Photo by Cristiano Firmani
Youth ministry friends, there’s no “going back to normal.”
We all know it, and we’re all still grieving unfulfilled plans. But at the same time, we’re curious about what’s ahead.
The search for the “new normal” starts now and it will require some bold, new moves by youth leaders like you.
If anyone can make them, you can. Why?
Because you are phenomenal youth leaders who have handled mid-week apocalypses for years and eat crisis for breakfast.
We believe you already have what it takes to innovate your way forward. You just need to believe it yourself.
Our belief in you is fueled by more than enthusiasm—it actually draws from our research. Having worked intensively the last four years with cohorts of more than 50 youth ministries and 100 youth leaders, we’ve seen what youth leaders can do when given the opportunity to innovate. This research has helped us develop Sticky Faith Innovation, a step-by-step innovation process that equips youth leaders to pivot their ministries toward where young people need them most.
What does it take to run this process?
Compassion, creativity, and courage.
And guess what: you already possess these superpowers. It’s likely your compassion, creativity, and courage brought you into youth ministry in the first place, and they can serve to fuel your way forward toward a new normal.
Your compassion puts people before programs
Youth leaders, we know you love young people! You see young people and you walk toward them while many quickly walk the other way. You find them interesting and inspiring. You care about them so much you’ve probably even learned to do a TikTok video or two.
But compassion can blind us, too. There’s a theory called “closeness bias” which observes that the more familiar we become with certain people, the more assumptions we make about them and the less effort we give to keeping up with their lives. Compassion drives us to know who our teenagers are today, not yesterday. This is often expressed through empathy.
All innovation starts with empathy. Empathy is more than a feeling or aspiration. It is actually a skill that attempts to understand others, feel their emotions, and seek to see the world through their perspectives. It helps us pause before we critique teenagers’ actions or rush to give them advice. True empathy will transform us, too.
That’s why youth ministry starts with people before programs. We don’t make programs and market to teenagers. Instead, we start with our young people themselves and innovate ways to use our resources to support them in the ways that they need us.
Try this exercise to give empathy a jump-start in your ministry
Invite one or a group of teenagers (via Zoom or social distancing) to have a conversation with you about what’s important to them. Your job is to listen and learn.
- Have them tell a recent story about high school or middle school.
- Ask them what is most important or stressful for them these days.
- Invite them to educate you on what they are experts in.
Your creativity brings new ideas and unifies your team
Youth leaders, hear this loud and clear: you are creative. Who else can plan events using nothing but duct tape? You create ice breakers with ease and young people actually enjoy them!
Yet creativity makes us vulnerable. Maybe that’s why we can feel almost paralyzed in our planning at times, and convince ourselves that we’re not creative after all. But here’s the good news: when you carefully watch and ask questions that inspire creative ideas, you actually become more relevant to teenagers.
Now you’re developing what experts like to call your “innovator’s DNA.” At its core, innovator’s DNA assures us that we’re creative because God is creative. And God’s image is reflected in us when we create, and even more so, when we create together.
Creating together is where the magic happens. Through both the joys and challenges of creating with others, we learn more about who God is, who we are, and who others are. When God’s people work with and for one another, the possibilities are endless.
In our Sticky Faith Innovation research, we found that the most creative and effective new ideas came when teams worked together to dream up new approaches in community with others. Their ideas were better, their perspectives were broader, there was more unity, and greater ownership.
Try this exercise to fuel creativity in your ministry
Ask yourself: How can I nurture my creativity for the benefit of my team?
Then, in your free time, do some “idea surfing.” This is when you browse magazines, books, and don’t forget the internet, to expose yourself to the latest trends, shapes, and advertisements. You’ll be surprised at how exposure to new materials, places, and content can spark your creativity and generate new ideas.
Ask yourself: How can I nurture the creativity of others?
When you’re tempted to go off on your own, resist the urge and try the following:
- Gather your team and share half-baked dreams with each other.
- Learn to give and receive feedback.
- Try to solve a problem together and see where the conversation goes.
Ultimately, innovation does more than coming up with ideas. It brings your team together.
Your courage got you here, and can get you where you want to go
You may not think you’re courageous, but most adults are in awe of your ability to walk into a room full of teenagers and engage them in life-changing conversations. We’ve found in our Sticky Faith Innovation research that following through with innovative ideas can be one of the hardest moves to make. Innovation will push you to work through fears and develop new skills, whether you like it or not. And you’ll make more mistakes. You can count on it!
But that’s the beauty of innovation—you don’t need to know everything. You only need to try—to step out. Just like faith.
Stepping out risks failure, too. Many leaders wonder if they can do that in ministry with so many counting on them—teenagers, parents, and senior leaders, even Jesus! That’s why we must reframe failure. Failure isn’t making mistakes—failure is not trying.
Success, then, means trying, putting your idea out there, taking a risk to try something new for the sake of your teenagers. This is what it means to advocate for them. Don’t be afraid. (Jesus says this to his disciples a lot!)
Try this exercise to cultivate courage in your ministry
Ask yourself: Where in my life do I need to be more courageous? What might be holding me back?
Reflect with your team: In what ways might our team need to grow in order to risk more to serve our teenagers?
- How might we become a healthier team?
- How might we follow through on a project we know we need to do?
- What must we stop doing in order to try something new?
You have what it takes
You are uniquely created with compassion, creativity, and courage to fuel innovation in your ministry. You are also uniquely positioned to make a different kind of impact as you adapt to the changing needs of today’s young people. Imagine the possibilities, and take your next best step forward toward a new normal.
You’ve got this.
You have the compassion, creativity, and courage you need to serve your teenagers in your youth ministry. Spark innovation to cultivate their lasting faith.
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