Healthy Youth Ministry:
Building Blocks To Long-term Success
By Kevin Berry
Have you ever done something that you looked back on and thought, What in the world was I thinking? I have had my share of those moments. One in particular involved my daughter Sarah who, at that time, was about 9 years old. She had a loose tooth that was hanging on by a thread of skin. She would push it around with her tongue, make it stick out of her mouth, and have a blast creeping people out with it. Eventually it began to bother her and she asked me to pull it. I told her, “No problem. Dad will take care of it, and she would not feel a thing.”
I tied a piece of string around her dangling tooth and tied the other end around a door handle. Most everyone has seen this done, and I figured it had to work. After all, her tooth was holding on by only a tiny thread of skin. So I positioned Sarah just right, and reassured her again that she would not feel a thing because as soon as I slammed the door her tooth would pop out, and it would all be over. When I slammed the door shut, Sarah was jerked toward the door and screamed at the top of her lungs. The tooth did not come out. I felt awful. Now she was hurting worse.
After many tears, and many apologies from me, she let me try again. I dried off her tooth and gripped it firmly with my fingers. I pulled as hard and fast as I could. Her head jerked down. Her shrieks and screams sounded like they were from another world. The tooth still would not come out. Believe it or not, she let me try again, and I still could not get her tooth out. Eventually we took her to the dentist, and he took care of it the right way. Fortunately for me, I have a loving and forgiving daughter.
There is a right way and a wrong way to pull a tooth. I was doing it the wrong way. I have also learned there is a right and wrong way to build a healthy youth ministry.
Jesus told about two men who each built a house. One built his house on a solid rock, the other on sand. One did it the right way and reaped the rewards. The other did it the wrong way, and his house collapsed.
Would you like to build a healthy youth ministry that will last? Would you like to reap the rewards that come from having long-term success in youth ministry?
Along the journey in youth ministry I have made my share of blunders. I have also learned some secrets to successful youth ministry, some building blocks that lead to a ministry filled with excitement, adventure, and continued growth. What follows in this article are a few powerful building blocks that can keep youth pastors in the race, and give them the ministry success their hearts long for.
Building Block Number One: Be In A Constant State Of Improvement
The fact you are taking time to read this article means you probably understand the importance of continuous improvement and are heading toward success in your ministry. Someone said that less than 10 percent of pastors in America pursue ongoing training. Some never experience long-term success because they stop developing the key areas of their life and ministry.
Imagine someone who continues to play golf even though he never gets any better. I took up bowhunting a few years ago, but I did not take time to practice and improve. The result: frustration. I shot at deer and missed time and time again. I finally could not handle the deer laughing at me anymore. I knew I was never going to take time to get better, so I sold the bow.
Lack of improvement is enough to make anyone feel like throwing in the towel. When youth pastors throw in the towel, they miss out on the excitement and adventure of long-term success in ministry.
Years ago Newsweek ran an article on the Olympics. This article said there was only one difference between the person who took the gold medal and those who took silver and bronze — attitude. Attitude is what largely determines if a person will have long-term success or not. Attitude says, I must get better. I must make personal development a top priority.
What are you currently doing to improve your ministry? What books are you reading? With whom are you associating? Will they speak into your life and make you a better youth pastor?
Consider making your car a university. Youth pastors can receive helpful input from incredible leaders around the nation through their CD players. Empty heads cannot fill empty hearts.
Seth Godin in his book, Purple Cow, said, “You’re either remarkable or invisible. Make your choice.”1 In today’s world, it is not enough to have a good youth ministry or to be a good youth pastor. Youth pastors must be remarkable. Youth ministries must be remarkable, breathtaking, and filled with excellence. Youth leaders and ministries that strive to become remarkable are constantly improving and attaining long-term success. Youth ministries that do not improve blend in and become invisible to the students in their communities.
- Set aside time each week to prioritize your personal relationship with Jesus. We reproduce what we are, not what we know. Most youth pastors know they need to spend time with God. Yet, R.A. Torrey said the average church leader spends only 4 minutes a day in prayer and devotion. What a scary thought, especially when one considers that real ministry is an overflow of one’s personal relationship with Jesus. How sad that some pastors stop improving because they neglect their relationship with God. They risk being a professional in the ministry, yet a novice in knowing Jesus.
- Learn from those who are successful. Two things determine where a youth pastor is today and where he will be in the future: the people he associates with, and the books he reads. Two great audio resources I listen to every month that sharpen me as a youth pastor are “The Source” and “Up Close” by Jeanne Mayo. For more information on these resources check out http://www.youthsource.com.
- Sharpen your leadership skills. What are you doing to improve as a leader in your home and in the body of Christ? Evaluate your people skills and make improvements. Become a great listener, praise people for doing good, and practice affirmation.2 Studies at the Dale Carnegie Institute of Technology reveal that 15 percent of a person’s financial success is due to his skill or ability and 85 percent is due to his personality and ability to deal well with people.
Building Block Number Two: Consistently Love Students
It is easy to impress people from a distance, but youth pastors can only impact people who are close to them. The closer the relationship the greater potential for impact.
I love huge events where the church is filled with young people. A big event done right will attract students. However, consistent love will keep a student.3 An article in Group magazine reveals the results of their “Cool Church” survey. Ten thousand students were asked to rate the factors that influence their commitment to church. The largest influence was a warm, friendly atmosphere where they could be themselves. Last was a fast-paced, high-tech, entertaining ministry approach. This confirms what youth pastors already know: Teenagers want to be loved. When youth pastors love teens consistently, youth ministries will grow.
Students will attend your youth ministry if it has an atmosphere of love and grace. The first funeral I officiated was for a 15-year-old girl who had been shot execution style. The bullet hole was still visible on the side of her head as she lay in the casket. She had run away to Detroit to start a new life with her 29-year-old boyfriend. She became caught in the middle of a drug deal gone bad. This young lady’s life could have turned out differently if she had been exposed to a loving youth leader or student from our ministry.
One danger of being in ministry long-term is getting involved in other stuff — speaking engagements, big events, endless meetings, activities, e-mails, and planning for the future. These activities are good, and some are necessary, but none of them bring long-term success like hanging out with students and leaders, loving them, and strategically reproducing your life in them.
- Plan to take a student out for a soda or cappuccino this week and talk about life.
- Determine to find the good in people. Anyone can find the bad in others, but champions learn to find the good in people. Benjamin Franklin said, “Speak ill of no man, but speak the good you know of everybody.”
- Send your leaders an e-mail or note expressing how much you love and appreciate them.
Building Block Number Three: Have A Laser-Beam Focus On Your Vision
Andy Stanley said, “Everybody ends up somewhere in life. A few end up somewhere on purpose. Those are the ones with vision.”4 Have a dream that is bigger than you, one worth getting behind that breeds excitement in the church. No one likes to drive behind someone who does not have a clue where he is going. But people will line up behind a person who has a vision from the Lord.
Those who have a vision and learn to stay focused on it will have incredible success in ministry. They will see their dreams become reality.
Dave Williams, my pastor and mentor for more than 20 years, has blessed my life through his incredible example of vision. He has often said, “You can rise only to the level of your vision.” His relentless focus and determination to see his vision become reality has both challenged and inspired me over the years.
I do not know anyone who will do anything of significance for the Kingdom who does not have a vision bigger than himself. I remember a youth pastor who came to visit me. He wanted a tour of our facilities. While we were talking, he asked, “How many students do you have in attendance?” I told him, and he said he could never imagine having more than 30 students. I thought, You will never need to worry about having more than 30 students because 30 is all you can see. God has wired people to think in terms of pictures or vision. If a youth pastor can see the invisible, he can accomplish the impossible.
- Take a dream weekend getaway. Get away from the normal routine and take a Bible, pen, and maybe a good book with you. I recommend Visioneering by Andy Stanley for this getaway. Most important, bring your dream journal. Ask: What do I want my life, family, finances, and ministry to look like in 10 to 15 years? Do not worry about how to make the vision happen now. Write down where you want to go; the how will come later.
- Make sure your ministry vision fits underneath your pastor’s ministry vision. A local church can have only one vision and that vision is given to the pastor. If there are two different visions, the result will be division. Always promote the vision of the pastor — get behind it, and be excited about it. Whenever I fill in for Pastor Dave on Sunday, I try to promote his vision to the congregation.
- Tell people the vision. Start practicing your casting skills and cast your vision; leaders and students need to hear it often. Vision, not need, is attractive. A big vision communicated has the power to motivate, inspire, and rally people to see a God-given dream accomplished.
Building Block Number Four: Be In A Constant State Of Reproducing Leaders
We are called not only to be productive for the Kingdom, but also reproductive.
Years ago, a youth pastor asked me, “What do I need to do to break the 200 barrier in our attendance?”
It was exciting for him to see his group grow to 100, 150, 175, but now it seemed stuck just under 200. I asked him to describe his leadership team. His response was, “What leadership team?”
I was amazed that his group had grown as much as it had without a leadership team. Youth pastors must constantly reproduce themselves in other leaders. This is an absolute adventure and a must if youth pastors desire long-term success.
Reproducing leaders and building a leadership team is not about getting volunteers to do crowd control, set up and tear down chairs, or be a chaperone for events. Youth pastors need to recruit, train, and release people to do the same youth ministry the youth leader does.
There is nothing motivating about doing crowd control, but investing one’s life in a teenager is extremely addicting. A youth pastor needs to be reproducing more youth pastors in his ministry. Youth leaders need to be reproducing more youth leaders, and discipled students need to be reproducing more discipled students. Everyone has a part to play in being reproductive.
- List potential leaders for your ministry. Look for leaders who students like to be around. Remember, people like people who like people. Keep your eyes open for people who are warm and fuzzy, not cold and prickly.
- Spend time this week hanging out with potential future leaders.
- Write out a plan for recruiting, training, and releasing leaders. A ready-made leader will not show up at your door and ask, “How may I serve you?” Your future leaders are right in front of you waiting to be recruited and molded into great leaders.
Building Block Number Five: Develop Stick-To-Itiveness
Call it what you want — tenacity, the heart of a finisher, endurance — it means the same thing. Stick-to-itiveness is the incredible ability to stay with your calling even through the most grueling times.
I was in St. Pete Beach, Florida, meeting with several pastors when a friend asked me if I wanted to go parasailing. It sounded fun, but I kept thinking about the many sharks in the ocean. I could hear the theme music to Jaws playing in my head. I envisioned myself soaring through the air behind the boat like a human fishing lure, occasionally dipping down, just barely touching the water to tease the sharks — like fly fishing, except in this case I would be the fly.
Then another friend sealed my decision forever. He related his sister’s experience while parasailing. She was flying fine behind the boat (I am sure the sharks were following her every move.), and then, out of nowhere, the rope connecting her to the boat detached. She was now floating in the air, flying over the beach, over hotel buildings. It had to be the hand of the Lord that landed her, of all places, in a hotel swimming pool. When the rope detached, that poor girl only had one thing going for her — her ability to hold on and not let go.
It seems stick-to-itiveness is one of the greatest qualities found in successful youth pastors. In a world where the average youth pastor stays in a church for only 9 months to a year, many more need to hold on and not let go. In some cases, youth pastors never experience the thrills of longevity and the success that comes with it because they let go too soon. They leave the game before their time, or trade teams because the grass looks greener at another church. Instead of blooming where they are planted, they are constantly being uprooted, and that only causes a plant to wither and become fruitless. Galatians 6:9,10 says, “Let us not grow weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up” (emphasis added). Bigger and brighter days are yet to come. The question is: Will youth pastors hang in there long enough to experience them?
When I am tempted to quit, I am reminded of marathon runner John Stevens of Tanzania. In 1968, during the Olympics in Mexico, he was running in last place. In fact, the winner from Ethiopia had crossed the finish line 1 hour before Stevens did. Stevens had fallen several times, was bruised and bloodied, and a medical team followed him in an ambulance. They tried to convince him to quit. After all, he could no longer win the race and needed medical help badly. He refused to quit and kept going. When he entered the stadium the crowd gave him a standing ovation larger than the one the gold medal winner had received. When a reporter asked him why he did not give up, he said, “My country did not send me to Mexico City to start a race. They sent me to finish the race.” Youth pastors are not called to be great starters, but great finishers.
- List key verses. Choose the verses that have most encouraged you to be a finisher. Commit a few of them to memory.
- Refuse to dwell on quitting. Your life will be pulled in the direction of your most dominant thought.
- Take time to rest and be refreshed. Imagine music without a rest in it? It would sound awful. So does a life with no rest in it. An article in USA Today states that vacationing is healthy. The vacation habits of 12,338 men were studied for 5 years. It was discovered that those who did not take vacations suffered the highest death rate and the highest incidence of heart disease over the next 9 years. By contrast, those who vacationed and took time to rest every year reduced their overall risk of death by 21 percent and their risk of death from heart disease by 32 percent.5 Pastors will last longer and be much more productive if they take time to rest and be refreshed.
You have a call and a destiny. Jesus created and gifted you to be a pacesetter. He desires you to go the distance and experience the thrill of long-term success in youth ministry.
KEVIN BERRY, youth pastor, Mount Hope International, Lansing, Michigan
1. Seth Godin, Purple Cow: Transform Your Business By Being Remarkable (New York: Portfolio/Penguin, 2003).
2. Alan Loy McGinnis, The Friendship Factor: How To Get Closer to the People You Care For (Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress Publishers, 1979).
3. Jeanne Mayo, Thriving Youth Groups: Secrets for Growing Your Ministry (Loveland, Colo.: Group Publishing, 2004).
4. Andy Stanley, Visioneering: God’s Blueprint for Developing and Maintaining Personal Vision (Sisters, Ore.: Multnomah, 2001).