Essential Practices of Good Youth Ministry

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In this series, “What Acts Teaches Us About Youth Ministry,” we are considering the way the apostles did ministry as described in the Book of Acts. Of course, the apostles were not doing youth ministry per say, but we can take a look at their approaches and apply them to our endeavors in ministry to young people. The previous article in the series can be read here.

When I was in high school, my experience with youth group often yielded the thought: “There has to be something more.” I was almost always disappointed with it. Yet if I had been asked why, I couldn’t have provided the underlying reason. I would have mentioned the lack of friends, and perhaps the shallow devotionals that concluded youth group; but I really didn’t know, because I hadn’t experienced a youth ministry passionate about the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, what does this type of youth group look like? It can be hard to imagine during a time where the average youth ministry is often judged by attendance and popularity rather than biblical depth. 

I want to propose that we go back to the basics of what made the early church passionate about Jesus and His gospel, beginning with their practices. In Acts 2:42, following the climactic event of Pentecost, the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, the fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers. That all sounds nice and biblical; but what does it really mean for 21st century American youth pastors and parents?

It means that (1) the early church was serious about saturating their minds with God’s truth: they discussed it, they sat under the teaching of others who had studied it, and they meditated on it when they were by themselves. (2) They deepened their relationships with one another through sharing their possessions and their time. It can be a somewhat foreign and uncomfortable practice, but spirit-directed sharing of resources is ideally what God desired for humanity apart from the pervading influence of sin. (3) We often find ourselves “too busy” to spend time getting to know and provide for the true needs of other Christians; however, God invites us to be counter-cultural in our prioritizing of time spent in devotion to Him and to one another. This may look like setting a daily iPhone reminder for devotions, intentionally honoring God with a Sabbath day, committing to a consistent, weekly Bible study, or engaging in regular accountability with a friend.

These practices are not meant to be mere descriptions of the early church, but are ways for us to engage in the present kingdom of God at work in the world. It can be tempting to copy attractional models of youth ministry which aim for big numbers and play into our desire for the label of “success”; however, for the long run, we would be better served to integrate core biblical practices from the church of old.

So what might it look like to integrate these core practices into our youth ministries with the hope of letting Acts inform the way we foster gospel-centered community? One idea may be revisiting the way we go about planning, shepherding, and equipping our small groups.The concept of small groups is seen in many youth groups; however, the foundation upon which they are built sometimes lacks the Biblical richness and intentionality needed for them to be deep, long-sighted and sustaining spiritual wells for our kids. The necessity for energetic and spiritually-mature leaders who love God and selflessly care about teens cannot be overemphasized: we need leaders who are willing to stick it out for the long haul – for all the volatility and difficulties adolescence can often present. It is also crucial to consider ways we can make these small groups a core part of the youth group community; they have the potential to create committed, gospel-centered groups of kids who are excited about their faith.

We know that offering small groups in the youth group will not automatically produce devoted followers of Jesus Christ. But, by learning from the ways the early believers in Acts engaged in community, we can provide a vital foundation for our programming ministry and help to create a valuable vehicle for teens to discover together what it means to follow Jesus Christ in the day-to-day.

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