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Youth Ministry and the Local Church

A cord of three strands is not easily broken. One of the strands that makes youth ministry strong has to do with the church. By church, I refer in this article specifically to the local church—the group of believers that meet in a particular geographic location which the youth ministry springs from. Here’s what I want to emphasize: strengthening the youth ministry’s relationship with the local church makes it almost unbreakable.

But trying to describe what that relationship is exactly, is tricky because there is no one-size-fits-all description. Youth ministries and the churches they belong to differ from location to location and come in all sizes and shapes. Still, here are some ways I see, of what that relationship between youth ministry and the church should ideally be:

1.         The youth ministry should be INCLUSIVE of the church, not EXCLUSIVE from the church.

I recall my being a student of the GYMN Level 2 training when I and fellow youth leaders were going over the plans and programs for the youth ministry in the year ahead.  As we discussed, we talked a long time over a particular issue we couldn’t find a solution to. Our trainer came over and as we continued to talk about it, he suggested that perhaps it was a problem that wasn’t really in our jurisdiction. And he was right.

It may be because most youth leaders are young, but oftentimes the road map we envision for the youth who enter our ministry does not include the church as a whole. Meaning, our plans often intend for youth to be involved at all times (when they get to our building) in youth programs and if they learn anything about the church it is often incidental or accidental. But I have found it to be a much richer experience if young people get to know and participate not just in the youth group but also in the church from where it springs.

2.         The youth ministry is UNDER the church’s authority, not of EQUAL authority to the church.

In setting direction, it is best to follow church leadership. Here’s where having a purpose statement can come in handy. If there’s a clear picture of where the church is headed and what the priorities are for the year ahead, you can check your purpose statement to see if this is where the youth ministry is going as well. And if it’s not going in the same direction, then time can be spent discussing with both church and youth leadership on how the youth ministry can unite its goals with the church’s goals.

That may seem a waste of time, especially for those who have already planned out their goals for the year ahead, but taking this additional step will minimize conflict, frustration and wasted effort.

In fact, one potential area of frustration for youth leaders is their relationship with those in authority over them within the church. But when we turn from authority to lift up ourselves, history and the many experiences of people I know point out that no good comes from doing so. Indeed having this authority over you is beneficial. One reason is that through it we can demonstrate obedience and humility to our youth. Authority structures also differ from church to church so a proper understanding of these structures is important. (This paragraph is based on a past YC article on authority, “Working For My Pastor and Church Leadership?”)

3.         We should see our youth ministry as but a PART, with the local church as the WHOLE.

If the local church was a flower, then a youth ministry could be one of the petals–giving beauty to but not a crucial part of it. Or if the local church was a chair, a youth ministry could be a leg of that chair—taking it away would make the chair lose its function. I’m not sure what your ministry is more like but surely the church would be less than it is without your ministry. Still we shouldn’t act as though we were the only ministry.

Youth workers often voice out how little attention, time or budget is given to youth ministry, but for all these, one of the reasons we youth workers do what we do is to build up the local church. We may be passionate about our role but let’s appreciate that we are not the only ministry of the church. There may be other ministries of the church as vital as ours. What is important is that we all serve the same purpose in Christ Jesus.

Now, if you agree with all these or if these put the relationship of the youth ministry with the local church in a new light for you, the practical question is: how can we strengthen the relationship with our church? Here are some suggestions:

1. Know more about your local church. Learn the history of how the church started and get interested in the people who make up your church. Knowing more will make you more connected and increase your love for the church. Also read more about the local church. Much can be found in Biblical passages (like Ephesians 4:1-16, 5:25-32, 1 Corinthians 12:27-14:12), books (try “Stop Dating The Church” by Joshua Harris) and blogs (Jeff Lacine has a great series on the local church starting with this one).

2. Establish relationships with those who build up the church and not just with those involved in the youth group. I love the dedication youth workers give to their young people but there are few who intentionally build relationship with other adults within the church. Establishing a friendship with just one person outside the realm of youth ministry will be of great benefit not only to you but also to the youth under your care as well.

3. See where the church is going: what is the vision being cast by the senior pastor or church leaders? Know what the emphasis is for the year ahead, and get in line with that. Integrate your annual youth plan with the church’s annual plan. This way, resources can be pooled together and the activities of the church also complement the youth activities.

4. Look for ways that youth activities can be merged with adult activities. Too often youth ministry goes it’s own way and the rest of the church does its own thing, but how much more are people built up spiritually, how much more do we become a testimony when we work together on things. There can certainly be events that are specifically focused particularly for young people but there are also programs that are more meaningful if they are not just involving the young people.

There is more to be said about the local church but my intent is to get you to appreciate it more and not neglect it. Make your church a partner of your ministry to young people. And I hope that even as you come to know deeper this unique creation of Christ, you come to know Christ deeper still.

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