In January 2015 Charles and I officially stepped into Youth Ministry (side note: we also had a baby in January 2015). We had three boys that’d been coming along to our connect group for a couple of months at the end of 2014, and there were about 10 other teens in church. Over the course of 12 months we were privileged to see amazing growth in not only these individuals, but our youth ministry grew more than 10-fold.
We didn’t expect or anticipate this incredible growth in numbers when we started out. Our main goal was to unite those already in church. Those 13 students that we had in church already didn’t really know each other and definitely didn’t hang out with each other. Our goal was to invest in them, build some good solid relationships with them, and get them to a place where they genuinely wanted to hang out with each other.
Yes, sharing the Gospel with them was important to us. But more than that, we wanted a place for them to belong, and you only get that through relationship. I’ve often heard it said that significant ministry flows from significant relationship. For our Gospel to be significant to these teenagers, they first had to know they were significant to us.
So how did we do that?
We focused on relationships first.
First things first: build relationships! Not just with your teens, but their parents too. Not just with existing students, but those that are new. Even if it doesn’t come naturally to you to go and speak to new people, make it a habit. Even if you feel awkward and even if the conversation bombs, make the effort. Don’t use personality as an excuse, but rather an opportunity to grow. I am naturally extraverted yet talking to new people is not one of my fortes. Yet because I genuinely love people I am able to put aside my own fears or insecurities for just a few moments to say hi.
Here’s a wee story: on the day I first met Sam and her family I also met another family that was new to church. The next week all I could remember was Sam’s name. I got the details of the two families I’d met the previous week all mixed up! I couldn’t even remember what school year Sam was in or if she even went to school. Because of this (and probably a fear of looking silly in front of her) I didn’t really want to have a conversation with her that second week. But I knew I had to, to keep building that relationship. And it was the awkwardest, most cringe-worthy conversation of my life (I’m cringing even as I write this, haha) but I did it. And Sam is still on speaking terms with me today, praise God, and also currently the 2IC of the Youth Worship Team.
As well as making a point of talking with new people, we also built relationship by providing space to create memories together. In the beginning of our youth ministry we ran Youth as a connect group in our home, rather than a youth group in the church. This enabled us to provide a relaxed setting and a cosy atmosphere for our students. Our evenings were mainly fun and games, lots of laughs, and some good quality discussion. We alternated a hangout night with a study night, but always kicked off the night with an ice breaker to help the students ease into it. And even though we didn’t talk about Jesus every night we always made a point of praying sometime during the night, because Jesus is what actually sets us apart from being just a group of people that hang out every week.
We were relevant.
I believe one reason why we saw such amazing youth ministry growth is because we did things that our teens wanted to do. We talked about topics they had questions on, we played games they wanted to play, and as leaders Charles and I used language they could relate to. The students were involved in the decision making process and that helped them to take ownership of Youth.
On the first official Youth night in our home we provided pens and paper and asked everyone to write down questions they had about life or faith, topics they wanted to discuss, and games they wanted to play. We had all sorts of answers come in, from chicken nugget night to paintball, and ‘what happened to the dinosaurs’ to ‘how can I help my friend struggling with this sin’. We managed to cover every topic somehow! And play every game except paintball (due to timing during the year).
Because we were relevant to our teens, they kept coming back an started bringing their friends, too. Our Youth grew to include community kids as well as church kids.
We didn’t focus on numbers.
Sometimes numbers matter, like if you need a certain number of people to play a particular game. But more often than not, numbers don’t matter at all. They are completely irrelevant to your mission. When you start focusing on numbers you stop focusing on relationships. We decided to continue with whatever we’d planned regardless of how many turned up on the night. We decided low numbers wouldn’t affect how we ran our night. We decided low numbers wouldn’t affect our attitude. We decided we wouldn’t complain about low numbers. We decided to trust God that the one person who needed to hear the message was sitting right there. We decided that people mattered more than numbers.
Of course we wanted to see our ministry grow in number. But it wasn’t something we chased. We simply wanted to build relationship with who we already had and have a place for them to belong, no matter what. Quality over quantity all the way!
By not focusing on growing our numbers, we were able to focus on growing our teens. We started a discipleship group to raise up leaders, and saw our leaders grow as individuals in some of the most amazing ways! They learned how to pray for each other in a group setting, how to run small group discussions, and how to be a team player. This growth in individuals is more valuable than growth in numbers. Individual growth helps to equip our teens not only for a leadership role but for a life-long relationship with Jesus. We don’t want to raise up teenage Christians, but life-long Christ follwers. What is seen is temporary; what is unseen is eternal. 2 Corinthians 4:18. And the eternal has more value. Matt 6:19-20.
Because we focused on relationships first, because we were relevant, and because we didn’t focus on numbers, we had the privilege of seeing our youth ministry growth sky-rocket from 3 teens to 40 in the space of 12 months. We never imagined this would happen! We are so thankful to God for the opportunity to speak into the lives of so many students in our little city. I hope you are encouraged by our testimony!