An idea for creating a spiritually influential student ministry

A spiritually influential youth ministryA month ago I shared the results of our high school ministry evaluations and how our large-group meeting time seemed to have almost no spiritual influence in teenagers’ lives. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking since then. Usually I’d start by looking at the different elements of our meeting time and ask questions like, “What do they need to be taught? Maybe I’m not going deep enough? Maybe it’s not relevant enough? Less teaching? More discussion?” My mind has gone in hundreds of directions with these kinds of questions and more. But the more I think about it, the more I feel like I’m asking the wrong questions, and, of course, the wrong questions lead to wrong conclusions.

So, I backed up to this idea of being spiritually influential. I’m not really sure what that means exactly, but it’s interesting to think about. As I do so, I feel drawn to the question, “What creates a spiritually influential environment for high school teenagers?” Is it a better teaching series? Someone with more charisma? Bigger games? Giving teenagers 30 minutes to discuss a lesson instead of 15 minutes?

According to the evaluation survey I used (and some good common sense), I think a spiritually influential environment depends on three things. Two of them I can somewhat control, one of them I can’t control at all.

1. What is the most spiritually influential aspect of our ministry?

The evaluations showed that shared experiences are the most spiritually influential aspect of our ministry. These shared experiences took place through trips, events, spontaneous hang-outs, and sharing life together. It’s not really too surprising because, if you think about it, experiences are what have shaped most of us into what we are today. When you think back to the life-changing moments in your life, very rarely is it a sermon you heard, or a small group discussion. Granted, those things have their place and they definitely contribute to life-change, but typically we think back to experiences in our lives that have shaped us, and usually it’s the negative ones that have shaped us the most.

I’m not saying I’m going to try to intentionally create a series of negative experiences for teens, but I do believe that youth ministry needs to become more experiential, in which case the question shifts from what we teach to how we teach. I think I need to be more intentional about creating flexible experiences for teens and teaching through those experiences. For example, going into the inner city to feed homeless people and teaching teens on the spot about materialism, servanthood, equality, etc. The downsides are that it would take a lot more time and energy to prepare, it has the potential to be a lot messier than teaching in a sterile classroom, and I really can’t control the experience anyone actually has.

2. Who is the most spiritually influential person in our ministry?

Although I’d like to think I’m the most spiritually influential person in our ministry, we all know that’s not true. According to the survey my high school teens filled out, the students who claimed they grew a lot spiritually last year are the same ones who admitted to having frequent spiritual conversations at home with their parents. They also said their parents are the #1 spiritual influence in their lives.

So what if we combined the most spiritually influential aspect of our ministry (experiences) with the most spiritually influential person (parents)? What if we intentionally created environments where teens and parents had spiritual discussions and experiences together? What could happen if teens and parents went to the inner city together to feed the homeless? And what if I taught briefly to everyone about materialism, servanthood, equality, etc, and then let the parents lead discussions about the experience with their teens?

3. How does spiritual influence happen?

I’d be remiss to neglect the role of the Holy Spirit in the process of life-change. Obviously, I can’t coerce the Holy Spirit to do anything, but I’d like to do the best job I know how in partnering with Him. That mostly means begging Him in prayer to move, work, and change hearts through the experiences and people involved.

How would it work practically?

I’m still thinking this through, but I’ve been talking with our adult ministries pastor about pushing hard to get parents plugged into small groups where they can “grow deep.” The youth ministry pushes teens into small groups, but statistically a lot of parents aren’t connected to one. The idea is that, as parents grow themselves, the more they can become the spiritually influential person their kids desperately need. And the more that happens, the more effective the bi-monthly experiences to serve and “go wide” together in family-oriented missions trips will be.

I know this isn’t necessarily an earth-shattering idea. In fact, I know some ministries who already do something like this. Even our own church has done things that could fall into this strategy, too, but it would definitely be a shift for us to intentionally make this our focused strategy in taking kids and families deep and wide.

I’m still wrestling with a lot of this. Mostly thinking out loud here in this post. What do you all think?

Posted on June 16, 2009

  • I am thankful that you mention the Holy Spirit and see a value in teaching through experience with “teachable moments,” but I strongly believe there should be a large emphasis on the Word. It is what is quick and powerful. It is what we are commanded to preach, teach and study. Experience is fallible, God’s Word is always true and provides what we need for daily living. It is our only authority for faith and practice. It is impossible to know God without knowing His Word. So, while experience is good and can be a wonderful tool, the emphasis needs to be the Word. We can’t ignore or neglect those times of teaching it and studying it. I guess what I am saying is make sure there is a proper balance and correct perspective.

    • Totally agree, Gabe. I'm suggesting that maybe I should integrate God's Word with their real-life experiences, though. Communicating His Word isn't necessarily limited to a stage or "sit in a circle" teaching time, as I'm sure you'd agree.

      • Dan

        AMEN!!! Thank GOD someone is finally saying what I've been believing for a long, long time. You can't sit in a circle and pound the Bible into a teen's head!!! Yet I still have over-controlling parents that believe that's the best way to teach not just their child, but all of the youth, probably because that's the way they "learned" in youth group.

        A simple exercise will prove your point, Tim. Have a group of parents write down the 5 most influential sermons in their lives. Give them a few minutes. Then have these same parents write down the 5 most influential moments (or people) in their lives. Almost all of them will find it much easier to do the latter.

        But some people still just don't get it. You use the moments and experiences to reinforce the Word, not replace it. Some people are just not happy unless you are preaching to the kids 24/7…

  • PJ Wong

    great way to think internal discipleship tim!

    only setback I seem to see with this is when students don't have families who attend the church or aren't even believers… however, that even gives way for a family to "spiritually" adopt a child in the youth group; leading way to even more growth within the lives of both the student and families…

    great post.

  • I have a friend here in FL that has multi-generational small groups based on New Hope Oahu's Life Journal ( that has a children's, youth and adult version where they spend time reading the bible, journaling (scripture, observation, application and prayer) and then discussing what the read and journaled.

  • Isaac

    I second that – the Holy Spirit's presence is crucial in our lives in every way possible. Like Tim, we are using the Deep & Wide Strategy where we have now become dicipleship-driven & started launching a community outreach team, evangelism team, drama team to go wide in different ways.

  • Isaac

    We are in the Interested stage where we are teaching the 30 core truths. Since there isn't a curriculum I am searched the internet for material to use and found I just so happens that Craig's adult resources are perfect for my teens. For example, they did a four part series on the Holy Spirit, Satan & his Demons, & Angels during ther Supernatural series and that took care of three of the core truths. The So You're Dead, Now What? series takes care of talking about Death (Judgment), Hell, & Heaven. I utilize the videos during the teaching & they supply the verses. Like Tim said, its not what we're saying – its how we're saying it. Since I'm bivocational, these resources have cut down on my time and it has allowed us to plan for the "Go Wide" part of the strategy while still keeping a high level in the "Growing Deep" part.
    We've also started openin the church earlier for prayer and 1/3 of the group comes early to
    pray. This has made a big difference for us over the past 2 months.

  • Dave Langer

    One of the issues I continue to struggle with is the seemingly irresistible "need" for churches to segregate by age. Don't understand it, and don't really see a model for it in the Bible. Jesus taught the multitudes – men, women and children together. He even demanded the children be brought to him. As I was growing up, I remember being in church with my mother – not in "Children's church" or "youth group". We did have children & adult Sunday School – but it was just that – school! It wasn't game time or "fellowship" time. We were expected to learn! And when church started, we ALL went to church – where we were expected to behave, pay attention, and be able to discuss what we heard.

  • Dave Langer

    And, yes, the "sermons" I remember most – those that had a lasting impact – came from my grandmother and other godly adults – not in church or Sunday School – but as we sat on the front porch in the cool of the evening, or worked in the vegetable garden, or sat in the kitchen as she cooked. Back then, people like my grandmother felt it their DUTY to instruct the younger generation. Today it is seen as te Youth Pastors duty. Back then, the church was for everyone, and most adults felt that children/youth needed to be challenged, not entertained.

    Maybe that was just my experience, but I think we lose a ot when we segregate ourselves…but don't know how to break the paradigm.

    BTW, I'm 52 years old, love working with kids and young adults, have raised 4 daughters and have had 4 foster daughters as well. They range in age now from 18 to 28.

    also remember that the m

    • Dan

      We, too, are trying to get more "family-oriented", whatever that means. But I think that does allow for more of what you're talking about, family and other adults mentoring children.

      Yes, I have parents that see it as the Youth Group's duty to spiritually educate their children. they expect to drop off their children and 90 minutes later expect to pick up totally transformed children. Sorry, but it typically doesn't happen that way. Transformation is a long term process, and one that more effectively happens with involved parents than at church alone.

      But I think in a roundabout way you have illustrated my (and Tim's) point–you remember the sermons more for who they came from, your godly grandmother and other adults, than for their actual content. Not that the content is unimportant, but I've always felt that real learning happens in the context of relationships. Jesus was the ultimate example of that.

  • Jeff

    Great post, combining the Word with real life experiences… I think someone else taught that way…hmmm. Like you said it will be more difficult to pull off, but not only could you have a teaching moment on the spot, you could also use the experience as the teaching point for Sunday. Good stuff, lots to think about.

    • Oh yeah? Someone else taught by combining the Word with real life experiences? Who?! :)

      Takes more of an investment, but the long-term spiritual benefits can be great.

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