Before my seniors leave for college, we spend a good deal of time talking about various campus ministries. Our hope is to encourage students to get involved in them (or in a church on their college campus).

As part of this ongoing conversation, I then follow-up with students a few weeks after they head to college to find out how their search is going. At this point, students often feel frustrated.  Few, if any, campus ministries feel like they’re youth group… Or even their home church. Rather than continue searching, many students want to give up, convinced they’ll never find another church home.

During one of these conversations, a student told me about a ministry she’d checked out. She’d signed up to be on their e-mail list and promptly started receiving updates. Each had a tag line about how their ministry was the place to meet other hip Christians.

This tag line repulsed my student.

Since hip was not a word she used to describe herself, she couldn’t imagine attending a ministry targeting such a crowd.

Even more problematic for her, however, was the fact that she was quite certain Jesus didn’t convince people to follow him because it was the hip thing to do. Instead, she was sure the opposite was true. Jesus’ crowd was decidedly NOT hip.

As I listened to this student talk, I found myself wondering, how often do we do the same thing in our youth ministries? How often do we describe our ministry in such a way that we unintentionally exclude people?

Hip might not be the buzz word we default to but we certainly have others: Cool. Awesome. Relevant.

When we try to entice students to come to our youth ministry because it’s cool, what are we unintentionally communicating to those students who know they’re not cool? (Which, by the way, is all middle schoolers as well as a good deal of high schoolers.) How difficult must it be for a student to walk into a ministry they’re convinced is not meant for them?

Now, I’m not suggesting our youth ministry marketing strategy should be filled with doom and gloom. I don’t think it’s very appealing to a teenager to be invited some place boring.

Instead, I’m suggesting we communicate with integrity.

Choose your words carefully so that you accurately communicate who your ministry is for and what it is you do there.

That might be as simple as leaving adjectives like cool, awesome, and relevant out of your announcements and instead inviting all teenagers to come to your youth ministry for food, games, worship, and the chance to grow in their faith and relationships with others (or whatever else you actually do in your youth ministry.) It might also include replacing adjectives like cool, awesome, and relevant with other more welcoming ones like accepting and loving.

When we accurately communicate that our ministry is accepting and loving, then those students who don’t consider themselves to be particularly cool will feel much more welcome there.

Of course, that might mean your youth ministry won’t be the most popular one in town. It might, however, be the one that most closely resembles Jesus’ ministry.

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About The Author

Jen Bradbury serves as the director of youth ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Glen Ellyn, Illinois. A veteran youth worker, Jen holds an MA in Youth Ministry Leadership from Huntington University. She’s the author of The Jesus Gap. Her writing has also appeared in YouthWorker Journal and The Christian Century, and she blogs regularly at ymjen.com. When not doing ministry, she and her husband, Doug, can be found hiking, backpacking, and traveling with their daughter, Hope.

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