By Matt Cameron
In the summer and fall of 2006 our church lost all three of our full-time youth staff members within six months. The ministry was suffering, and we couldn’t find the right person for the job. I was on staff as preaching associate.
That October one of my good friends from high school with whom I grew up in church passed away, and I began to reevaluate my own life and ministry. For months during these tough times, the thought kept coming back to me: Is God prompting me to step back into youth ministry? And not just any youth ministry, but the youth ministry in which I grew up?
Exactly one month after my friend died, I was on a plane, travelling to speak in Littleton, Colorado, when I started to read Chazown by Craig Groeschel. This book grabbed me in a way few books ever have. I couldn’t put it down. And right there in front of me were three questions God used to speak to me: What do you absolutely love to do? What do you do that has significant impact on others? What do you secretly believe you can do but never tried?
God seemed to speak directly to me in one short passage of the book: “If you think you could make a difference, maybe God is trying to tell you something. Give it a try. What are you waiting for?” My hand trembled as I drew an arrow toward that statement.
After fasting and praying, I talked to my wife about what I’d been wrestling with for the last six months. Then, after talking with other mentors and our elders, I transitioned into youth ministry on December 13, 2006.
I wish I could tell you I’ve been completely happy ever since. In reality, it’s been a war. In the first year alone I dealt with betrayal of some of my closest ministry friends, immoral activity of former youth ministry leaders, and many things I don’t have the time or energy to write about in this setting. Looking back, I’m not sure how I made it through that first year!
Youth ministry has changed a lot in the last 15 years, and it looks different depending on the context where you minister. At my first weekend youth ministry in Kansas, we held 5th Quarters every Friday and packed out our Family Life Center with more than 200 students at a church that averaged only 75 on Sunday mornings. It was so successful there, we tried to bring 5th Quarters to Crossroads in 2010. Our best attendance brought in a record 40 students! I was so convinced it would succeed, we continued it for two consecutive football seasons trying to prove it would work.
I would be the first one to say I’ve made a lot of mistakes in youth ministry through the years, but I’ve also learned some things that work. Here are seven strategies we’ve adopted that have helped our youth ministry get to where it is today:
1. Partner with Parents
I didn’t fully understand the importance of partnering with parents until I had kids of my own. In too many instances, youth ministers intentionally or unintentionally marginalize the role of parents in their ministry. Our job is to partner with parents, not replace them.
When you realize a student’s family has much more influence in their lives than you do, you’ll begin to see the importance of being on the same team. That some students have less-than-ideal home lives shouldn’t be an excuse to diminishing the parents’ role. The majority of students in Crossroads’ youth ministry don’t live with both of their biological parents, and many are from single-parent households. We see that as a reason to invite parents to partner with us even more. Parents of students in your youth ministry need to know you are locking arms with them in raising their kids in the training and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:4).
I’ve also learned to express gratitude to parents for trusting me with their kids. Parents who allow you to take their kids to camp, Christ in Youth events, conferences, and on mission trips are showing an incredible trust in your leadership. Don’t take that lightly. Thank parents for their faith in you and partnership with you as often as you can. It’ll pay huge dividends for your ministry.
2. Empower Your Adult Volunteers
You can’t do it all. You need to recruit, train, empower, and release qualified adults to help you in ministry. If you have little help, the impact of your ministry will be smaller in the long run.
We do our best to ensure adult volunteers always have a role to fulfill and receive value from what we ask them to do. No one wants to show up for a meaningless task. Give your leaders something valuable to do. A volunteer who feels empowered will rise above. A volunteer who feels undervalued is more likely to quit. The more authority, leadership, and decision-making you can give to volunteers, the more they’ll want to work with you and stay connected.
Our youth ministry underwent a seismic shift in 2013. We changed from a big Wednesday-night service to small groups in homes that meet throughout the week. The change was toughest on me. I loved the rush of our Wednesday nights. I loved the opportunity to preach. I loved having everyone tell me how much they enjoyed my message. But we weren’t seeing life change in students. We had numbers, but discipleship was lacking. So we recruited, trained, empowered, and released adult volunteers to lead these small groups. And I can tell you, five years later, it is the best decision we’ve made.
3. Raise Up Leaders
When I took over our youth ministry, we had a full-time youth worship leader. And then our youth worship guy left, and we put a student in charge of worship by default—we didn’t have any other choice! It happened unintentionally, but the result was overwhelmingly positive. For more than a decade we’ve had exclusively student-led worship for both our junior high and high school ministries.
Students in your ministry can and should lead. This generation longs for a place that won’t just welcome them but will also involve them. We try to use students for every possible task.
Our students transition quite naturally from leading in youth ministry to leading in other areas of the church, school, community, and more. A hallmark of our ministry is raising up more kingdom workers (Matthew 9:38). We have former students serving in ministry and mission work around the world due in large part to us challenging them to lead when they were students.
4. Preach to Connect
Don’t treat Sunday school like it’s school on Sunday. We have an unbelievable weekly opportunity to share the greatest story ever told. Spend time making the timeless truth of God’s Word engaging and applicable to whatever age you’re teaching.
We distribute sermon note cards every Sunday for students to fill out while listening to the sermon. We do our best to make every sermon answer two questions: why? and so what? Sermons and lessons should be more than just a momentary distraction on Sunday, but something they will carry with them all week. Spend time giving students real application points that they’ll be able to use and apply to their daily lives.
5. Minimize Your Calendar So You Can Maximize Events
We used to fill our calendar with so many events. We printed cheesy looking calendars that took hours to make . . . and students would throw them away. Busyness does not equal effectiveness. I think most youth ministries do too much and, as a result, don’t do anything well.
When we switched our programming in 2013, we also cleared our calendar. We don’t let anything compete with connect groups (our small groups). As a result, we can plan much more engaging and purposeful events. When we get together as a big group, the students don’t want to miss it. In this day and age of FOMO (fear of missing out), this is essential. Don’t let your events become so mundane that no one wants to come. Reduce the number and maximize the impact of your events!
6. Prioritize Relationships
In a culture that capitalizes on virtual, inauthentic relationships, it’s more important than ever for youth ministries to provide a safe space for students to be authentic, vulnerable, and real with each other. This is why we do connect groups. We put a high price on “real friendship” in our connect groups. We have students who connect with some of our adult volunteers who would never naturally connect with staff members.
With our old midweek program, we connected well with a small minority of our students. Now we have groups meeting all over the area, every night of the week, reaching students in “real” ways at a rate we could never replicate in a large-group setting.
7. Keep Showing Up
My dad summarizes his longevity and success in ministry with this simple instruction to preachers: “Keep showing up.” There will be temptations to quit. Opposition will seem to be around every corner when ministering to youth.
One of my greatest memories to this point is getting to do a week of camp with some of my students. I was the camp speaker and the band was comprised of my former students. At the end of a powerful and emotional Thursday night, we all stood together outside of the chapel. We could still hear God moving in the youth group times all around us, and every one of us stood there in awe, overwhelmed at how we had just witnessed God move. I told them: “What happened tonight was powerful, but do you know what is more meaningful to me? That I get to do this with all of you.”
I’ve had quite a few incredible opportunities so far in ministry—like speaking on big stages and traveling the world—but what means more to me than anything else is seeing students fall in love with Jesus and continue to reproduce that in their own lives.
I never thought I’d be in youth ministry for as long as I have, but I have always been committed to staying for the long haul. Most life change doesn’t happen overnight, and ministry cannot happen in a microwave. Stay committed. Keep showing up! Do the hard job of reaching youth in this generation and watch how God grows your youth ministry.
Matt Cameron serves as youth minister at Crossroads Christian Church in Grand Prairie, Texas (crossroadschristian.org).