For decades the American church has sold a shallow “growth strategy” revolving around the notion that teenagers and college students need copious amounts of shenanigans to stay in the church and buy into Christianity. Youth Pastors famously emerged as 20-40-year old men spending their work week working on a promo skit to garner a response, and “sermons” that refer to the Bible but don’t teach much. The focus was not on raising future church members, it was on getting kids to show up and think it was “cool.”
If you ever wondered why young people left the church in droves seeking truth? It’s no wonder at all. They were finding plenty of entertainment. But they weren’t finding any real truth.
Where I’m Coming From
As I write this, I don’t sit on a perch of arrogance or high-dollar youth conference expertise. While I’ve overseen the student ministry at two churches as both the “students” pastor and/or the pastor who oversees the youth director, the takeaways in the midst of spiritual and numerical growth is consistently: student ministry is tough. It’s trench work with long seasons of waiting to see if the seeds you planted took root. In many cases, it’s small, unnoticed, unappreciated work.
Still, it doesn’t have to be confusing to come up with a strategy for growth — spiritually, speaking. Pragmatic and “next level” conferences will cost you money, show you things you’ll never have the money to implement, and leave you high on hype but low on fruit.
Ditch the gimmicks. Faithfulness works too. The following numbers only serve as an illustration that silences pragmatists who say, “Bible-teaching is fine but doesn’t work.”
We Grew 396% in Six Months
A recent tweet about our student ministry growth invoked a large number of responses that triggered this article. It’s true. We grew fast and it was fun to watch as more families brought their students to our campus. However, we still have a long way to go with discipleship and raising up leaders who raise up leaders. This has happened on both a smaller and larger scale at both churches I have pastored at. In both contexts, the focus was always God’s word over gimmicks. In both contexts, God sovereignly determined growth. Here’s the tweet:
Many were asking me to flesh out the context of the steps that God used to “grow” our ministry. Of course, we all know that God causes growth and that numbers don’t tell the whole story. But the point of the tweet was to illustrate that young people today are hungry for truth and solid teaching. Furthermore, the most important growth (spiritual) can happen when you use ordinary means, and so can numerical growth (though it’s not guaranteed).
Contrast that with many student ministry strategies today and youth ministry conference “wisdom” that insist on foolish antics, soundbite messages, “tons of games,” and an X-box station to trigger growth, and you can see the dilemma that so many young leaders are faced with. Pragmatism? Or faithfulness? Manufactured growth? Or God-triggered growth?
What We Focused On
For us, things happened to grow after we shifted gears and did these three things. Still, anyone on our team would tell you that we’d be doing the same things for 2 students or 2000. Additionally, our entire elder team was taking this approach with the entire congregation and other ministries as well.
Here are the “big three” that we focused on, and how we approach each one.
1. Major on expository preaching
My friend and fellow pastor, Jon Benzinger, always asks: Are you using the Bible to preach your message, or is the Bible using you to preach its message?
That question is what every pastor who serves teens to college students must ask. Fortunately, expository preaching helps a great deal. If you’re new to the term, it means that instead of preaching random topics and just loading your message with some quotes from Google, an emotional story for your closing altar call, and a couple of random passages sprinkled in, you unpack a text from Scripture in its proper context and apply it to their lives. This doesn’t mean you can’t preach topics, or that there is no place for other approaches to certain subjects, it just means you’re always preaching what the Bible says, rather than what you think.
For example, if you’re preaching on sexual purity, unpack 1 Corinthians 6:18-20, and give them an actual section of Scripture they will forever understand to the fullest. Preach on separating from the world by digging deep into 1 John 2:15-17. Talk about dating by painting a clear picture of a faithful husband or wife in Ephesians 5:22-35 or from 1 Peter 3:1-7.
The goal of each message is to teach from a text and help your audience understanding the original meaning to the original audience. Throughout that text and as you cross-reference and make points, saturate their hearts with Scripture, explain the context and original audience, ask big questions about what things mean and why God would command such things of His people? Unpack what they were going through, what the passage means, and then apply the passage in ways they can immediately put into practice. This takes work. If you’re the “youth” pastor or preacher, don’t spend half your week working on the skit for your promo video. Focus on your job to proclaim the truth. Delegate the skit to someone else. Study the word, pray for their hearts, work on your homiletics, and don’t be boring! As for illustrations, you can still have a riot with those but keep them linked to the text. For example, one night I was preaching out of James 3 and in my study that week I realized James uses some pretty extreme examples to illustrate the damage done by an untamed tongue. Since I couldn’t light anything on fire in the sanctuary, I cut the pulpit in half with a chainsaw to illustrate what your tongue does when it’s used the wrong way at the wrong time. I had a guy in the church whip up a pulpit (so I didn’t destroy the main one at the church) and hid the chainsaw behind a stage speaker. A bit over the top, probably wouldn’t do it again, but still fun and many students never forgot the lesson from the text (but without the forest fire James references).
If you think young people can only handle (or will come back for) stories with some shallow platitudes, you’re dead wrong. Trust the Lord, be faithful with His word, and let the Bible do the heavy lifting. Prepare your students for their future as church members by preaching the word. Let it fly! And you can still have some fun.
2. Singing sound doctrine (No Bethel, Jesus, Culture, or Hillsong)
Music is a huge part of every generation and this generation of teenagers to college students is no different. Unfortunately, some of the most popular music groups today are the most dangerous. We chose, for better or worse, not to cave to the culture and sing Bethel Music (or Jesus Culture, or Hillsong) for several reasons but the main reason was that they and their apostolic leaders teach the prosperity gospel, and/or a heretical version of Jesus that headlines the “New Apostolic Reformation.” You can read more here, and watch it here.
This decision took more work, more research, sacrifice, and some heat, but the Lord honored it. Every week parents and students can count on one thing: we sing music filled with sound doctrine from sources that do not teach heresy. Church money is not purchasing music arrangements and tracks that are directly funding heresy. Students are getting rich theology.
As for methods and nuance there is some flexibility. We have lights (bright and dim), sometimes we’re loud, sometimes we raise our hands, sometimes we pray deep and desperate prayers, and sometimes a band member writes a song and the team tries it out. Furthermore, we don’t take the “six degrees” of separation approach with every song choice or band who played with one band who appeared with Bethel. It’s first degree false teachers we’re steering clear of — for now.
Our bottom line: we are firm in theology, flexible in methodology.
3. Live Q & A Session with anonymous questions using QR Code
We all know the horror stories of young people leaving the church because they couldn’t get a straight answer from the Bible or their pastor. Which is why we opted for an open forum, anonymous Q & A at the end of every message. We schedule at least 2 pastors and 1-2 biblically educated leaders to be on the panel each week. Provide stools, a cold bottle of water, a mic, and let your pastors do what they do best. We use a QR code that is on the screens and posted on our Instagram page. Students simply take a cell phone photo of the QR code, and a form pops up on their smartphone that allows them to ask a question. That question generates on a spreadsheet in Google Drive for our team, and just like that, we have loads of questions either ahead of the time or in real-time. We post the code on the screens before the sermon begins and post it again throughout the night.
Since I am technically challenged, our brilliant intern (who leaves for the Master’s University this fall) lays out the process here:
Q & A Set-Up:
1. Build the form: setup your Q&A Survey with Google Forms. It’s free and easy! https://docs.google.com/forms/
- Setup the form to email / update with responses
- Set the “Select response destination” to “Create a new spreadsheet”
2. Manage responses: Find the spreadsheet with responses in your Google Drive and manage responses live during Q&A or update afterward
- Add columns to the spreadsheet for any additional tracking information you want to keep updated.
- Using a field such as “Answer Date” to mark the ones you’ve answered. Delete rows for any duplicate or off-topic questions.
3. Share it with students and leaders
- From Settings select “Send Form” and shorten the link to copy it and generate a QR Code for the form to share with the attendees.
- Paste the QR image into a presentation, PowerPoint slide, or on social media and instruct attendees to point any smartphone camera app at the code to direct them to the form. They can easily fill it out and submit in a smartphone-friendly view.
When it comes to ministry that targets the next generation of church members, we do well to think of the kind of people we are influencing them to be. Will they get the answers they need to be strong, mature, and faithful to the truth? Or will they be flighty, insecure, and immature? God is the one who causes the growth. He also uses your labor as a means to that end (Colossians 1:28-29).