As a youth pastor, I used to think that every new outreach or discipleship initiative would change everything. If I tweaked my activities enough, I just knew my youth group of today would magically change into the youth group of my dreams. What I ended up with were events that morphed on the outside from year to year, but never really changed on the inside. Was it any wonder that they never transformed my youth group?
Take the yearly ski trip, for example. One year, I bought a pre-planned curriculum. But it didn’t strike a chord with the students. The next year, I wrote my own lessons. The results weren’t much better. So I tried new activities. More days. Fewer days. A new group of adult volunteers. Nada. Zip. Zilch. Nothing. Not only were my changes having little effect, fewer students were coming each year. I felt like a failure.
My trial and error approach wasn’t due to a lack of vision, but a lack of skill. I wanted to create and execute an intentional youth ministry plan, but no one had ever taught me how to develop any kind of ministry strategy. After one too many failed initiatives—you know, programs that didn’t revolutionize youth ministry as we know it—I bought the lie that I wasn’t designed for organization or strategy. I decided that as long as students liked me, my youth ministry was successful.
Learn from my mistakes. Before you spend any more time convincing yourself that the gap between your youth group of today and the youth group of your dreams is “close enough,” let me offer you some practical ideas to start actually making your vision a reality.
1. Get organized. I am not talking about starting on time or making sure you have all the right forms. Ask yourself, Does each event in my youth ministry match up to my mission statement? Are you intentional in creating activities that will lead to long-term growth in your student’s lives?
Action step: Have a trusted leader look over your ministry plans and give you feedback on the connection between youth group activities and your mission statement.
2. Build a bridge. Take out a piece of paper. On the left side, write down the characteristics of your current youth group. On the right side, write down the characteristics of your dream youth group. Now that you see the difference, build a bridge of intentional actions that will help you reach the other side.
Action step: Lead a whiteboard session with your ministry leaders. Show them your vision by drawing it on the board. Now ask for their input—how do they see the current youth program, and what would they like to see in the future? Together, brainstorm ways you can build a bridge to that dream youth ministry. Team buy-in is essential if you want your changes to be successful, and by getting your leaders in on the ground level, they’ll be excited about the needed changes every step of the way.
3. Think differently. I used to think that every winter retreat had to revolve around skiing. Then one year, I got fed up. I stopped trying to build the perfect ski trip and decided to take my students caving instead. They wanted to kill me. But participation on the ski trip had been declining for years. I had to use all my built-up good will to get students on board with the caving idea. That winter, 40 feet below the surface, we became the group I dreamed we could be. Instead of skiing by ourselves or in small groups, we worked as a team, helping each other over rocks and through small holes, defeating fears and discovering the best in each other.
I didn’t need a better ski trip. I needed a different trip altogether. Working together through the cave was more rewarding than my best-prepared ski trip ever was.
Action step: Determine what activities you do because you have always done them. Then decide if they are helping you reach your goals. Take the risk and change activities that just aren’t working. Don’t stick with activities just because they’re comfortable; do them because they help your students grow.