youth ministry 3.0, part 16

youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.

we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.

by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.

so, here’s the sixteenth bit, from chapter 6:

Do less

One of the most important, dangerous, and courageous steps any youth ministry needs to take if they’re going to made the shift from Youth Ministry 2.0 to Youth Ministry 3.0 is to cut programs. But this is where it has to start (well, after much prayer and dreaming and dialogue). There is just no way to move to Youth Ministry 3.0 by adding more programs. This is not the way, and will fail.

Let’s be honest about youth ministry: the demands of teenagers lives, parents needs, planning, preparation, communication, and everything else that comes with the turf is overwhelming. And it is absolutely never, ever done. Never completed. There will always be more teenagers who need you. There will always be more parents who would benefit from time you spend reaching out to them. Your teaching could always be a little better with more prep time. Your pastor and church board would always like more communication (or acquiescence). So, adding more gets you nowhere.

Even if you had the time to add more, doing so is a fool’s errand, a wrong turn into a cul-de-sac of misdirection.

The road forward goes, first, through the valley of doing less. Admittedly, this is counter-intuitive. Doing less feels like shying away from needs, turning away from change. We’ve been encultured to believe that change comes from doing more, more, more. But even Jesus, the Christ, who certainly, as God incarnate, should have been able to do more stuff than you and me, pulled aside for prayer and rest and intimate dialogue, often when the to-do list was at its most substantial and critical.

Strip down your programming so you have space to spend time with teenagers, spend time with God, and consider rebuilding something new and fresh.

Get small

Remember the Steve Martin bit, “Let’s get small”? It was one of the lines that launched him into massive stardom. Of course, Martin was making a “laugh at them while you laugh at me” joke about drug use. But his advice couldn’t be more apropos for us who are trying to embrace Youth Ministry 3.0.

Let me say it plainly: large is part of the value system of Youth Ministry 2.0; small is a cornerstone to Youth Ministry 3.0. Communion necessitates small. Contextualization begs for small. Discernment requires small. Mission is lived out in small.

No, I’m not merely saying every good youth ministry should add a small groups program (though much good has come from the move toward small groups as the primary fabric in many youth ministries). I’m not even sure we should continue using the phrase “small group”. It comes with too much baggage, and instantly brings mental and emotional memories of forced community, programming, and utility .

Smallness is both a value and a practice, though the value has to precede and continue on through the practice. Smallness values community where teenagers can be truly known and know others, rather than being one of the crowd (even if it’s a really fun crowd). Smallness champions clusters of relationships, rather than a carpet-bombing approach. Smallness waits on the still, small voice of God, rather than assuming what God wants to say and broadcasting it through the best sound system money can buy. Smallness prioritizes relationships over numbers, social networks over programs, uniqueness over homogeneity, and listening to God over speaking for God.

13 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 16”

  1. I’m looking forward to the book. Stripping back programs and focusing on relationships is a great place to start. It certainly gives us a chance to love young people better.

    At the end of the day, what Yaconelli said about Xtian colleges needs to hold true for youth groups too: ““What is the deal with Christian colleges, anyway? Shouldn’t they be graduating students who are revolutionary, anti-institutional, anti-cultural extremists? Isn’t anyone else upset that most of our Christian colleges are graduating compliant, materialistic, irrelevant students who don’t have a radical bone in their bodies? Who will push the envelope in the generations to come?”

  2. makes me think of how Jesus says the Kingdom of God works like a tiny mustard seed, or yeast is bread.

    i think the assumption that drives us to want more, funner, louder, bigger, crazier programs is the assumption that we want it more than God. If we take time to really contemplate the idea that God wants people to come to Him more than we do, then we’ll start to head towards youth ministry 3.0. While I think a ton of youth ministers (and pastors too) would agree that “God wants it more than we do.” The way they operate ministries would seem to suggest otherwise.

  3. I agree 100% that the first step to this way is DO LESS.

    It happened that I stubled upon this as we started our new vision in our youth minstry. The past summer we had three larde trips and events, and I even had two interns, but within it all we realized after the summer was over that we had not done YOUTH ministry we had done PROGRAM ministry. Through it, kids lives were not changed (even though the events went great!) and we knew then something needed to change.

    Starting in Jan this year, we announced our new vision of youth ministry and also announced that there would not be any large events for one year.

    The youth acctually did not take it hard at all, in fact once we told them why they were excited. For this next year we are trying to start our new vision of INSIDEOUT which is to love first, always.

    Within this, we want to love our youth first by giving each one of them a mentor from the congregation to meet with them once a week for an hour.

    So this is where we are four months later. We are compiling a list of people from our church who WANT to be mentors. My fiancee and I have started mentoring a few youth already to see what recommendations and suggestion we can make for the mentors in thier training. Finally, everyone adult that interact with youth has much deeper relationships with each other and youth because of the simplicity of our schedule.

    DOING LESS, accomplished so much MORE when it comes to true life changing relationships!

    One other aside, if you are going to try this, make sure that you let your entire staff know what and why you are doing it because I have found that people will go to them to find out why you have “changed everything.” But if they staff can each explain what you are doing you might even have more people step up and want to help with this great thing called youth ministry!!!

  4. I am convinced that “going small” is the way to go. For one reason, as Mark says, it let’s us focus more effectively on relationships and community. We are surrounded by opportunities for relationship, both personal (family, friends, youth groups) and technological (cell phones, facebook, etc). Yet we often struggle with “being community” (How often has your church talked about ways to be more hospitable?). This is not an easy change. Recently we changed our Sr. High ministry focus to home gatherings, where we share a meal, conversation, and hang out together. There has been a good response from the students-they are connecting and getting to know each other better. Growth is happening, even if the attendance is somewhat smaller. There are opportunities to be real with each other, and more willingness in this type of context to do so.

    But in the church we are addicted to programs and numbers. The kind of questions I hear most often by church leaders/members: “Why aren’t the numbers higher?” and “We need more programs for the youth.”

  5. This is so funny because. I have been telling my church this all year. When I put on an event like “80’s bowling” or something BIG. I literally get half (if not less) then the amount of kids that I get on a typical youth night. And not that numbers are the most important, But the one thing I added this year was a whole lot more Texting, Myspacing, Coffee visits, School visits, small group visits. And I have nocticed a booming youth group this year. Kids feed off Authenticity.

  6. It is hard to lead change in a church culture that has accepted programing youth ministry as the norm. This has been the challenge for me as a newer youth pastor coming in after the previous guy was a master of programming. There has to be more time to chill with teenagers in their setting. I am getting the feeling that youth are so busy already, that they are getting burned out with the bigger events, and would like community. they want to be known, and to share their struggles with people who actually care.

  7. There is a lot to be said about going small. Sure, Jesus had the mega-services… where he preached to the masses but his time with his core group of 3 should be underscored as most important. We are convinced more time, more energy and more resources should be invested in our weekend services or our programs while if we invested as much (or more) in our core group we, like Jesus’ core, could turn the world upside down.

  8. Mark,
    I was blog surfing when I came across your site and the title caught my eye. I write about ministry as well and your particular emphasis on contextualization as doing less was intriguing.
    Not only is doing less important, but also doing excellently that which we have planned to do. Contextualization is only good as long as the content is not compromised. Relationships for the sake of relationships is not God’s design. Simplification of Youth Ministry is for the purpose of 1) edifying the saints and 2) building relationships in order to share the gospel. Our methods should change but our message MUST remain the same.

  9. Mark,

    I was reading your blog about “Doing Less”, and I agree. One of the “problems” that arises with some ministries is that by doing less they “do nothing”. Maybe the “doing nothing” comes out of burned out youth pastors? Maybe they feel under staffed? I think that less programs is the way mid-adolescents are leaning, but I do not think they don’t want anything. In my opinion, in the process of “doing less”, we need to “think strategically”. I don’t think we can just throw stuff against the wall to see if it sticks. And I don’t think we can complete remove all programs. Many groups are run by volunteers who are just as busy as the students and families, and need help in building those relationships with kids. So, if done well, there can be benefits to “programming” small groups, mentoring, large group events, etc.

  10. I am in a church that never complains about numbers… that encourages me to “do less” where appropriate… that is open to new ideas… but as I pray about it and try to do “good” youth ministry in this context, it is the “old” stuff that is working…

    I agree that authenticity and relationship trump programs… but for us I think it is more of a both and than an either or… Simply doing less and getting little is not enough… Especially for churches that have naturally big ministries, I think we have to learn to be “little” big churches.

  11. Sometimes having a smaller youth ministry makes me feel like I’m not doing enough. But then I look at the students that are a part of our church and youth ministry and see how integrated they are becoming. It is a cause for celebration. The fact that each student who comes to church/youth functions leaves feeling genuinely loved and cared for by those in our church gives me a great sense of accomplishment. The majority of our students has at least one person from our body who “knows” him or her.

  12. How about this for doing less? I’m in the metro Washington DC area. Very, very busy. 8 years ago we dropped our weekly youth meeting. None. We strengthened our weekly SS class (a lot) and strengthened once-a-month youth ministry events. I don’t miss the weekly grind of producing a program that will be forgotten by the next morning. None of the parents miss the hassle of driving through traffic weekly even though their presence is required at the monthly events. Their own responsibility of being the lead spiritual influencer on their own child as well as the other teens has increased greatly. No one complains. And the youth don’t miss a weekly meeting. Of course, these youth don’t remember anything else but I don’t hear them saying “Can we be like the church across town?” We are not a dying church or small mainline. Has anyone else in a healthy church made such a drastic move?

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