8 Observations From Young Life for Church Leaders

A few weekends ago, I had the honor of joining a bunch of Young Life leaders as they hosted a leadership development weekend. Young Life is an international student ministry with hundreds of local clubs and 31 premium camps. I was privileged to spend time teaching them and seeing their ministry up close. Over the last few years, my kids have become more involved in our local Young Life ministry and I love the impact it’s having on them! The more time I spend with Young Life, the more passionate I am about the amazing work they are doing.

Here are some things that I’ve observed about Young Life, and related questions for leading in the local church:

  • Narrow focus = increased impact. Young Life’s mission is to “introduce adolescents to Jesus Christ and help them grow in their faith.” It’s obvious when you come close to them that they are narrowly focused on reaching this important phase of people’s lives. They have a wide variety of ministries, which are all focused on this one life stage (e.g., WyldLife for middle schoolers, Young Lives for teen moms, Capernaum for special needs teens, etc.). They are experts in reaching students … they don’t reach other demographics, but they aren’t trying to!
    • How can you narrow the focus in your church to increase your impact and effectiveness? Should you try to reach just the people in your immediate neighborhood? Maybe you have a special ability to reach a certain demographic. By picking a focus, you may be saying “no” to reaching someone, but you are making your ministry more effective at reaching someone else!
  • Location matters. Young Life facilities are legendary. Early in my ministry career, I worked for a Christian camp and we’d hear rumors of how amazing their facilities are. All the rumors are true. Their facilities are like resorts perfectly designed for students. They’ve rallied donors to purchase amazing facilities, and then made them better by improving them and maintaining them year after year. Getting kids into these facilities provides a perfect platform to talk about God because they are in the midst of creation and seeing it all through the frame of beautiful facilities.
    • Your environment matters. I know you have an eternal message that isn’t held down by physical works, but people make a lot of judgments about what they think of your message based on your buildings. I wish that wasn’t true, but it is. Are you investing time, effort and energy to make the physical locations you meet in as excellent as you can make them?
  • It’s all about small groups. Young Life is firmly committed to being a relational ministry. (More on this later …) They see small groups of teens gathering around an adult leader as the vehicle that God wants to use to make an impact in students’ lives. Their camps reflect this strategy everywhere you look. The cabins are designed to fit about the number of people in a small group. They have “waiters” who serve the meals in the dining hall so the leaders can stay with their groups and not worry about getting extra ketchup for someone. Even the activities at the camps are designed to be done by small groups rather than individuals … three zip lines going into the water rather than just one, frisbee golf to provide lots of walking around time with leaders, clusters of beach chairs on the sand, mountain bike trails with pit stops for conversations and park benches everywhere!
    • We say spiritual growth happens best in small groups, but how does the design of our ministry actually reinforce that? How could our locations reflect groups journeying together rather than individuals coming to a show?
  • Fun is work. If you haven’t been to a Young Life “Club,” you are missing out. Funny skits, fun music and a message that connects are all woven together to make an impact. I was struck by how one of the leaders was talking about training other “Club” leaders. What he was training them in was how to be wacky in front of kids and get laughs. They were working on perfecting the shtick so it sticks with students. Fun is a strategically important tool for communicating with people of any age!
    • Being “funny” doesn’t just happen … it takes work. How are you working fun into your programming and training people to be fun and wacky? The gospel means good news … so church should be fun! Are you practicing that?
  • Slow down … be relational. Young Life is really adults just hanging out with students. They understand that it’s not programming but human relationships that God uses to make an impact. They are relational at the core. They’ve structured their experiences to maximize relational time. “Free time” in their camps is really just an excuse for leaders to hang out with kids. “Cabin time” is a structured discussion time to dig into what God is saying to students. These people love hanging out with students and it shows.
    • Do you like the people you serve? Are you structuring your ministry around people connecting with each other or just with the programming you put on? How can you increase the relational aspects of your ministry?
  • Great swag. Young Life has a well-crafted swag strategy. You don’t need to be around them long to see their logo plastered on everything: t-shirts, hats, water bottles, scarves, jewelry, etc. They push the brand … wear the brand, be the brand! This is an important tool for them. Each one of these items becomes a conversation starter. Each item is a tool for extending their organizational reach.
    • Why do you resist great branding? Are you generating items that people would actually value wearing and using outside of Sunday? Do people wear your t-shirts when you don’t ask them to? Do you?
  • Going where kids are. Young Life is on school campuses around the world. Rather than asking kids to come to them, they work hard to be where students are. They do this in a wide variety of ways … sports programs, volunteer staffing in schools, counseling programs. This mission mindset has them looking for creative ways to find where students are and connect with them there!
    • How are you taking church to the people rather than asking them to come to you? Are you afraid to engage the public in public? How can you get out of your own personal comfort zone and engage the people you want to reach?
  • Lifers. I love lifelong student ministry workers. The retired cop who volunteers in Young Life to help kids get connected to Jesus. The leader who has been going to camp for 40 years with students so they can have the best week of their lives … she might not go parasailing any more, but the students love chatting with her because she’s so young at heart! These are the saints I look forward to talking with in heaven … amazing people. Young Life not only has a phalanx of 20-something leaders who are amazing, they also have this “lifer” generation. It’s a mix I don’t normally see in church-based student ministries.
    • Why do so many of our leaders seem to burn out after only a few years? Are we asking people what their lifelong mission is, and what part do we have in helping them see that happen?  
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Rich Birch
Rich serves as Operations Pastor at Liquid Church in the Manhattan facing suburbs of New Jersey. He blogs at UnSeminary.com and is a sought after speaker and consultant on multisite, pastoral productivity and communications.

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