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Why I’ve abandoned outreach events

Abandoning outreach eventsFor many churches and youth groups, the typical approach to evangelism is to host a big event that will be attractive to unbelievers who are invited by their Christian friends. A little over a year ago I wrote a blog post about my problem with outreach events like this. Back then I didn’t really have any answers for my frustrations, but now I do. I’ve officially decided to ditch outreach events altogether for a couple of reasons.

1. They end up being “Christian entertainment.”

Regardless of how much I push an outreach lock-in, publicize it, and encourage kids to bring their unsaved friends, it’s rare that students actually do so. Out of 20 kids, maybe 1 or 2 of them are unchurched. The rest are all youth group kids or Christian kids from other youth groups.

2. Low conversion rate.

If there actually are any pre-saved teens there, the percentage of those who give their lives to Christ seems to be pretty low. Maybe because it feels intimidating, maybe because there’s no interaction or avenue for asking questions, or maybe because they have no relationship with the person who is presenting the gospel.

3. Teens’ evangelism becomes dependent on an adult leader.

Most importantly, I feel like I’m doing a disservice to my teens by unintentionally teaching them to outsource their evangelism efforts to someone on a stage. What happens when they grow into adults and still feel that evangelism is the church’s job?

A better approach

Instead, I’m forming what I call “outreach campaigns.” An outreach campaign is when teens are trained and held accountable to share their faith with their friends on an on-going basis. If teens start doing this at a young age, they’ll have the confidence to continue it for the rest of their lives. Otherwise, they might always rely on the church to get their unbelieving friends onto Christian turf where someone else will talk to them about Christ instead.

If teens develop the confidence and experience of sharing Christ with their friends outside the church, the conversion rate will be much higher than events. For the unbeliever, the feeling of being outnumbered and intimidated by a Christian group disappears, ongoing interaction and questions is natural, and a relationship with the trusted friend is obviously already established.

For several months now I’ve been working hard to put together such an outreach campaign, not only for my own group, but for anyone else who wants to participate in it with us. Stay tuned tomorrow for how you can join my youth group on a FREE missions trip!

(A couple weeks ago in our LIVE YM Talk we discussed the question, “Are youth events still working?” Some of what I mentioned here I talked about in more depth during that conversation. Listen to it here.)


Posted on December 8, 2008

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  • Tim,
    I was inspired by the chat a few weeks ago and wrote this.
    I am loving the concept of a campaign that you mention. I think we need a blog post about what this would look like. How you practically accomplish it.

    Mark

  • @Mark Artrip: Yup, that post is coming tomorrow. Of course there’s many ways to launch an outreach campaign, but my post tomorrow will give at least one practical idea to get ya started.

  • Tim,

    I long ago gave up on outreach events for many of the same reasons. Our ministry runs a weekly program out of our building that draws about 75% unchurched teens each week. The program is built around creating a safe place for teens to be themselves and feel free to ask questions. We experiment with speakers (adults and students), videos, and other methods of conveying a nugget of Gospel truth. But the real thrust is on conversations. We work with out teens on reaching out to the teens who are coming and don’t know Christ.

  • Good points. Most “outreach events” aren’t really outreach events, like you said.

    Here’s one way we can practically do an “evangelism campaign,” we as adult leaders can lead by example. It sounds pretty obvious, but I think we need to stop outsourcing youth group evangelism to our kids. ;) Are we meeting new teenagers and investing in and loving on them? Do our kids see that? Do our kids even know how to share their faith? Then we can bring them along for the ride.

    I agree that our kids shouldn’t rely on us to do evangelism, but we can still model it.

  • Great post Tim. It really sums up ho I have felt about events especially within the past couple of years. I like the idea of a campaign better.

    I read Seth Godin’s Ideavirus a while back and it totally changed the way I teach and do evangelism. You’ve probably read it, but if not, I highly recommend it.

  • This is how I have felt about “outreach events” for the past year or so. I was tired of making our students think evangelism is an “event”. When it should be part of their everyday life. I’ve actually had this same conversation with many people on why we don’t do outreach events.

  • @Nick: I agree wholeheartedly! In fact, as part of our “Deep & Wide” ministry model, we start every youth meeting by asking the question, “Who had a chance to share Christ with someone this week?” When we started asking that many months ago, almost no one had a story to share, but as we’ve been consistent with asking it, more and more students are coming with stories of spiritual conversations they’ve had with their friends. As the leader who asks the question, I think it’s only appropriate that I set the example and have a story to share myself each week, so I’m also intentional about reaching out myself, too.

    @Paul: I haven’t read that book, but I’m currently reading his book, “Tribes.” I may have to check out “Ideavirus,” too.

  • I would agree with this, for the most part. The only outreach event I have seen work is what I’m about to take my students to in a few weeks. We are going to a Scott Dawson conference. (check him out at scottdawson.org) Although this is a great conference where the gospel is shared repeatedly in various ways; however, the main idea of this is for our students to talk to the lost student after the event. It encourages our kids to share. But I dont feel that outreach lockins, day trips, etc. works well at all.

  • Doug

    Yup, I’m with you on this, Tim. I was at a church for a few years and tried to shift the mindset to “Deep and Wide” but all they wanted was shallow and narrow. This is what the students learned from their parents and didn’t want to change. Now at a different church that is interested in adopting the Deep and Wide model. It’s just a matter of prayer and execution, now that I’ve been there for a few months. In January: Gospel Journey. March: D2S Conference in Atlanta. Plus small group e-team training. More to come….

    Doug

  • rob

    I agree , at some of our youth events it is kids inviting other Christian friends to just hang out – say at an all nighter. Often they spend time explaining that this isn’t “how thier group does it”. Not much chance to get connected with the new students who you only see for a moment. We have been successful with the students using a model called the 5 friend focus. Students pick 5 unsaved friends at the start of the school year and spend time praying for them ,recieve training on ways to share their faith and then looking for opportunities invite them to our services, etc.

  • Great post, Tim. I think there is a place for outreach in our youth ministry, but maybe not in the kinds of “outreach events” you described. I think it’s important to make sure that all of our events bear the mark of Christ in some way…even if it’s a simple prayer before or after we hop in vans to go bowling. Just something that distinguishes our secular-ish events (movie night, super bowl party, etc.) as Christian community.

    Also, regarding your outreach campaign, I have found the Peer Ministry curriculum to be very helpful. It gets kids to start thinking of themselves as ministers, not just “friends who like to go to church”. They have a purpose when they’re talking with their unchurched friends.

    http://www.peerministry.org

  • Thanks again for another thought-provoking / paradigm-challenging post. I’ve never been a big fan of event-evangelism. It always seemed to me that if a give-away iPod (bicycle, Mini HD, etc.) is the “big draw” to an event, then we are just trying to win people over with some kind of cheap-salesman tactic. I don’t like it when salesmen use gimmicks on me (I don’t know many who do) and I’m pretty sure that most teenagers are smart enough to know when they are being treated like a “potential feather-in-the-hat” instead of a person. OUCH!

    BIG Kudos!

  • Tim:

    You make some excellent points. I agree with you on these points but I’m not ready to abandon outreach events. And if there are several conversions (or even ONE) at the event then it was totally worth it! Yea, I could totally see the focus being put on the lead youth worker if you did these numerous times per year. However, one a year isn’t a bad idea. I totally support the weekly open-mic times, personal evangelism pushes, etc. I don’t think they’d be mislead with a model like this.

    By the way, I too am very interested in hearing more about the outreach campaigns.

    /TC/

  • In addition to outreach events being entertainment, we also then have to manage these expectations of everything being bigger and better than the last thing. If you have two bands the first time, the next time you need three. And if you don’t provide that they leave and head for a church that will.

    I try to teach our students that these events are tools, designed to give them an outlet to reach their friends for Jesus, but the emphasis is still on them to go out and do the work. This has been a very interesting post, and I look forward to more details on the Missions Trip.

    -Jeff-

  • @Terrace Crawford: I also used to have the mindset that “even if ONE kid comes to Christ, then it’s still worth it.” That was part of my original post on this issue last year. However, I’m no longer content with that. For the amount of energy and time I put into planning an outreach event, I don’t want to MAYBE have 1 or 2 people come to Christ — I want 100s to comes to Christ! I know that starts with one person at a time, but I’m still not convinced that big outreach events where maybe 1 or 2 come to Christ is honestly the best approach and use of our time that we can come up with. Having teens share with teens out in the real world and not on “Church turf” is a far better investment of our time as youth workers, not only because the conversation rate is much higher, but because teens who are confident in sharing their faith now will usually continue to do it for the rest of their lives.

  • I agree with you! Mostly! I guess an event can be multi-faceted and may be the place that a student gets the help they needed to start that conversation with a friend! It may be the place where they are encouraged to begin sharing their faith with a friend through a conversation! I guess it comes down to what your goals are in having and “outreach” event. Outreach was never meant to be done by inviting people in. Outreach is to be the natural outflow of people surrendered to the indwelling of the Spirit! Events can be tools to do that. They don’t have to have just one goal!

  • @Tim Schmoyer – We’ve chatted about this before at length. Let me clarify for your readers… I totally agree that bringing them to the “Christian turf” is not the best answer… and I think counting the cost of the ‘big events’ is wise. For me, its really about more than I mentioned in my earlier comment. Of course, the value of a soul is the best reason to do the event… but for me I value the collaborative effort (youth groups coming together) of the ‘big event’ makes it also worth it. I think we do need to ReThink the big events… and HOW they are done. Paying an artist $30,000 to come in (although I certainly have worked with artists and know what it takes to live on the road) may not be the best use of our money. I think a big event — a multi-faceted one (as I have mentioned in your podcast) where we use shared funds (from various youth groups) and do a project together, an evangelist shares, worship together, etc. is what I’m talking about. I think there can be a lot of value to these type events.

    /TC/

  • I have nothing constructive to add to this really salient topic, only a snippy comment. “Pre-saved?” is that like a euphemism as in “pre-owned” cars?

  • @jwrite: lol I used the world “pre-saved” because “un-saved” seems to carry the connotation that they were once saved and it’s been “undone.”

  • Tim, great thoughts. You mentioned this on the phone the other day. I don’t think I could agree more in most situations, although it’s probably little different for every youth group. I’ve seen younger churches that aren’t yet established in their community do incredible things through youth group outreach events.

  • great post.

    three thoughts come to mind:
    1. If I was being honest (as a full time paid youth pastor) I need to ask myself a question: How frequent am I sharing Christ? How often am going the distance? If I expect a kid to do it, then I better be sharing Christ just as much as the student.

    2. How trustworthy can we trust an adolescent witness? If we solely rely on our teens evangelizing this may be problematic with the messiness of our adolescents trying to discover who they are. It seems like the adolescent spiritual journey is a bit risky and unpredictable. Think back to our core students who were at all of our youth meetings last fall of 07. Where are they now? Hypocrisy is one of the top turns off for non-believers. It would be a shame if a student witnessed to a group of students and a few months later this same student is deeply struggling with his or her faith and living…well an un-Godly life. This is why Chap Clark argues hard for why we should NOT have student leaders.

    3. Bottom line: there are some student clusters who love to share Christ every opportunity they get. Typically these students are the extroverts. They have no shame. And on their spiritual gift inventory they score very high on evangelism. But should we encourage our shy/introvert students to share Christ? What if some students don’t necessary score high in the evangelism gift? And what if these students are just socially awkward?
    I am not completely sold on the idea that every kid can be an great evangelist. I think is why Paul states: Ephesians 4:11-12 11 It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, 12 to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up
    God gave certain gifts to some people, and other gifts to other people. That is why we need the body. We let the evangelist be the evangelist and the preachers be the preachers and the disciplers be the disciplers.

    It is my belief that teens can develop a confidence in Christ without necessary sharing about Christ.

  • @jeremy zach: I wholeheartedly (and respectfully) disagree. Every believer is commanded to share their faith regardless of spiritual maturity. The great commission does not have any age, gender, or personality limitations placed upon it. The word “go” in Matthew 28 is literally “you all go,” plural, speaking to the entire group of 500 people there. Furthermore, when Jesus healed someone, they immediately started sharing Christ with those around them. Does that mean the new convert was perfect? By no means. Does that mean that their hypocrisy might later cause Christ to be laughing stock? Sure, but I think He’s big enough to handle it. I think you enter dangerous territory when you start limiting outreach to only an elitist group of believers, especially when God even uses unbelievers who unintentionally communicate His Truth every day!

    I agree that evangelism is a spiritual gift, but it’s just like the gift of giving — not everyone has the gift of giving, but every believer is commanded to tithe.

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  • I think we agree to disagree in our evangelism methods.

    I think Jesus was only talking to his disciples and not to a crowd of 500 in the great commission.

    To me kids evangelizing is a big–deal and that implies a lot of spiritual responsibility on their end. To say they can be evangelist, would this also mean every kid can preach, teach, disciple, lead small groups, and worship lead?

    I simply encourage my youth group not to talk about Christ, but to walk like Christ. Let people ask you what you are about, your message will be a lot more powerful. Honestly, I think our on going witness is so much more powerful than us simply sharing Christ in 6 minutes. Once their friends want to hear about Christ they will ask.
    I think we can set up false expectations for our kids when week in and week out we are asking them: How many kids did you share Christ with?

    It becomes more about them fulfilling the expectation than the actual sharing of Christ moment.

    There are seasons where I am sharing Christ like wild fire and there are months and months were I don’t evangelize a single soul. During these desert times, should I feel bad because I have not evangelized?

    I know some youth pastors who are probably the worst evangelist ever. But they are great disciplers, so 85% of their ministry is discipleship focused. I think when youth pastors are in small churches it is tough to be an evangelist, preacher, teacher, disciplers, and a programmer.

    I expect my students to be a constant incarnational witness to their friends, which may or may not lead them to share Christ. If their Christ like features allow them to share Christ great, but if not…God will eventually give them a window of opportunity.

  • Jeremy, you’ve got some really good points–just be careful not to “throw the baby out with the bath water”!

    Can we put too much weird pressure on teens asking them how many times they shared their faith this week, week after week? Yes! Are there “seasons” of evangelism and seasons of discipleship? Yes! Are most students still immature in their faith? Yes!

    But why would we not encourage them to evangelize? Living a solid example first is key–that’s foundation to any effective evangelism–but if you ONLY wait for someone to come to you before sharing your faith, you’re going to miss a lot of great opportunities.

    I think we can push evangelism so hard that we give kids a guilt trip about it, forcing them to bring it up at awkward times and maybe even hindering the spread of the Good News. But to not encourage them to evangelize at all, unless specifically asked about Christ, is too extreme for me. I think we must also prayerfully keep watch for opportunities to share the incredible Gift we’ve been given, and teach students how to do the same–realizing they’ll probably make mistakes along the way just like the rest of us!

  • @jeremy zach: It’s clear that we’re going to have to agree to disagree because I strongly disagree with almost everything you’re saying on so many levels. But that’s the beauty of the body of Christ — community in diversity! :-) I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts!

  • @Nate & Tim thanks for having a safe and open place for differing opinion.

    Although I think using the guilting kids to evangelize method is not the best way to get kids to share their faith. I think if we as the youth pastor are creating and facilitating environments for our kids to fall more and more in love with Jesus, we will not have to force them to share their evangelism report.

    And when the kids are asked who shared their faith, I can almost guarentee the same kids will be sharing Chirst week in and week out. So some questions still remain: how do we encourage the quite-awkward kid to share his/her faith if he/she doesn’t want to? And how do we (the youth pastor) reconcile his/her guilt for not sharing his faith? And what does this communicate about being a participant in the Kingdom?

    I think the students desire to grow, trust, and love Jesus will be contagious wherever they go.

    Grace and Peace my fellow youth pastors.

  • Tim,

    I’m grateful to have ran into your blog. Sounds and looks like you’ve got some wonderful activity going on here which seem to be very helpful and resourceful.

    I think it’s embraced by the majority youth pastors that take the [post]modern context seriously that traditional “Evangelism” is not as effective therefore we must be creative, innovative, and sensitive to adolescents’ response mechanisms.

    Here are 2 (very general) points I would like to make (open-ended)

    1. I believe it’s necessary to rethink language when it comes to “Evangelism.” Is evangelism purely done with words that we utter? Is it only done when certain phrases are spoken, which in most cases, people unfamiliar with church lingo are unaware of anyway? If we are honest with ourselves and serious about dialoguing with those that are unfamiliar with the gospel, do words such as “saved,” “salvation,” “death + resurrection,” “I kissed dating Goodbye” even make sense?

    Furthermore, what about walking along side those that have not embraced the way of Jesus? Perhaps “salvation” isn’t ONLY about this place called “heaven” that we go to when we die but rather, salvation is about embracing this life of love, grace, forgiveness and a complete life transformation that oozes out of our own humanity that begins right now? I like to encourage my students to begin with how we treat others, how we are involved in the community in which God is at work, and how we emulate Jesus and his character. We all know the wise words of St. Francis “preach the Gospel at all times… use words when necessary.”

    (This does not mean we never utter the name of Jesus Christ but that’s a different blog in itself)

    2. We seem to have this “us vs. them” attitude these days. For example WE have to SAVE THEM… the words “we” “Save” “them” “those unbelievers” “non-Christians”… etc. What if we decide to take action and invest in people’s lives not because we want to “save” them but because we actually care.

    This takes investment and building of relationships. It also takes discipleship which seems to be non-existent or detached from evangelism. Several years ago as a youth, I was forced to hand out tracts and other conversation literature to strangers in the area. We would ask the question, “where would you go if you were to die tomorrow?” (very manipulative) but there were some that responded positively and prayed the “sinner’s prayer” with us. We all rejoiced then told them that there was a party going on right now for him in Heaven then we left with another tally mark. Who knows where these people are at today.

    3. There was a point by Jeremy Zach where he brought up evangelism and how this can be a very foreign place for many students. I agree with that and going back to point 1, what if evangelism isn’t merely about words but its about our gifts and passions? Maybe public speaking or engaging conversation is not their cup of tea but they enjoy signing and have a beautiful voice, therefore the way that student shares Christ is through music and the arts? What if one students is passionate about writing so he or she writes stories, articles, what-have-you in order to creatively articulate their faith journey? What about athletes that emulate Christ through fair play, patience, sportsmanship as their means of evangelism? What is one is passionate about serving the poor… you get the idea.

    Again, please hear me out, I do believe in sharing with our words but I believe we need to start thinking a bit more holistically…

    thanks for your time

  • @Prentice Park: I guess I’m a bit more traditional and conservative when it comes to the doctrine of salvation. As a guy who studied under Charles Ryrie for soteriology, his passion for this subject definitely rubbed off on to me. There’s not many theological issues I’ll fight about, but understanding salvation and communicating it crystal clear is so very critically important. Everything else hinges on it and nothing is nearly as important as the fundamental of salvation.

    Since I realize that a theological argument will be fruitless and even divisive, I’ll refrain from saying everything I thought as I read your comment (and I’m grateful for your comment, by the way!). However, I’ll say that, although I appreciate your “holistic” approach, I think it’s even more important to have a “biblical” approach (as corny as that sounds lol).

    The main confusion comes when we start mixing sanctification with salvation. Way of the Master is contributing to this so much it frustrates me to no end! “Embracing this life of love, grace, forgiveness and a complete life transformation” is a process of sanctification, not salvation. Embracing a good life means nothing in light of eternity — every religion does that. The process of sanctification takes place AFTER the event of salvation. Leaving a lifestyle of sin is not (and cannot) be required to inherent eternal life.

    Let’s not over-complicate salvation: God created us for a relationship, that relationship was broken by sin, the penalty for sin is death (spiritual separation from God), Jesus is God and paid the penalty in our place, now forgiveness is freely available for the asking, by placing ones trust in Christ alone so one day we can return into a right relationship with Him as He originally intended.

  • Here is a question for those that believe we don’t need to use words. If someone is walking blindly into oncoming traffic and you had no way to reach them with your “actions” wouldn’t you yell and plead for them to stop and turn around? So what about someone that is walking toward hell, do we just let them go?
    I believe and have seen in my own ministry and personal life that it doesn’t matter if your shy or bold, educated or not, EVERYONE, even a teenager will share their faith using words. Why? Is it because they have the gift of evangelism? Maybe and maybe not. But it’s because they are compelled to tell others the “good news” of what Jesus has done and is doing in their own life. Throughout the New Testament men and women immediately went and told everyone about Jesus. Why? Because they were compelled, overwhelmed and excited about the greatest gift and news they would ever receive. So…should we be training and well…pushing our teens to share their faith using word (the Gospel)? Absolutely! Why? Because it’s a matter of life and death. Life that’s eternal or a life of constant death in hell.

  • @Tim, earlier today you asked on Twitter “should we NOT push kids to share their faith?” I sense some frustration in your question.

    I believe the obvious answer is “yes”…but I don’t think that holding “outreach events” discourages kids to share their faith. In fact, the very nature of OUTREACH is to bring unchurched people into a community of faith in a way that meets them where they are. Few churches exclusively hold “outreach events”…and the churches who do those events well make sure that those in attendance know that there’s more to church than watching a movie, playing basketball, or going on a scavenger hunt.

    The great thing about outreach events is what happens AFTERWARDS. That, in my opinion, is the time to push your kids to share their faith. Give them tools to follow-up with the person they invited to church. Provide another event that might talk a little more openly about issues of faith & life, but still welcomes the unaffiliated. Walk with your kids as they cultivate a deeper relationship with their unchurched friend. GIve them the tools they need to share their faith without pushing their friend away.

    I think, when that happens, outreach events can have great value. However, I still maintain that outreach events held in a vacuum are a waste of time and money.

    Thanks for keeping us all thinking, Tim!

  • @Brian Ford

    I would run out in the middle of the street and rescue that boy. I would move by force…yelling would not have a direct repercussion. Unfortunately I don’t see evangelism as fire proof insurance. Yes, heaven is the icing on the cake, but living a full and abundant life is what Jesus was offering. The Kingdom has not yet come, so therefore we need to be the Kingdom and give life to others.

    @ Tim
    who is Charles Ryrie? He is a famous systematic theologian? I have never heard of him. It is interesting you bring sanctification into this salvation conversation. I argue that our salvation is something we have to work out. It is an ongoing process and not a one time event.

    @Prentice Park
    You raise some crucial and pivotal points. I like how you classified the us vs. them paradigm. Great insight.

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  • @jeremy zack and everyone else: It’s clear we’re coming from different positions hermenutically, and thus theologically, so a “debate” will be somewhat futile and divisive. Instead, let’s all continue to serve the Lord according to our convictions while supporting each other as brothers in Christ, and one day in eternity we’ll probably find out that all of us are wrong somehow anyway. lol

  • @Tom: Yes agreed, we seem to have some fundamental differences in our paradigm of “salvation” thus having a dialogue would be like kicking a head horse (I guess the saying goes). As for being holistic v. biblical, I believe that I am being both and i believe responsible exegesis demands both. When I read the scriptures and read literature regarding the ancient Hebrew to 2nd Temple period time thinking, I can’t help but to understand salvation, still, as something that is beyond a place we go to upon physical death, maybe that thought existed but still very secondary to the desire of a “here and now.” Again, we can go in circles about this- just some thoughts.

    I also see a very systematic theology in differentiating, with such contrast; sanctification, salvation, and with other reformers, justification. Believe me, I do see myself reformed and have been part of reformed churches for several years but I’ve always had a problem with this “structure.” I don’t have everything figured out (obviously) but I tend to think we put God in a box when we do as such.

    Thanks for this space, I actually really enjoy it. Feel free to check out my thoughts at prenticepark.wordpress.com. I would love to start a variety of conversations with you.

    @Brian, I don’t really have a response to your “what if a person is about to get hit by a car…” statement. I find it arbitrary, manipulative and not very worthy of attention. Thanks.

  • i wonder though, is it still worth doing big events if you aren’t doing them for “outreach”? i guess i see big events as fellowship and fun. part of that is my belief or experience that a one time event is not the best way for a person of any age to come to Christ. even if you get them in the door; even if 75% of the kids were non-believers, that doesn’t mean they’ll respond. it doesn’t even mean they’ll think about it; in fact, they may be more turned off than they were before. what if big events are just about bringing kids to a place where we show them we care?

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