Since I was ordained as a youth pastor, have a lot of experience working with students, and have visited churches across the world, a friend of mine recently asked me for some thoughts on their church’s student ministry and the best ways to reach the next generation. Here’s what I told them:
These are free, and my feelings won’t be hurt if no one likes them.
First off… Junior High, High School, and College are all different age groups that should in no way be connected in local church ministry. There is not a person out there who really wants to run a department that ministers to people between the ages of 12 and 22. You need different people for each of these age groups who are passionate about just one of these groups.
Let’s start with junior high (by which, I mean 7th and 8th grade). Churches have blown it by including junior high kids with high school kids, and also by having one midweek service that looks and feels like Sunday morning church but with louder music and a game instead of the awkward one-minute meet-and-greet.
THIS IS BORING.
I am 37 and am fine with one church service a week—certainly no middle-schooler or junior-high kid wants a midweek church service. We don’t need more teaching and music at church; we need to connect kids with other kids, provide a fun environment, and have great leaders who care about these kids.
No public school keeps junior high and high school kids together. Why? I don’t know—ask them. I do know it’s not cool for a senior to show up to church with a seventh-grader, and on the flip side, it’s intimidating for a seventh-grader to be at a kids’ program with a senior.
So give them their own thing. When I worked at a church, we started up a Wednesday night service and literally called it “The Junior High Thing.” We did fun stuff like spam night, The Craig and Jake Show, competitions, games, high-energy stuff, and a short message at the end. We eventually moved this to Friday night and called it “The Main Event.” I lost half my older youth leaders because Friday night was tough on them, but Friday night was the best for middle-schoolers and junior-high kids because they don’t have things like on the weekend like high-schoolers do. It was their own thing.
Fun is key for junior high kids. These kids are young and most of their parents have a tough time sitting through a 70-minute church service—why would kids want a mini-church service?
Which leads me to the type of person you need for junior high—you need a young adult who can’t run the whole youth department but who knows how to connect with kids. Kids like them and think they’re cool and want to be around them. Someone raw and teachable who loves kids and who definitely doesn’t want to be a lead pastor and in the adult cool club. That’s your perfect candidate.
Okay, moving on high school… it sucks that people like my youth pastor—who stayed at my church for an astonishing 22 years—don’t seem to exist anymore. And I include myself in that. After all, I went to school to be a youth pastor and am obviously not doing it any longer. But it seems that being a youth pastor now is so short-term and many people view it as a stepping stone so they can do something else that they think is “more important.” No job is more important at the church then youth ministry.
The more corporate you make the student ministry job, the more you are going to attract a person who can manage and sit in meetings and organize… but you’re also going to get a total dud in front of your students, because that person doesn’t want to hang around kids—they want to hang around the leadership core team at the church. They’d rather do announcements on Sunday morning in “big church” than be at the local high school football games.
You don’t want someone to “run a department,” you want a dynamic guy or gal who can lead and attract students. Go look at some huge mega churches and see their department heads for their youth ministry who like to manage people and projects and have no pulse on kids and desire to be with kids. It’s why their youth ministry is suffering; it’s why kids would rather hang out a Taco Bell across campus than their million dollar youth centers.
Hire a student pastor who loves kids and wants to be a student pastor, who would rather be at Youth Specialties than at Catalyst. That person can be hard to find, but they’re still out there. The person you hired that you want to groom for something else? Don’t put them with kids. Take them out and have them do the something else. Instead, look for someone you know wants to do high school ministry for the next ten years. 18 months is the average amount of time a high school pastor lasts right now; that’s the same amount of time as women last in porn. Something is wrong.
Finally, college students… hardly any churches have this down. College kids generally don’t put in money in the offering, so most churches think of it as a lose/lose, but it’s an investment. And the honest truth is, college kids don’t want to come to something that sounds at all like what the junior-highers go to. Or the high school students.
College students need their own dedicated thing with their own dedicated leader. Churches too often spread people too thin and have them wear ten hats, but most any other places to work don’t do this. If you can dedicate a leader to your college ministry, that’s great—it’s a huge win and a long tail. These students will get married and come back around and plug into your church if they stay in the area.
Some overall thoughts:
You want student leaders/pastors who don’t fit in with the rest of your staff, because kids at those ages don’t fit in with the rest of the staff.
Empower each of these individuals to lead and not put a fence around them that is too small.
Hire passionate people who love kids and let them lead in a smaller space instead of making them work all together as a whole.
Parents will go where their kids are happy, wherever their kids love. To keep it going as kids get older is the key, and if you can nail that at each step of the way, I think you keep the parents.
Hire with focus and passion, not administrative and organization. An assistant can handle all the mess these people create.
Before you hire someone, look at their Twitter and Facebook feeds. If they follow and retweet all the popular pastors and authors in the cool club of Christianity, then you don’t want them. That guy just wants to be those guys. You want the person who tweets back at the eighth-grader with 40 followers and who has photos of themselves playing Assassin’s Creed or dodgeball with the students, not tweeting leadership quotes or referencing Logos bible software.
That’s all I got today.