Home Youth Leaders Youth Leaders Blogs Back to the Future: Traveling Back Into My Youth Ministry Past

Back to the Future: Traveling Back Into My Youth Ministry Past

The movie Back to the Future is one of my favorites.  Two of my favorite parts of the movie are:

1) When Marty McFly plays Johnny B. Good on the electric guitar


2)  The sweet Back to the Future car aka DeLorean DMC-12

So the other day I was thinking about what if I could travel back in time to my first youth ministry job??  And I continued my thought by asking the questions of:

I wonder what I would do differently in youth ministry in light of what I know now?

What are some of the mistakes I made early on that I could share with other rookie youth pastors?

What have I learned over my youth ministry career that I would und0 and redo?

How cool would it be to travel back to that church youth group and implement everything I have learned?

So I typed out what I wish I could redo if I traveled back to my first youth ministry job:

Develop a relationship with the senior leadership:  I didn’t want anything to do with the senior leadership of the church.  I wanted them to mind their own business and let me do it all on my own.  They didn’t trust me nor did I trust them, which made my first church experience as a professional Christian youth worker pretty painful.  The senior leadership didn’t give a rip about what we were doing in youth ministry, so I didn’t give a rip about what they were doing on Sunday morning.  I would actually make fun of the Sunday morning service and some of the senior leadership.  I wish I would have befriend a few of the elders and senior pastor and just learned their stories, hearts and why they do ministry the way they do.

Abandon my theological arrogance:  The downside of not growing up in church is that I didn’t know any doctrine or Scripture.  So I had to learn fast, so I went to seminary.  I went from zero to 60.  I was able to read koine greek and do exegesis like it was going out of sytle, which made me prideful in my “theological ability”.  I become so obsessed with theology that I started looking for theological fights for fun– especially if you were a Calvinist.  I thought I had it all theologically figured out and I had the bookshelf to prove it.  Somewhere along the line, I realized that debating theology is not productive nor helpful when leading a youth ministry.  I really wish I would have shut my mouth, displayed a theology of humility and not showboated my theological education.  Arguing over minor theological issues is not worth it.

Get youth ministry mentors:  Early on, I decided not surround myself with wise-experienced youth ministry people.  I wanted to be a maverick, which only lead me to dark and lonely places (this was one of the main driving forces why I started blogging–I was so lonely that I needed to connect with other youth workers)   Honestly, not getting a youth ministry mentor is one of my biggest regrets.  I wish I would have got a mentor that I respected who would have whipped me into shape.  This mentor could have saved a lot of my youth ministry trainwrecks.  I thought getting a mentor was not only a big waste of time but a huge hinderance to my youth ministry experimentation because the mentor would teach me how to play it safe.

Involve Parents:  I had so many solid parents at my finger tips that I didn’t use.  I wanted to really utilize my youth ministry staff to do the work of the ministry, which alienated parents.  Essentially I stiffed arm any parents that wanted to help because I was intimated.  Involving parents is so huge because they are not only super reliable but they are the primary spiritual leaders in their students life.  I thought by not including them in the mission of the youth ministry I was doing them a favor by saving them time since they were already so busy.

Find a balance between outreach and discipleship:  When I first started youth ministry, I was soooooo amped to reached the unchurched.  I was bent towards unchurch kids.  I did some crazy events in order to attract unchurch teens who were never step into a church building.  Yes I got some gnarly kids to church, but the youth ministry was not able to assimulate them into the larger church body.  I was just too focused on outreach and I intentionally neglected church kids.  The parents hated me because of my favoritism towards the fringe kids.  Looking back, I wish I would have done more to cater to the Christian kid crowd.

Implement small groups immediately: Getting students into small groups was not a priority.  I thought the real “teaching” happened through the youth group sermons.  Small groups are great because students get another adult to pour into them and they get a positive group of peers that can come alongside them in their walk with Christ.  If I was going to redo something I would build a youth ministry solely on small groups– way more sustainable and healthy.  The best teaching moments happen organically in small group and not from the stage.

Recruit more leaders and expect more out of them:  I hated asking other adults to help.  I thought that I would bother, annoy or overwhelm other adults if I asked them to “help”.  It was my job to do the work of the youth ministry, not others, right?  In fact I set the bar pretty low for the leaders who were serving in youth ministry.  I was very happy if they just showed up.  HOWEVER, I found that when recruiting adults to work with this next generation they do not see it as an annoyance but rather see it is a gift.  Getting an adult to pour into the next generation is a great opportunity and it is perfectly okay to have high expectation of them as they lead and mentor students in their faith with Jesus.  I was just scared to ask when I started out in youth ministry.  I was under the assumption that no one else really “enjoyed” working with teens.  Now I will ask any adult if they want to join the incredible opportunity to work with the next generation.

Develop a 12 month teaching plan:  I ain’t going to lie to kick it—-I prepared my youth group talks the day of youth group.  I didn’t have a plan for what was being taught in youth group.  I had one leader sit me down saying that my youth group talks were not only very disorganized  but never made sense.  I really wish I had a plan or just a strategy on what and when I was teaching my students.  I simply just relied on my “funny” stories and for the Spirit to lead me.  And we as youth workers only really have about 3-5 talks in us and anything after that becomes repetitive.  This fly by the seat of your pants method does not work in the educational system nor does it work in youth ministry.

Delay seminary:  If I was going to redo my youth ministry career all over again, I would go to seminary towards the middle of my ministry career and not in the beginning.  I went to seminary when I was 21.  I basically went from the frat house to seminary– probably not the best idea– I was way young and still really immature.  I should have saved money to pay for seminary.  Instead I am still paying my seminary loans off.  Also I am still processing many of my seminary notes and lectures.  At the time I was so concern to finish my MDIV fast that I never really took the time to internalize the theological education and content.  Still to this day I frequently go back to my seminary notes.   Seminary is intense and you have to be pretty mature to make it through the rigorous academics, especially if your bent is more towards ministry practitioner.


–  I got multiple diverse church experiences that taught me ministry is tough, complex and you will need help.

–  I married a rockstar who had no problem correcting my flawed thinking and behaviors which helped me become a youth pastor.

–  I had opportunities to talk to theological sages who taught me about what really matters– Love God and People.

–  I found some really great youth ministry friends that challenged my ideology

–  I realized more and more that God is always working on my heart and that He is sovereign.


So if I placed you into the car time machine; and you were able to re-do your first youth ministry job, what would you do differently?  

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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.