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How to Grow a Youth Ministry

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While talking to youth pastors, I’m always curious to hear their thoughts about how to grow a youth ministry. Over the years, I’ve tried to analyze developmental patterns and search for common threads to see why some youth ministries grow and others don’t. I’ve always been curious about how to grow a youth ministry, and I’ve concluded that you need to take a behind-the-scenes look at why some programs seem to gain huge momentum.

So how do I measure youth ministry growth? Three words: Function. Multiplication. Health.

Here are 11 ways to grow your youth group:

1. Don’t copy another successful youth ministry.

It’s okay to learn from other youth leaders, but copying them really hijacks your creativity and prevents you from developing a program that aligns with your church culture and community. It’s imperative for youth pastors to program according to their own surroundings, culture, and circumstances. Borrowing ministry practices or ideas is fine, but completely copying a cool-hip youth ministry isn’t right and doesn’t work.

2. Don’t try to do it all.

In The Orange Leader Handbook, Reggie Joiner shares that you might need to write a stop-doing list. Construct a list of activities to cut out of your programming that will allow you to be more effective with your strategy. For example, I know of a church that canceled midweek programming because students wanted to serve locally during the week. So now the church runs a homeless ministry. Joiner also highlights the idea that your job as a leader is to wrestle your ministry toward simplicity, not toward complexity. It’s better to do a few things well instead of too many things with mediocrity. Select two or three things your youth ministry does really well, and do only those. Adding more programming doesn’t necessitate growth.

3. Recruit the right adults. 

Assembling the right youth ministry team is paramount. Make sure to recruit people who will energize you. In Good to Great, Jim Collins says organizations should focus on the quality of team members before worrying about growth. His premise: Get the right people on the bus, the wrong people off the bus, and the right people in the right seats – then figure out where to drive it.

4. Mix up the types of events you offer.

I’ve seen youth ministries do the same events for years. One catalyst for stimulating growth is constant change of event scheduling. You have to mix it up. This doesn’t necessarily mean you need to change your ministry strategy all the time, but you might want to change the events that demonstrate the strategy. Youth pastors must continuously explore new opportunities that will help connect students with Jesus. Sure, going to camp every summer can be a great opportunity for students to deepen their relationships with Christ…but if that’s followed by the same exact event happening every August, the same movie being shown every September, the ever-popular bowling night each October, family fun nights every Friday in November each year…well, you get the idea.

5. Value parent feedback.

Parents should have a voice in your youth ministry. It isn’t wise to blow off parent feedback. Ultimately, parents entrust the spiritual shepherding of their children to you, so pay close attention to what parents are saying about you and the ministry. A few negative parents can kill the momentum of your youth ministry in a matter of months. This doesn’t mean you should do whatever parents want and tell you to do. Your ministry should, however, reveal a partnership with parents if the students themselves are going to grow into a mature relationship with Christ. You see students for a few hours each week. The work you do with students and the changes in their lives will either be strengthened or crushed by what happens at home.

6. Create strategic and intentional evangelism.

I think we’ve forgotten how to evangelize. Look at the book of Acts: Evangelism is the central focus. When people get saved, not only do the numbers increase but so does the excitement for what God is doing. People involved in leading others to Christ are strengthened and empowered. So let’s make sure youth ministries are out there bringing the Kingdom of God. Greg Stier argues in chapter 10 of the GreenHouse Project that youth ministries need to make evangelism their #1 priority. He also argues that many need to revamp their methods for evangelizing. To make evangelism a priority, you must be doing it relentlessly and consistently in your ministry. Strong evangelism efforts will definitely 1) get students focused on how to love others outside their youth group bubble, and 2) grow your youth group.

7. Maximize fundraising.

Money makes everything happen, but fundraising is hard!! A lot of youth pastors tell me they just don’t have any (or nearly enough) money in their budgets. Despite this unfortunate reality, it’s up to each youth worker to fund the vision and mission of their youth ministry. Don’t shy away from or be ashamed of fundraising. Get creative in how you raise money. One of the easiest ways is to get the message out to people about why you need money. The older generation loves to financially contribute to building the next generation. You need to discern who are the right people who have money and want to financially invest in teenagers’ lives. Be compelling by describing how you’ll use their precious coin. Then always do something special for the individuals who contribute money to your youth ministry. Throw them a party or a dinner…just do something!

8. Set goals.

Goals give you the ability to create your youth ministry future in advance. They can make your program grow, expand, develop, and possibly transform. Compelling goals contain two key components: identifying your youth ministry goals and identifying your youth group mission. What do you want in your youth ministry? Something magical happens when you take generalized impulses and start defining them more precisely. Why does your youth group need it? What will it give your youth group? Reasons come first; answers come second. When you get a big enough reason to accomplish something, you can figure out how to do it. Plus, we work for God, and he can make anything possible! Areas for goal-setting include programming attendance, outreach events, retreats/camps, student spiritual maturity, mission trips, family ministry, service events/student involvement, and leadership development.

9. Don’t overload on information.

Pick a ministry strategy and philosophy that work and stick with that. Trust me; there are thousands upon thousands of theories that describe how youth ministry “should” be done. It’s easy to read all the latest books, attend all the conferences, and feel overwhelmed. You’ll find yourself stuck as you try to decide what strategy will best work in your youth ministry context. Feel free to experiment with different strategies, but don’t feel like you have to implement everything you come across. Use what works for you; get rid of the rest.

10. Don’t forget about the children’s ministry.

Youth and children’s ministries need to be in alignment. Youth pastors forget that the kids in the children’s ministry will eventually play a vibrant role in their youth ministry one day. This is why it’s wise to support the children’s ministry. It’s an investment for the future. If the youth pastor knows what the kids have been taught and that their parents realize they’re the primary spiritual leaders, the transition from children’s ministry to youth ministry will be so much easier. If a youth ministry can retain and transition all the kids coming from the children’s ministry, then this will be instant growth.

11. Celebrate what God has already done.

It’s too easy to lose focus on what God is doing in our youth ministry because we’re powering through programming—moving from event to event. Failing to remember and celebrate what God has already done is a momentum-killer. Celebrating the victories helps generate a momentum where everyone is excited about what God is doing and realizes he is, in fact, moving! Before you give each talk at youth group, invite students to share testimonies. Ask students to share about what God is doing. Share with the rest of the youth group what God did through a few students last weekend at the homeless shelter, etc. The important thing to remember is to stop and give praise for what God is already doing. We always need reminders of what God has done for us; that’s why he gave us communion, baptism, the resurrection, the birth of Jesus, the Bible, the Church, and his people.

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Jeremy Zach easily gets dissatisfied with status quo. He reeks with passion and boredom is not in his vocabulary. He becomes wide awake when connecting with student pastors, thinking and writing about student ministry, experimenting with online technology, and working out. He is married to Mikaela and has two calico cats, Stella and Laguna. He lives in Alpharetta, Georgia and is a XP3 Orange Specialist for Orange—a division of the REthink Group. Zach holds a Communication degree from the University of Minnesota- Twin Cities and Masters of Divinity from Fuller Theological Seminary.