In grad school, I took a class called Theology of the Church taught by Dave Rahn. During it, we talked often about the form and function of the church. Dave’s point was that form should always follow function, not the other way around. In other words, since form (structure) is less important than function (purpose), something’s purpose should dictate it’s structure.

I wish I would have had this class years ago, before I last transitioned from one ministry to another.

In a recent conversation with a soon-to-be seminary graduate, after talking about some of the struggles I encountered during my first year at my church, I was asked, “If you could go back and relive that year, what would you do differently?”

In my head, I heard Dave’s wise voice chanting, “Form and function.”

You see, my first year at my church, I walked into a youth ministry that was largely social in nature. Teens were used to gathering weekly. In fact, teens looked forward to getting together every week and talking about whatever was on their mind. Sometimes, those things were spiritual; Other times, they weren’t.

Needless to say, as a youth pastor, I knew I didn’t want our main gathering to be purely social. I mean, relationships are important but a youth ministry’s main gathering needs to have CONTENT. It needs to be Jesus-centered.

So I added Jesus to these weekly gatherings.

I did so by structuring my ministry the same way I’d structured my previous two youth ministries. We played a game, worshiped a little bit, and then teens listened while I gave a talk about Jesus. For me, that structure – game + worship + a talk – was what youth ministry was. There was no other alternative.

So, my first week in my new church, we played a game, worshiped a little, and I gave a talk. To me, it felt like success and a way of honoring my vow to not change too much too quickly.

After all, I came into a new place and continued to do youth ministry the same way I always had, the same way I’d always seen it done.

For me, nothing changed.

But for my teens, EVERYTHING changed.

Not surprisingly, conflict erupted.

It did so because I lost sight of the true relationship between form and function. I forgot that form follows function, not the other way around.

If I had to do it all over again, I’d do things SO differently. I’d use whatever form, whatever structure, was already in place and I’d adjust the content to better reflect Jesus. I’d chuck my form – game + worship + a talk – and I’d keep the discussion-centered gatherings teens were already used to.

Because I wholeheartedly believe that talking explicitly about Jesus is imperative to a teen’s faith formation (see more on this in my book, The Jesus Gap), initially, I’d simply steer our conversations towards Jesus. Once teens were used to hearing Jesus talked about in our conversations, I’d slowly incorporate more formal discussions about Jesus into our main gathering.

Had I just done that – had I changed the content and not the structure – I think I would have saved myself a lot of grief that first year. Our youth ministry would have FELT the same to my teens. They’d still be doing what they’d always done: Coming to church to hang out and talk with each other. The only difference is that we would have been talking about Jesus.

If the purpose of youth ministry is to help teens grow in their relationship with Jesus and each other, may we always remember that lots of forms, lots of structures, can and should support that function.

May we never be too married to a single structure that we lose sight of what’s really important: Teaching teens to love and follow Jesus.