“What are you doing here?”
One student’s question started a process that led us to evaluate all our strategies and activities with the students we were trying to reach and teach.
“What are you doing here?”
That question was directed at me as I sat at a table with a handful of my students in one of the local middle schools. It was lunchtime on a Tuesday, and it seemed rather odd to the students that I was there poking at the school’s version of a burrito, muttering under my breath about the “meat” being rather gym-mat-like.
I had visited them at lunchtime before, so I was curious about why they were so surprised. With the brutal honesty and comical delivery only a middle schooler can pull off, one of them answered: “You only work on Sundays and Wednesdays!”
I laughed out loud. Here I was, invading their territory on a day that did not fall under the normal youth group days, acting like everything was normal. How dare I! I would later realize this little incident was a microcosm of our middle school ministry: limited.
The Big Lies
Up until that lunch, I had pretty much followed all of the big lies one typically accepts when doing middle school ministry: plan events that are attractional; keep messages brief; have a fire extinguisher nearby in case of spontaneous combustion; determine the success of an event by the number of attendees; be wild and crazy during preaching; and bribe and lie to trick people into becoming volunteers.
In my defense, however, I was rather new to youth ministry, and didn’t want to be the guy who waltzes into a situation and changes everything for the sake of change. I was determined to experience everything at least once and evaluate based on prayer, reflection, and the impact these activities and events had on our students, and whether or not they were beneficial to their faith.
For our student staff, beneficial seemed to be the key word. We were all feeling the effects of entertainment-based ministry, shallow topical sermons, and physical service projects that seemed to be ineffective in helping our students “Love God and Love Others” (our philosophy as a student staff).
I realized we needed to detox our middle school ministry of the sacred cows, conventional methods, and traditional events that kept us looking more like a recreational gathering than a ministry. I was fed these big lies just like everyone else, and I had gobbled them right up.
The Small Truths
Shortly after mulling this over, I assembled our middle school volunteers for a ministry evaluation. We asked ourselves: What are we really about? We were genuine disciples of Christ who had a heart for students—that much was sure—but as we thought about the things we normally did, a picture began to emerge. We saw our ministry as useful, but it didn’t necessarily resemble a portion of the church we believe Jesus would be proud to walk into. Our foundations just weren’t right.
As the discussion continued, the painful reality became clear: we had very little beneficial to our students, because our foundations consisted of entertainment, distractions, events, and the marathon of attracting new students.
The truth was, our students didn’t bring their Bibles, let alone know God’s story. Our students didn’t care about each other—they were about themselves. Our students didn’t come to get filled—they came for fun. These were the small truths of our ministry, the ones we had ignored or refused to acknowledge until now.
But the best was yet to come: our students were this way because our approaches to ministry naturally led to these products and “fruits.” We had no one to blame but ourselves for our students’ limitations.
Youth ministries often struggle with how to effectively communicate to their students what they are about. How should we advertise this? Where should we post this? How do we get the word out?
The problem was, as Kenda Dean puts it, “not the result of poor communication but the result of excellent communication of a watered-down gospel.”1 The word was out: our ministry didn’t resemble the unselfish, community-oriented, gospel-delivering church that Jesus inspired . . . yet.
The Next Steps
While it’s true all ministries are different based on their culture, city, location, and leadership, there are certain truths that persist because God ordained them long ago. How we carry those out, however, might look different for each of us.
Here is a list of the most significant changes we applied to our ministry. I believe these will help most middle school ministries flourish when coupled with prayer.
Devoted first, and then disciples. When Jesus called those who would be his disciples around him, they were not ready for full-time ministry. He instructed them, taught them by example, and helped them devote their lives to him, first by simply asking them to “follow” him (Mark 2:14).
The same is true for students. Discipleship may be years off (as it was for our students), and we need to be OK with that. Our progress went something like this: (1) create a safe environment where students can question their faith and learn to love God; (2) build a community where they worked out their faith together and learned to love each other; and finally (3) give them the tools to take ownership of their faith in order to teach others to “Love God and Love Others.”
Discipleship is a process—usually a rather long one—so don’t rush it.
Plans, not programs. When putting on a program for students (I prefer to call them connecting points), ministers usually fall into the false idea that it must have a fun element, a large game, and/or a shortened, dumbed-down message. The blueprint has become “how do I keep them engaged the whole time, and somewhere in there get the message across without losing them?”
Take a look at one of your events and see whether this is the case. When we saw this was true for us, we decided either to omit the above elements or use them as peripheral highlights rather than focal points.
We now purposefully plan out everything we do: Sunday mornings no longer have games; messages are simple but challenging; and we do not always include a fun element in everything we do. With this approach, we believe we’re reorienting our students to what’s actually important, and challenging them upwards in their faith. Plans take your students somewhere—programs entertain.
Sacrifice, not substitution. No event or day is worth doing just for the sake of it. This is actually a form of laziness. Keeping our students busy and engaged with multiple, differing events in the same month, or even the same quarter, says that we aren’t focused on any one thing and that we would rather keep them distracted than take the time to pray, listen, and work to give them something worthwhile and lasting.
After looking at our calendar, we cut several trips and programs with no purpose in order to focus more on what we felt was important to our students. The impact has been astounding, especially for our coaches (our word for volunteers). Instead of preparing for yet another event every couple of weeks, our coaches can rally around several purposeful, big activities that will have an impact on students. The adults become true mentors instead of crowd controllers. If something doesn’t work, don’t find something to put in its place; it might simply be time to have nothing there at all.
Slow, Simple, and Effective
I’d like to say that during the detox process of the “big lies,” and the realization of the “small truths,” that we successfully turned our ministry around rather quickly—but that wasn’t the case. It was a slow, sometimes painful process that required a lot of prayer and tough decisions.
The reality, though, is slow and steady isn’t sexy. Initially, a lot of students who wanted “the show” to go on left. Quite a few voices are vying for our students’ attention, and often our approach is to yell louder, sound cooler, or try to outdo this competition. It’s appalling that we often succeed, and set up a monumental task for the youth minister and volunteers to outdo themselves, and the competition, again the next year.
Let’s put a stop to this. We don’t need new, better, faster, louder, and cooler activities and events; these things limit our ministry. We need to deliver the gospel message. Simply put: it works.
1Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 12.
Kile Baker serves as middle school minister with LifeBridge Christian Church in Longmont, Colorado.