I love mowing the lawn. And yet, one thing drives me crazy—crooked lines. When I was young, I would mow the lawn with my eyes on the path in front of me, trying to keep the wheels perfectly lined up. But that rarely delivered the rows I wanted. Then someone shared their wisdom: pick a point at the end of the row and if you keep your eyes there then you’ll naturally mow a straight line.
This works for mowing the lawn, and it works in life and ministry too. Fix your eyes on the destination, and you’ll move in that direction. But if you focus on what’s immediately before you, then you’ll swerve off course.
The purpose of youth ministry is not to build large programs with many students but to establish students with lifelong faith in Jesus Christ. By keeping this lifelong mission at the forefront of everything we do, youth workers and parents can rest with confidence in the faithfulness of God. But if we focus on our programs and next week’s schedule, then we’ll slowly veer off course.
Apply the Gospel to Everything
The gospel should never be assumed, and it shouldn’t only be seen as an evangelistic message. It is the message of God’s grace for sinners through Jesus’s life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. This is the bedrock foundation for everything about the Christian’s life. Students who are discipled to view the gospel as their framework for everything in life are students who are sent out as Great Commission students. Their identity is anchored in Christ. Their education is anchored in Christ. Student’s relationships and plans for the future, as well as the ways they use social media, are anchored in Christ.
Too many students only hear the gospel in the context of evangelism. Jesus’s preaching connected the message of the kingdom of God with everything in life, not only one’s individual relationship with God. Consider the Sermon on the MountJesus anchored the disciples in what it means to be his disciple (see the Beatitudes in Matthew 5:3–11) and then helped them understand what it means to live accordingly.
Teach Them to Love the Church
Teenagers and children need more than a youth group and Sunday School class. They need a church. This is how they know what the Christian life looks like when they’re young adults, newlyweds, parents, empty-nesters, unemployed, widowed, retired, etc. Isolating students from the older generations might provide more entertaining ministries that can motivate them to attend during their teen years, but it does so at the cost of long-term participation in the church. When students only receive age-targeted ministry, there is no reason to expect them to find value in church participation when they graduate. There will be a day when students are out of your ministry, so it’s up to you and their parents to help them discover the beauty of being part of the church.
Encourage Parents to Dream Biblical Dreams for their Kids
I sometimes ask groups of parents what their greatest prayer for their teenager is by the time they graduate. Most Christian parents say they want their son or daughter to have a lifelong faith in Christ. Of course, that’s a good and biblical prayer. Unfortunately, this dream often falls prey to the same crooked lines mentioned earlier. Short-term goals can easily overtake and distract from the long-term dreams parents have for their kids. As a youth pastor, it’s important to give parents space to wrestle with this temptation without heaping guilt onto their shoulders.
Giving parents some case studies to discuss together can help them think through some likely scenarios before they happen. It will equip them to lead their kids in alignment with their prayers for lifelong faith. Will students sacrifice their starting roster spot because they chose to attend a youth retreat instead? When students are ridiculed for their faith or lose a friend or receive a bad grade on a paper because it reflects a biblical worldview, how should we respond? Do we help students endure with grace and humility, or do we teach them to fight for their freedoms? Of course these situations are often more complicated and nuanced than can be represented here, but everything can become a discipleship moment with teenagers. Are we encouraging parents to dream biblical dreams for their kids, or are we content so long as they bring their kids to our programs?
Let them Lead. Let them Fail.
Developing student leaders is one of the best ways to equip teenage Christians to make a gospel-impact on their world. Not every student will become a missionary or pastor. Most will become teachers or nurses or electricians or homemakers. But what kind of workers will they become? Casting a vision for students to use their gifts and passions for the sake of Christ will prepare them for a lifetime of ministry… and allowing them to struggle and fail is crucial.
Never set a student up for failure. That’s unloving and cruel. Students are growing up in an increasingly shame-based culture that highlights their failures through social media. Giving students space to lead and struggle shows them these moments don’t need to be soul-crushing. Instead, we can help them discover that Christian leadership is actually servanthood. So, if they fail, it’s not the end of the world because it’s not about them—it’s the grace of God that’s at work, even through their failures.
Ultimately, youth ministry isn’t about youth ministry at all. It’s about adults whose faith took root in their teen years. Keep this goal in mind. Fix your eyes on this long-term vision when teaching students, counseling parents, integrating students into the life of the church, and empowering students to serve.