Life moves faster than you think. Breaking news usually becomes old news in just 24 hours. By the time I plan to see a movie in the theatre, it’s often no longer showing. I don’t embrace change all that well, but the teenagers in my youth group are excited to adopt it.
This week I used Tim Tebow as a modern-day illustration in my Sunday School class. One of my sixth grade boys raised his hand and asked who Tim Tebow is. My anecdotes become dated faster than I can keep up. After 19 years of full-time youth ministry, I’ve come to accept the fact that I’m something of a dinosaur.
I will never be able to keep up with the newest pop-culture references, but this old dog has learned some tricks. Some aspects of ministry have actually become easier with time and experience. There are three ways my ministry has continued to improve as time marches forward, and three things that are becoming more difficult by the year.
Saying “No” has gotten easier with time. Youth Ministers want to be people pleasers, so this didn’t come easy. “Yes” got me initial growth, but I learned it wasn’t sustainable. It was much easier to say no when I had a clearly defined mission, vision, and strategy. Of course, these things came listed in my job description, but they took shape and firmed-up over time. Discerning the best use of my efforts only came with experience, and understanding my church culture, but it is creating something that has greater support and longevity.
As time passes, building a servant team has gotten easier. Quality people attract quality people. In my experience, the best disciples in my church are looking for ways to make more disciples. When I was a younger Youth Minister, my volunteer recruiting strategy was simply begging. As a healthy program developed, my servant team actively wanted to participate and invite their friends to do the same.
Sometimes there is a gap between head knowledge and heart knowledge. I always knew the Bible verse “be anxious for nothing,” but it took years to fully trust God. My individual talents, charisma, or relational disposition was not how a healthy ministry was going to grow. The only fruitful activity a church can have is what the Holy Spirit leads. Investing in prayer and personal discipleship didn’t just become easier over time, it yielded a healthier ministry.
That doesn’t mean all youth ministry has gotten easier for me. I’ve served long enough to see the rise of cell-phone culture, and the digital age. You know what’s gotten harder over the years? Getting the lost to acknowledge they’re lost. Cultural Christianity may prompt people to behave and live good lives; but too many students have lost their need for a savior. What Christians believe about sex, money, love, ethics and compassion is increasingly similar to what our neighbors who don’t go to church believe. Biblical teaching that used to be basic and universally accepted is losing the fight to culture, and I have to spend more time than ever explaining the simplicity of the Gospel.
Also, Christians are seen as increasingly irrelevant. I talk to neighbors that have no idea that there are still churches that are actually growing. They assume church has been replaced by travel baseball teams, or some other community social event. Non-Christians don’t see the current value in church, and our youth start to feel the same. A high schooler was trying to explain to me that a 1999 Pokemon Holo Charizard trading card can be worth more than $5,000. I didn’t get it. Then I realized that’s exactly the same confusion that some youth have regarding the value of church. It takes explanation.
Not surprisingly, sporadic attendance is becoming the norm. A student came to youth group after having been absent for a few months. He was shocked to see his name wasn’t still on the attendance checklist. Our newest generation truly believes that they are still active members if they only come to church a few times each year. Like an inoculation, students think they just need a booster when life is hard, or they have extra time in their schedule. It’s amazing how some families won’t miss a single lacrosse game, but may miss every Sunday School class between Christmas and Easter. I simply can’t expect every student at every event anymore. I need to reach-out and invest in each student whenever they show up.
Knowing that change is inevitable helps us be better ministers. Leaning into that change creates healthier programs. Understanding that time is not our enemy brings peace during that change. After 19 years of full-time youth ministry, my experience is to invest in a ministry long enough to see it become easier, while still acknowledging that it will never be the same.