong in your little club. Great.

Needless to say, I was not led to Christ at this church or by any of these people.


Last week marks 3 years being the youth pastor at the Sandals Church Palm Avenue campus. I never really thought I would make it in this role for this long. I had no previous experience working with youth and when I started I didn’t really know what I was doing (most weeks I still don’t). The only thing I was sure of and really cared about was establishing a youth group where kids wouldn’t experience what I had experienced. I wanted to make sure the doors were truly open to everyone, no matter where they were from, what they had done, or what they looked like. Pretty much anyone in the category of “the world” that Jesus died for in John 3:16 (only the real ones will know that verse)

I’m no expert at all, but creating that culture of belonging has been the area I’ve spent most of my time and prayer focusing on. So I’d love to just share my experience and thoughts on how to do this and why it matters. Hopefully you find it helpful.




Pretty obvious, but a crucial part of the discipleship process. Paul writes in Galatians 1:10, “I’m not trying to win the approval of people, but of God. If pleasing people were my goal, I would not be Christ’s servant.”  To be a servant of Christ is to seek only God’s approval. If students only learn from youth ministry how to play the church game and find approval from people, it will affect what they grow into down the road. 

If church is a place where a student can’t be themselves, it may stunt your growth

If a student is pretending to be something they’re not at church, they’ll never invite their friends. A friend would notice right away they’re acting different, which is a social situation a student would literally never put themselves in. 


If you have a new student that’s never been to church before, let go of your behaviour corrections (“Don’t cuss! Don’t listen to that music! Don’t have sex! Don’t…”) It’s a real quick method for pushing students away. 

Now you might be thinking, “BUT WHAT IF THEY’RE A BAD INFLUENCE ON THE GOOD ONES??” Relax, It’s 2 hours of a week, they’re most likely hearing worse elsewhere. IF they’re really that sheltered, in the long run it’s good for them to have exposure to “non-Christian” students anyway.

If a new student feels like they have to change so much, they will most likely never come back. If they actually do end up coming back, they’ll focus on changing superficial things and completely miss the real work God wants to do in their lives


The desire to want to see the fruits of your hard work in real time leads to unhealthy leadership – insecurity, anger, bitterness – and ultimately places unfair expectations on students (you’re STILL gay??) that will eventually drive students away and lose their sense of belonging.

The hardest part of youth ministry for me my first year was realizing how much was out of my control. Students would fall back into sin, or make bad decisions, or leave the church. It’s heartbreaking when it happens. It’s hard not to take that personally.

While it’s hard, that truth actually turns out to be the most liberating. It’s God’s job not yours. God typically doesn’t change people overnight, you certainly can’t speed up His process either. So stop trying. It’s not your burden to bear. Accept that you might not ever see students overcome their biggest sins. It doesn’t mean you’re a bad leader!

Quick Thought Exercise: How long did it take/is it taking you to overcome your sin? What sin is still in your life that you’ve been working on since High School? Realizing this allows you to have more grace for your students as they figure out what it looks like to follow Jesus.


Stop trying to control things that really don’t need to be controlled: Where students sit, activities that students do, stuff breaking, students making a mess, even students choosing to be on their phones.

The phone thing is difficult. It was something I realized I needed to let go of in my first year. It was during a time of worship and some students were on their phones. So I marched over and reprimanded them, “Hey! You guys need to be worshipping God!” I got what I asked for. They put their phones away and listened, but it wasn’t really a “win” because it set a really negative precedent for worship.

Youth Pastors work hard. Since we put a ton of effort into programming, we want students to respect it and appreciate it. So it becomes easy to the blame on the students for being disinterested. It’s because of their sin that they’re not paying attention. It’s prideful thinking. Your programming isn’t God, and distractions aren’t always the devil.

Jesus says in John 10:27 “My sheep will recognize my voice.” If a student hears God calling them, their phone or anything else isn’t going to matter. If they choose their phone over a sermon or a song, so what? At least they showed up. God is in control, so don’t sweat it.


Students won’t be themselves if you’re not. Don’t act like the youth pastor you want to be, be the youth pastor God made you to be. If you’re not leading out of authenticity it will eventually come out. You reveal who you really are in your reactions. 

Don’t act like Mr. super-laid-back-chill youth pastor, then lose your mind when a student spills coffee in the sanctuary. Don’t claim to be the leader or ministry where students can be open and share what’s really going on in their lives, then instantly bible-slap and judge them the second they confess something. 

The beauty of the Gospel is that Christ knew everything about us, the deepest and darkest parts, and still gave His life out of love for us. Our ministry should reflect that.

That’s it, thanks for reading if you did!


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By |2021-05-18T14:16:14-07:00December 14th, 2020|Uncategorized|0 Comments

About the Author:

Justin Knowles is the Director of Kids & Youth at Sandals Church in Riverside, CA. He oversees the kids and youth ministry teams across all 13 Sandals Church campuses. He hosts Youth Ministry Hacks Podcast with Matthew Ferrer, loves to write about his ministry journey on the DYM Blog and he teaches at all sorts of camps, retreats or training. He and his wife Kristin have 2 sons (Graham & Wade).

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