Youth ministry can be an uphill battle. The congregation and church leadership often don’t fully understand the challenges that youth leaders face and don’t know how to support them. Yet many church leaders are still looking to start or develop a youth ministry.

In the parable of the sower and soils (Matthew 13), Jesus compares the seeds that fell on good soil versus the seeds that fell on rocky or shallow soil. If we don’t faithfully prepare the soils of youth ministry, we should not expect to reap a harvest. So how do we prepare the church for effective youth ministry? Based on 15 years as a youth pastor and a dozen more consulting with churches and training youth pastors, I offer these four key ingredients.

First, youth ministry needs a profile. The average congregation is not thinking about youth, especially if there are not many in their midst. So we need to draw attention to the teens in the congregation and the community. Think about the vast number of youth who have no contact with the church. Raise the issue of youth ministry in your congregation and in time it will be on the hearts of most of your members. The issues we talk about become our priorities. Mention students in prayers during services and ask the congregation to be praying for youth. Use church newsletters and bulletins to highlight youth-related news.

Second, youth ministry needs a vision. Bill Hybels in his book Courageous Leadership defines vision as “a picture of the future that produces passion.” A vision is more than just a good idea. It has the potential to captivate the attention of a congregation in a way that stirs people to action. A vision for youth ministry is more than just stating that we want more youth in the church. More compelling is the idea that we want to reach a generation of young people for Christ. The task needs to be understood as vital and urgent. In order for people to get excited, they to see the need and potential.

Fifteen years ago, Holy Cross Church outside Charleston, South Carolina, was a small congregation of mostly older people. At that time, the minister explained to the congregation that they needed to hire a youth minister. The response was overwhelmingly negative based on the obvious fact that there were no young people in the church. As the minister explained, that’s exactly why they needed a youth minister. Today Holy Cross has two full-time youth ministers working exclusively with teenagers and the largest ministry to teens in its community.

It is the task of church leadership not only to declare that youth work will be a priority, but also to share a picture of what that will look like.

Third, youth ministry needs a strategy. How will we get to where we want to be? Developing strategy takes much prayer and time. Good youth ministry does not appear overnight. A church must think through realistic and measurable steps in order to begin or develop the necessary work. Avoid the trap of getting so caught up in the excitement of the vision that everyone expects a quantum leap forward. A realistic timetable will consider the challenge and count the cost. We develop strategy when we can divide the big picture into manageable sized smaller pictures. At the same time we also have to know how to answer the question, “What will we do when we get there?” 

The strategy must be driven by our understanding of Scripture before we consider the cultural context. We see in 1 Thessalonians 2 what Paul ministry’s strategy looked like: build relationships, proclaim the gospel, and teach Scripture. We ought to avoid thinking in terms of creating programs but rather build our strategy around proclamation and discipleship in the context of relationships. The strategy must be communicated to the whole congregation. People respond to opportunities to get involved when they know and are excited about what is going on.

Finally, youth ministry needs support. Youth leaders must know the church is behind them. There is nothing more empowering than knowing firsthand that church members are praying every day for me and for the youth. When youth ministry is a priority we make resources available to the work. Youth should not be relegated to the worst rooms in the church. Many youth pastors feel like second-tier staff and would leave youth ministry if not for the call of God. Youth ministers should be featured up front regularly and, where appropriate, preach occasionally in their churches. Exposure allows the congregation to get to know them. Youth themselves must be a visible part of congregational life. The church needs to see and hear from those whose lives are being changed by the gospel.

Setting up the church for success in youth ministry is a learning experience. The uniqueness of each congregation—shaped by location, population, and much more—suggests that one size does not fit all. The process must be bathed in prayer and shaped by Scripture. This is God’s work and not some program, scheme, or cultural trend.

Questions to consider:

  • What do we want the church to look like in five years in regards to youth ministry?
  • Are our current structures or the way we do ministry leading us there?
  • How will we measure the effectiveness of our structure and strategy?
  • Is God’s Word and prayer guiding our youth ministry efforts?