Who is your youth ministry for?
More than anything else, how you answer that question will determine what your youth ministry looks like. In fact, I'd say that no other question is as important. Unfortunately, it's a question that I didn't even know I was supposed to even consider until a few years ago. And maybe it's a question you've not ever really considered, either. But whether you know it or not, you do have an answer to the question.
Who is your youth ministry for? Your answer is revealed by how you shape and lead the youth ministry you serve.
Before we go any further, let me share how I answer the question: My youth ministry is for teenagers who don't yet know Jesus. To many, this may seem oversimplified. But I think there are quite a few youth workers who wouldn't answer the question this way. In fact, it took me a while before I came to a point where I answered it in this manner.
It was our lead pastor that really stirred my thinking about it. One of the things I hear him say on a regular basis is that church isn't for Christians. Church consists of people who follow Jesus, but it exists for people who don't know Jesus. At first, such thinking seems counter intuitive. A church that's not for Christians? How are Christians supposed to learn and grow? However, if you spend just a little time reflecting on the question while reading the New Testament, you'll find that a church that exists for those who are far from God is just the kind of church Jesus—and His followers who spread the news of Jesus' resurrection across the known world—had in mind. And if that's the kind of Church we're supposed to be, then shouldn't that also be the kind of youth ministry we should lead?
However, too many of our youth ministries are designed to engage teenagers who already know Jesus. You may even bristle at what you just read. Some will protest, If we focus so much on the teenagers who aren't in church, won't we lose the kids who we already have? To tell you the truth, I don't completely understand the implications of this idea or exactly how to put it into practice. But I am pretty sure of three things:
1. I'm done leading a youth ministry that exists just for teenagers who already know Jesus. If my whole goal as a youth pastor is just to serve teenagers who already know Jesus and turn them into respectable, law-abiding, church-going citizens, then I am betraying my call as a youth pastor. And on top of that, it's boring. Jesus called his followers not just for their sake, but so that they could be sent on a mission to tell the whole world about the mercy, forgiveness, and life that can be found in him. I want to squeeze every last ounce out of that adventure as I can, and help teenagers do the same.
2. A youth ministry that exists for teenagers who don't know Jesus doesn't ignore church kids; it grows them. Create and lead a youth ministry that exists to serve teenagers who don't know Jesus, and it won't be long before someone complains that there's not enough going on at your church for the teenagers who do follow Jesus. But if you're really leading a youth ministry that exists to see teenagers who are far from God come to know Him, then you'll be inviting the students you already have to be a part of what God is doing in our world by taking risks and loving and serving others in a way that points clearly to Jesus.
3. This isn't a program; it's a movement. Jesus didn't leave a how-to manual about what it means to be a church (or a youth ministry) that exists to love people who are far from him. Sure, we have a few strategies we can use if we look in the New Testament at how the early Church spread. But if two thousand years of church history teaches us anything, it's that there is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to ministry. A program follows a pre-determined set of rules and steps, but a movement follows a leader. Our leader is Jesus.
QUESTION: Do you believe your youth ministry should exist for teenagers who don't know Jesus? If not, why not? If so, how do you do it?