Winning with young people: Five things every pastor should
I grew up playing soccer. Every open space—and my budding soccer star friends—beckoned me to play the sport we loved. Even a five-minute break at school saw us kicking the ball. Some of my friends had all the gear needed to play, while others did not. Ironically, those who could afford the right cleats, shin guards, and the leather ball did not possess the skills. In soccer, the only thing that matters at the end of the day is the score—can you put the ball in the goal? A team may have dribbling wizards and skillful players who dominate possession of the ball, but if they do not put the ball in the net, it all counts for nothing.
In soccer, players score in a myriad of ways. Some score by volleying the ball into the net; others head it in; some direct it with the chest; some use the back of their heel; while yet others opt for the spectacular, acrobatic finish that leaves the crowd in disbelief. It really does not matter how the ball reaches the back of the net. All that matters is that it gets there.
Of youth ministry and soccer
Ministering to youth in today’s constantly changing world is a lot like improvising on the soccer field. The goal is clear: “And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matt. 24:14, NIV). Ever-morphing sociological trends require those who work with youth and young adults to continually assess and evaluate the strategies used to minister to them. The principles that guide the effort are changeless, but methods can and must be changed and improved. Youth ministry is dynamic. Societal values, culture, and norms acutely impact the pace and manner in which youth ministry can be done in a given area. While each context varies, the local church presents a perfect opportunity for nurturing young people. The local church is the spiritual home of our young people, their membership is there.
Three institutions responsible for nurturing the youth are the family, the Christian school, and the local church. The family forms the primary sphere of spiritual nurture (personal and inter-nal), and the school and church provide a secondary sphere (communal and external). Through these institutions youth learn to follow Jesus, embrace His call to discipleship, and find their place in God’s service. While many of our youth make decisions to follow Christ at or during wider church events, the location where they are mentored to become devoted followers of Jesus and live out their Christian experience is the local church. With regard to local church leadership, I concur with the group “Growing Young Adventists” that our duty is not to just make the youth survive but to make them thrive.1
Focusing on the core
We have all heard the studies chronicling the great hemorrhage of youth from Adventist churches, especially young adults. These young people are not leaving the General Conference, unions, and conferences; they leave the local church. So pastors in the local church, and the teams they lead, play a pivotal role in shaping how the church ministers to youth.
Therefore, in 2016 the General Conference Youth Ministries Advisory took an action that was long overdue: to make the local church the hub of youth ministry. “As part of its ongoing re-Visioning of youth ministry, [it] wishes to recognize the Local Church as the primary location and target of its ministry for young people around the world. While it affirms the significance of large corporate events such as summer camps, rallies, camporees and congresses to foster fellowship with the wider youth community and to provide opportunities for decision-making, it chooses to place ministry to young people in local churches at the center of its priorities and process.”2
The decision to focus on youth in the local church context dovetails perfectly with the Total Member Involvement (TMI) wave currently sweeping the globe. TMI has brought energy and synergy to youth ministry. TMI translates to total youth involvement (TYI) when we focus specifically on the contribution that youth can make. Therefore, the pastor, elders, youth sponsors, and youth leaders are not the only ones who are integral to the success of youth ministry. All departments, all adults, all mentors, all supporters are called to engage, equip, and empower young people if we hope to arrest youth attrition. TMI will be possible when TDI (total department involvement) is in pursuit of TYI. Youth ministry is a not a field for lone rangers. Collaboration is vital.
One of the indicators of pastoral success is the retention of youth. We must invest in these young minds. It is time to act! The prophecies tell us that the youth will finish the work. We must believe it and prepare for it to happen in a big way so that we may expedite the coming of the Lord. Following are some ways in which pastors and elders can facilitate youth ministry:
1. Connect with them. Young minds are interested in knowing that the leadership is normal. They want to see whether you do normal things like laugh, greet, and smile. Do you have other interests outside of your spiritual calling? Are you normal enough to go camping? Hiking? These are critical questions for most young people, even though they may not be for you. Being on social media is a good start. The first language of many millennials and Generation Z is not Spanish, French, Portuguese, or Setswana but social media. Youth are found on social media. However, digital presence should never substitute for physical presence. Rather than ignore the reality of social media, it is critically important to harness its potential for mobilizing youth, advertising youth programs, and eventually fulfilling the supreme cause of mission. Know the young people by name. A database of the youth will help you to memorize their names. Barna and Kinnaman assert that connecting with young people opens up ineffable prospects for spiritual leadership.3
2. Relate to them. Relationships are symbiotic. All parties in the relationship are important. In any relationship, there is difference of opinion. This must not be viewed as a threat but as an opportunity for understanding and growth. When young people question you, it is in part because they are “checking you out” to see whether you are real. Are you genuine? Are you caring? Are you honest? One of the things that irks young people is inconsistency and partiality. Treat everyone the same. It is OK to say “I don’t know” when you have no answer to a particular question. The youth will respect you for your honesty, and they will, in turn, trust you with the personal things of their lives. Maintain confidentiality when they open up to you. Authentic relationships enhance the pastor’s or elder’s ability to help young people identify and develop their spiritual gifts.
3. Empower them. The empowerment process starts with teaching. Rivet the youth in the truth. It will help them find their identity in Jesus, and it is why the church exists (Matt. 28:19, 20). Then, mentor them. Moses mentored Joshua. He was patient with Joshua, and Joshua was cooperative. Moses did not wait until he was too old to mentor Joshua. In his quest to be the best he could be for Joshua, he availed himself. It takes great patience to work with young minds.
Time is a precious commodity. Youth who have a mentoring relation-ship with caring adults are less likely to engage in delinquent behavior.4 Pastors should encourage all the adults to intentionally mentor young people. If everyone got involved in this exercise, the results would be phenomenal. The church exists for mission. Without mission, the church becomes a social club. Leaders who are intentional in modeling evangelism (personal and public) will ensure that the legacy is passed on from generation to generation, thus making evangelism a lifestyle; not an event. Youth are keen observers.
Adults who do what they say have great leverage over youth. Say it, do it, stay in it! Ellen White says, “With such an army of workers as our youth, rightly trained, might furnish, how soon the message of a crucified, risen, and soon-coming Savior might be carried to the whole world! How soon might the end come.”5 So, training is the key. Leaders who cheer for the youth bring the best out of them. The small efforts, the achievements and accomplishments of youth, must be celebrated. Young people are seeking honest mentors; not ones who choose to be politically correct. If you think they are not cut out for something, direct them to a vocation or ministry area that you think is more suitable for them. The idea would be for them to find God’s place for them. By so doing, we limit the work of the devil in trying to render them useless and worthless. Be a cheerleader.
4. Trust them. Pastors, pass on the baton of leadership to the youth. Contrary to popular belief, those who share power become more powerful and relevant. This is another place where all church departments have a special role. Youth Ministries alone cannot involve the youth in leadership. It is too small. Other departments can embrace the giftedness of young people. Disengagement bears a cold lethargy, and demons insinuate thoughts of quitting in the youth. Jan Paulsen, immediate past president of the General Conference, said of the young people, “We must vote them into substantive roles that bespeak a high level of trust, include them in the decision-making processes.”6 The world is ready to embrace young people; what about the church? If it does not, the devil will happily employ their creativity, energy, time, and resources. However, we must not toss the baton to persons simply because they are young. The baton must be passed on to young people who show commitment, passion, and spiritual maturity. The youth will never be perfect. No one is perfect! All they need is a chance.
5. Support them. Attend programs for young people. It is advantageous for the pastors and elders to know the calendar and events of youth ministries. Show up rocking your Pathfinder uniform during Pathfinder days or young adult gear on their special days. One of the biggest initiatives of the church is Global Youth Day (GYD). GYD affords the youth an opportunity to serve their communities. Participate in this day. As you support, avoid taking over. Let them run the show. Acquaint yourself with the resources, quinquennial and annual themes, programs, curriculums, and operations of Youth Ministries.7
One of the most effective ways to support the youth is to pray for them. Let them know you are praying for them. Attend their sporting outings, their presentations, or other special events in their lives. Support should not be limited to church activities. It should extend to other facets of their life. That’s when you become “real” to them.
Change begins with leaders. Pastors are influential, and God requires much from them because of the sacred responsibility they carry. But youth ministry is not about the leaders; it is about the youth. It is about leading them into a saving relationship with Jesus Christ and helping them embrace His call to discipleship. How each local church passes the ball, the strategy for scoring, and the skills of the players all remain unique. But we can never lose sight of the goal. What matters most is that the ball gets to the back of the net.
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1 Growing Young Adventists, growingyoungadventists.com, accessed April 30, 2018.
2 General Conference Youth Ministries Advisory minutes, February 2016.
3 George Barna and David Kinnaman, eds., Churchless: Understanding Today’s Unchurched and How to Connect With Them (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House,2014).
4 Marilyn Price-Mitchell, “Mentoring Youth Matters: Six Qualities That Make You a Good Mentor for Teens,” Psychology Today, Jan. 29, 2013, psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-moment-youth/201301 /mentoring-youth-matters.
5 Ellen G. White, Education (Mountain View, CA: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1952), 271.
6 Jan Paulsen, “Why Do They Walk Away?,” Adventist World, Oct. 2009, archives.adventistworld.org/2009/october/why-do-they-walk-away.html.
7. Numerous resources, including Pastor’s and Elder’s Handbook for Youth Ministry, are available on theofficial Seventh-day Adventist Youth Ministries website at youth.adventist.org.