In the Battle of Britain during World War II, the Royal Air Force Fighter Command had such a severe shortage of pilots that it relied on young and inexperienced men. In some cases, these fighter pilots were thrust into combat with only a few hours of training.
Some youth-ministry volunteers may feel like they can relate. While they won’t enter aerial combat, they have little to no training and are ministering to teenagers who ask big questions about Christianity and are natives of rapidly changing youth culture.
Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youth Workers
Do you feel overwhelmed with the logistics of starting or keeping a youth ministry alive? What about the tricky theological questions that keep you and your fellow youth workers on your toes? It’s a lot for what is usually an “all-volunteer army.” Help is here. Veteran youth pastor Mike McGarry offers a practical, comprehensive tool to jumpstart your youth ministry and help youth workers with biblical answers to the tough questions students ask. In a two-part approach, he tackles both the practical skills and biblical depth needed for effective gospel-centered ministry to today’s youth. He leads readers through 20 theological truths they should be equipped to discuss with students and offers 20 practical skills every youth worker should cultivate. Lead Them to Jesus shows youth workers how the gospel shapes every part of how they do youth ministry and will get your whole team on the same biblical and logistical page.
Mike McGarry wrote Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youth Workers in response to the need for better resources to equip volunteer youth workers. As a youth pastor, he was seeking an effective training resource but didn’t find one that met his needs. He listed the questions and topics he wanted to hear being addressed—and ended up with the outline for this book (1–2). McGarry has also written A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry: Teenagers in the Life of the Church and has become a trusted voice on biblically driven youth ministry.
Theology Before Practical Issues
McGarry breaks his book into two parts: “Biblical Truths for Youth Workers” and “Practical Help for Youth Workers.” In the first part, each chapter is framed as a response to a biblical-theological question that teenagers might ask:
- Can I Trust and Understand the Bible?
- Why Is the Church Important?
- Why Does God Allow Suffering?
I recently transitioned from serving in vocational youth ministry for seven years, and the questions I was asked most often lined up with those McGarry chose to cover.
In the second part, McGarry tackles concrete aspects of doing youth ministry:
- Fostering a Healthy Ministry Culture
- Using Social Media Effectively
- Forming a Partnership with Parents
In speaking to these issues, he advocates for intergenerational, biblically based, and church-centric youth ministry. This structure was intentional because McGarry stresses equipping youth workers biblically and theologically over anything else (2–3). It’s more important that they can handle God’s Word than understand the latest social-media trends.
Biblically Faithful and Practical
McGarry addresses perennial youth ministry questions in ways that are biblically faithful and practical. When he handles fun and games, for example, he suggests that their role in youth ministry should be to foster fellowship, create a welcoming culture, and remove barriers to relationships between students from different backgrounds. By emphasizing these biblical goals, McGarry gives youth workers a nobler purpose for fun and games than simply giving the kids what they want. At the same time, he points out a few warning signs that fun and games might be creeping too far up the priority list.
It’s more important that youth workers can handle the Word of God than understand the latest social-media trends.
If the search for new and engaging games is monopolizing a leader’s schedule at the expense of more important tasks, like preparing to teach, then they may be outgrowing their role. Or if time or money is excessively funneled toward fun or games, reevaluation may be necessary. I’ve regularly experienced the tension between trying to make our gatherings fun while not cheapening the experience or distracting from biblical instruction. McGarry lays out helpful principles that will guide youth workers in striking the right balance in their ministry contexts.
One of the areas where youth workers may feel like they’ve been thrown into combat untrained is in speaking to LGBTQ issues. McGarry provides a welcome chapter on these questions, in which he gives a crash course in terminology and provides some suggestions for how youth ministries can engage with teenagers. In doing so, however, he helpfully emphasizes that particularly difficult ministry questions are best answered within the local church. While he suggests, for example, using the preferred pronouns of LGBTQ youth, he recommends that this decision be made case-by-case in consultation with local church leadership (136).
I have found relatively few youth ministry resources that are both committed to the authority of Scripture and helpful in speaking to realities of ministering to teenagers, but Lead Them to Jesus is both of these things, even when biblical faithfulness means taking countercultural positions.
How Should It Be Used?
Overall, Lead Them to Jesus is an excellent book and a welcome resource for youth workers. I was, however, left with an unanswered question. As McGarry makes clear, the primary expected audience of his book is volunteer youth workers (1), and he assumes at points that the reader will report to a staff youth pastor (186). In other chapters, however, McGarry addresses topics most relevant for those in vocational ministry, such as planning a budget.
Biblical faithfulness means taking countercultural positions.
The line between vocational and volunteer youth workers is often blurred, and in many ministry contexts volunteers take on responsibilities reserved for staff in other contexts. But McGarry intends for Lead Them to Jesus to be used primarily as an equipping resource for volunteer youth workers, so I wonder if some of the content he includes will be irrelevant to many of his readers. I would be interested to hear McGarry share how he implemented it himself. Perhaps including a recommended approach to using Lead Them to Jesus for training would have further strengthened the book.
As every youth pastor knows, volunteer youth workers are the backbone of their ministry. For that reason, equipping them must be the highest priority. Lead Them to Jesus is the best and most up-to-date training material for volunteer youth workers that I’ve encountered. With this resource, youth workers will still march onto a battlefield—but they won’t be unarmed.