At the age of twenty I was diagnosed with an autoimmune disorder called psoriasis. If left unchecked, my body hyperactively produces skin cells to the point of developing itchy and unsightly sores.
The treatment is highly effective because it is highly targeted—suppressing two errant proteins that are part of my immune system.
In my body something designed for good became errant, and that error had to be removed for health to be restored.
Detriments to ministry are often errant outworking of something that started off with the right motives.
Below we’ll explore three such disorders that exist in many youth ministries, and I believe God’s desire is to remove what is errant in order to restore health. So, if you feel convicted, remember that God’s conviction is not a threat that you are outside of his favor, but rather it’s an invitation into a more life-giving way.
STRUGGLE #5: We’re Struggling With Worshipping What Once Worked
We can’t welcome the new while worshipping the old…
The Alpha course is known worldwide. It’s ecumenical—used all across Christendom, and it’s effective—people come to Jesus. Courses are run in churches, coffee shops, schools, workplaces, prisons, and homes around the globe.
It’s run in over one-hundred countries and in over one-hundred languages.
Today around 24 million people have taken the course.
So, I find it both encouraging and remarkable that Nicky Gumbel, who developed Alpha, is known for his readiness to abandon Alpha the instant something more effective comes along.
So many youth groups have had ways of doing things that were once vision from God that yielded kingdom fruit.
The attractional models of ministry from the 1990’s and early 2000’s are examples of this.
The majority of non-Christian teens are disinterested in faith exploration, but those who are interested prefer spiritual conversations with Christians who live their faith through action as opposed to speaking it in convincing arguments. Even being prayed for or having Bible verses quoted are no longer welcome.
Similarly, Christian teens don’t view evangelism as a program or event at Church or as arguing convincingly until somebody converts. Rather they view evangelism as living out your faith within the context of already existing relationships, and a successful spiritual conversation is when both people feel heard and understand one another better.
The problem is that many church leaders have unwittingly chosen to worship these models when God would have us leave them behind.
Take, for example, the bronze snake that Moses crafted in the wilderness (Numbers 21). He did so by God’s instructions, and the results were salvific for Israel. Yet, generations later, King Hezekiah must destroy the snake because the people have begun to worship it (2 Kings 18).
Regularly our ministry team asks this question: “What are we known for that God would have us change?”
We ask this question to reveal our true blind spots.
Most of us are capable of identifying what’s obviously not working. But the systems that have always worked for you; the event that always gets the kids out; the way we’ve always done things; the reasons that parents sing your praises, other youth groups envy yours, the elders pat you on the back, and the youth share on social media—these are where your blind spots hide.
These are the aspects of ministry where God will be prompting for change, but we will be unlikely to notice.
Once we do notice and respond in obedience, it comes with an inevitable repentance—a turning away from the old way—which practically requires a reappropriation of energy, money, volunteers and teaching toward the new vision.
What do you worship because it once worked?
STRUGGLE #6: We’re Struggling With Wrong Assumptions
We can’t lead rightly while believing wrongly…
Years ago, when I was a leader at a summer camp, our entire group set-out into the forests of the Rocky Mountain foothills on a hike. We started out on logging roads and well-worn paths until a significant distance had been covered.
As the sun began to dip low in the sky, our team realized that returning the way we came would take far too long, and we began looking for a shortcut. I had a compass and determined that veering left through a valley pass could have us back in time for supper.
The entire group, dozens of teens and leaders, began crossing a grassy field—which turned out to be a half kilometer of marshland.
Oh, the screams of teenagers as so many nice Nike shoes sank into the muck.
From there we came to a wooded area with so much deadfall that it slowed our progress dramatically. Finally emerging from the trees, we were forced to follow a creek for a kilometer before finding a reasonable place to cross.
Let’s just say the shortcut didn’t save us any time, and we were late for supper.
My wrong assumption on the hike was thinking that direction of travel was all I needed to know. I failed to account for the nature of the terrain along the journey.
Many today, though their hearts have good motives, are leading ministries built on wrong assumptions:
Content and program trumps belonging and significance.
Numeric growth is synonymous with conversion growth.
Attractional ministry still works for the average non-believer.
People coming to us is a better missional strategy than us being sent to them.
Discipleship competes with mission, investment in one detracts from the other.
The way I’ve written these, they might sound obviously negative. But we can’t afford to be naïve; these and other wrong assumptions are often deeply embedded in our scripts for ministry. They might even be dressed up within our vision and mission statement to sound righteous.
God knows the direction of travel and the terrain that lies ahead for ministry in Canada. We need His mind to discern the truth from deception. Romans 12 reminds us to “…be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is…”
When was the last time you identified the assumptions in your ministry script and held them with open hands for God to affirm or rebuke?
STRUGGLE #7: We’re Struggling With Self-Importance
We can’t reap the whole harvest alone…
It was a scenario most youth pastors dream about—one of our youth had invited their non-believing friend to youth group. After the teaching, the pair came up to the front. The youth who had been so bold to invite their friend was beaming as they told me their friend wanted to follow Jesus. I sat down with the two and gleefully led this young man through a prayer of repentance and faith.
The following morning, I proudly shared about the experience with a colleague.
His response was not what I expected.
He gently asked why I hadn’t let the believing youth lead their own friend to Christ.
I was gutted.
My colleague was right—and that rebuke has stuck with me.
Do our models for evangelism require God’s Spirit and God’s people, or have we positioned ourselves at the center?
Spiritual leaders in general, and youth workers especially, can suffer from a hero complex. Practically, when approaching evangelism, this resembles my mistake—encouraging our youth to invite their friends, but (even if they do) we’ve reinforced the idea that we are the best person to lead their friend to Jesus and disciple them thereafter.
Ephesians 12 is clear that we who hold authority are given by God to His Church to “equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.” Equipping is more than how we typically use the phrase today; it’s not just skills training. The word Paul used for “equipping” expresses a perfecting as a disciple of Jesus. To truly make disciples who make disciples, our equipping must encompass empowerment—giving away authority, like Paul did with Timothy and so many others.
Kara Powell and the team from Fuller Youth Institute, who together wrote Growing Young, talk about this as “Keychain Leadership”, which I’ve written about elsewhere.
Our team has applied this concept in various ways.
For some examples: nearly every element of our Sr. High mid-week youth program is student led.
When commissioning Alpha leaders, we emphasize that they are the best missionary to lead their peers to Jesus and disciple them at school.
We encourage baptized youth to baptize their friends.
And, of course, we strive to empower our youth to lead their own friends to Jesus.
This giving away authority demonstrates both our trust in the youth, and our trust in the same Spirit who indwells them!
What authority do you have, and how can you give it away to others?