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I always feel kind of uptight and tense when I visit high schools. This time is certainly no exception. I arrive just as the bell rings. Perfect. The students will be pouring out of the classrooms and spending some time in the halls. I can say hi to many of “my kids.”

As I begin my rounds I see a couple of kids from my youth group quickly duck their heads and walk away. The next one tries to avoid eye contact at all cost. I round the corner and find a big group of students I know. They happily welcome me, giving high fives and even a few hugs. This is better. Then the bell rings, and it’s all over.

As I get ready to leave, I ask myself, Why do I even come? Am I really doing any good here? Is this a good use of my time? What did I really accomplish anyway?

I’m only a few steps from the door when I hear someone call my name. It’s the principal. “Aren’t you _____’s youth pastor? Please come to my office.” There I hear about two students who’ve gotten into a fight. Both are from my group. I talk with them, not really knowing what to say or do.  Finally I leave the school, feeling that my time has been wasted. Why do I keep coming to this place? Couldn’t I be doing something more worthwhile with my life?

Two months later I sit with some parents of our youth group kids. As we converse one of them says, “I’m so thankful for you, Bob. A while back when my son had a fight at school, you were there for him. You stuck with him. You helped him work it all through. Thanks.” Three days later I get an e-mail from the parents of the other boy. It says the same thing. My questions are answered.

I believe one of the most essential elements in effective youth ministry today is authentic relationships. Chap Clark, associate professor of Youth, Family, and Culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, would agree. “The vast majority of young people are looking for that one adult who will care for them without a performance agenda,” he says. “[For] adults who are willing to sit on the steps of kids’ world and truly listen. Adults who first seek to understand the pain of growing up in a wild, fragmented world before they try to sell the moralistic obligations of the faith system. Adults who prove themselves to kids by being there for the long-haul for individual kids” (“How Kids Are Changing and What It Means for Youth Workers— An Interview with Chap Clark,”

Yet establishing those kinds of relationships is tough and somewhat enigmatic. No doubt I’ll encounter more seemingly wasted days. Approaches and activities that reach some kids may do nothing for others. Is there any way churches can successfully connect with today’s youths? we sometimes wonder.

Yes. I’ve found that there are indeed some essential features of effective church youth ministry. And, equally important, that churches can make certain mistakes or hold certain misconceptions that hinder such ministry.

Four Mistakes Churches Make

Let’s start with misconceptions and mistakes:

1. Not realizing whose job it is. Many congregations make the huge mistake of hiring someone—or finding volunteers by “twisting their arms”—to “do” youth ministry.  I’ve heard it over and over again: “That’s why we hired you.” Or, “I’m sure glad we finally found someone to lead youth group.” Rather, youth ministry is the job of the entire congregation.

A hired youth pastor or volunteer youth leaders certainly must take leadership in youth ministry, but one of the primary duties of the job description should be to enable, equip, and empower members of the congregation for youth ministry. Youth leaders must find ways to keep youth ministry in front of the congregation.

When children get baptized the congregation is asked  this question: “Do you, the people of the Lord, promise to receive these children in love, pray for them, help instruct them in the faith, and encourage and sustain them in the fellowship of believers?” When we answer, “We do, God helping us,” we commit ourselves to youth ministry.

2. Unrealistic expectations. Many churches set unrealistic expectations for youth ministry. They say things like “All young people will make profession of faith before they graduate from high school.” Or, “Eighty percent of our youths will stay at or return to our church after college.” Or, “A successful youth ministry will keep our youths excited about our church.”

How can you succeed with expectations like those? Do these churches have the same type of expectations for the adults?

Many churches place too much emphasis on numbers, rather than on commitment. They would rather have 27 kids in youth group than seven kids firmly committed to the church and the Lord.

3. Underfunding. Another mistake churches make when it comes to youth ministry is  underfunding it. Youth ministry, like every other ministry, requires money. Don’t shortchange it any more than you would shortchange any other ministry. It takes money as well as people to carry on an effective ministry.

4. Failing to think long-term. Finally, many churches simply look for warm bodies and activities to keep the kids busy. They’re not thinking long-term. Churches need youth pastors and leaders who will be around awhile. Relationships don’t form overnight. When a church gets a new youth pastor or new youth leaders every year, or even more often, it hurts youth ministry as much as it helps it.  We need to remember that we’re talking about youth ministry, not simply youth activities and youth programming (canoe trips, all-nighters, beach days, car washes).

It doesn’t matter if a church is rural, urban, or suburban, whether it’s rich or poor, large or small, has multiple staff or volunteer leaders, contemporary or formal worship.  Each congregation must ask the same questions: What is effective church youth ministry?
And what foundational building blocks do we need to have in place to keep it going?

Four Essential Features

So what does an effective youth ministry look like?

I believe the ultimate goal of any youth ministry is to challenge young people to know Jesus Christ, become his disciples, and serve him daily in all aspects of their lives. In other words, a church should focus on a youth ministry that makes and nurtures disciples of Jesus Christ.

I’ve observed specific features of effective youth ministries that enable churches to do just that. Here’s what I’ve found:

1. An effective youth ministry is one that the entire congregation is aware of and involved in. If you ask any member of the congregation, he or she would be able to tell you what the church’s youth ministry is all about and a way in which  
he or she touches the lives of the church’s young people.

What can churches do to support and encourage an effective youth ministry? Ask members to become individual prayer partners for each young person.  Have members sponsor individual youths for a year, paying for their activities and thus eliminating fund-raisers. Make sure to plan intergenerational activities in which young people and senior citizens work side by side. Remind adults that they are the models the teens need to imitate. Promote mentoring. Match adults and students around interests such as cars, cooking, sports, and more. Challenge all adults to know the names of at least 10 young people in their church.

An effective youth ministry fosters authentic relationships. Success in youth ministry has more to do with who you are than what you do. Young people need adults who care about them, who are there simply to listen and not lecture, who accept them no matter what color their hair is or how many body piercings they have. They need people who are there for the long haul, not simply for a church year. They need adults who try to understand the difficult world they are growing up in, who model what it means to be a Christian living in today’s culture.

2. Effective youth ministries focus on what’s serious. By that I don’t mean that youth group shouldn’t be fun. I mean that the majority of activities need to be “serious” rather than “fun.” I mean that activities cannot be only fun. Canoe trips, outings to the amusement park, and a day at the beach are OK, but they should be a small part of the activities, not the main part.

Youth ministry should include Bible studies, prayer groups, worship opportunities, service days, and mission trips. If a group includes more than 10 students, leaders should provide them with small-group opportunities.

So what topics should you cover in discussions? Anything relevant to young people. But don’t talk only about sex and alcohol and drugs. Talk about relationships, getting along with parents, making a difference in their little corner of the world, and living as a Christian. Study the Bible. There are plenty of good resources available.

3. Effective youth ministries seek the right type of youth leaders. What does an ideal youth pastor or youth leader look like? First, let me say that age is NOT the most important thing. The most important requirement for youth pastors and leaders is that they have a passionate relationship with Jesus Christ. If a leader doesn’t have this, how can you expect him or her to encourage young people toward a closer walk with God? Second, a leader must genuinely love young people. The leader must accept them for who they are, not for who the leader wishes them to be. You can’t enter youth ministry with the idea of selling to young people all the moralistic obligations of the faith system. A youth leader must be willing to learn about young people today, their culture, and what works when it comes to cultivating relationships with them and encouraging them in faith.

4. Effective youth ministries receive hearty support from parents and other church members. Churches and parents support youth ministry by supporting the leaders, the youths themselves, and the stated goals of the ministry. They encourage young people to participate and make sure kids pay attention to deadlines and get to youth group or related events on time. They are not quick to criticize. They help out by providing food for meetings or transportation to outings. They send notes of encouragement to the leaders.

Ask your youth leaders what you can do to help. Don’t expect them to do it all—they are there to assist you. Let them know you appreciate what they do. Perhaps most important, set a positive example for the young people.  Participate in church activities yourself. Let them see from you what you expect from them.

How Do You Measure Success?

How can churches know whether they are succeeding when it comes to youth ministry?

First, you must establish realistic goals. Next, simply ask the young people. What do they think? Most of the time young people vote with their feet. Do they come to the meetings? Do they stay in your church if they stay in your city? Do they give evidence of spiritual growth? Can they articulate their faith? Do they make profession of faith? Are they involved in service opportunities? If young people are becoming committed disciples of Jesus Christ, the church’s youth ministry is a success.

So what’s the bottom line for churches and for youth ministry? Relationships and acceptance. If our young people see adults who care about them—not about making themselves feel good—if they see and interact with adults who are passionate about their faith, they might start understanding that God loves them, God cares for them, and that faith in God truly means something. That’s effective youth ministry.

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