The Unwritten Pages – Writing Youth Ministry one page at a time
The Unwritten Pages exists to help Youth Pastors form their Christian walk and mind so that their pages will be written tomorrow through Christ. Founder, Pastor Scott Talley, has been serving in the ministry for 14 years in different forms of ministries. Scott focuses on and continually is discovering more about theology, discipleship, missions, church planting, and church revitalization.
Last semester, I had the amazing opportunity to go Thailand through Clayton King Ministries. While I was there, I got to experience all kinds of different things and God taught me a lot. I got to do fun things like riding an elephant and releasing floating lanterns from the rooftop of the church, but I also did some challenging things like trying to have conversational practice with a semi-interested group of high schoolers and surviving a car ride while sick. I even learned seven different words or sayings within the week! However, what God taught me while I was there is what is going to stick with me the rest of my life. I’ll sum it up in three little points that I’ll go on to elaborate: patience, encouragement, and teamwork.
Patience: This is something that it seems like everyone will say they need more of. I know it is very true for me! But while in Thailand, I think I learned the meaning of that word on a whole new level. While we did have a translator, we still had to work hard to communicate with the people we were talking to. The translator wasn’t always by us or with our group, so we had to be creative with ways to try to get our message across. It was often funny, and we got to laugh at each other, but it was also sometimes frustrating when what I wanted to say wasn’t understood and visa-versa. However, the desperate longing for understanding on both parts kept the team going. The students we worked with wanted to understand us and we wanted to understand them. God answered our prayers of patience as we worked to communicate.
Encouragement: I never really thought about how much a few words can do, but words really are powerful. I got to see kid’s faces light up when I or one of the team members would tell them they did a good job. Little words of encouragement, genuine encouragement, helped me get through each day as well. Team members pointing out something that I did well and helping me improve in other areas, comforting me when I did get sick, and cheering me on when it was my turn to do something are all things that motivated me. With our little team of eight, it was easy to get comfortable enough to do this too. We quickly learned about each other and were able to provide encouragement when needed. Returning from the trip, that was something that I have been working hard on getting better at. Just a few words can make the biggest difference.
Teamwork: Like I said, our team was small. That has its pros and cons. It could have been easy to get frustrated with each other after living under the same roof for a week, but I think our team did very well! We broke off into our smaller groups easily to work on different things. Even though my group was the story group, we helped out the craft group with preparing their supplies. We got help from the craft group and music group and creating our props. We all were able to openly share ideas and critique each other in order to improve. That kind of teamwork is something I want to achieve in every group setting. It can be hard, and it might make some people uncomfortable because that kind of teamwork requires vulnerability and a willingness to make changes.
Every fall each of our ministries see a change where new students transition into Junior High within our churches. Many of us prepare for weeks or the summer for the new class of students that will walk into our doors at the end of August or early September. Within our ministry here in Orlando, Florida we look forward and prepare for the “Great Transition.” We must see the need for planning and having a game plan for moving students into our ministry. Below I have included the four areas I see as pivotal for transition students into our Junior High Ministry and Discipleship relationships.
In my context for doing ministry, we have Life-groups (think Sunday School, Small Group, or table-groups). We use Life-groups as a way to teach students and help them grow in a small group setting of their fellow peers. Having a small group relationship for Junior High students is pivotal for them to have a place to be fed spiritually, have accountability relationships, and have a consistent place for them to hear God’s word.
The second way that I recommend helping with the “Great Transition” is to leave your office and ministry building and head out to spend time with the students in your ministry. The greatest tool I have found in ministry has been going out to watch our students play sports or in some extracurricular activities. It may seem like an easy win, but in reality, showing up to their activities shows the students you care about them. The “Great Transition” brings nervousness to students, but when they see you on the sidelines, it helps break down barriers and open doors to students trusting you.
Another great way to help with the transition of students is connecting with families. I am a massive believer in Download Youth Ministry. If you do not use it, then you need to go and check it out right away. Yes, they have great resources and tools, but I love the newsletter application that helps me put together newsletters for our parents. I have found that connecting with parents through our newsletter helps parents stay in the loop. Parents see the “Great Transition,” as something that can be scary, makes them feel like their child is growing up to fast, and is the last stop in the church before their child heads off to High School then college. We must make the transition smooth and help parents stay connected to our ministry.
Lastly, just like you, I love hanging out with students in my ministry. I want students to get connected to Christ and grow in Christ. However, what Student Pastor does not want that same thing. I have formed a culture within our Student Ministry where our Youth Workers and those who volunteer are expected to commit to discipling at least one student within our ministry. I know that may seem like a lot, but Student Ministry is time consuming, and discipleship has become a key to spiritual growth in ministry. Build a culture of discipleship and watch your students begin to grow in Christ and take ownership of your ministry.
No matter where you are in ministry, the key for transitioning is found right where you are currently. There is no need to buy high tech or the next best thing for teenagers. Instead, love on students and their families.
As youth workers, our jobs can be kind of vague at times. There are the basics that we have to do, like show up for meetings and teach the Bible, but beyond that our jobs can seem like an endless pit of possibilities. How do we know what to do or not to do, what programs and teams to launch, what trips to take, what to say yes to and where to put our energy. If you are a workaholic type, this vagueness can be dangerous. You can work yourself into a frenzy and quickly arrive at self-imposed burnout. If you err more on the side of, let’s say, “a little too chill,” you might find yourself on the opposite side of the problem: directionless and ultimately leading a stale, lifeless ministry.
Over the past 14 years of being in youth ministry, I’ve seen leaders fail by overdoing it and by underdoing it. Today, I want to answer the question of where to put our focus and limited energy in the vague landscape that is our job. After thinking hard about this, I’ve narrowed it down to three areas to put our focus if our goal is to make our students love coming to church.
1. Relationships Are Key!
I’m 100% convinced that even if you had John Crist MC your youth group, Francis Chan speak, and you had free In-n-Out every week, but your students were not known by anyone, they would eventually stop coming to your youth group. Middle schoolers have a deep need to know and are known. They value relationships above anything else. It is equally important that they have relationships with adults as well as peers. (I know what you’re thinking; that I left out the most important one, GOD! Of course, that is the only relationship that truly matters. The purpose of this piece is to put the necessary things in place so that they come and keep coming to church to nourish that most important relationship in their life.)
Students need adults other than their parents to pour into them consistently. In my ministry, this is accomplished by an incredible adult volunteer staff that lead my small groups. If your youth group is small, you need small groups. If your youth group is big, you need small groups. Small groups are the best vehicle for students to have relationships with caring and godly adults. I challenge my small group leaders to be ready to greet, sit with and hang out with every single one of their students at some point during the night. If they are superstars, they will reach out during the week as well and maybe even attend their basketball games. If everyone does this, then every student will have an involved adult make contact with them at some point during the week.
Students also need relationships with peers to feel like they belong at church. Again, this is primarily accomplished through small groups. The relational strategy here is that you find ways to bond your small groups. Having a Biblical discussion each week and praying for one another is huge, but people open up and bond after shared experiences too. Some practical strategy ideas for this are: have each small group plan a small group night out twice a year, turn games into small group competitions, plan an escape room at the church in each small group room, or have a small group video competition.
These shared experiences create bonds within a small group that make sharing and doing life together possible and richer. Small groups should be the hub of our ministries because nothing truly life-changing happens outside of relationships.
2. Keep it Fun!
Have you ever heard of the “5 Love Languages”? Love languages refer to the way people give and receive love from others. It doesn’t take 14 years with our 6-8 grade friends to figure out that middle schoolers love language is fun! Pastors often make the mistake of thinking that profoundly spiritual and deeply fun don’t go together. I would argue that fun is deeply spiritual, especially for a middle school student. I regularly explain to parents that the reason we play games is not to fill time, but it’s to meet the love language of their student so that their walls come down and they can hear our message. Missionaries in poverty-stricken countries often say that people can’t hear the gospel message over their grumbling stomachs. The people need their practical needs (food) met before they can receive the message. That’s the same idea here. If we want middle schoolers to listen to what we have to say we can use their need of fun to create an environment where they can hear us. I’m always amazed how tangibly the chemistry in the room changes after we’ve played a fun game together. I literally can see the change in students and their respectability to our message and our relationships.
3. Keep it Relevant!
Lastly, focus your energy on relevance. Become a student of your students. Know what they need to hear from God’s Word and how they need to hear it. Wrap your illustrations, topics, and messages in terms that hit home for them. This isn’t a push for awkwardly trying to use the word “lit” as often as possible, but to deliver messages that reflect we know what they are about, what they struggle with, and what matters to them. Relevant messages flow out of our intentional relationship and time spent with students. This also applies to the space you use, the graphics you design, the videos you show, the music your play, the style of worship you pursue, the games you play, and the events you plan. Everything you do should scream, “middle school”! They need to know that this place was made specifically for them and their friends.
The senior pastor at my church, Larry Osborne, wrote a book called, “Sticky Church.” The main theme throughout the book is that for a church to be “sticky” we need to focus on two things: glue people to God’s Word and glue people to each other. It’s in the context of the power or God’s Word and relationship that we see how the church can be a means of true life transformation. We can’t say “yes” to everything, and we don’t need to. But may I encourage you that whatever you choose to do in your ministry to do it with intention and excellence.
Recently I have been thinking about leadership and studying different models of leadership within local churches. Now, I know you are thinking “oh no! Another Leadership blog and article.” I can promise that this blog aims to look at developing a culture of leadership within your ministry among your student population.
I have heard from different churches that the Student Leadership teams are becoming a thing of the past. I hope not, but from my research, I realize that they are not fading away from doing Student Leadership. The crisis or issue they are facing in different churches is how to produce and run a Student Leadership team efficiently. I want to show five ways to develop leaders within your ministry that will help students buy into your ministry for the long haul.
I know that none of us as Youth Workers are naive, but one of the most significant ways to use the students in our ministries exists through technology. I have found over the last few years that when I put a student in charge of technology, they take ownership within our ministry quicker. Why? Because students in our ministries are part of Generation Z and they understand technology from a different perspective than us. Trust me, I am a huge technological nerd, but students understand technology and have creative ways for the ministry to use it for spiritual growth.
I am about to propose something that may make some Youth Workers cringe a little bit, but please stay with me. Develop leaders within your ministry by having them teach classes and small groups. I have found it to be something that challenges our students to get outside of their comfort zones, but students listen to what their peers have to say in a Student Ministry setting. What ways can you right now release your students to teach? Remember the goal is to develop leaders. The teaching opportunity can be used as a coaching moment.
Who knows your audience and brand better than your students? Nobody! Have your students take ownership and help share your brand with other students. I have seen leaders grow and even be developed because they wanted to help share our ministry with others. Here is a question I ask our student leaders, “What makes our ministry different than any other ministry down the road from us?” What I am asking our student leaders is what makes us unique and a ministry that people want to be a part of weekly.
I labeled this one coaching, but realistically I am referencing discipleship. Meeting students at local eateries or coffee shops to dive deeper into God’s Word is essential for ministries to develop leaders. There is something special about discipleship groups meeting and helping teenagers own and live out their faith. The groundwork for spiritual and leadership development happens outside of the local church buildings. We must go out and meet with students in their environment.
Lastly, the students within our student ministries across America are teenagers who have a hunger and desire to serve. The struggle they face is they will not ask you to help, and they will join whatever need that attracts them, which leads to them taking ownership of different causes. One of the most significant places for teenagers to serve is within the local church. There is no job to small or big for students to help. But you must invite them into the opportunity to serve.
Just letting you know that I am aware that not all five ways will fit your ministry setting, but please use and adapt everything to suit your ministry.