Building A Resilient Youth Ministry

Group of teenagers and adult leaders at youth group linked arm in arm

This time of year four years ago, we were just beginning to discover that what we initially thought would be a few weeks of the world shutting down was actually going to drag on for much, much longer. None of us had ever experienced anything like COVID, and the rate of innovation on how to do church well went through the roof.

But, for most of us, something that didn’t go through the roof was the numbers in our youth ministry. If your Zoom youth ministry journey went anything like mine (and it’s possible it didn’t), during the first three gatherings, you had borderline more students at youth group than you would’ve had in a normal gathering. But then the screen fatigue and depressed apathy set in for your students, and your numbers plummeted.

I pray that we’ll never experience something like COVID again, but it’s likely that in some way, shape, or form, your ministry is due for a season of uncertainty between now and the time you leave. And, when it does, I think most of us would like to see the ministry continue to thrive—or perhaps even grow stronger. So the question is: How can you build resiliency in your youth ministry?

You know, Jesus was known for answering a question that was asked of Him by not really answering the question. I’m sure it was very frustrating for the person who asked, but that’s exactly what I’m going to do here. Because:

I’m not entirely sure the desire to “build a resilient youth ministry” is a healthy one.

It might be. In your case, it probably is. I just want to open up the possibility that it’s not. The thing is, I think a lot of us as youth pastors put undue pressure on ourselves to build and create and unwaveringly sustain a “successful” ministry. Some of that might be top-down pressure from our employers. Some of it might be tying our ministry success measures to our identity. In some cases it’s probably a mix of both. But in any case, when these unhealthy factors drive our approach to ministry, we lose the ability to allow space for God to do things the way God does things.

Here’s where we find our gospel lens for this. When God began communicating to the Israelites that the Messiah would come and save them, every person in Israel began to feel hope, and that hope was passed down from generation to generation as the nation continued to imperfectly (cyclically might be a better word) walk with the Lord. But then they entered the intertestamental period where God was completely silent for 400 years.

Since God didn’t speak, there’s a lot we don’t know about that period and how the people responded. But what we do know is that God’s Plan A for the gospel narrative was to enact an era of 400 years where His people weren’t thriving spiritually—where they struggled.

God doesn’t always need the arrow of success measures pointed up. Sometimes struggle is Plan A.

And if you don’t have space for that in your ministry paradigm, it’s possible your desire to build a resilient youth ministry isn’t healthy. It’s possible you’ve got some “pleasing man” stuff going on in your heart. It’s possible you’ve got some fear of failure going on in your heart. It’s possible you’ve got some “I am my work” going on in your heart.

Yes, we all want students to have a strong place to belong no matter what.

Yes, our hearts are burdened for the students who find strength and hope in attending our ministry.

Yes, it’s our job to build healthy ministries.

But also, for some reason, sometimes struggle is God’s Plan A, and if we’re going to lead through uncertainty from a healthy place, we need to be willing to embrace that. I know that doesn’t answer the question. I learned that from Jesus. But I hope the paradigm shift is helpful for your heart.

Mike Haynes is a full-time youth pastor and the creator of G Shades Youth Ministry Curriculum. Feel free to reach out to Mike anytime over email at mike@gshades.org
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