Reframing the work of youth leaders

Andy Jung Image Andy Jung | Sep 8, 2022

I started in youth ministry when I was just 19 years old. I had just finished my first year of college. That summer (circa 1993), I signed up to participate in a denominational program that sent college students into small churches to serve as the youth leader for the summer. I was assigned to a small, rural church in North Carolina where I spent the summer leading Bible studies, hanging out with teenagers, and taking the group to summer camp. It was a great experience for my own spiritual growth and leadership development—but let’s be honest, I had NO IDEA what I was doing!

What is the role of a youth leader in church? 

Like some, I tried to recreate the youth ministry I experienced as a teenager. I tried to lead in the same way that my youth leader did back home. I wanted the students at that small church to love being part of the youth group as much as I did. I even went as far as directing a youth musical just like I had experienced, and I can’t even read music! (I’d like to apologize to the students, the parents and the church for having to endure that performance!) By the grace of God, the summer went well enough for the church to invite me back throughout the next school year and the following summer.

Most of us went into youth ministry because we loved young people and we wanted them to experience Jesus like we did when we were in middle and high school. We knew how to connect with teenagers, speak their language, and match their energy.

So what are the qualities of a good youth leader?

Most of the time, the church saw us (or at least expected us to be) what Mark DeVries referred to in Sustainable Youth Ministry as the “Youth Ministry Superstar:” dynamic, top-notch, committed, magnetic, relational, creative, organized, theologically deep, great communicator. [1]

If we’re again being honest, I wonder how many of us saw ourselves as the superstar when we first started in ministry. I’ll admit that I’ve thought more than once, “just bring your students to youth group activities and I’ll make sure they experience Jesus and become a good Christian.” The churches I’ve served were more than happy to let me shape ministry in the “youth room” any way I wanted, as long as their teens remained interested and engaged. And parents were happy as long as they didn’t have to fight with their teenagers about coming to church. Since the expectation was to do “whatever it takes” to keep youth wanting to attend regularly, we created programs and planned retreats and mission trips to keep them coming back.

All of this resulted in siloed youth ministries that created what has come to be known as the “one-eared Mickey Mouse” model of youth ministry. Youth leaders were seen as program directors, not as called leaders whose job is to guide and shepherd the church to better disciple teenagers TOGETHER. After decades of youth ministry being led in this way, we now face a tall mountain to climb in order to change how youth ministry is viewed by the leaders and adults in the church.

In his book Adoptive Church, Chap Clark shares a renewed vision for youth ministry. Clark presents a view of youth ministry that focuses on “helping each and every young person find their place as a faithful follower of Jesus Christ and live as a specifically called agent in the mission of God alongside the family of believers.”[2] When young people are adopted into God’s kingdom as God’s sons and daughters and adopted into the body of Christ and the local church family, youth ministry shifts from ministry FOR teenagers to ministry WITH teenagers.

I believe it's the role of the youth leader to help the adults in the church to understand this shift in youth ministry that is needed for today’s young people.

Changing the role of youth leader

So, how do we (youth leaders) change how people in the church see us and the role we play in leading young people as they become lifelong followers of Jesus?

1. Change how we view ourselves.

Change has to begin with us. How do you understand your own calling?

In most churches, the structure is set up for us to play the role of a program director. It may even be your job title! Yet is this how we truly view our work and ministry? Are we called to lead just a segment of the church (youth ministry) or are we called to lead the entire church to better understand today’s young people and to invest relationally in them?

We stay awake at night worrying about the young people in our ministry. We show up to middle school volleyball games, school plays, band concerts, swim meets, and whatever else our students are involved in so that they know we love them. We run ourselves ragged to create programming that youth will be excited about, plan mission trips that will be life-changing and spend hours preparing Bible studies that will convince teenagers to fall in love with Jesus. We make sacrifices—even to our own detriment—so that young people will love the church. We do all of these things because we think it is up to us. We think that is the job of a youth leader.

We have to stop seeing ourselves as the superstar. 

It is essential for youth leaders to see ourselves as the one charged to lead all adults in the church as they invest relationally in our teenagers so that students come to know that their identity is in Jesus, experience a sense of belonging in God’s family, and live out their purpose through the church. Our leadership isn’t to just direct the programming designed for teenagers but it is to help adults in the church to better understand today’s young people, build empathetic relationships across generations, and offer training that can help adults feel more comfortable relating with teenagers and walk alongside parents and caregivers to support spiritual growth at home. Until we see ourselves in this expanded role, we will not be able to help others change how they see us and how they understand the real purpose of the church’s youth ministry.

2. Develop and cast a vision.

While we grow as leaders called to lead the entire church in caring for and discipling our young people, we need to ground our new vision in deep theology. Being God’s son or daughter is found throughout the New Testament: “To all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God” and “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” (John 1:12, Romans 8:15, NRSV) In Christ, God made a way for us to be God’s sons and daughters. The role of youth ministry in churches should be to help young people understand that through faith in Jesus, we are adopted into God’s family and that they play an important part in the family.[3]

Once we’ve changed our own view, we can start helping others in the church to catch the new vision. Let’s be willing to have tough conversations and advocate for a new model that brings youth ministry into the central life of the church, rather than being disconnected and siloed into its own space. Let’s consistently tell stories of how teenagers have brought vitality to the church. And let’s tell stories of how older adults have impacted the young people and how young people have helped the older adults in the church. Stories can help bring everyone together to clarify the new vision.

3. Build a team.

Investing in parents and caring Christian adults who will walk alongside teenagers on their faith journey is a vital part of the youth ministry role that is sometimes forgotten.

Youth leaders and parents are on the same team. Our goals are the same: we want teenagers to become faithful lifelong followers of Jesus. We want them to have a vibrant faith that informs every aspect of their lives. A part of the role of the youth leader is to help resource, equip, and support parents and caregivers as they lead their children in faith development. Parent training opportunities, resources for parents to have better conversations at home, and clear communication on what teenagers are learning at church are just some of the ways youth leaders can walk alongside parents as partners.

Caring Christian adults and mentors who can support teenagers on the journey of faith are also a part of your team. One of our key Sticky Faith findings was that young people need a web of relationships with adults who can support their faith formation. Our 5:1 principle suggests making sure that every teenager in your ministry has at least 5 adults (not including their parents) who are investing relationally in them.[4] Ideally, the adults in their lives are trusted enough for young people to feel comfortable sharing both the joys and pains they’re experiencing in life.

Intergenerational relationships within the church will help provide teenagers models of faith they can emulate, and keeps them connected to the larger body of the church.

4. Create safe spaces for your youth and adults to engage in deep conversations. 

I once worked with a senior leader who often reminded me when ministry got complicated that all he wanted to do in ministry was to play ping-pong with college students. You may feel like this often. You went into youth ministry to hang out with students and point them to Jesus. You didn’t sign up for all of the other stuff. Now you’re just trying to keep your head above water and get from one Sunday to the next.

I understand. I know the feeling.

Yet as you build a team of intergenerational adults who are relationally investing in your teenagers, youth ministry must create safe spaces for youth and adults to have meaningful conversations around the questions young people are asking the most.

In 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, we look at three core questions teenagers are asking: Who am I?, Where do I fit? and What difference can I make?.[5] Their pursuit of answers around identity, belonging, and purpose are often intense, and ultimately drive how they engage every aspect of their lives. Unfortunately, teenagers often find unhelpful or unhealthy answers to these huge questions.

Our youth ministries can be a place where teenagers can have deep conversations about finding identity in a relationship with Jesus, how they are part of the family of God, and how they’ve been uniquely gifted and called to be part of God’s greater story. Within these conversations, teenagers learn how to be a more faithful disciple of Jesus.

Your mission as youth leader hasn't changed

Be encouraged. The calling hasn’t changed. We want to be part of our teenagers’ lives. We want them to know Jesus as a close friend. We want them to experience the abundant life Jesus promised in John 10:10. We want them to be an integral part of the whole church.

The mission hasn’t changed, but maybe our strategies should. That shift in strategy begins with reframing our own role in the church.

May it be so.

Tweet this: When young people are adopted into the body of Christ and the local church family, youth ministry shifts from ministry FOR teenagers to ministry WITH teenagers.

Photo By: Eye for Ebony

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[1] Mark DeVries, in Sustainable Youth Ministry (IVP Books, 2008), pp. 42-44.

[2] Chap Clark, in Adoptive Church: Creating an Environment Where Emerging Generations Belong (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2018), pp. 19.

[3] Ibid., pp. 2-3.

[4] Kara Eckmann Powell, Brad M. Griffin, and Cheryl A. Crawford, Sticky Faith: Practical Ideas to Nurture Long-Term Faith in Teenagers (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 112-113.

[5] Powell, K. E., & Griffin, B. M. (2021). 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager: Making the Most of Your Conversations and Connections. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group, 2021).

Andy Jung Image
Andy Jung

Andy Jung is the Senior Director of Church Engagement and Business Administration at the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI). He focuses on developing relationships with church, denominational, and network leaders, finding ways for FYI's research, resources, and training to support their ministry. Andy earned a BS in Math Education from North Carolina State University, an MDiv from Campbell University Divinity School, and a DMin from Fuller Theological Seminary in Youth, Family, and Culture. He has served as a youth minister for 20+ years and a senior pastor for five years. In addition, Andy also served as a state executive leader for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of NC for two years before joining FYI's staff in 2020. In addition to his work at FYI, he is a current ministry practitioner as he serves as the Minister in Residence for Young Adults at Trinity Baptist Church in Raleigh, NC. Andy lives with his wife Amy in Raleigh and is passionate about helping churches better love and care for young people so that teenagers and young adults can thrive in their faith.

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