While I have a ton to learn still, my vantage point has allowed me to observe over the years what works and what doesn’t in youth ministry.
A while ago I was asked to put together a list of what makes successful youth ministries successful. As I began to think about the list, I realized that succesful youth ministries share many of the same foundational practices. But because youth ministry is done in so many different contexts, there are also a ton of variables. While there are certain universal theological principles that all solid youth ministries put into practice, the methodology that works for one youth ministry may not work for another. And so, as I was thinking about this, I found myself almost immediately coming up with a list of the opposite: things that, no matter the context, almost always doom youth ministries.
I'm no Debby Downer, but this list practically wrote itself. Over the years, I've observed a list of traits that contributed to un-successful youth ministries. Let's call these Fatal Flaws. I've identified five of them, and I want to share them with you to see what you think. I’m curious what you would add.
Fatal Flaw #1: Agenda Is Greater Than Relationship
I’m convinced that the relationships we make with students have to be seen as more than the vehicle for accomplishing our agenda. I believe that the Christ-centered, mentoring relationships we make with students are extremely important. Not as important as the knowledge of God they gain through our ministries, but really, really important. Why? Students won’t fully develop spiritually on our watch. The spiritual knowledge we impart to them will be built on, reshaped, re-envisioned, and rebuilt on again. But the relationships we have the chance to build with students truly can have a lifetime of impact on them. In my experience, ministries where "no strings attached relationships" aren’t valued don’t have long term impact.
Fatal Flaw #2: No Strategy For Engaging With Parents
I won’t belabor this point too much, but will simply add that successful youth ministries have a strategy for engaging with parents. They communicate with parents. They encourage parents. They support parents as the opportunity presents itself. Youth ministries that do a poor job engaging parents, or don’t do it at all, seldom have the kind of impact of ministries that have a strategy for engaging parents.
Fatal Flaw #3: Personality-centered Instead Of Gospel-centered
I don’t think most youth ministers who find themselves in this position do it on purpose, but the truth is still the truth: If your youth ministry is “you-centered,” or centered on the personalities of your volunteers or team, you’ve built your ministry on a crumbling foundation. And when any sort of trial or transition happens, the foundation crumbles.
A Christ-centered, Gospel-driven ministry has the foundation it needs to last long after you or your key personalities have gone. Which should be our goal.
Fatal Flaw #4: Your Bible App Needs Updating
We can’t be effective youth ministers if we’re not personally committed to growth in our own spiritual life. This seems basic, yet as I have meaningful conversations with hundreds of youth workers a year, this is one of the biggest struggles I encounter.
If you're not growing independent of your vocation, you won’t make it. And your ministry will suffer as a result. It’s that simple.
Fatal Flaw #5: Forgetting What You Do And Why You Do It
It’s easy to forget what it is we do. It’s easy to forget that we’re not glorified event planners for 12-18 year-olds in your congregation, just a camp counselor or a travel agent. The most successful youth ministers remember this about their ministries: God has work He needs to get done and He turns to us to do it. God has called us to be one of the people who lead His children to know Him better. The teenagers we minister to are so precious to God. Remembering how awesome it is that God has tapped us to have a hand in helping shape their faith is key to staying the course and being successful in our ministry efforts.
So, what do you think? Where did I go wrong? What did I leave off?
In the end, we all want to be as effective as possible in ministering to our students. I think if we can avoid these flaws, we’re most of the way there.