Where the Students Are

In Luke 5, we find the familiar story of Jesus coming in contact with fishermen who had been out all night fishing, but arrived back to shore without catching anything. Zip, Nada, Nothing. Skunked.

Then Jesus has the audacity to tell these tired fishermen to head back out. I can almost hear the conversation… “You’re doing it all wrong,” Jesus says. “You need to fish on the OTHER side of the boat.” (“There’s a concept,” Peter says sarcastically to his brother under his breath.)

Can’t you hear Peter’s thought process? “Who’s this guy think he is, telling us how to fish? We’re the experts here! This guy’s a good teacher and all, but he’s a carpenter. What does he know about fishing?

But these fishermen, likely more out of respect for Jesus’ teaching than for his fishing prowess, grudgingly got into their boats, and headed back out.

You know the rest of the story. They immediately caught so many fish that their nets started to tear and their boats began to sink. They hurried back to shore, amazed at this new Teacher; and fell on their faces. Jesus responded to their shock and awe with a challenge: “Follow me… and from now on you will catch men, not fish.”

To quote Napoleon Dynamite’s brother… “That’s what I’m talking about.”

I signed up in youth ministry 20 years ago for that kind of fishing.

Youth workers today are better educated, have more resources, go to more conferences and overall have greater support from congregations and church boards than ever before. So why aren’t we catching more fish?

We should be experts at fishing; with all our cool gear, our experience, our flashy lures and our well thought-out fishing strategies. But honestly, doesn’t it seem like we catch and release the same kids week after week in our services? It’s like fishing in a bathtub.

Several years ago, after a decade of working with teenagers and fishing with marginal levels of success, a friend challenged me to fish on the other side of the boat. This other side of the youth ministry boat is called “The Campus.”

My prior perception of Campus Ministry was:

  • The school doesn’t want me there.
  • I don’t know what to do even if I could get on campus.
  • I’m busy enough trying to take care of my church’s kids anyway.

Campus Ministry is nothing new to many people. The parachurch groups are pretty much the experts here. Young Life, Youth for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Student Venture and others have been doing it and doing it well for years. What’s new is that the church is finally beginning to see the campus as a viable mission field. There are amazing opportunities for churches to impact and reach students in public schools.

Church-based paradigm vs. school-based paradigm

Most youth workers free-associate the term “Campus Ministry” with CampusClubs and summarily tune out. That’s not what I’m talking about.

I want to challenge you to think very differently. Most youth pastors are trained to view youth ministry through the lens of the local church. “Here are the kids I’m responsible for. I need to train and disciple these students, protect them, plan events for them etc. If my youth group is 10% of the size of the congregation, then I’ve done my job.”

I’m sorry, but that’s bunk.

I am not just a youth pastor to my church. I am a youth pastor to my city. I have 15,000 students God has sent me to reach. I have a salary, a budget, a calling and a team of students and leaders I am called to mobilize to impact those 15,000 students. I will not be graded on a curve. I am a missionary to every teenager in this area. We need to keep asking ourselves if “every student”really means “EVERY” student!

What does a school-based ministry paradigm look like?

Let’s try to view what a church’s youth ministry program might look like through the lens of a school-based ministry paradigm. (See chart below.)

Immediately you can see a marked difference between the two paradigms. Certainly this type of ministry philosophy could create a conflict between you and your senior pastor, if he does not see the value in what you are doing.

Casting vision in this area is extremely important or you may find yourself out of a job. And you may not be able to do all that is in your heart to do, or all that others are allowed to do in their places of ministry. That’s okay. We need to start where we can.

When I moved to my community nine years ago, the youth pastors had no presence on – and little relationship with – the schools in town. We couldn’t even eat lunch there. Today we have a fantastic relationship with most of the schools and the school districts in our area. What changed? How did it come about? And what can you do?

Here are a few easy things…

1. Find a need and meet it.

So often we go about things the wrong way. Every youth worker should read Dale Carnegie’s classic book How to Win Friends and Influence People. Too often we go into a school with an agenda, basically saying in not so many words, “Here’s what I want you to do for me.”

Flip it around. What if someone you didn’t know stopped you in the foyer at church and wanted to have access to your students for something. Not gonna happen, right? Roadblocks go up; hoops for them to jump through suddenly appear. But if that person begins to volunteer and proves himself over time… now that’s a different story. We need to be asking, “What can I do to help you?”

We have a program at the high schools in town called “Freshman Connection.”

The goal of the program is to connect incoming freshmen with solid upperclassmen as mentors. In its early stages, the program struggled for adult leaders to help facilitate the small groups and to run the team building stuff.

As a Network, we decided to help out. Pretty soon we were leading much of the program, because honestly, we were more comfortable than most of the teachers working with students outside of a classroom setting. Eventually the leadership dreamt of a day when they could take the program offcampus so students would focus better. But they had no money.

Hmmmm….tough one. Today, all the freshmen in our school district meet in small groups in our churches for FREE, facilitated by many of the youth workers in town. Many of the mentors are students from our youth ministries. Volunteering in this program alone has opened more doors than we could ever have asked for.

2. Become an asset, not a threat.

Over the years, the church in America has created a culture of animosity between itself and the public school system. Screaming about evolution, fighting over sex education, demanding our rights, disrespecting the boundaries between church and state. We loudly proclaim the public school system’s evils from our pulpits, and overtly organizing widespread pullouts in favor of home schooling.

I’m not saying that we should roll over on every issue, but is it any wonder that schools are hesitant to open the doors to us?

Our church sponsors a drive every August to collect school supplies for grade schools in our community. We collect thousands of items and donate them to nearby schools for needy children and teachers who would otherwise have to purchase classroom supplies out of their own pockets. How do you think they view our church?

I was talking to a principal a year ago about graduation and how cramped it always is. He lamented that space is so limited that each student can only have three tickets for family members. He added that the most difficult part of his job was telling kids that one of their grandmas wasn’t going to be able to watch them walk. Last year that high school held their graduation at our church, and each student was able to have as many tickets as they wanted. We have become an asset to the schools in our area, not a threat.

3. Build relationships with teachers and administrators, not just students.

Think U2 vs. Milli Vanilli

Many of you probably don’t remember who Milli Vanilli was. They made a huge splash in late 1980s with a big hit, (Give me a sec and maybe I can remember it… nope, sorry). All I remember is that at the height of their fame, it was discovered that they had faked their recording. It was someone else’s voices on the album! They had tried to shortcut their way to success.

Long-term thinking says, “We’re going to be here for a while, and we’re going to do this the right way.” You can’t shortcut your way to success. Our Network has turned down opportunities to go for “the big kill” with some one-hit wonder strategies, voting instead for long-term relationship. Too many youth workers burn bridges with schools and skip town a year later, leaving others to pay for their foolishness.

The partnership I enjoy with the youth pastors enables us to initiate relationships not only with students, but with faculty and administrators. Youth workers help us in mobilizing students to care for other students, assist in connecting kids with other kids and love people in the school as individuals. You can’t always say that about teachers. Youth guys do a better job of that than anybody.

Greg Johnson, High School Counselor

Think team.

I graduated from high school near an Indian reservation. I was always secretly jealous that the Native Americans got to fish with nets, at times stretching them across the entire river, while I was stuck using my stupid pole. That is the picture I have of our Network today. I can fish with my church’s one pole, or I can team up with my youth worker friends, church and parachurch alike, to “net” our community together—each one of us holding a corner of the net. We recognize that together we can harvest way more fish than any of us could by ourselves.

And you know where fish swim, don’t you?

Fish swim in schools.

~Mark Moder

Originally published in Network Magazine – Spring 2005 (A publication of the National Network of Youth Ministries)


Are you actually addicted to your smart phone?

New data suggests that it might be possible. It looks like your brain gives you a little dopamine push every time your check your phone for a new message.  Turns out we are wired for data. From way back our brain learned to reward us for finding essentials key to our survival, like food and water by giving us a little shot of dopamine. “New research shows that the brain also uses dopamine to reward information seeking.” 1  And once the dopamine reward system is engaged it continues to reinforce that behavior.

According to Wikipedia “Dopamine plays a major role in the brain system that is responsible for reward-driven learning. Every type of reward that has been studied increases the level of dopamine transmission in the brain, and a variety of highly addictive drugs, including stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine, act directly on the dopamine system.”

Dopamine can be good as it rewards behaviors necessary for survival, but it also has a dark side when it overwhelms our brain and elevates one type of reward over another, like drugs or alcohol over food. At the risk of sounding like an expert, which I’m not, this may explain why it’s so hard for us to pull ourselves away from our screens. It actually feels good when we get a text message. So like any potentially addicting thing, consume in moderation, watch that it doesn’t negatively impact your key relationships…. and for goodness sake, don’t forget to brush your teeth. Addicts always have the worst teeth.

1 Selhub MD, Eva M.; Logan ND, Alan C. (2012-03-27). Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality (pp. 40-41). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

I'm not addicted. I just can't live without it.

Why isn’t my small group working?

Everyone has small groups these days, but how many of them are actually working? Not that I’m a small groups guru, but I probably do have more experience than most. When I was a youth pastor at Real Life Ministries, I had 80 active small groups meeting weekly with 125 volunteer leaders in our MS/HS/Young Adult ministries. Real Life is a small groups church with over 5,000 people meeting weekly in 700 small groups. Pastor Jim Putman’s latest book  does a great job of explaining the why and the how of RLM small groups if you’re interested.

This diagnostic is not exhaustive, but if your small group is struggling, I’m guessing you have one or more of these things going on:

  1. Your group is too big. – A small group should not be 15-20 people, it should be 6-8 people. If your group is too big, it becomes just another class or small service. People should not be able to hide in a small group, it defeats the purpose.
  2. Your group’s purpose and your group’s parameters are not congruent – Speaking of purpose, what is the purpose of your small group? What are you trying to accomplish with it? If you are trying to make disciples, having a group breakout during service with visitors coming and going each week will not work, it undermines the intimacy you need for discipleship to take place. Either you need to be realistic about what you are actually trying to accomplish with the group, or you need to change one or more of your parameters: location, time, who, gender, frequency etc…
  3. You see yourself as a teacher instead of a facilitator. This is a problem with many groups. The leader spends way too much time prepping for the talk. This guarantees too much speaking from the leader and not enough group participation.  As the leader, you should not see yourself as the expert or the teacher, but rather as a facilitator. Your goal is not to give this awesome lesson with all this detail and insight, but to get participation from EVERYONE in the group. “Jon, I notice that you have been pretty quiet tonight, what do you think about this question?”
  4. You are not giving enough pastoral care outside your group time.  I think the purpose of most small groups is wrong. It’s not about creating a better delivery system for your material to be taught and for your people to learn the right stuff. That can be done in the main service and in elective classes. The purpose of most small groups should be to “create a relational environment for the purpose of discipleship.” (Putman) And if that’s the purpose, as the leader of that small group, it is your responsibility to be the primary pastoral care giver for the members of your group. You don’t have to take each one out for coffee every week, but there should be a phone call or text message, some point of connection outside the group each week. You can tell a leader who is doing it right by who the members of their group call during a crisis. If they call their small group leader instead of their pastor or youth pastor, give them an attaboy. That leader has become a shepherd and not just a teacher. They are making disciples.
  5. Small groups are not a big enough deal. Pastors come to visit Real Life to look for the secret to their success. How does a church grow from 1 small group to a church of 8000 in 10 years in a rural community? Is it their material? Is it their leaders?  There are several reasons small groups work there but one of the big ones is that it is pushed at every service, and in every department of the church. Small groups for many churches and youth groups is an appendage, an add on, a way to close the back door so that people who come get connected relationally so they don’t leave. This would almost be considered an anathema to RLM, where small groups are THE way to make disciples. I’ve heard it said from Putman dozens of times from the platform, that if RLM had to cancel the weekend service or small groups; they would cancel the weekend services hands down. In fact, they are convinced that if the economy crashed completely and they lost everything and all the pastors had to go get regular jobs; that they could continue to fulfill the mandate to go and make disciples without having weekend services. Whether you agree with that or not is a mute point, the point is that Small Groups are a Big Deal there, and if yours is just an add on, an elective, don’t be surprised if your people opt out.
  6. Lastly. If your pastor or your youth pastor is not in a small group himself and talking about his personal experiences in his messages, small groups will never become part of the culture in your congregation or youth group. Ethos leaks from the top down. If it is not a personal value to your top organizational leader, it will never become inculcated as part of your organizational culture.

I hope this helps. If you are having challenges with your small groups, keep fighting. You are fighting the right fight. DO NOT SETTLE for anything but success when it comes to discipleship.  Everything else is a waste of time, if we can’t succeed at disciple-making in the church.

What other barriers have you come across that you think would be helpful for those struggling to make small groups work?


“The Antidote for Tech” – How to minister effectively to an over-stimulated generation of teenagers.




I am not a luddite. In fact I am a BIG tech consumer, and just as over-stimulated as the generation of teenagers I work with. With so many distractions clamoring for our teenagers attention, how does a youth worker (or parent) minister effectively to teens in this culture? We will look at the science behind where we are and discover what you can do, to leverage the holes that the tech platform has given us to minister to the teenagers we love.

This will be my topic for Open Seattle next weekend. I’m really interested in your thoughts as I prepare mine. Is this a good subject matter? Do you have any resources you’ve come across? Things that work for you? I will post a more thorough blog on this after my talk next weekend. Here are the four points I am working with as of now:

  • Nature
  • Deep Relationship/ Discussions
  • Active Learning
  • Adventure Programming

Since this is a new type of conference, I thought I’d try open sourcing my talk a little. Give me your thoughts / feedback! What do you think? What can you add to the discussion?


New infographic on avg U.S. teen and ‘the power of camp’ or any outdoor ministry I’d say…


You’ve never seen stars like this! Yosemite’s night sky in timelapse.

I think I just added something else to my bucket list. I discovered this clip on another blog today. It’s unbelievably amazing just to watch this on your pc, let alone to experience this in person at Yosemite, I imagine. To quote my Pinterest friends: “I’m so doing this.” Isn’t it almost tragic how much time we spend indside these days? Kids are being raised almost exclusively indoors. And I get it, we need to keep our children safe. But wow, what we’re missing. Newsweek’s Tony Dokoupil’s recent article “Is the Internet Making us Crazy?” looks at some of the current trends and poses some great questions. I just discovered a new book called “Your Brain on Nature.” A scientific look at nature’s impact on our brains. I suspect that as I read it this week I”ll find what many of us in Youth Dynamics and YD Adventures know anecdotally, that nature is the antidote to tech. Obviously, I’m more than just a fan of tech, seriously, I know this. But getting outside helps keep my life in balance. It de-stresses and unwinds me where tech tends to add stress and winds me up. We’re finding this in our working with teenagers as well. We haven’t done any hard studies yet, but many of the 5,000 teenagers we work with each year have not been outside much at all. My staff know that being out in God’s creation gives you a fantastic platform to discuss the deeper issues of life. People relax when they are surrounded by nature. It’s significantly easier to believe in a Creator God when you’re watching a sunset, or looking up at the stars, or sitting on top of a mountain. In fact, I have a friend who as a teenager, was a complete atheist, who did not believe God could exist, until he experienced Him during a thunderstorm high up on a mountain while on an adventure trip. He is now a Christ-follower and is interning with us. We’ve been doing Adventure ministry for over 30 years here in the Northwest, and I feel like what we’re doing is more relevant, more necessary than ever. How many significant conversations have you had around a campfire late at night?If you’re a parent or a youth worker, do you kids a favor and get them outside!

What kind of leader are you?

Do you know an insecure leader?

Some great leaders I know...

Some great leaders I serve with…

I’m not sure what it is about ministry that attracts a certain type of leader, but it does. You’ve seen it and you’ve experienced it. There is definitely a consistent DNA pattern that runs through many leaders in the church. It’s insecurity. And it’s glaring problem in church leadership today. This holds true in Youth Ministry as well as the Senior Pastorate. Maybe it’s that Jesus gives insecure people the validation they are looking for, but whatever it is, insecurity is one of the most common personality traits I see in ministers. And it’s horrible to see and experience.

If you’ve ever been part of a congregation with an insecure leader you know what I’m talking about.

Here are some sure signs of an insecure leader:

  1. The insecure leader has very few volunteers; “no one else can do it right.” He says he is open to people volunteering, but he has nearly impossible standards for volunteering. The insecure leader loves being important, (feeling irreplaceable), and does not like to share the limelight. In contrast, it is the secure leader’s joy to train up and release others to do ministry.
  2. The insecure leader only recruits “yes men” to his board or inner circle. One of a leader’s greatest difficulties is the ability to solicit accurate assessment and garner honest feedback. The insecure leader sees the contrary voice as opposition, and will not stand for it. Conversely, the secure leader surrounds himself with wise men and women whose different voices bring balance to his blind spots. In sports, a head coach wants his assistant coaches to point out the team’s vulnerabilities. This makes the team stronger as the team can then address those weaknesses instead of foolishly overlooking them.
  3. An insecure leader cares too much about what people are saying & thinking. Constantly asking people “What do you think?” the insecure leader determines direction by getting it from others. In another expression, the insecure leader uses questioning to attempt to maintain control over the court of public opinion, “What have you heard?”  The secure leader is confident in the direction he is headed and does not lead by public opinion polls. He does not feel threatened when others do not agree. He cares about the thoughts of others, but not overly so.
  4. An insecure leader hates conflict while a secure leader almost enjoys it.  The insecure leader sees conflict as a threat to his leadership while a secure leader sees conflict as an opportunity to shape the contrary opinion or action, and bring the individual on board. For that to happen there must be discussion, the issue must surface, at times to the point of conflict for there to be resolution and incorrect thinking shaped or brought into alignment.

In my experience as a youth pastor, I have worked for both extremes:  the insecure pastor, and the very secure pastor.  It’s been said that “you learn more from a bad boss than a good one.”  And while I’m not sure that’s completely true, I certainly learned quite a bit about the type of leader I desire to be from experiencing both.  I have not always been a secure leader. But I’ve seen up close the tyranny of the insecure leader. So when conflict arises in my life, and I want to go all schoolyard on people, I pause and remind myself about the type of leader I wish to be and act accordingly, knowing that eventually my feelings will get in line.

So the question isn’t so much “What kind of leader do you work for?” It’s “What kind of leader do you want to be?” I certainly know which one I’d rather follow.


“Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity.”  Colin Powell

Are they Hole-Fillers or Disciple-Makers? Training your volunteers to be Disciple-Making machines.

Now that you have a team of volunteers, what should you do with them? Obviously you want to train them, but how? And what do you train them to do? Most coaches would die for a Peyton Manning to transfer to their team, but that’s not likely going to happen to you. You probably feel like you’ve got a whole bunch of project players instead of the all stars you were hoping for. That’s alright. Because great volunteers are made, not born, but it’s not going to happen by accident. You are the coach. It’s up to you to train and develop them to be successful on the youth ministry playing field.

Here is a short list of the things you should cover in your training times with your volunteers.

#1. Policies & Procedures – this is the boring legal stuff, but your volunteers are acting as an extension of you and your ministry. You can be held liable in a court of law for the actions of your volunteers. If one of them does something wrong, it’s seen as almost the same as if a member of your church staff did it in the eyes of the public and at times the law. Make sure your volunteers both understand and abide by your guidelines.

#2. Hard Knowledge – whatever role you are asking your volunteer to fill has a skill set attached to it. Whether they are driving the van, running sound or leading a small group, there are functional skills that you will want your volunteer to know. Make sure they have both the training they need, and the supplies necessary, to do what you are asking them to do.

#3. Contact Work – Believe it or not most adults are not comfortable around teenagers, and in some cases are out and out intimidated and afraid of them. You should train every leader how to connect with teenagers. Some of this they will learn through trial and error, but every youth worker should be skilled in how to relate to teenagers in engaging and appropriate ways.

Lastly and most importantly:

#4.  Disciple Making – Are your volunteers making disciples or are they just doing a job for you?

Most people have never been discipled and do not know how to disciple anyone else. And yet if there was only one thing that we really want our volunteers to do, this is it. The best way to teach discipleship is to model it. And I don’t mean having your volunteers watch you disciple teenagers, although that can work. I mean YOU should disciple your volunteers, and in turn they will learn how to disciple teenagers. Real Life Ministries in Post Falls, Idaho does this better than any church I know. I can’t speak for their youth ministry any longer since I am not involved, but this is the model they use to make disciples throughout the entire congregation.  I remember a specific weekend while I was on staff, when we cheered as a congregation because even though we were running 5,000 in attendance each weekend, and we had more people in small groups that week than we did in our weekend services. Suffice it to say, they take discipleship seriously in that congregation. And that is the purpose of each small group.  At Real Life we used to say, “We create relational environments for the purpose of discipleship.”

You can make disciples in any relational environment. A small group created for the purpose of discipleship can have anything as a hook. Dance, drama, coffee, …. you name it, can be used as a tool around which a volunteer can make disciples. Why should the sound guy only teach the 3 teens on his tech team how to change the slides? Instead have the sound guy create a small group with those 3 kids, start giving them pastoral care and praying together; now he’s making disciples. Why should the kids on worship team also have another group that they have to meet with at another time to get discipled? Instead have the worship leader go deeper relationally with the team and watch what happens to your entire worship culture. Instead of having 2 kids show up with a volunteer to just set up chairs, what if they showed up 30 min earlier and had a small group together?  Of course you can divide up by schools or by area as well; but the purpose isn’t to force teens to go to whatever group their supposed to go to, it’s to put them in a relationship of trust with a caring adult who can invest in their spiritual life. As a leader, I don’t care what they connect around, I just care that they connect.

Even when our security guys would have to remove someone, I’d encourage them to try to not just be a cop but instead to look at it as a ministry opportunity… “So, what’s going on in your world right now that you can’t seem to focus in there?” It very well may be the best ministry that happens in that kid’s world all year.

Challenge those on your youth staff to do more than fill a hole in your leadership flowchart. We are all called and empowered to make disciples one person at a time.  Your volunteers did not volunteer for Boys and Girls Club, or 4-H. They are volunteering at a church, not a secular organization. We need to be much more than a Big Brother or Big Sister to students. It is completely appropriate that our volunteers make the turn to spiritual things in their relationships with students. Train them to make disciples. The Great Commission is not just for you as the youth pastor, it’s for all your volunteers as well, and they all need to be disciple-makers. And it’s your job as the leader to both train and release them to do just that.

You are not the New York Yankees of churches. You cannot just go out and buy a championship team of volunteers. But you can compete and win. But you have to build the team from within your organization. Stop making excuses. Stop waiting for a the big free agent church transfer. If you don’t know how to develop your leaders, go find help. For some reason God has appointed many us to lead beyond our comfort zone… but make no doubt about it, if you are the leader, God has placed you there. Now Lead.


Help! I need more Volunteers!

Recruiting Youth Ministry Volunteers

This is the time of year where every youth worker is asking the same question.

How can I get more help?!

It doesn’t take you long as a youth worker before you figure out this is the whole youth ministry game: recruiting, training, and deploying leaders. You are only as good as your team. You can only reach as many students as you have leaders to handle them. If you have not come to this conclusion yet, then you are either on your first youth ministry tour of duty or on the path to burnout; where you will find this statement carved into the edge of the cliff at the jouney’s end: “I can’t do this by myself anymore.” Other than integrity, your ability to recruit, train, deploy and retain leaders may be the single most significant factors in determining your youth ministry’s success or failure, regardless of how you measure it.

So let’s take these one at a time. First up: Recruiting.  Where do you find good leaders?

Many new youth workers think that simply putting an ad in the bulletin or making an announcement from the stage is the way to recruit. Wrong. In both big churches and small churches this is not the silver bullet that you’d expect it to be. Recruiting is not a one shot deal from the stage. Yes, you still need to do it, but temper you expectations. And here’s how you want to frame it.

Key #1. Paint a picture that the potential volunteer can see themselves in.

Many people believe teenagers need help and that helping them is valuable. Most just don’t think they have the skillset or the ability to do it. Whether you’re recruiting from the stage in a video or in person, paint a picture for the volunteer that they can see themselves in.

Have a volunteer talk about how fearful they were when they started, about the simplicity of what they actually did. Have them speak about how meaningful and fulfilling it’s been, and the difference it made in their own life personally, as well as that of the teenager. Most of your potential volunteers feel like their missing something in their lives. People want to do something meaningful, something that makes a difference. Youth ministry can provide that, and they need to know it.

Key #2. Tell them you will not feed them to the lions.

Promise to train them with whatever skills they need before you leave them alone with teenagers!

Key #3 Make the time commitment BITE SIZE.

This is the most common mistake that keeps your volunteer pool dry. Too often leaders require youth staff volunteers to be at everything. Youth Service, Sunday School, Events, Leadership Meetings, Sunday Service, Pre-service prayer… and on and on. Quality people are not just out there sitting on their butts. They are already busy with something else. You want to make the time commitment small enough that quality people can easily add it to their schedule, but meaningful enough that the volunteer feels it is making a difference. If you cannot do this, you will forever have one kind of volunteer; the 18-25 yr. old single person, or the awkward person that has no life. If you want to recruit awesome people you must make the weekly time commitment bite size. Besides, I’m convinced that if I can just get my foot in the door with a new volunteer, youth ministry will beat out everything else eventually, hands down.

Key #4 Make the application long but the process easy.

Insurance companies will tell you that a long application discourages pedophiles from applying. When “hiring” a volunteer, the process should be that same as if you were hiring a paid employee. A background check doesn’t always catch everything. Having an extensive application discourages bad people from applying. However, make the process simple. In that I mean, don’t have 17 steps over a 6 month period to get people in the door. Fill out and process the application, have a face to face meeting; and get them volunteering as soon as everything checks out. The only exception I would make to this is if a person is brand new to your congregation and is unknown to anyone.

Key #5 Create a list of expectations.

Here’s what you can expect from us and here’s what we expect from you.

People are afraid of the unknown. People want to make sure that by saying yes they are not committing to helping you until Jesus comes back. Creating a short list of expectations gives you some talking points that will help you close the deal when recruiting a new volunteer. Here are a few of the things I like to include:

What we expect from you:

  • Length of commitment (generally the school year)
  • List of what they need to be at.
  • Communicate ahead of time when they are going to be absent.
  • A short job description of what they’ll be doing.
  • A short list of character or behavior policies that you require.

What you can expect from me: (this is EXTREMELY beneficial!)

  • Pastoral Care: I will be your primary pastoral care giver. When you volunteer for me, I care for you in return.
  • You won’t have to pay for youth events. Charge students extra if you don’t have the budget for this policy. People shouldn’t have to take off work and pay as well for the privilege of volunteering at your event. I have done this at every church I have ever been at, both large and small; it not only works, it speaks volumes to your volunteers about their value.
  • We will publish our yearly calendar in August.  Planning ahead tells volunteers you know what you’re doing, and aren’t flying by the seat of your pants. Don’t be surprised if you spring something on people if they don’t show up. People have lives.
  • We will pay for the resources you need to do what we are asking you to do (curriculum etc…)
  • We will train you and give you opportunities to go to conferences to receive additional trainings.

Wow. This is a lot longer article that I intended it to be when I began, but I hope it’s been helpful.

One last thing about recruiting:

Everyone on your team must recruit, all year long. Recruiting cannot just be relegated to a 3 week push each Fall. Yes have the push, but make sure your entire team is recruiting all the time. Many of your volunteers have friends that would be great at this. Ask teenagers what adults they know who would be awesome youth ministry volunteers. And make sure every current volunteer understands the application process, and how to get an application to people.

Next up… Training Volunteers. What do you do with them once they show up?

Why the Church needs Parachurch youth ministry.

.Photo: 1st day of Rock Club

You need to know a little about me before you hear what I have to say

I love the local church. I was a youth pastor at 4 churches over 18 years. I spent 9 years at churches under 250 and 9 years at churches from 2,000-5,000. I was a youth pastor with an evangelistic heart for the lost. I still volunteer weekly in our church’s youth ministry. (See my blog post “CEO Volunteer“).

For many years as a youth pastor, I used to think that parachurch youth ministries did not need to exist.

  • I used to think that the parachurch was great at reaching teens but was usurping the role of the church by discipling them as well.
  • I used to think that parachurch youth ministry was redundant; and that money, volunteers and students that were going to a parachurch all belonged in the local church

That’s changed.

For the past 4 years, the Lord in His great sense of humor has seen fit to place me in charge of a parachurch youth ministry called Youth Dynamics. We have 50 youth workers in the Northwest that work with 5,000 teenagers a year. What is a youth pastor’s youth pastor doing in charge of a parachurch youth ministry? It crack’s me up sometimes; but God knew what He was doing when He placed me in this job. What better way to bridge the gap between the two?

Why does the parachurch need to exist? Here are some of my conclusions to this point.

#1. The parachurch is reaching teens churches don’t want to reach.

  • Let’s face it. Most of the teens we reach wouldn’t fit in most church youth groups. Many churches have lost the stomach or the expertise to reach unsaved teenagers. They are disruptive, they swear, they smoke pot… they are exactly the type of teenager that parents do not want their kids around. It is part of the reason they as parents have chosen to Home School or send their kids to Christian School. Youth groups that reach these types of students have to have a Sr. Pastor with a strong backbone who has lots of confidence in his Youth Pastor and believe in what they are doing missionally. These types of congregations are becoming increasingly rare.

#2. The parachurch can do things churches can’t do, don’t want to do or shouldn’t be doing.

  • It’s so much easier to get into the schools as a parachurch youth worker. And you can understand from a School’s District’s perspective why that is. They live and die by public opinion. It’s much safer for the school to embrace a non-denominational parachurch than to open doors for a single church or denomination. It happens, but to do so risks outside criticism and charges of favoritism. As a youth pastor I did have success in working with the schools, but mostly as our Youth Pastor’s Network. Again it was because we represented the entire cities’ youth workers and not a single church or denomination; and because we earned the right to be heard by blessing the schools over and over again, and by respecting their boundaries.

#3.  Churches are not valuing youth ministry like they should these days.

  • As church budgets tighten, they are looking at shrinking High School ministries and concluding that their ROI (return on investment), is not good enough. Many pastors and board members remember the heyday of church youth ministry… “We use to have a 100 teens here every Wednesday night!”  That ship has sailed people. It’s possible but not nearly as common. There are pockets in the States where large group youth ministry still works but our culture has changes since the 80s and 90s. And it’s going to continue to get worse. Event based youth ministry is dying in the states, and is dead in Australia, England and in Canada, from what my friends in those countries tell me. It’s alright though. We can still continue to make disciples. And maybe even do it better. But churches need to stop getting rid of older youth workers. As we shift gears to a more relational model, it will become increasingly important for churches to keep old guys around who know how to make disciples, and who can recruit and train parents and volunteers with more veracity and ease. I shudder to think where youth ministry would be without the parachurch. I can count on two hands the number of youth workers I know in their 40s that are still being paid by a local church. Almost everyone I know that is helping shape the youth ministry world on a macro level is not in a local church. It’s sad but true.

The criticism of the parachurch that holds the most weight in my opinion is that the parachurch is horrible about connecting students they reach back to the local church. There are many factors that make this difficult. It is however, one of YD’s corporate values, and we fight for it, because it’s the right fight. We have church partnerships with some churches where they work for both Youth Dynamics and for the church. In addition, most of our staff are volunteers in their local church’s youth ministry teaching Sunday School or leading the youth group all together. A few weeks ago YD in Burlington, WA baptized 5 teenagers in a local lake. These included a couple of homeless teens we’d been working with for over 1 1/2 years. There were about 50 people there from 3 local churches to celebrate and embrace these kids in their new faith.

We are not in competition with the local church.  We are in partnership with it. I love Mike King’s term “church assisting organization.” We aim to be that, but unfortunately many parachurch youth ministries are just that. “Para” = Separate.

But as legitimate as this charge may be, it is my contention that many church’s youth ministries are just as disconnected from the main congregation as if they were subletting the building to a parachurch youth ministry. They meet on a night when no one else is there; they do not come on Sundays, the style and content of the youth ministry looks nothing like the main congregation.

Just because the church pays the salary of the youth worker doesn’t make the ministry connected to the local church.

I challenge churches to strategically connect their youth ministries to the main body life of the church. There are plenty of reasons that our student’s faith is not sticking after high school; this is one that is largely overlooked.

Could it be that one of the reasons students leave the church is because they were never connected to the church where their youth ministry was located in the first place? It was just a building they used for youth group.

It may just be that your church’s youth ministry is just as guilty as the rest of us.

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