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

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