How many times have you heard this from a member or your congregation, “When I was in youth group, we did (fill in the blank). You should try to do that.”? When that person said that to you, did you slap them in the face and say, “Wake up!”? I’m just kidding about the slap in the face, but not kidding about the “wake up” comment. I couldn’t tell you how many times people have come up to me and tried to tell me that I should model our current youth ministry program after their youth group 20-30 years ago. I am sure you have had similar experiences.
What I feel that people fail to realize is that the tactics youth ministers used 20-30 years ago are probably not very effective in reaching today’s youth. A perfect example for this is the newspaper industry. Just recently the Denver Rocky Mountain Post and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer had to close business while the Philadelphia Inquirer just declared bankruptcy. How could this happen? These are big newspapers in big markets! What could have caused these newspapers to struggle this much?
What happened was that times changed and more and more people were getting their [the newspapers] information for free off of their website. Why would anyone buy a newspaper when they can get the exact same information for free!?! We have become a digital world and less people are buying papers. Because less people are buying papers, ad agencies are spending less to promote in newspapers. Ad revenue is the money flow that all newspapers need. These newspapers (and probably more to come) have failed to adapt to the change in the world thinking and have paid the price for it.
The Washington Times, however, have taken a radical approach to this change. For starters, they stopped producing a Saturday newspaper in order to save money. Then, on March 24th, 2009, they hired Thomas Culligan to serve a new position called “Chief Revenue and Marketing Officer”. In a statement, the Washington Times said, “Mr. Culligan will lead the Times’ advertising and marking departments as the company carries out an ‘aggressive transformation’ from a printed product to a multimedia company serving customers in the local, national and global markets.” The Washington Times was proactive in responding to the change in how people are receiving information. With this hire and change in approach, did the Washington Times sacrifice their core values and mission? NO! They simply changed their approach at reaching their audience.
How does this relate to assessing where your students are at?
It relates because just like newspapers, youth ministry needs to be think of adaption. The way we adapt is through evaluation. We live in a post-modern world. If we are still doing ministry the same way our youth ministers and pastors did when we were young, we have failed! Now, don’t get me wrong. You can still have the same goals such as community building and outreach. Those are good goals that can stand the test of time. But, if you approach community building and outreach the same youth ministers did in the 70s or 80s, we are missing our potential. Most importantly, students are missing out because we are failing to reach the teens of today.
That is why it is important to know your students. What is the make up of your students? Are they churched or unchurched? Are they public, private or home schooled? Where are they at with Christ? Do they have a relationship with Christ? If not, how are you going to reach them for Christ? Do you have any leader students? What do are their interests? These are just a few questions you can be asking yourself about your students. By answering them, you are beginning to understand who they are and what makes them tick. Once you understand your students better, you can start reaching them for Christ in a more effective way.
Understanding your students will help be more effective in organizing your gatherings. For example, if you decide to start doing expository teaching, but your youth are not spiritually mature to handle that depth, then you will not be as effective in reaching them. A topical teaching approach would be better. In the same way, this applies to how you organize your meetings. If you decide, without knowing where you youth are at first, that you want to be outreach focused in which you organize your meeting times with all fun and games, then conclude with a brief message, yet fail to have anything for strong believers to go deeper, you may might not be adequately addressing the needs of your youth to take that next step in Christ. Whatever your situation is, in order to move forward and producing real fruit, it is always best if you know where your students are at first!
Once you have identified who they are, you can begin to set up a strategy for reaching them. A few years ago, I took a hard look at my ministry. Out of that time of assessment and evaluation, I discovered that I was not reaching my students where they were and taking them to that next level. In some ways it was very difficult to realize that we were not being as effective as we could be. But, out of that time came a new strategy for the program (we will talk about developing a strategic plan in my next post). Out of your time of student assessment, may come a time of re-strategizing. Or, it may just confirm what you are doing is reaching your students for Christ.
As you begin to look at understanding your students and possibly re-strategize how you reach them, I want to encourage you to talk to your Senior Pastor (or Senior Director) about what you are processing and learning about your students. I have found that, when you are thinking about taking a shift in where your program is headed, it is best to make sure your Supervisor knows what is going on and why are thinking about this. Then, they know what is going on and can help you process further. Also, this helps because if someone complains about things, your Supervisor will already know what is going on and can be supportive, rather than caught off guard.
I want to be clear here. This is not an evaluation where you are looking at your mission statement and focus on being purposeful (we will talk about that in our next post). This is an assessment of the progress you are making at reaching students in this post-modern world. You can have the best purposes out there, but if you do not understand your students or the students you are trying to reach, your purposes will fail. Whether you are new to your ministry position or have been there for a few years, it is always good to take an honest, regular assessment of where you are at in reaching students for Christ.
The key to this assessment is deciding how you judge success. For each ministry it will be different. It could be having the most students go to summer camp so they can hear about Christ and be changed. For others it could be having a solid and growing small group ministry. It does not matter what you are striving to be — that is between you and God. It only matters how you judge your success. Once you are able to determine how you will judge your success, you can begin the process of knowing just how effective you are in reaching students for Christ.
By understanding your audience and setting realistic goals to encourage them in their relationship with Christ, you have a way to adequately judge your success and be more effective at taking them to the next level in Christ. Let’s not have our program die off, like some of the newspapers out there, because we fail to adapt our program to these post-modern teens. We can be more effective. It begins with taking an assessment of who they are.
TAKE A MINUTE and…
1. Begin to assess your students. Print out (or write out) every student in your program. Then, begin to write down notes about who they are. Where are they with Christ? What are their life interests? How is their home life? You may not know all the details about each student, so ask your volunteer leaders to help you (make it a leaders meeting time in which you are critically looking at these students).
2. After you assess who they are, start looking at how you are doing ministry. Is your ministry effectively reaching these students for Christ? If not, how can you begin to change and adapt?
Tom Pounder is the youth pastor at Cedar Run Community Church in Virginia and blogs at Not a Mega Church?