Spiritual Growth: shifting my approach to youth ministry

An interesting shift has taken place in our Sr. High large-group meetings. For a while I’ve felt pressure toward the end of each meeting to quickly wrap up our Bible study in order to end on time, not because we started late but because discussions naturally seemed to progress past our allotted time. I thought our typical hour of games, fun and relationship building followed by 30 minutes of Bible study was working okay — numbers were steady and no one was complaining — but when we started Dare 2 Share’s G.O.S.P.E.L. Journey, the 40 minute DVD sessions caused our meeting format to slowly morph into 15 minutes of games, fun, relationship building and worship with 75 minutes of Bible study. Even then, we still went another 15 minutes overtime before abruptly ending some of the most stimulating theological discussions we’ve ever had.

Throughout the time format shift I was concerned that we’d confuse some of the new believers in our group by going too deep too fast, but actually the Bible became more intriguing for them and they started asking deeper questions. They wanted to see that there’s an element of mystery to the Scriptures, not have all mystery removed by shallow Sunday school answers.

I also anticipated that some of the kids might start to drop out since the Bible study was now three times longer than usual, but actually the opposite happened — some started inviting friends on their own initiative. New students are still coming almost every week! Our Sr. High room is now jam-packed with kids filling every couch, sitting all over the floor and even spilling out into the entry-way.

I’m embarrassed by this realization: kids don’t come to youth group because they need me to organize dodge ball for them; they come because they want to be deeply challenged in their faith. They’re tired of superficial churchy Bible lessons from some one-size-fits-all cookie-cutter curriculum manufacturer — they want to move from spiritual milk to solid food (1 Peter 2:2; Hebrews 5:11-14) and I regret to say that my approach to youth group was not facilitating the process as it should have. No longer am I essentially bribing kids to church with fun stuff and then quickly throwing in some Bible stuff before they run out the door.

After gaining feedback from a couple high school students, we decided to continue with the current format of 10-15 minutes of games and/or worship with 75 minutes of in-depth Bible study. In fact, the two choices between which studies to do next were How To Study The Bible, based on my Bible college and seminary notes, or systematic theology! We decided to start with an in-depth 6-week series on the former (with homework!) and will pick up the latter next. Just last week I spent about 15 hours preparing for How to Study the Bible and I’m pumped! (Sorry, can’t share my notes here because it’s heavily based on copyrighted material from my former Bible college and seminary professors, but the book I’m distributing to the kids is: “Living By The Book,” by Howard Hendricks.)

Dare 2 Share’s Deep and Wide Ministry Thesis ties in exactly with what is happening at our Sr. High large-group meetings: as teens grow deeper in their faith, they become more passionate and reach more people for Christ. Likewise, Mark Batterson is drawing the same conclusions when he blogged last week, “It seems to me that emerging generations don’t want watered-down, dumbed-down, or soft-sell versions of the truth. I think they want to be challenged and confronted.” Willow Creek’s REVEAL study is showing that the exact same thing is also true for adults. In fact, Willow is changing their entire ministry strategy because of it, and I think I am, too.

Posted on April 15, 2008

  • william collins

    tim, i totally agree with you! ive just started youth ministry a year ago. i teach the middle school class, we have started a descipleship program with the rise up curriculum at first i thought i t was to deep and hard for them to grasp because it wasnt fun! so then i started questioning god as to say have i made the right choice? but then my kids started coming in telling about there friends they had led to the lord and started bringing them to youth group, i was amazed, they are starving for meat! and we must act on it! great article, thanks for all you do!

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  • William, that was my experience with jr. high last summer, too. Every Sunday afternoon after church we did an outreach event of water skiing, wake boarding, tubing, etc. (we have have a lot of lakes in our area). We’d end with a brief gospel message and a cookout of burgers and hotdogs. It was a lot of fun, but it flopped as an outreach because no one actually invited their pre-saved/unchurched friends, even though we encouraged them to do so all the time.

    The flip side is that the jr. high also had bible studies at my house every week during the summer and, without any prompting at all, that group almost tripled by the end of the summer because they were inviting friends without even being asked.

  • Tim,

    This is the kind of ministry that I’m all about though on my blog I share all different ideas.

    I’m really not a flashy come on let’s show up because we going to have all these fun games kind of guy and in my last full-time experience in Wisconsin, the rest of my team didn’t get that, but I would rather take a handful of students are pour something meaningful into them then have a huge crowd and never talk about the richness and deepness of God’s word.

    It’s great that you are also seeing growth doing it that way. We over-look many times that students want value – God’s word gives us that. Have you read Simple Church? I think that you would jive with the content – absolutely love the book and can’t wait until Jeff Borton puts a youth ministry spin to it.

    I would be interested to stay updated on “how big” youth group can become doing it this way or if eventually it starts deflating until just the ones who really want to follow Jesus.

    Have you shared about your philosophy of ministry on your site yet?

  • I agree. Students want more. They want to go deeper. Way to often we are watering down lessons, and Student Ministry to nothing more than another activity for students to attend. They dont want another activity. They have enough to do. However they do want something that is real and true. Gods Word is truth and we as Chrisitans should be learning how to be real.

    Lets be and do what God has called us to do. Help kids to fall in Love with God and His word and then allow Him to do the transforming. I think your future Bible studies are great. Good work Tim

  • Steve, I’m also interested to see how this will play out in the long run. Unfortunately, summer is just around the corner and our church shuts down most of its programs then because a lot of people are away and it gives all our volunteers a much-deserved break so they’re rested for next year. I’ll unofficially continue it through the summer at Bible studies at my house, but we’ll pick up the format again this Fall.

    If you’re taking about the Deep and Wide thing, it’s not really a “philosophy” as much as it is a biblical approach to ministry. But to answer the question, no, I haven’t blogged about it yet. I’m still working through it myself. I’ll write a response to it when I’ve thought it through some more.

  • Insightful post. I have made similar observations with the new jr. high ministry I’ve inherited. We changed the mid-week format quite a bit when I arrived, and I expected a large drop in numbers as students realized we weren’t just going to be goofing off for over half the evening. But it’s been exciting to see students who initially were annoyed by the new format be committed to growing, asking for Bibles to study for themselves, and inviting their friends. It’s cool to see jr. high students be more attracted to Jesus than playing dodgeball (though dodgeball has its place too :)

  • Yeah, Joel. It’s funny because we’re kinda doing youth ministry all wrong. We’re not intentionally meeting the Purpose Driven model of 5 purposes, we’re not seeker sensitive, and we’re not a “fun” group with lots of events and hype. Just simple, solid Bible stuff. Weird how God works best through His Word and not all the other fabricated stuff, huh? lol

    I’m not saying that fun and games should be eliminated, but that maybe the focus should shift, that’s all. Personally, I LOVE fun and games and think there is still great value in it for ministry.

  • Hey Tim,
    Thanks for your thoughts; I completely agree. I’m lead a national ministry in Australia which is attenpting to chnage the focus of youth ministry to be Christ focus rather than “Christ injected”. It is crucial for us because we are very much post-Christian compared to USA and there is no biblical literacy. If we go high on bibical content and high on other-person-centred relationships the teens love it!
    Not sure if you are aware but for further thinking on it check out:

  • Thanks for the link, Steve. I’d really like to check it out, but it’s not working. Can you verify that the URL is correct?

  • So glad to hear that others are shifting this direction. We’re constantly struggling with the balance. When I took my current job, the teens were meeting in like 6 classrooms (20 to a class) and doing “religion class”–the teens hated it. We’ve since moved out of classrooms, into a large group session plus small groups with worship and game elements in the beginning. That injection of “gametime” has added a lot of energy that translates into great small group discussion. We have tried adding in more gametime, and that has had the reverse effect: zapping the energy from small groups.

    Please keep posting as this trend continues in your program, Tim.

  • We have noticed a very similar situation. It’s pretty amazing, and simple.

  • Tim,

    Thanks for this post.

    I am in agreement with your direction.

    I was challenged by one of our seniors earlier this year – she stated that we weren’t treading in deep enough water…

    As the conversation progressed I began to see how we need to grow deep before we grow wide. I thank the Lord for 17 year old’s who listen to the Holy Spirit.

    Since then we have really honed in on bible study and passionate worship. The other thing we have been challenged to do is to provide “open space” for students to respond to the Lord through worship and meditation.

    I realize that it is my tendency to control response, but am learning to give God space and time to connect with our students.

    Thanks for the blog and constant encouragement.


  • I love the emphasis on depth. I share similar questions how long this will last. I hope it lasts long-term!

    I’ve always thought that college was the time when students ask more questions about theology and “is this true”.

    I want to go deeper with kids that I know, and I try to do that in smaller settings.

    When I think back to my teenage years I remember very few lessons that were taught to a group, but lots of relationships with leaders that showed me how to live my faith.

    This may be like the shifts through the church over the last 2000 years where it has swayed back and form from experiential movements (monasticism for example) to scholastic ones (fundamentalism for example).

    Just some ideas…

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