Starting A Brand-New Youth Ministry
Two and a half years ago, the pastors at my church approached me with the opportunity to pioneer our church’s youth ministry. Our church was a relatively young congregation and only had a handful of teenagers, and my task would be to organize this small group of middle and high schoolers and help lead them toward lasting faith in Jesus.
In many ways the decision was a no-brainer. I was a newlywed in my last semester of seminary and excited about an opportunity in ministry. My wife and I loved this church and, if possible, desired to stay and serve. I was also intrigued by the opportunity to start a ministry from scratch and put into practice all that I had learned in the classroom.
But there was one problem: I had never been part of or served in youth ministry.
Still, I took the job, and now two and half years into youth ministry, the insecurities about my lack of experience weren’t as important as I once thought. In fact, Scripture is filled with God using unlikely servants to accomplish His good purposes. Perhaps in some ways my ignorance and inexperience in youth ministry have worked to my advantage.
Today, as a ministry, we are relatively established. We gather weekly. We have a phenomenal team of volunteers. We regularly connect with our students. Students are meeting Jesus, learning the Bible, and growing in grace. When I reflect on these last couple of years, I am deeply grateful for the Lord’s kindness and mercy. He has protected and preserved me and this ministry thus far, and that gives me confidence for the future.
While I was once inexperienced and overwhelmed, I now sit with a unique perspective on what it looks like to start a youth ministry from the very beginning. Whoever you are, let me provide you two emphases that helped lay the foundation for our ministry today.
Start Slow and Start Small
Quantifiable metrics can be a great temptation. We love to be able to count things, whether it’s large gathering attendance, bible studies, salvations, baptisms, etc. Of course, numbers aren’t inherently bad. In fact, numbers can be valuable and help ministers evaluate our disciple-making efforts and encourage us in how the Spirit is moving in our midst.
However, numbers can also be overvalued and create unnecessary pressure, especially in the early days of a ministry. They can distract us from the reality that it is God who goes before us, works through us, and changes hearts. I actually believe that starting slow and small can be a real gift.
First of all, it gives you more availability to connect with your students. Your responsibilities will grow alongside your ministry, and that often means less time at the coffee shop with students. Take advantage of a lighter schedule and immerse yourself in the lives of your students.
Second, starting slow and small can be a gift as it allows you time to create and establish a culture. Write a vision and mission statement for your ministry. Develop a disciple-making strategy. Crystalize and be able to articulate the ministry’s core values.
Here are a few questions you could ask:
- What is the vision and mission of our youth ministry?
- What schools do our students attend?
- Do you notice any weekly rhythms with clubs, sports, and extracurriculars?
- How can we spend time with students outside of youth group activities?
- How should we structure our meeting times, whether it’s large or small groups?
It’s important to know that God has called you to your specific place, at this particular time for His redemptive purposes. No two youth ministries look exactly the same, so take time to explore how you can best cultivate an environment where students are introduced to Jesus and can know others and be known.
Above all things, as a youth minister, you are called to shepherd souls. The late Presbyterian pastor Eugene Peterson once wrote: “There are no dittos in souls.” In other words, every person that you encounter is unique and precious. Every person we meet is foreknown by the Almighty God and carefully knit in their mother’s womb (Psalm 139:13).
As youth ministers, whether it’s two or two hundred, we have the opportunity to meet these souls and provide them with the healing words of life. So spend time with your students. Do less talking and more listening (James 1:19). As you listen, ask the Spirit to help you connect the redemptive threads that God is weaving in their lives. Then point them to Jesus who promises the full and authentic life they seek.
Conversation starters might look like:
- “Tell me more about that…”
- What is the primary emotion you are feeling these days?
- What has been a high point and low point of the last week?
- What do you think Jesus is up to during this season? (Particularly helpful during times of uncertainty).
Soul care means showing our students that everything they are experiencing is wrapped up under God’s good providence. As many of the voices in our students lives get quieter, we are often privileged with a unique voice that’s heard. And with that voice we have the opportunity to broaden students’ horizons beyond what’s right in front of them and point them to the glorious redemption and hope we have Jesus.
I never thought I would be a youth minister, but God had other plans. Some things have gotten easier with time, but in a lot of ways ministry is just hard. In the muck of it all, I find rest by returning to the good news of Jesus where I am freed from the pressure of quantifiable metrics, difficult parents, and hardened teenage souls.
In the gospel, I am defined by what Christ has accomplished on my behalf and not what I accomplish in my youth group. In the gospel, before being a youth worker, I am a righteous and forgiven son of the King. In the gospel, God invites me to participate in his mission as he makes his name known to the ends of the earth.
Whether you are a seasoned youth pastor or a beginner like me, keep fighting the good fight (1 Tim. 1:18). Keep it simple and care for the precious souls God has entrusted you. The work you are doing is hard, but it often delivers joy you never expected. I know it did for me.
For some recommended resources for those establishing youth ministries or simply starting a new job in youth ministry, see our resources tab: First Steps.