When I was a seventh grade student, a friend from middle school brought me to church for the first time. My family had an adversarial relationship with God, and church was really far down on their list of preferred Sunday activities. I walked onto the campus of a small Lutheran church and into a family I was not expecting.
I found community in unlikely places at that church. I anticipated making relationships in youth group, and I definitely did. I never thought I would personally get to know elderly men and women and work beside them in ministry to others in our city, but thankfully, God used many widows to teach me how to worship, how to use the hymnal, and how to make unbelievable quantities of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for community outreach days. I learned Bible stories from other people’s moms and dads, and I even learned how to give children’s messages and take part in chancel dramas during Advent or Lenten services. Ministry was deeply personal for me. When I was called by God into ministry, I was loved, supported, and encouraged in leadership opportunities by people in my church.
Recently, our congregation’s four-person youth and family team traveled to a conference for a ministry development and encouragement experience for churches throughout the country. The conference packed a lot of wisdom and featured many prominent names in the field of practical theology. One such speaker spoke of the need for adults in the local church to see the potential and gifts of the children and students in their faith communities. She recounted the head of her church’s council seeing her interest in service and inviting her to sit on the council as a “voice for the church of today.” She was fourteen at that time, and she shared that her church’s faith in her and the opportunities it provided for her propelled her into a life of dedication to Christ through programs that today impact the world globally. She was moved to serve because it was personal for her.
Connect with them on their turf
I have been blessed to serve Christ in youth and family ministry for nearly twenty-five years. Over that span of time, the programs have changed a bit, the strategies for how to work with students and families have adapted to the ever-changing culture, and the ideas have recycled. One thing remains for me—effective ministry is personal. The role I play as Director of YFM is a collaboration of intentional strategy, researched methods in practical theology, coaching amazing small group leaders and others who want to make Jesus personal for kids of all ages, and continually moving outside of the church walls into the community. Years ago, I did weekly youth nights with one other adult, with little preparation and almost no advertisement. I saw the bulk of the church’s kids on that weekly youth night, and about once a month I would see a performance or sporting event. Now that has flip-flopped. Two to four times a week, I can be found at a Starbucks, in a park, or at a high school visiting with students. Why? Because that’s where they are, and that’s where their friends are! There are students who are actively involved in congregational ministry who don’t come to youth group programming all year. These kids might be in regular Sunday worship, serve in children’s ministry, or attend a small group Bible study. They might be involved in very chaotic and intense training programs through sports or the arts.
In coming to their games and recitals, or having regular times to connect with them each week, I and other small group leaders are able to really know the students and see their value and needs. I am regularly reaching out one-on-one, through text or social media, coffee dates with families, and checking in regularly to be present in their life, always pointing them to Jesus as the author and source of their identity. In making their relationship with Jesus personal, we are able to encourage these students to see themselves as hugely valuable children of the family of God. No matter what life stage students find themselves in, they are loved and cherished by the God who holds them in the palm of His hand. Who knows what God will do in and through these students as He continues to mold and shape their hearts?
For more about how to engage and stay engaged with youth, check out our upcoming release, Connected for Life.