I’ve been doing youth ministry (in some various form) since I was about 19. Since I’m almost 34 this means I’ve been ministering to teens for almost 15 years. When I leave First Baptist Jasper in a couple of weeks, my days as a youth minister will be over.
I am confident that other youth pastors have been far more successful than I. I’d say others have been more faithful as well. I’ve made mistakes. I’ve preached sermons to teens that I wish had never left my mouth. I’ve said things and done things that were just flat out foolish. Let’s just say I’m glad my justification is settled by Jesus’ finished work and not by my effectiveness as a youth pastor.
Though I’ve made mistakes I’ve also watched God do phenomenal things in the life of teenagers. I’ve always said that the success of a student ministry isn’t determined by what it looks like when the kid graduates—it’s better viewed by how he/she lives out his/her life as a disciple. I’m proud that I have quite a few former students who are now serving in local churches. I’m proud that students who I was allowed to lead to Jesus are still walking happily in the faith. I think, by the grace of God, I have done some things well.
As I’m passing the baton off to a group of guys here at Jasper I laid out for them a simple philosophy of youth ministry. Perhaps it will be beneficial to you as well:
Loving Jesus and loving students covers a multitude of dumb things
My philosophy of ministry has been pretty simple over the years. Love Jesus supremely and love others deeply. If people know that you love them—because you actually do love them—then you’ll find yourself in a better position to minister. Forget this professionalization stuff and how you are supposed to do youth ministry.
Students can get entertainment from the world. They can get lectures at school. But there are few places that they’ll be truly loved. Love will reach more students than any program you can come up with.
But such a love only comes from Jesus’ love for us—and His work in our hearts to supremely love Him. Which a love for Jesus will keep you from doing many stupid things as a youth pastor. Love him more than you love your own popularity and you’ll be doing well.
Teenagers will go to the level you set for them
Do you remember being a teenager? Let’s be honest—few of us were overachievers. But we would find a way to nudge up to the bar that people had set for us. Consider athletics. They usually set the bar pretty high—and teenagers work their tail off to meet those expectations. Then, why in the world do we expect the teens our church to only be fit for passing out lollipops for children’s ministry?
Expect teens to do ministry and to go into ministry and I almost bet you’ll get some who are passionate about it. You’ll get what you expect out of teenagers. So why not raise the bar and be shocked by their capacity to actually grasp the gospel and live it out.
Of course, we must not forget that they are teenagers and will often think like children. Which is why raising the bar doesn’t mean refusing to have a culture of grace. It just means you refuse to accept our culture’s lie that teenagers are children, and you shower them with grace as they grow into being the men and women that they are.
Expository Preaching Works
Students are just like adults. They probably only retain a fraction of what you say—even if you are the best preacher in the world. That’s true in one sense. In another sense I’m convinced they kind of retain everything you say. There is something shaping that happens in preaching. And so I’d rather preach and teach the whole counsel of God.
Here’s my point. There is a way that you can preach and teach that will make your sermons memorable. But when you stand before God on judgment day you’ll find that such preaching was just a big pile of straw because it was mostly your opinion about the Word of God instead of the Word of God itself.
So, I’d rather slowly plod through books of the Bible and be able to say “here is what God’s Word says and here is how to apply it.” And I’d rather do that and have them forget every sermon if it means that somehow they’ve retained God’s Word. That won’t burn up on judgment day.
But I’ve found that expository preaching actually works. You can engage students with solid expository preaching and you can see them grow in their handling of God’s Word. It’s not as if the only option is to bore them with expository preaching or excite them with rubble. You can excite them with expository preaching—but it’s hard work.
So much more could be said in my goodbye to youth ministry, but I believe these three things sum up my thoughts. We make it much harder than it really ought to be. But at the same time it is an impossible work that only God can do—may he see fit to use earthen vessels like myself to shine forth His glory.