I had the great privilege of serving in youth ministry (high school and college) for six years in Wheaton. And then working in campus ministry at Princeton University for another two years. All before stepping into my first senior pastor role about a year-and-a-half ago. Now, as a youth ministry “graduate” of sorts, I’m delighted to offer these five words of encouragement to youth pastors.
1.) Don’t overestimate your significance.
I got an incredibly encouraging text message the other day from a former high school student I pastored. In the message, he referenced a specific application that I had made in one of my messages–from several years ago! I mention this anecdote not to call attention to the strength of my preaching, but actually for precisely the opposite reason: this kind of thing almost never happens!
There will certainly be times when former students reach back to say thank you. To describe the impact you’ve had on their lives for Christ. But, much more often than that, students will generally move on. You will be essentially forgotten (along with those sermons and talks you worked so hard to prepare!).
I say this not to discourage you, but to help you set your expectations appropriately. And, there’s beauty in this reality as well. You, youth pastor, get to play a part in God’s work in the lives of young men and women he loves dearly. Sometimes your part is a lead role; you may get to witness a conversion or massive growth in discipleship.
Far more often, you’ll play small, supporting role in the grand work of God in students’ lives—work that involves sometimes almost countless servants who speak his Word and his Gospel faithfully.
2.) Don’t underestimate your importance.
The flip side of #1 is an encouragement not to downplay the importance of the role youth pastors have for a specific season in the lives of young people. So many of us have stories of youth leaders, Christian teachers, coaches, or mentors who entered our lives at precisely the right moment—and pointed us to Jesus.
Even young men and women who have godly parents are often encouraged in a different way by the presence of a younger adult who points them to the faith of their parents in a slightly different way, or with a slightly different “style.” It could be that you are placed by God in a particular student’s life at exactly the right moment ordained by the gracious Savior!
Don’t miss the opportunity to speak God’s Word powerfully and truthfully, remembering Isaiah’s strong reminder that the Word will not return “empty” to him (Isaiah 55:11). And, speaking of the Word…
3.) Trust the Word.
Friends, it is so tempting as youth pastors to begin putting our trust in methods, events, fun personalities, quirky games, and killer retreats to reach students for Christ. Fun events and youth leaders with cool personalities are not bad; often, God does see fit to use these methods. But, youth worker, trust the Word of God to accomplish the work of God in the students’ lives and hearts.
To put it differently, your job is to communicate God’s Word to the young men and women you serve; you can trust Scripture to do the “heavy lifting” in ministry. More than being a guru, event coordinator, or entertainer, you must see yourself as a herald of the gospel of Jesus Christ, as it is revealed to us in the Word of God.
Paul reminds us that it is this gospel—not anything else—that is the power of God unto salvation (Romans 1:16). So, youth pastors, teach the Bible. Point students to the Bible. Trust the Bible. Don’t depart from the Word at the very center of your youth ministry, and know that God will do his work in the way he intends.
4.) You won’t regret work toward relationships.
Because of the truths about God’s Word to which I just pointed in #3, our mantra in youth and college ministry (among the leaders) was: “The Word does the work!” We sought to place the Bible at the center of our ministry, and trust that as we taught it, explained it, applied it, and encouraged the students to read it. God would do his work in his way.
But, there was always a second phrase that we as leaders would quickly add to our little mantra: “The Word often works best in the context of deep relationships.” If there is a close second emphasis in youth ministry to the centrality of Bible teaching, it would be loving, relational pursuit of students.
My general advice to youth workers is the following: Spend less time planning events and games; Spend more time developing real relationships with students. Show up at their events, games, and concerts. Take groups of 3-4 students out for lunch and real conversation. Get to know them along with their parents. Ask them real questions about their lives and hearts. Don’t see them as cogs in your youth ministry “machine.” Instead, see them as young men and women who share in the grace of Jesus and the hope of glory. Walk with them in relationship.
5.) Adult ministry is not that different!
Finally, a word for those youth pastors who feel like they’re relegated to the “minor leagues,” serving thanklessly and faithfully in youth ministry. Here’s a secret: you’re in the major leagues already.
Yes, there are very un-glamorous parts of youth ministry that the polished senior pastor doesn’t have to deal with (those who have dealt with middle-of-the-night sickness in a cabin on a youth retreat know what I’m talking about!). But know this: you engage in life and death gospel ministry as you proclaim Christ to the students you serve. You are in the big leagues. You are accomplishing eternal work in the lives and hearts of young men and women, by God’s grace and through the power of the Holy Spirit.
And, here’s another secret: if you do youth ministry the right way, you’ll find (if and when God may call you into “adult” ministry) that the next step is not all that different. You’ll be teaching God’s Word. You’ll be seeking to disciple men and women after the likeness of Christ. And, you’ll be dealing with difficult and complex life situations into which you’ll speak the truths of the gospel. You’ll have wonderful moments–and very un-glamorous moments.
And you’ll rely prayerfully on the power of God the Holy Spirit to do his work, in his way, all to his glory, as you serve him and his people.