When I was in youth group, my pastor was my spiritual mentor. Other adults were kicking around of course, but I only took to one. I liked being around the other adults, but when it came to the tough stuff of life they weren’t on my radar. It was my pastor. He was the man. Then he left to a new church in a new city. As a 16-year-old, I remember feeling person-less as it related to my spiritual life. Now I don't blame him for moving. In fact, I recently had to do a similar thing. I'm just telling you what happened. Six years after my youth pastor left I was hired on as the youth pastor in the same church I grew up in. I vividly remember sitting at my desk on the first day trying to figure out what on earth I was supposed to do. How do I lead a youth ministry? What are the right things I should be doing? So I started doing what my youth pastor did. Which just so happened to coincide with what Bible College taught me to do: spiritually lead the group. And here's how I was going do it: I’ll develop a kickin' program. I’ll create next-level Bible studies and sermons. I’ll develop fun events and cool promo to prop it up. I’ll develop a website and a brand and maybe even a t-shirt. Along the way, I’ll become ‘the guy’, ‘the hero’ of students’ lives (just like my youth pastor was for me). It’ll be perfect.
So I did that for four years. All the students knew my name. All the students piled in my car when we were driving to an event. I was the one they called at 1 am when they were in distress. I was the pro, right? I had the degree. I was called. I was hired. My name was on the door and in the bulletin. Early Sunday mornings, late Friday nights, sugar highs, emotional lows, awkward hugs and challenging phone calls that was what I signed up for. Pastoring these kids to become fully discipled followers of Jesus was my job.
Here's the thing...
Despite all my efforts to grow the youth group and see teenagers come to know Jesus and be discipled, our group was stuck at 25 students. Despite the ascending awesomeness of my events and giveaways, despite hours spent in sermonizing that include the latest youth culture trends and terms, we couldn’t expand our influence. We weren’t reaching more students. Reaching more students is a priority. Jesus asked us to do it. It’s the mission statement of virtually every church. Because numbers matter. Every number has a name, and every name matters to God. But we just couldn’t break 25. We were stuck, and I was out of ideas. I was discouraged. No one understood the weight and pressure I was carrying; they couldn’t because I was the one called to carry the load.
On top of my disappointment of leading a “small” youth group, many of the students that were graduating and moving out to University and College weren’t connecting to a church, stopped going altogether, and seemed to be fizzling in their commitment to Jesus. I believed that if I were a dynamic communicator, with an engaging vision, with the right image, with all the right the stuff, the cards would all fall into place, and my youth ministry would explode.
It didn't, and here's why: if there is only one pastor in your youth group, you’ll never sustainably be able to disciple more than 12 students. **insert awkward silence**
Having 50 students and discipling 50 students are connected only by a thread. They are not the same thing.
The reason I say a maximum of 12 is because that’s the model Jesus left for us. He capped his crew at 12. He strategically invested in 12 teenagers to help produce a real and authentic faith (to borrow language from Reggie Joiner). Unless you got better skills and more grace on your life than Jesus, 12 would be your max as well.
No wonder my youth group was stuck. Indeed, I blamed our stuck-ness on busy kids, apathetic parents, wishy-washy volunteers, ugly youth room couches, and the fact that there was carpet in our gym (who puts carpet in a gym!!!). I even remember saying to my wife: I wish we had more popular, better-looking students who had more influence with their friends.
None of that was actually the problem.
The problem was the self-proclaimed hero who had his name on the door and the bulletin. The biggest barrier I’ve found in youth ministries in multiplying the kingdom amongst teenagers is the fact there is often only one pastor in the group.
[MY “A-HA” MOMENT]
I was doing my morning Bible reading (on the toilet actually...just to give you better visuals). I read a verse I've read a thousand times prior:
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” - Ephesians 2:10
God has created people for ministry. They are built for it. In the DNA of every believer is this purpose ministry. You are God’s masterpiece, made for ministry.
A couple days later, I read this:
"He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry." - Ephesians 4:11-12
It’s a pastor job to equip people for ministry. To call out, raise up, and release people into the ministry that God has already put in their DNA. God’s created people for ministry. God’s called pastors to equip people to do ministry. By playing the hero role, I was stealing from people the very thing God created them for!
So a change was needed.
The main way that this principle has played out is by equipping and releasing adults to pastor small clusters of students. And when I say 'pastor' I mean pastor in every sense of the word. To talk to students about faith and life, lead them to Christ, baptize them, lay hands on them and pray for the in-filling of the Holy Spirit, to not only share the Gospel but their very lives with students (1 Thess 2:8). Because you can't grow if there’s only one pastor in your youth group.
We need to realize that other people in your church are called to youth ministry besides you! We don’t have a monopoly on that calling. And even further than that, there are people in your church that are better youth pastors than you. Male youth pastors: there is someone in your church who is better at reaching, discipling, and pastoring a grade 7 girl better than you.
You are not called to protect a title but to help teenagers become more like Jesus. Doing both at the same time is hard.
This one mindset change set the course for a radically different and hyper-fulfilling future.
In the next post, I'll write about how I put this new way of thinking into action. In other words, I'll give you practical ways to implement this!