10 Tips for Starting a Sticky Faith Youth Ministry from Scratch

Photo by Lachlan.

Often we work with churches who have well-established youth ministries and church cultures. Much of the energy behind the Sticky Faith Launch Kit emerged from our heart for leaders who need help navigating the change process in these kinds of churches. But recently this question came in from a youth worker who is a Launch Kit registered user:

I'm starting a Youth Ministry from scratch, which is great in some ways (less to change immediately) and difficult in others. Any suggestions on where to start?

“Where to start?” is a great question, and one we don’t address much in the Launch Kit or other Sticky Faith books. But it’s one I’ve wrestled with in my own church this past year, and in talking with several church planters along the way. While this list by no means constitutes a comprehensive guide, I thought it could be helpful to start a list and crowd-source it to see what other ideas emerge from folks who’ve been doing the same thing.

Here are 10 tips for creating a youth ministry from scratch with Sticky Faith principles in mind:

  1. Gather a team and listen closely. In the Launch Kit we suggest that leaders start implementing Sticky Faith by assembling a team (any group with a stake in young people should be represented) and beginning a listening campaign. What should you listen for? Primarily for the longings and losses of the congregation as they share their stories of youth ministry. I still think this is a great place to start for new ministries. Most adults in your church have a preset mental model for what youth ministry is or should be. They’ll likely either want the model in their memory to be replicated or to be avoided at all costs. Listen for those stories, hopes, and fears, and see what you learn.
     
  2. Try Appreciative Inquiry. Our church routinely uses this method for understanding new challenges, and we generally followed its process when it came to starting a youth ministry. Jake wrote a great article that outlines the process, but in general it focuses on listening, imagining, and then innovating new ways forward. In our church we adapt it to a 4-phase model of awareness (What’s going on?), understanding (How do we interpret it?), experiment (What will we do about it?), and evaluation (How did it go? What changes do we want to make?). For example, in our awareness phase we learned that a number of positive intergenerational relationships exist within our congregation, and when young people named their favorite things about our church they spoke about feeling known and welcomed among adults. That led us to create a ministry experiment that would be sensitive to those existing relationships and not sever them by our programming model.
     
  3. Consider creating a ministry rhythm rather than a ministry program. The Sticky Faith philosophy necessitates paying attention to intergenerational connections and parent-youth leader partnership. If you’re starting from scratch, you don’t have to undo structures that create separation. For example, in our context we created a monthly Sunday morning rhythm that has students doing age-appropriate discipleship every other Sunday, and in between each discipleship experience they worship with the congregation one Sunday and serve in some way one Sunday (within or outside the walls of the building). This helps achieve a host of Sticky Faith goals just by our Sunday rhythm alone.
     
  4. Be careful not to over-program. Chances are good that if you’re starting from scratch, you’re starting a small ministry. There’s no need to structure as if it’s large. Your Sunday morning experience might be a small group experience in and of itself without creating separate small groups and adding a weeknight commitment to families and volunteers alike. Structure according to your capacity.
     
  5. Prioritize mentoring. Another bonus of starting small is that you can foster intergenerational relationships more intentionally. We’ve made it a goal to match every young person in a 1-1 mentoring relationship with an adult in the church. We’re also small enough that our annual all-church retreat is a highlight for kids and adults alike, and we’re intentional to make that a weekend of lots of interaction across age levels so more of these relationships can develop.
     
  6. Lean on parents. In the 1-1 mentoring example above, we asked parents to take the lead. We shared a vision and some resources, and promised to follow up with the mentors, but asked them to initiate the relationship (ideally with an adult their kid already knew). Drawing parents in from the start also requires educating them on why you’re shaping ministry this way and what it means for their families. The consumerist youth ministry model likely won’t work in a startup situation, and that takes some retraining. Midway through this year I’m realizing I failed to educate well on some of the “whys” behind the model we’ve created, and we’re needing to backpedal a bit.
     
  7. Set a timeframe for your experiment, and follow through on evaluation. Of course you might need to make some midcourse corrections, but often just knowing there’s a preset end date can stave off criticism. Just be sure you don’t glide by that end date without actually evaluating your ministry with parents, kids, and other church stakeholders.
     
  8. Work closely with children’s ministry leadership. In many younger churches, children’s ministry gets started prior to youth ministry. In my church it took eight years to launch a youth ministry simply because of the demographics. But by that time, the children’s ministry had a lot of experience and wisdom under their belts. Given that one of the most frequent walls churches work to dissolve during our yearlong Sticky Faith Cohort is the one between children’s and youth ministry, you’d be wise to put time and energy toward avoiding that wall in the first place.
     
  9. Look for ways to integrate with “big church.” For example, as we explored curriculum to use with our students, we actually decided to start by following the pattern of our congregational worship teaching. We’re in a half-year teaching series through Galatians, so in our student discipleship we’re following the same series. We created a simple pattern we use each time we gather (we call it a liturgy, to emphasize that we’re continuing worship rather than doing something different), and leaders swap out such that each volunteer only prepares to teach once each month. Two bonuses from this model are that families can talk about the same scripture passage after worship, and that when students remain in worship the entire service each month they aren’t completely clueless.
     
  10. Involve the students in what you create. Listen to their own hopes and fears before you begin and as you go. Look for ways to let them lead. Explain the vision in a way that invites them to the table to dream together about their future—and the future of the congregation—and makes them partners in the journey.

What would you add? What have you found helpful in starting youth ministry from scratch with Sticky Faith in mind?