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Why Ownership May Be the Key to Excellence

In addition to the normal youth group happenings, a typical weekend in our student ministries includes any number of youth pastors popping in for a visit. Sometimes their visit is with several others as part of a planned visit, and sometimes it’s a youth pastor and his wife who are vacationing in Southern California and he managed to persuade her to spend a vacation morning sitting in our youth programs.

And I always find myself “apologizing” up front for what they are about to experience. “We’re so glad you are with us! I’m afraid you are going to be a little disappointed, though. We’re not a well-oilded machine. In fact, there’s not much happening in our group that isn’t happening in yours,” I routinely say. But I’m learning that this isn’t entirely true. There is something happening in our junior high ministry that I have assumed happens all over the place, but I’m learning I’ve been mistaken.

If you had visited our ministry this past weekend, you would have seen a worship band made up entirely of junior highers (with one HS vocalist struggling to keep everybody on key!), three junior highers in our tech room running the cameras and directing the “shots,” two junior highers running our sound board and lights (we probably could have used a little adult intervention on that one), and an eighth-grade girl sharing about the ministry she founded that sells cupcakes to help kids with cancer. And you would have probably happily paid $1 for one of her delicious home-made goodies at the booth she set up in the back of our gymnasium.

What you wouldn’t have seen much of is excellence; at least not in the way it is traditionally defined! The worship team struggled quite a bit, the guys in the tech room were consistently a slide (or two or three) behind at any given moment in the service, my microphone kept popping and getting feedback, and Saturday after church, our cupcake girl shared that she wouldn’t be able to be there on Sunday … and hoped we’d still be willing to sell her cupcakes (which we did, of course).

Our visiting youth pastors are rarely impressed with the level of excellence they witness. I’m surprised, though, at how often they comment on the level of student involvement and ownership happening.

I share this to remind you that as you lead your junior high ministry, you have a decision to make, and how you answer is determined mostly by what you value. Do you want your ministry to be marked by excellence or by ownership? In high school ministry, and certainly in adult ministry, these two values can coexist, but that isn’t really the case in ministry to young teens. Ownership almost always means a lack of excellence, at least as it has been traditionally defined.

But maybe it’s time to redefine “excellence.” Maybe excellence doesn’t mean every note is on key, every cue is hit, every mic is turned up on time, and every announcement is given flawlessly. Maybe Ownership = Excellence.  

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Kurt Johnston has been involved in junior high ministry since 1988 and is currently the junior high pastor at Saddleback Church in Southern California. He's the author of Controlled Chaos: Making Sense of Junior High Ministry and Go Team! He loves providing resources for junior high ministry almost as much as he loves junior highers themselves.