Rethinking youth ministry

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How I learned to check my ego at the door of youth ministry

By Wendell Loewen

Reflecting on 20 years of ministry and teaching experience, I recently concluded that if I started over in youth ministry, one of the things I would do is check my ego at the door.

I was the youth pastor of a tiny youth group in a small church, working essentially as a full-time volunteer. Nonetheless, I wanted growth because that’s how ministry success is measured, right?

My desire to bust attendance records drove me to the local high school campus. I had lunch with my students and their friends, volunteered with Campus Life, a division of Youth for Christ, and partnered with the school’s counselor to lead small groups for at-risk teens. I was doing all I could to meet new kids and draw them in.

This brought in the occasional, casual student who would stop by to check things out. There were new faces, but they would come and go. In the meantime, kids like Phil, Joel, Becky and Julie—my youth group regulars—stopped coming. It’s ironic that while I was praying for and pursuing growth, the group was actually shrinking.

Confused and disappointed, I felt like David in so many of those lament psalms. “How long, Lord, must I wait for you to act? When will we finally see the attendance boom I’ve been pleading for?” Then I sensed a word from God: “I didn’t call you to grow a program. I called you to love teens. Take care of the ones I’ve entrusted to you.”

At that moment I realized that I’d been pursuing a selfish goal to feed my starving ego. And in an effort to win the masses and grow a program, I had abandoned the hearts I was called to love. I confused growth with success, and along the way I lost my ability to deeply influence young lives for Christ.

From that point on, I paid attention to the students God gave me. I listened to them—hearing their hearts—and prayed with them. I made sure to “waste” time with them—with no heavy spiritual agenda. But most importantly, I didn’t use them as a way to get to their friends, and I stopped caring about the imaginary teens that weren’t there every week.

Well, the youth group grew … only a little. But I realized attendance wasn’t all that mattered. While growth can be an indicator of ministry success, it is not success in and of itself. Lasting success in youth ministry is deep and quiet. It’s realized when young people are being shaped into the image of Christ as they choose to follow Jesus in life. This view of youth ministry success doesn’t stroke the ego. You can’t count it and put it in some statistical report; it’s much deeper and more profound.

This truth resonated with me again years later, leading another youth ministry in a church far away. We were growing—bursting at the seams and apparently successful. But one day I realized that my ministry had become more about management, programs and administration than deeply affecting young lives. Ironically, while I was running a youth program for 90 students, I was secretly longing for the days when I had only nine.

Wendell Loewen is the director of Ministry Quest, a mentoring and leadership program for high school students, and professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Tabor College.. He is a member of Parkview MB Church in Hillsboro, Kan. This essay is taken from Loewen’s current book project, If I Were Starting Ministry Over Again.

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