This post is adapted from Connected for Life: Essential Guide to Youth Ministry and was written by A. J. Mastic.
Maybe serving in youth ministry is a new journey for you. Perhaps you trained for this—or maybe you’re a new volunteer and you’re wondering what you’ve gotten yourself into! No matter how you got to this point, what’s important is that as you take your first steps in youth ministry, you do so with an awareness of not only your skills, but your roles. Am I a teacher? chaperone? dodgeball referee? friend? mentor? A good understanding of your roles will help define your work and the nature of your relationships with the youth.
Role 1: Follower of Jesus
As youth workers, we draw from the well of our identity in Jesus when we lead. That’s why our first role is to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Obviously, as Christians, that’s our first role no matter what vocation we have. God’s powerful Word works in the lives of the youth we lead, even when we’re not at our best. We will be more effective as youth workers when we immerse ourselves in God’s Word daily, as lifelong students of Scripture. It shapes our hearts, molds our thoughts, and causes us to be more attuned to what our youth need to hear. Studying the Scriptures causes us to be people of prayer, kindness, and so forth—the sort of people who are “the real deal.” That’s how we inspire young people. The book Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids by Dr. Kara E. Powell and Dr. Chap Clark says the biggest reason young people leave the faith is because they don’t see faith prioritized or modeled in the lives of Christian adults they know. Young people sense hypocrisy a mile away—but they absolutely listen to and learn from those who are genuinely devoted followers of Jesus.
Role 2: Mentor-Friend
The role of mentor-friend is an important one, and more than any other, it’s also a role that when misunderstood, carries a huge possibility for disaster. As youth workers, we should have good relationships with the youth we lead. We should relate to them, speak their language, and have fun together. As we guide young people along the journey toward a life of faith, there needs to be a friendly bond. Yet, we are not peers. We are mentor-friends. We are friends in much the same way parents befriend their children. There is a line of clear authority, expectations, and boundaries.
Jesus is clearly a friend to His disciples. He’s able to relate with them. He spends a lot of time with them. He cares for them on a personal level. Yet, He is not just a friend. There’s no question that He is the rabbi and they are His disciples. Likewise, youth workers should be trusted mentors who can also have fun and empathize with young people. There is a big danger that can arise when youth workers let their mentoring role slip. The risk for this is particularly high if you’re entering youth ministry leadership as a college student or a young graduate.
The mentor-friend role requires a balance you need to be intentional about setting, from day one. The first thirty days are essential to establishing that you are both relatable and a genuine follower of Jesus who has something to share. Take a trip with your youth group during that first month. Trips and other shared experiences provide great opportunities to get to know your students, demonstrate your authenticity, create teachable moments, and generate excitement for your group. Another way many youth workers increase face time with their youth is by occasionally eating lunch with them at their schools. Most important, remember every interaction with your youth is a gift from God, which we honor by intentionally seeking to be a mentor-friend.
Role 3: Spiritual Leader
In many cases, teaching God’s Word means first deciding what to teach—which requires asking yourself, “What do the youth need to hear?” Regardless of what passage you choose to teach, prepare and teach it passionately. Create or find great content and then refine it. Determine which questions won’t work well for your group and which ones will. Think of additional questions you can ask or stories you can share. Think about how the Scripture passage applies to youth in their everyday life and then be passionate about teaching it. If you’re having trouble getting excited about the passage, it’s likely you need to take a step back and first apply it to your own life. Another way you can help your youth apply the passage to their lives is by doing an initial teaching time with the whole youth group, and then splitting up into smaller discussion groups led by volunteers.
As we teach, we must realize that it’s impossible to teach our youth the right answer to every question, or the right way to act in every situation. However, in addition to teaching our youth to memorize important truths, we can and should teach them theological and practical thinking skills. This skill set will equip them to process through each situation in light of their Christian faith and navigate the world as a follower of Jesus. For example, instead of beginning the lesson by saying, “Don’t smoke marijuana,” you might lead a discussion in which you ask youth to evaluate marijuana by asking, “What does God’s Word say? Is it legal? Is it beneficial?” That’s just one example. The point is, we must teach what God’s Word says and how it informs our decision-making when the issue is not plainly laid out in Scripture. This requires that you yourself know God’s Word, which is one reason why the first role (being a Jesus follower) is going to be the foundation of your ministry. It also requires learning the art of asking open-ended questions and waiting long enough for students to process your question and respond. The first few discussions will definitely be a bit shaky. You’ll have to teach the youth how to dialogue respectfully. This includes teaching listening skills, reeling in the tangents, dealing with conversation dominators as gently as possible, and of course correcting with God’s Word as needed.
Another way youth will learn how to put their faith into action is by seeing it modeled by how you live out your own faith. For example, they’ll be watching to see if you stop to pray, if you give of yourself to serve others, or if you’re involved in a small group. They’ll want to hear how you’ve processed through difficult issues of faith and life. Be appropriately open about your struggles, understanding of how others have dealt with their challenges, and courageous to share how your faith has led you to live differently. This will go a long way toward establishing yourself as a trustworthy spiritual leader.
Role 4: Cultural Architect
Setting the culture of the group is a delicate balance of vision-casting while also allowing for parent/volunteer/youth input. It’s important to think about how you’re going to build in opportunities for input to be shared. Consider creating a youth leadership team, which provides opportunities for your youth to develop a team mentality, give input, and participate in the planning of youth group or other events. They know their peers best, and if you want youth to invite their friends to youth group, let them have ownership!
Being a cultural architect means acting with intentionality. For example, it’s important to give some careful thought as to the “flow” of youth group, whether you’ve only got one hour on a Sunday or two hours on a weeknight. When youth are arriving, make sure they’re not just sitting on couches looking at their phones; create a fun space so they can hang out and enjoy their time together! Put on some music, have some snacks, get a Ping-Pong table—whatever you need to do to help students get excited about being there. It’s also important for you to use your time intentionally. Don’t just sit in one spot; make your way around the room, interact with every youth, and connect isolated youth with others (you can teach your youth leadership team and volunteers to do the same). Also, how you order your time together matters. It can be a good idea to do a group game first in order to get their energy out before you sit down for the lesson and/or small group discussion time. Ask your volunteers not to look at their phones, but to be fully engaged in games, the lesson, and small group time. When you’re done, plan on hanging out for a bit longer. It’s a great time to be available for follow-up conversations. These are just a few examples of being an intentional cultural architect, in order to create a group culture that helps young people connect with Jesus.
Role 5: Boundary Keeper
Nobody wants to be the boundary keeper, yet it’s an important part of a youth worker’s responsibilities. Setting appropriate boundaries honors everyone, keeps the focus on Jesus, and ensures that your ministry isn’t derailed. Youth workers set and properly communicate boundaries in three important areas.
It’s important to have appropriate personal boundaries for yourself and volunteers. You might observe practices such as these:
- Don’t initiate or force physical touch; let others initiate appropriate touch if they want to.
- Opt for side-hugs instead of full hugs.
- Stay away from jokes about sexuality, relationships, or gender.
- Don’t be alone with minors or members of the opposite sex, even in the car.
- Ask parents if it’s okay to accept friend requests from their child on social media.
- Background check your volunteers.
Youth workers communicate what is acceptable behavior when participating in youth group activities. This means rules such as no drugs, weapons, physical violence, bullying, PDA, or swearing at youth group. Youth workers should not take delight in being an authoritarian, but rather utilize appropriate authority as necessary to ensure that safe space is respected.
Youth workers work in conjunction with parents to set appropriate policies regarding activities that take place off of the church property. For example, off-campus events usually require permission slips and authorized drivers. Overnight trips require separate sleeping arrangements for men and women. International trips might require supplemental insurance.
Whether this post has been one big review for you or you had several “light bulb” moments as you encountered new ideas, we hope that it causes you to reflect on the complex roles that you play as a youth worker. Because what you do is so important!