The Four Chambers of Youth Ministry’s Heart

I’ve never been a Youth Director, so it may seem a little strange that I would offer advice about youth ministry. However, I was very involved with my youth group growing up. I volunteered with youth groups in college, and I worked closely with two youth directors on staff at my current church. So I’ve had a chance to see what works and what doesn’t, what is important and what isn’t.

I’ve also seen how hard youth directors work and what they’re up against. Sports, school activities, family commitments, and romantic relationships are vying for the attention of our young people and the noise can get so loud that youth group is lost in the shuffle.

In order to combat this, some youth programs try to get bigger and better while others become discouraged and give up. They develop strategies for keeping youth engaged every year and there is an endless supply of books telling youth directors what they could do better to build the next high-impact event that will forever change their youth group.

But all this clamor can distract youth directors from what is most important in youth ministry. These are four things that should characterize the center of every youth program, four chambers of youth ministry’s heart that, when working well together, define a successful youth ministry.

Deliver the Gospel

Among all the games and short-term missions trips, counseling sessions and service projects, the simple proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ can be buried or forgotten altogether. Lots of good and even important things that make up youth ministry can get in the way and cause even the best youth directors to neglect his or her first job: Preach the Word.

The Gospel shouldn’t only be coming from the pulpits of the local church – pulpits that our youth should be hearing from weekly – but also from the mouths and hearts of our youth directors. They need to hear the good news of sins forgiven, brokenness mended, and life delivered. Our youth need to be reminded again and again that their worth is not found in their looks or abilities, their dating lives or their college plans, but in the love and acceptance found in Jesus Christ.

If youth ministries become more concerned with caring about the immediate needs of their students than in teaching and applying the Gospel message, then our youth will feel better for a moment but find themselves without the tools needed to make it through their next trial. When his longterm girlfriend breaks up with him, or her dad dies, or she bombs the final exam she studied so hard for, the comforting words of a youth director miles away won’t be enough. Instead, that student will need the comfort of the Holy Spirit who is present with those who believe the Gospel.

Build Community Among Peers

High school and junior high are scary places for our students. Fellow classmates are beginning to stretch their muscles and challenge authority. They’re beginning to experiment with their bodies and feel the temptations toward alcohol and drugs. They’re feeling the pressures of fitting in with a culture that is at best distracting and at worst antithetical to Christianity.

In order for our youth to remain faithful to the Lord in such a difficult climate, they need each other. They need to be able to gather with peers who are committed to the Lord. They need to be able to call their friend from youth group when they’re feeling tempted or ostracized. They need to build a network of Christian friends so that they have people to hang with when their non-Christian friends are drinking the weekend away.

Our youth need each other and so allowing time in youth meetings for fellowship is crucial. We can’t so heavily program our meetings that the youth never really get to know each other. Play and laughter and conversation and even shared adventure are vital to the success of our youth and therefore a part of the heart of youth ministry.

Of course, youth ministry is only a facet of the church’s work. The community experienced in youth group should only be a part, therefore, of the larger community available to our students. But there is something special about peer-to-peer relationships that youth groups are able to facilitate in positive, Christ-honoring ways.

Foster Family Discipleship

No matter how many times the Gospel is preached or how tightly a youth community has been built, if parental figures aren’t enlisted in the work of discipling our young brothers and sisters, we’ll fail.

You would think that involving parents in the spiritual nurture of youth would be obvious, but sadly it isn’t. Some youth pastors have a desire to be “the answer” for all their students’ problems, armed with the right word of advice, the perfect passage of Scripture, or latest joke to bring a little levity to a situation. But when youth directors become the “go-to” in times of crisis, parents can get pushed to the side which is devastating to the spiritual growth of our youth.

At all points we must remember: the primary disciple-makers in our youth programs are the parents God has charged with this work. Youth ministries, therefore, should view themselves as helps to the parents, not substitutes for them.

But what about those students whose parents are absent? Or those students whose parents are unbelievers? Shouldn’t the youth leaders then step in and fill that void?

Not really.

The job of the youth director and her volunteers is not to replace the parents but to be used as a tool of God in the training up of our youth. When godly parents aren’t available to a student, an eager 24-year-old isn’t going to fill that gap no matter how hard she tries.

Instead, youth ministries, and therefore the students, should be intimately connected with the rest of the life of the church. This way, older members of the congregation who know what it is to raise godly children would naturally come alongside with the spiritual nurture absent at home. Absent parents can never be replaced, but godly counsel from wise older Christians can at least mitigate the damage caused by sin-ravaged family situations.

Encourage Future Leaders

Most youth groups are made up of a variety of students who excel at a host of different things. Youth directors should be constantly praying that God would utilize the gifts of our students for the leadership of Christ’s church.

Schools and sports teams are regularly looking for and encouraging new leaders. The church needs to be doing the same thing. What better place for leadership development than our youth groups? Coaches encourage their players to pursue college athletics. School guidance counselors encourage their students to pursue jobs in business, science, and education. Why would we not be encouraging our youth toward Bible degrees and counseling majors? Why would we not be praying daily for God to raise up pastors and missionaries and evangelists from our youth groups?

Youth groups should be minister-factories. Every youth director’s dream is for young women and men to be captivated by Scripture and in love with their Creator and Savior Jesus Christ. And so our youth groups should become places where becoming a Pastor is as attractive as becoming a lawyer and where becoming a missionary is as exciting as going to med school. The goal of seminary education should be celebrated with as much fervor (or even more!) than Ivy League acceptance letters and full-ride sports scholarships.

The Church needs strong leaders in the years and decades to come. We need Pastors with the backbone to preach the whole counsel of God in the face of scorn and oppression. We need missionaries willing to go to dangerous parts of the world with the good news of the Gospel. We need evangelists who live in communities hostile to the Gospel who know the way of sharing Christ’s truth in winsome and life-changing ways.

Our youth face a difficult and uncertain world. But we can equip these students to be able to remain faithful through every trial if our youth ministries are built around these four convictions.

Marcos Ortega

Marcos Ortega (MDiv, Westminster Theological Seminary) is an Assistant Pastor at Goodwill Church (Evangelical Presbyterian Church) and lives in the Hudson River Valley in New York with his wife and two daughters.

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