A fellow youth worker told me a story about how he was volunteering in a high school ministry several years ago, when a student sat down near him wearing a t-shirt that read: “LEAVE ME ALONE.” When I think back, I’ve seen this same t-shirt on several different students throughout the years, even though the words weren’t written in large block letters. In fact, I believe every student who wanders into any youth group wears his or her own t-shirt. One shirt might say, “GIVE ME ATTENTION.” Another one might say, “I’M POPULAR.” Still, another one might read: “I HATE MYSELF.”
There are all kinds of students who attend youth groups around the world. It’s been said that a church tends to reflect the personality of its senior pastor, so it’s safe to say a youth group tends to reflect the personality of its youth leader. A youth leader who is loud, zany, and competitive will naturally design a youth ministry that largely appeals to students who are loud, zany, and competitive. A youth leader who is passionate about evangelism will instinctively create an environment that appeals to unchurched students. Youth workers wear a t-shirt, too, and if they aren’t careful, their ministry will eventually be full of students wearing that same t-shirt.
So how does a youth minister design a youth ministry that appeals to the needs of all kinds of students? How do you create an environment that points students to Jesus but also takes into account their diverse personalities, experiences, motivations, and interests?
I still have a long way to go in this area, but here are a few strategies I’ve considered and implemented as an answer to these questions.
1. Surround yourself with support staff or volunteers who are different than you. Ask yourself, “How can I diversify my leadership team?” I am an introvert. I am also a male. In addition, my youth ministry experience has been predominantly in a large church setting. Thankfully, earlier this year I was able to add second person to my team— an extroverted female who had been serving for several years at a smaller church. Suddenly, there were two very different perspectives speaking in to the ministry, and two very different t-shirts greeting the students on Sunday morning. And the impact of this has been incredible. If you surround yourself with leaders who think and act differently than you, you will collectively foster an environment that engages multiple kinds of students.
2. Address the different students in the crowd. If you want your youth group to be welcoming to non-believers, for example, when you are addressing the crowd say things like, “I know that not all of you are Christians. Some of you are just checking things out, and others were forced to be here by your parents. And I’m so glad you’re here.” You can also use specific illustrations for specific groups of students. For example, one time when explaining how the Holy Spirit places the power of Christ in us, I compared it to being a football player and having the skills of Peyton Manning in you, or being a computer programmer and having the expertise of Bill Gates in you, or being a singer and having the singing voice of Justin Bieber in you (that last one was for laughs… I think I got one or two). My purpose was to address athletes, techies, and musicians in one illustration. When students believe they are known and acknowledged for who they are, they are more inclined to feel at home in your ministry.
3. Raise up student leaders from all personality types, social circles, and interest groups. If every student who serves or goes on stage in your youth group is popular and good-looking, how do you think the less popular students are going to feel? Similarly, if your student leadership team consists solely of good, well-polished, churched kids, what message does that send to the newer, less-polished Christians in your ministry? Facilitate an environment that tells students they can make an impact on their peers no matter who they are. Raise up student leaders who speak in to the ministry from different backgrounds and social circles.
Taylor Bird is the Director of Middle School Ministry at Southwest Church in Indian Wells, CA. He has been serving in youth ministry for just over four years.