HOW-TO: Set the Stage for a Thriving & Balanced Youth Ministry

How do you know if your youth ministry is healthy? Do you have a regular check-up/evaluation process? Does your leadership team know your ministry’s mission statement? How can you tell if you’ve met your ministry’s goals/objectives? 

For most of my teenage and young adult life, youth ministry was a big part of my life, first as a youth leader and eventually as a volunteer coordinator. We held annual retreats for high school-aged youth and would draw 50-75 teenagers every year, all from different schools in the area, and this was where how membership in the youth group was sustained. While attendance at the weekly meetings would ebb and flow according to the season (about 15-20 on average), the retreat was the event that students looked forward to every year, whether it was to be part of the serving team and see old friends or to invite any friends who missed it the last time. I’m proud to say that the youth ministry that I grew up in continues to thrive and make a difference in many young peoples’ lives, and I believe a big reason for that is that it was a multidimensional ministry that met different needs with a variety of programs (evangelism and discipleship being two of our primary goals).

It wasn’t until I left California that I happened to stumble upon a book that affirmed a lot of the decisions that we had made as a youth ministry, and does a great job of coaching youth ministers to be intentional about naming the purpose and target audience of individual programs (and understanding that there are different audiences within the age groups that youth ministry serves).

The book (also mentioned as an excellent resource in the book Rebuilt) is Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry by Doug Fields, and was recently reprinted in 2013. I believe that Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry paired with the US Bishops’ documentRenewing the Vision: A Framework for Catholic Youth Ministry can help set the stage for a thriving and balanced youth ministry. Below you’ll find some of the salient points that I find valuable from both resources:

#1) Understand what Scripture has to say about your ministry’s purpose (i.e., what God has called us to do as a Church)

In Purpose-Driven Youth Ministry, Fields, echoing his pastor Rick Warren, references the Great Commandment (Matthew 22:37-40) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:19-20) and draws from these passages the following five purposes:

  1. WORSHIP: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind (Mt 22:37)
  2. MINISTRY: Love your neighbor as yourself (Mt 22:39)
  3. EVANGELISM: Go and make disciples (Mt 28:19)
  4. FELLOWSHIP: Baptizing them (Mt 28:19)*
  5. DISCIPLESHIP: Teaching them to obey (Mt 28:20)

*NOTE: Warren explains the connection between fellowship and baptism as “identification with the body of Christ.” In a Catholic context, I think that the celebration of the Eucharist could be another way to fulfill the purpose of identifying with the body of Christ, i.e., deepening of the bond between Christ and his members.

The challenge is for your ministry to take the purposes mentioned above and communicate them in your own words. For examples, see PDYM pp. 51-53. (TIP: A great exercise for your next youth leadership retreat would be to study the Great Commandment and Great Commission and come up with a purpose statement.)

#2) Understand what Renewing the Vision says about the goals of youth ministry.

The three goals named in Renewing the Vision for ministry with adolescents overlap with the purposes mentioned above. For a more detailed breakdown of what each goal entails, be sure to set aside time to read through the document in its entirety:

  1. To empower young people to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in our world today. – EVANGELISM, DISCIPLESHIP
    • All ministry with adolescents must be directed toward presenting young people with the Good News of Jesus Christ and inviting and challenging them to become his disciples.
  2. To draw young people to responsible participation in the life, mission, and work of the Catholic faith community. – DISCIPLESHIP, MINISTRY
  3. To foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person. – MINISTRY, FELLOWSHIP
#3) Know your audience

In marketing, if you don’t know your target audience, then chances are, whatever you’re trying to sell them may or may not get their attention — it’s pretty much like throwing a dart at a dartboard, blindfolded. The same goes for ministry — if you have no idea who you’re talking to, what their context is, then you might as well be speaking another language.

One of my favorite chapters in PDYM has to do with identifying what types of students you are trying to reach, and acknowledging that one program will NOT meet the needs of every single type of student. PDYM identifies its potential audience by grouping them according to commitment-level (p. 87). I’ve adapted the definitions for a Catholic context:

  1. Community: Teenagers living within a realistic driving distance of the parish but do not attend Mass. Family may be registered parishioners but do not regularly attend Mass.
  2. Crowd: Teenagers who come to a Youth Mass and fill out an information card or regularly attend Sunday Mass. Could also be liturgical or catechetical ministers (i.e., altar servers, lectors, choir members, catechist assistants), but do not participate in youth ministry programming.
  3. Congregation: Teenagers who attend weekly youth group meetings. Could also be liturgical or catechetical ministers (i.e., altar servers, lectors, choir members, catechist assistants), but do not participate in youth ministry programming.
  4. Committed: Teenagers who are committed to developing spiritual habits, such as personal Bible study, prayer, accountability with another member.
  5. Core: Committed students who discover their giftedness and want to express it through ministering to others.
#4) Understand the 8 components needed to achieve a balanced youth ministry.

In order to achieve the three stated goals of youth ministry, Renewing the Vision states that a comprehensive youth ministry integrates the following eight components in a balanced way:

  1. Advocacy
  2. Catechesis
  3. Community life
  4. Evangelization
  5. Justice and Service
  6. Leadership Development
  7. Pastoral Care
  8. Prayer and Worship

According to Renewing the Vision, “These components provide a framework for the Catholic community to respond to the needs of young people and to involve young people in sharing their unique gifts with the larger community…This balance can be achieved throughout a year or a season of programming. Even a single program or strategy can incorporate several of the ministry components, as in the case of a retreat program.”

#5) Integrate steps #1-4 and determine which types of programs you can design.

Adapting the formula on PDYM p. 94, you can think of it like this:

target audience + primary purpose + primary goal + primary component = program

For example,

congregation students + discipleship + To foster the total personal and spiritual growth of each young person + prayer & worship = Advent small group study

Fields notes, “Keep in mind that your programs don’t all have to be weekly programs.” Also, in the examples above, “you should notice the term primary…to indicate the main biblical purpose.” It’s a given that while several purposes/goals/components might be fulfilled, there will be a primary purpose for each of your programs.

And now, for some homework.

I asked at the beginning of this blog post whether or not your ministry had a regular check-up/evaluation process. Here’s your chance! Below is a link to a spreadsheet I’ve created to help your take a look at your existing programs and find out which audiences you’ve been serving, which purposes and goals you’ve fulfilled, which components you’ve addressed.

Click here to download: YouthMinistryCheckUp 

Once you’ve begun to nail down how exactly your ministry doing, start asking yourself how you might be able to add balance to your programming. Remember – this doesn’t necessary mean adding complete new programs, but starting with what you have and maybe tweaking some elements. Or, going forward, being explicit about who exactly you’re targeting, and what you’re trying to accomplish.

If you already have weekly meetings, then it’s about looking at individual meetings and seeing if there might be a different focus for certain meetings. For example, every first meeting of the month could be a night focused on Fellowship, where your existing members (i.e., Congregations students) are encouraged to invite someone new to eat dinner with the youth group. The week before that 1st meeting of the month could be a night focused on Discipleship, where you speak to your Congregation students about the importance of sharing their faith with the their friends. The possibilities are endless!

What are some creative ways your youth ministry fulfilling its purpose?

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