When I have the opportunity to work with youth pastors, I like to ask, "What's your purpose for doing youth ministry?
Is it for evangelism, for having a large Wednesday night service, for discipleship, to teach the Bible, to have a strong parent-led ministry?”
Of course these are all good things to do and many of them may be a part of a vibrant ministry, but remember, the Bible offers us some insight into what we as ministers and leaders should consider our purpose. Ephesians 4:12 commands us “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ” (ESV). Our main job is to equip the saints (students, parents and workers) for God’s work—building up the body of Christ, helping others grow in their faith and relationship with Christ. Understanding and embracing this God-given purpose will give us the strength to carry on in times when we become discouraged.
As pastors, we can get caught up in the “how-tos” of ministry and particulars of how a program works. We love hearing about how to grow a youth ministry and can get focused on the details of some type of step program. But is that really the starting point? I don’t think so. We must develop a picture of ministry that is focused on the eternal, and as we do, we have to begin with the right perspective.
Starting with How
• Focused on the calendar
• Has definite beginning and end
• Dictated by “to do” list
• Man-driven (about me)
• Limited by personal capabilities
• Overly concerned with numbers rather than life change
Starting with Why
• Holy Spirit-led and driven
• Begin with the end/purpose in mind
• Know where it’s going but not exactly sure how God will get us there
• About the process or movement
• Involves everyone in the work of the ministry (about us)
• Starts with leader on his or her knees in prayer
• Focuses on life change—develops students instead of student ministry
A clear purpose and working from the right perspective motivates and inspires not only us. If you want to grow a ministry, let it be defined by God-given purpose. People want to be part of something that has meaning and is going somewhere. Sure, if you throw a huge party and give away lots of things, people will show up, but will they stick around and invest themselves in God’s work? Purpose allows the opportunity for students and adults to buy into the work of the ministry. That doesn’t mean that throwing a big party or event is wrong, but are you going somewhere with it or are you just having an event for the sake of having an event?
Take another look at the lists. Which list best describes you? If you identify more with the “how” list, are you satisfied with the constraints you’ve placed on your ministry by doing it all on your own or do you want to take it to another level and be involved in a movement that can only be about God? If so, it’s time to let purpose be your starting point and develop your ministry based on the “why.”
I learned this lesson the hard way when I left a large church in Ft. Lauderdale and went back to minister at my home church in Cleveland, Tenn. At my first meeting with the youth workers, I told them all I knew about ministry and “how” we were going to be doing things. As soon as I finished the meeting, a friend of mine who had been a youth worker when I was a student came to me and commented on how badly the meeting had gone. He wanted to know why I acted like I was teaching a seminar instead of being myself and warned me that if I acted like an arrogant know-it-all, the ministry would suffer. He pointed out that I was leading a group of people who wanted this student ministry to succeed and were willing to be on my team if I would just share the vision with them and allow them to work with me. I realized that instead of trying to show them all how much I knew, it would be much more beneficial to draw them in and work together to see what God could do through all of us.
Purpose is also vital for a pastor in the day-to-day decisions. When you understand how your purpose relates to everyday decisions, it gives you clarity and makes the choices easier.
Whether you face meetings, staff issues or planning programs, your purpose is not only the beginning point; it is also the defining force that narrows the options you have to choose from.
Having a set purpose will answer questions and help you evaluate the suggestions that inevitably arise. When you understand your purpose, you’ll be able to recognize which suggestions you can immediately rule out. Of course, there will also be suggestions and ideas that do line up with the purpose and philosophy of your ministry. It’s important to evaluate through prayer and wise counsel whether they are right for your ministry. Just because something is a good idea and matches your purpose doesn’t mean it is right for your ministry at this time.
Purpose makes a difference in other areas of ministry as well. Many youth ministers feel they are always recruiting new workers. When people understand why we do what we do, the buy-in is huge. People want to be part of something that’s bigger than they are. That’s why when they realize there is room and a need for them within the ministry, you are no longer the only youth pastor; they become one alongside you. I always like to say, “I’m not the student pastor here, we are,” to help remind others of their importance and reinforce the purpose of the ministry.
I remember when I first started at Long Hollow. We had about 125 students and 25 adults. I told the adults that we were going to need around 100 youth workers for the next year, because even though I had no idea who we were going to reach, students were going to come. I also told the adults that I had no idea who the additional workers would be, but they did, because they knew who they wanted working alongside them.
We went from approximately 25 to 85 workers that year because they went out and recruited other adults to join them on the team. They took ownership in the team they wanted around them. It was about more than filling slots. It was about being on a team with purpose and direction. God did a huge work through those team members, as well as in the students who took ownership in their youth group. The result was that the group of students grew from around 125 to approximately 300 that year.
As I just mentioned, the idea of recruiting and taking ownership applies not only to your adults but also to the students themselves. As we continued to see the hearts of our youth being transformed, they began bringing their lost friends to church. Their efforts eventually caused us to outgrow our space.
For the past seven years we have been busing the youth off campus to a nearby high school for Sunday morning small groups – the same school many of our students attend every day! They understand that God wants to work in their lives and the lives of their friends, even if that means “going to school” on a weekend. This is part of the evidence that we’ve effectively communicated the “why.”
As parents also take ownership in ministry they begin to look at their own students in a different light. Issues that arise will take on more spiritual significance because they are no longer just parents but ministers or pastors themselves. Moms and dads will recognize ways to minister to not just their own children, but also to the friends of their kids. We see this happening frequently with parents who lead small groups.
For one leader at our church, the students in her class continue to grow closer to her and to her daughter. As they all interact together this parent leader has numerous opportunities to bring Jesus into conversations and influence girls with Truth. The awesome thing about this is that parents in our ministry become more intentional with not only other people’s kids but with their own, so that everyday life is full of ministry moments.
Parents are also strengthened through the community that is developed when they work together. Raising teenagers is not easy, and parents need the support of one another when they encounter difficulties and raise questions. In their desire to be godly leaders and role models, parents will strive to grow in their relationships with Christ, and as they continue to grow, parents can become resources for one another, offering encouragement when needed.
These are just some examples of how living and doing ministry with purpose is vital. As you begin to apply this principle to your ministry you will likely uncover even more reasons why it works. Purpose will keep you in the game and give you a reason to continue when things are tough. It will challenge others to take ownership in your ministry and you all will experience more of what God wants to do in and through your lives.
REFINING YOUR PURPOSE
1. Identify your purpose as a pastor and write it down.
2. Would you say that purpose is foundational to your ministry at this point in time? Why or why not?
3. Using a scale of 1 to 5 (5 being, “They take ownership,” and 1 being, “It’s all on me”), rate the following groups of people:
Understand that if you answered “yes” to Question 2, yet your groups in Question 3 rated low, it’s possible your ministry doesn’t have as much purpose as you think; it might be built around you.
4. What one thing will you start doing immediately to strengthen the purpose of your ministry?
Jeff has been in youth ministry for 29 years and on staff at Long Hollow Baptist Church since Easter 2002, where he currently serves as their Next Generation Pastor. He has a tremendous passion for sharing Jesus with others, excitement for the Word of God and love for students. This article was adapted from his new book "Make It Last: Proven Principles for Effective Student Ministry."