Imagine a megachurch without a youth group because it chooses not to have one. In the words of Senior Pastor Steven Furtick, “We don’t have a student ministry. We are a student ministry.” Elevation Church in Charlotte, N.C., has embraced this vision for the past seven years as it’s grown from 20 core members to 12,000 regulars gathering in seven locations.
Furtick may be the individual most associated with this vibrant congregation, but he’d tell you it’s about Jesus Christ and a team of world changers. This includes Chris Allen, a campus pastor who recently took on the primary role of overseeing Student eGroups (Empowerment Groups).
YWJ: What’s the mentality behind your approach to student ministry?
Furtick: From day one, we’ve seen tons of students come into the church. We tried some things in the early days to minister to them, but found they wanted to be in the church with everyone else to worship, serve and more. So every time someone says, “When are you going to start your youth program?” We say, “Look around.”
It’s kind of crazy from the outside looking in, but it’s a huge part of the story at Elevation. Our students have been a secret weapon: If you ask a lot of the adults in our church who brought them, they’d tell you their kid did. It may not be the perfect model, but it’s who God’s called us to be.”
Allen: Pastor Steven has given us the core vision from the top down, which is to create students who don’t just participate in their generation but who lead their generation. There is incredible flexibility within that framework, and this is the best possible environment to experiment with what works and what doesn’t. I’m sold on our eGroup ministry and believe it’s sustainable within our multi-site model. High school and middle school students can find an eGroup at each of our campuses, as well as a place to serve.
That’s another Elevation church secret—almost half of our kids ministry volunteers are students. We’re doing something right in encouraging students to serve. If they all went away, we’d be without half of our volunteers and teachers for eKids.
YWJ: How have your personal experiences played into your philosophy of youth ministry?
Furtick: I was 16 when I gave my life to Christ. Not long after that, my senior pastor asked me to be his youth minister. Every week 30 to 40 kids came in, and it was up to me to learn how to teach the Bible to them.
I sought out mentors who could help, including a local youth pastor named Jamie. He’d listen to me talk about my struggles, and then he’d grill me. Another guy named Chip was my Bible scholar guy, so every Wednesday night I’d sit down with him and we’d unpack Scripture together. Then there was my pastor Mickey, who threw me into this huge opportunity at such a young age and met with me every week to show me what I did right and wrong.
If I hadn’t proactively sought out mentors as a teenager I wouldn’t have been able to be a pastor at such a young age. Back then, I didn’t understand why I was hanging out with these three men when my friends were hanging out with each other, but I see now how God was building a foundation for me. It’s become a model for us now in how we create systems of mentoring in our church.
Allen: I grew up in churches that had traditional youth group models, so I went to a program on Wednesday nights and Sunday School on Sunday morning. I was the stereotypical pastor’s kid who knew all the answers and tried to make life difficult for my leaders. I felt youth group was a social event to hang out with good looking girls—I certainly received biblical knowledge, but felt the people there weren’t as passionate about my life change as I wished.
The thing that got me through high school was some relationships I developed with guys in their 20s who’d come watch me play soccer, take me out to lunch and talk with me about their faith. I wanted to be like them. Later in college, I realized there was something significant about that mentoring I received. God started tugging on my heart for youth ministry, even though I initially turned it down to play pro soccer. I lost some passion for ministry along the way until my wife and I came to Elevation in 2006 for a baptism service. A woman we knew said we’d never leave, and because of what God is doing here, we haven’t.
YWJ: It sounds as if the biggest investment of your energy would be into developing leaders. How does that work?
Allen: We have a structure where I have a small central team over our student ministry, and our primary role is to raise up and develop some of the most awesome mentor-leaders we can find. This includes identifying people who are passionate about students, taking them through our values, teaching them what it means to be eGroup leaders, and doing background checks. Then we get them together regularly to resource and train them. We craft and provide questions from our sermon series, but they can choose to use another curriculum or book. Our basic goal is to monitor the health of those leaders.
Furtick: I like to put my effort into our high school juniors and seniors. Twice a year, I look for the 12 sharpest students who are willing to take part in an intensive mentoring process I lead them through that includes a 21-day Daniel fast, reading through the New Testament in 30 days, unearthing components of calling and purity, and more. It helps keep me connected in a way that shrinks my church down at a level I can stay rooted in. I’d rate my time with those students as one of the top five things I do. Mentoring this generation is a priority I want the church to know about, so I want to make it in vogue to lead a student group. Each year, it seems to get stronger and stronger; and we really do have more and more and students involved.
YWJ: What role do you sense a senior pastor should or shouldn’t play in ministering to the students in his or her church versus handing that off to a youth worker?
Allen: I feel as if it all depends on the gifting and strength of that senior pastor. Personally, if I felt that they’d be detrimental to students, then they need to empower the youth worker; but with someone such as Pastor Steven who has a heart and vision for students, I want him as involved as possible. We spur that on through something called “Student Takeover” that kicks off the school year. Pastor Steven delivers a message just for them, and we bring in new eGroup participants as catalysts to helping them get plugged in.
Furtick: All I can tell you is the way we do it, and I don’t always like the way we do it because it involves me managing around my own weaknesses. I’m not tactical enough to figure out how we’re going to empower students to follow Jesus and be part of the church. I tend to be much more focused on the vision, so I simplify the things we do while Chris and his team control the details. He’s the one who’s going to know the hundreds of schools represented, so he’s the one who needs to determine the strategy. I may jump in and cut away at something only if I sense it affects the church at large, and I don’t really have to do much of that.
The idea is simple: Get every kid in a small group. It’s the vision of our church, so it’s the vision for our ministry.
Tony Myles is an author (The Miracles Of Jesus: A 30-Day Devotional for Students, with Seth McCoy), speaker, and lead pastor since 2006 of Connection Church in Medina, Ohio.