For the past year, every Thursday morning I’ve been hanging out at the largest high school in Arizona and handing out free donuts. Seems simple enough, right? It’s all a small part of doing youth ministry on a high school campus.
Doing youth ministry on a school campus can be quite intimidating. Instead of students coming on to my “turf” (a church building), I am choosing to enter their world, to incarnate myself into the ethos and culture of teenagers. Most of my youth ministry friends wonder how I did it, how I accomplished the miracle of getting on a school campus.
Here’s my big secret:
I emailed all the principals and asked if we could have coffee and talk. One of them said yes.
It was that simple. Maybe it won’t be that way for you. I’m just telling you my story. I’ve learned a ton and been stretched a great deal, and it’s required patience and humility to build connections and relationship.
Here are six practices for doing youth ministry on a high school campus:
Partnership. This is the foundational principle for doing youth ministry on a school campus. There are three ways to build partnerships:
1. Partner with the school. This needs to be a relationship between a church and a school, a two-way connection where both organizations benefit from one another. This is built by real people talking and building relationships with other real people. It’s about pastors and principals having a common vision for guiding the students in the community. A church can provide an army of volunteers for events and basic needs, provide school supplies when school budgets are tight, and be tutors and mentors. Find ways to tangibly meet needs for the school by asking the principals and teachers what they truly need.
2. Partner with other churches. Connect with other churches in your community about loving the schools together. Dream together about what God is doing in your neighborhood and schools. Break down some of the barriers that are far too common–denomination, size, style, etc.–and do more together than you could ever accomplish alone.
3. Partner with para-church youth organizations like Young Life. One of the best ministry friendships and partnerships I’ve built in Arizona is with Will Hopkins, the Mesa Young Life director. He and I sat down for coffee and dreamed together about how we could be good news in the neighborhood. There can be a stigma between churches and para-church movements, like they’re somehow against each other. It’s a stigma that needs to end. Churches and para-church organizations simply need to lock arms together for the sake of the Gospel. Church youth workers: look up your local Young Life or Youth For Christ director and set up a meeting today. Para-church youth workers: grab coffee with the youth pastor from a church in your neighborhood.
Proselytizing. Don’t do it. Don’t hand out Bible tracts, don’t hand out flyers for your outreach event, don’t circle up and pray loudly in a big group, don’t graffiti Bible verses on the walls of the bathrooms. Just…don’t. First, it will likely get you banned from the campus and get some parents and administrators upset with you. Second, it screams, “I have an agenda!” to any student that you meet. I’m not saying to hide the good news about Jesus, nor am I saying that you can never talk about your faith. One of my core values is that the Gospel is everything. I’m just convinced that living out the Gospel and being good news to others is far greater than asking someone if they know they’ll go to heaven when they die or handing them a tract. If a student genuinely asks why you’re hanging around campus or want to know more about your faith, respond with sincerity.
Persistent. Be consistent and faithful. Show up on time and communicate clearly with the proper authorities about what you’ll be doing. I am on campus every Thursday morning from 7:15 until the bell rings at 8:00. I know that if I go to a home football game that I’ll see Will (the Young Life guy) cheering in the stands. This needs to be a long-term commitment to be truly effective. Doing campus ministry for one month or one semester simply isn’t enough to build relational equity.
Promote. Build up and encourage the principals, the teachers, the security guards, the coaches, and any staff you encounter. Speak highly of them to the students. Don’t join students in badmouthing the principal behind his/her back. Promote school events; make the Friday football game part of your church event calendar. This kind of “promote” isn’t for your events at your church; it is about promoting people, speaking words of encouragement and grace. It’s about giving students a high-five and a smile, offering tiny moment of relational connection to brighten their day.
Presence. When God revealed His name in the Old Testament, it was simply “I AM.” Another way to say it would be “I AM PRESENT.” I am presence. I am here. Emmanuel means “God with us.” Being present with people on a school campus requires a faithfulness in showing up. Keep your eyes and ears open while on campus. Be aware of the students around you. Remember their names and faces. Listen well and remember students’ stories.
Prayer. There’s no way for high school campus ministry to be effective apart from prayer. This is more than just praying for a campus every so often. This is a life posture, a continual God-what-are-You-up-to-here? kind of mindset. Pray for the campus. Pray for the students, the teachers, the principals. Pray as you keep your eyes and ears open, awaiting your next conversation with a teenager.
What do you think? How can you begin to be good news to the high school campus near you?