Have you ever returned to a restaurant after a long period of time, just to find that they’ve taken your favorite item off of the menu?
The last time this happened was on my wife’s birthday lunch, and she decided we’d go to a place the whole family loves—because she’s much more selfless than I am. Everything was great, the kids were smiling (and eating crayons) as we perused the menu looking for the items we knew we were going to order. All was right with the world until, in a moment of cold sweat and terrible clarity, I realized my favorite item had been removed from the menu. When the waiter returned to the table, I asked him what was going on, absolutely confident that he would tell me it was all a huge mix-up. Instead, he confirmed my greatest fear: The Basil Pesto Linguine was no more.
So I did the only thing I knew to do… I stood up, tore my shirt in two, flipped the table, and grabbed both children in one fell swoop to begin our commute to another restaurant. Okay, I didn’t, but I did spend the rest of my wife’s birthday lunch going back and forth between complaining and pretending everything was okay. Because I’m a great husband. (We’re all on a journey; don’t judge mine.)
If you’ve been around ministry more than a week, you’ve probably come across people who take the same approach and apply it to the way they participate in the local church. In fact, if we’re honest with one another, we’ve been these people ourselves. We have preferences (especially as ministry leaders) and we’re not afraid to share them. When it comes to music, preaching, and programs, we all have our ideas as to which styles are most effective.
Though this isn’t inherently bad, there’s a point where personal preference becomes a huge issue in church ministry. When insiders begin to think that church isn’t only for them, but also about them, something has to change. We can’t forget that the ultimate mission of the church (Matthew 28) was to go, which requires a posture that faces out toward the world, not exclusively in toward our like-minded brothers and sisters. The reason this matters for us as youth ministers is that if we’re not careful, we run the risk of leading the next generation to create churches that will fill up with church people (and their preferences) at the cost of pursuing those in our schools and communities who have yet to experience Jesus.
So how do we ensure we’re leading teenagers to create a church that’s for everyone? Here are a few ideas:
Invite them into the greatest opportunity they’ll ever know.
When you invite students to create a ministry that’s for their unchurched friends, you invite them to participate in the Great Commission. You teach them that connecting to a local church isn’t simply about holding perfect attendance and becoming biblically literate, it’s about being the church to their community. As you cast vision for a ministry that’s focused on reaching people, you invite your insiders into the opportunity to be a part of someone else’s story of life change. When they help baptize the friend they had the courage to invite, they’ll thank you for showing them that the church isn’t just for church people.
Create experiences that clarify your heart for outsiders.
Ask yourself a question: If you were the varsity football captain, with no history with church and no context for the importance of Jesus, would you like your youth group? If you’re creating programs that primarily appeal to the desire of your insiders to “grow deeper” or “be filled up” every week, you might want to reconsider your approach. Yes, our programs should be helpful for believers, but they should also be helpful for the 16-year-old who doesn’t know Jesus from James Franco. This is so hard to do, because if you make this shift, some of the teenagers you know best might not like it—they might even leave.
I’ve experienced this personally. I’ve heard things such as, “The teaching isn’t deep enough” (what does that even mean?), and “It feels like everything is designed for new people.” As hard as those moments are, we’ve decided we’ll be a place where anyone can belong, even before they believe. That means we create programs that attract outsiders while equipping our insiders for personal ministry (small groups are vital for this). I believe this is why, in a recent survey of our youth ministry, 43% of our high schoolers indicated they were previously moderately or completely unchurched before connecting to our youth ministry.
Set your insiders loose to lead.
I get it. Some of you may be thinking, “These seeker-sensitive approaches lead to no growth and surface-level Christianity.” I agree with you, when this approach is done wrong. See, I actually believe that if you do this right, you’ll see exponential growth in the lives of the believers in your ministry. I believe that when teenagers are engaged in personal ministry, such as serving in the church and investing in their unbelieving friends outside of the church, their faith will expand beyond anything that happens in a weekly Bible study or sermon. Personal ministry will lead them to develop a faith centered on serving (which Jesus prioritized) and a faith that withstands different opinions and hard-hitting questions (because they have a small group to process with). They’ll begin to see Jesus, alive and moving in their own lives and in the lives of those they lead to Him. I would challenge you to move your discipleship model from one of exclusive biblical education, to one of mobilized faith outside of the walls of your youth room and outside of your students’ individual comfort zones.
When you begin to not just talk about the Great Commission, but instill the active mission of the church into your insiders, I believe you’ll see them grow and you’ll see their unchurched friends reached with the gospel. This approach to youth ministry takes discipline—and thick skin. But it might just be the best shift you’ve ever made. Not only will you be raising a generation that knows how to reach their friends and is committed to their personal faith, you’ll be creating a church for tomorrow that’s more concerned about reaching people than keeping people. When we as believers begin to orient our preferences, not around ourselves, but around the prospective faith of our unchurched friends and family members, I believe we’ll experience the type of joy Jesus described in so many of his stories (such as Luke 15).