The first job I ever had in a church was as a youth pastor. When I took the position, I knew nothing about youth ministry. Honestly, I was as green as they come.
I’ll never forget the church’s pastor, W.C. Bryant, pulling me into his office after he hired me. We couldn’t have looked more different. He was in a three-piece suit. I was in jeans and a t-shirt. But W.C. looked me right in the eyes and said, “Rick, if I didn’t trust you, I wouldn’t hire you. If I didn’t trust you, you wouldn’t be on this staff. The very fact that you’re here means that I do trust you. So go for it. Do whatever it takes to reach kids for Christ.”
And that’s what I did. After he showed that kind of trust for me, I went all out engaging our community’s youth with the Gospel. We reached hundreds of teenagers for Christ. That experience profoundly changed the course of my future ministry. I learned lessons that would eventually help me found and lead Saddleback Church. I’ve taught those principles all around the world now, but many of them got their start when I was a youth minister.
Youth pastor, I know what you do matters. It matters more than you likely know right now. You’re shaping young people who aren’t just the church of tomorrow—they are the church of today!
It’s a big responsibility and a big opportunity. How do you bring out the best in these youth so they can impact their communities for Christ?
Start by building these four habits into your relationships with teenagers.
1. Accept your students’ uniqueness.
Take a look at the students in your ministry. They’re all so different—different sizes, different skills, different backgrounds. God will use them in very different ways in the future, too. He could have just made a machine to produce carbon copies of every person on the planet, but that’s not how God works. God values diversity, and our ministries should, too.
Many of your youth are just beginning to test the bounds of their unique contributions in the world around them. How you engage their uniqueness will resonate with them for years to come. God made every teenager differently because there are many different roles for them to fulfill. If they were all the same, think of all the work that would go undone. The Bible tells us, “There are different types of work to do, but the same God produces every gift in every person” (1 Corinthians 12:6 GW).
That’s why your job goes beyond just affirming their uniqueness. Your job (no matter what role in ministry you’re in) is to help people discover their uniqueness and grow within it. And it’s particularly important as you work with youth. From every other direction, teenagers are being pressured to compare themselves to others and to conform to whatever their peers are doing. Your voice must be different from that. You must help them discover and develop their unique SHAPE—the blend of their spiritual gifts, heart, abilities, personality, and experiences.
2. Affirm them constantly.
Teenagers constantly hear negative messages about themselves. They’re hearing those messages from teachers at school, coaches, other students—and maybe even from their families at times. Be the different voice in their lives. Affirmation can work in incredible ways in the lives of young people (and old people, for that matter).
Recently, I went to an eighth-grade graduation program for kids with special needs, and one particular kid’s story illustrates this. He had known he was different from an early age. And this made him angry with everyone else, all of the time. But God transformed him. When his junior high school graduation approached, his school asked him to give the graduation speech. He told those assembled, “My life was like a campfire, out of control, and the fire sent sparks everywhere. My anger was burning everyone in my life.”
But then he talked about the affirmation and acceptance he received from his parents, who are a part of our church, and his small group through our junior high ministry. It changed his life. He ended his speech by saying, “I’m still a campfire, but now I warm everybody and they’re attracted to the fire. They’re making s’mores over me!” God used the affirmation of others to change the life of that boy. Your affirmation has that power, too.
3. Trust them with responsibility.
Nothing will bring out the best in your youth more than your trust. It’s like the story I shared earlier: W.C. Bryant’s faith in me set me loose in my first experience as a youth pastor. His confidence in me set me free to take risks, make mistakes, and grow.
Your students will never learn to impact the world for Jesus by just reading books about it. They’ll learn to impact their world by doing it. Start small. Look for little ways they can serve when they first come to your ministry. Let them clean up after a meeting. Turn them into a greeter.
But don’t stop there. Make it your goal to turn over ministries to them as they move ahead. Let them organize the work, solicit the help of others, and then do the ministry. Most likely, your teenagers can accept more responsibility than you think they can.
4. Love them fiercely and unconditionally.
This may be the most important part of bringing out the best in your youth, but it will be the toughest. Your students will test your love for them all of the time. You’ll be hurt as a youth leader. You’ll be disappointed. You’ll pour into them one day, and they’ll make a really bad decision the next.
But the mark of a youth leader who effectively builds next-generation leaders is that they never give up on teenagers. We all need people in our lives who will give us a second chance. I know I’ve needed those people many times in my life. I’m sure you have as well. So do your students.
Many of the kids you’re ministering to each week don’t have that kind of relationship with anyone else in their lives. They desperately lack the security that comes with the unconditional love and acceptance of others. When they see you and others in your ministry care for them even when they’ve blown it, you’ll give them a glimpse into who God is.
The truth is, you’ll never be able to meet this need completely for the youth in your ministry. Not even parents can. But you can point them to the One who can give them the kind of security they desperately (and often secretly) long for. Introduce them to the unconditional love of God, and he’ll meet this need in the deepest way possible over and over for the rest of their lives.
You might not see it now, but I believe you’re making a difference in the lives of youth that will reverberate for generations to come. I’m convinced the best days for the church are ahead of us. Part of that is because of the work you’re doing in the lives of youth. Keep it up!