I’m thinking about ending our large-group youth meetings

Ending large-group youth meetings?Last Sunday night at our sr. high large-group meeting I took the teens through Matthew 9 and specifically focused on Jesus’ illustration about old and new wine skins. After digging into the text a bit, I applied it to our youth ministry and the discontentment I feel toward are ineffectiveness. Sure, there are glimmers of life-change here and there, but nothing close to what I believe God wants to see happen through our ministry.

I concluded the night by doing a bit of vision casting for the fall and asked them to take a survey evaluating our high school ministry based on our deep and wide ministry strategy. I’ll make the survey available as a free download for this week’s Freebie Friday in case you’re interested, but here is a general summary of the results from my group.

[UPDATE: The survey and my lesson are now available to download.]

The evaluation results

  • Kids who claimed to have experienced significant spiritual growth over the past year are also the same kids whose parents have regular spiritual conversations with them at home. These kids also said that the #1 influence on their spiritual growth is their parents. No huge surprise there, but it’s good to have it in writing.
  • Students who claimed to have experienced little to no spiritual growth over the past school year said their parents have infrequent or no spiritual conversations with them and that their friends are the primary influence in their lives. I guess that’s okay as long as they have solid friends, but how mature can their peers possibly be?
  • Our sr. high large-group gathering (game/worship followed by me teaching with interruptions for small group table discussions) was almost unanimously “a little bit” influential in their spiritual growth this year. Follow-up questions indicate that it is not due so much to my content as much as it is due to how it is delivered. The teens want to talk, discuss, and control the conversations themselves. They want to ask their own questions and have less structure. But they also want more depth and they want it to convict them, not just let them feel okay.
  • Almost every teen comes to our large-group gathering because of friends, which tells me that if a couple key people stop coming, the meetings would drop to 0 attendance really fast.
  • Conversely, the high school small groups were almost unanimously “pretty influential” to “it helped change my life” because they say that they feel safe, people are open with each other, and they talk about how God’s Word interacts with their daily life.
  • Most of our kids are not really having spiritual conversations with unbelievers because they’re afraid and nervous. The “go wide” aspect of our strategy/vision/values/purpose/mission isn’t really taking place in kids’ individual lives.

My response

Based on this, I’m talking with the other pastors at my church about ditching sr. high large groups to create another small group that’s more of an open-forum discussion of life issues while I pray that somehow I’ll be able to join their conversation and take it deep into His Word without the prep I’m used to. However, there are a couple things I need to consider:

  • Jesus’ had his small group, but he also saw value in teaching to the multitudes. He didn’t do it the way the religious system called for in his day by using a synagogue, rather he taught from hillsides and boats off-shore, essentially, where people were already gathered. Because of Jesus’ example, I’m not quite sure I’m ready to eliminate large-group teaching times completely, but something must change to make those times more effective in facilitating spiritual growth.
  • Although our small groups are highly influential, do the large-group teaching times play a part in making those groups effective? Maybe the large-group time is what sets the biblical context and background for the small groups to have their effect.
  • I’m not sure how teens defined “spiritual growth” when they filled out the evaluation. It’s possible that some kids equate spiritual growth to an emotional feeling at a camp or conference, in which case, their input about spiritual growth in the survey may or may not be helpful or accurate.
  • An open-forum/deep theological format may be appealing to teens, but part of leadership is knowing what teens needs to hear and think through because they may not know what they really need. We often have to give kids what they need, not just want they want.

I think the next step is to have several of the high school teens over for dinner sometime to talk about these results and the future direction of our high school ministry in the fall. I’m also going to experiment with their “open forum/deep theology” discussion approach in our summer small groups here at my house. But that’s only the beginning. If we keep the large-group meeting time, the changes have to be deeper-rooted than re-microwaving the same large-group ministry or just trying to a different format. I’ll be sure to let you all know what comes from it.

Posted on May 6, 2009

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