Chapter Onewhere do i start?
committing to the essentials
In 1979 I was a rookie youth worker with no idea what I was doing. I took teenagers to
R-rated movies; I had a Jacuzzi party in the baptismal because a 12-year-old thought it
would be fun; I yelled at a group of parents; I taught a 15-year-old to drive using the
church van, and I almost got arrested for having underage students in an over-21 club.
Thankfully, a lot has changed, but it's been an eventful ride ever since.
As I write this, I'm still working with students in the church, and I love to talk
about youth ministry, especially with new youth workers! Every day that I worked on
this book, I thought and prayed especially for you. If you're just starting out, you're my
favorite type of youth worker to help! (If you've been in the trenches for a few-or
many-years, I love you too, and I'm confident you'll find help and encouragement in
these pages.) I'm thrilled to play a role in your youth ministry journey. Whether you're
a paid staff member or a volunteer, the principles and ideas in this book are written to
help you survive and thrive as you work with teenagers.
Youth Ministry as a Marathon
One of my life goals (that I haven't accomplished yet) is to run a marathon. I've run
several shorter races, but the 26.2 mile monster has
eluded me so far. I watch them on TV, eagerly anticipating
the day I finish a marathon.
Have you ever watched a marathon? They're inspiring. When I look into the eyes
of the runners, I see two types of expressions. Standing behind the starting line, the
seasoned marathoners are focused, mentally preparing for the task before them. They
know what it takes to complete a race of this caliber, so they stretch to prepare their
bodies, run in place to warm their muscles, and close their eyes to visualize the race's
hills and mile markers. The vets know what's ahead. This isn't a party; it's abuse. And
since they have to endure pain over the next several hours, the task is to run efficiently.
Their bodies have even instructed their faces not to smile or to express any form of joy.
Veteran runners know what they're doing.
The other runners are rookies. This is a fun group to watch. They typically stick
together, taking in all the action from the free race T-shirts to the vendors selling
running gear to the maps locating the portable toilets on the route. The rookies are
excited, feeling good, smiling, bantering with others, enjoying the pre-race hype. Little
do they know that their valuable adrenaline is being wasted long before the one-mile
mark. Their actions are to be expected; after all, this is an exciting time, but it's also
Watch the race from an elevated viewpoint. At the start, a mass of humanity moves
forward as one group, bunched closely together, seemingly inseparable, until the second
or third mile when the crowd begins to thin. By mile 10, some have decided to walk and
are tempted to stop and watch a matinee. By mile 15, many are eating lunch early. After
mile 20, only those who are the most prepared have a realistic chance of finishing well.
Finishing is not only a matter of the body, but the emotions and the mind.
Running a marathon is a fitting picture of youth ministry. It's not an easy task
within the church. If it were, we'd have more youth workers than ushers. Youth ministry
is filled with long, tiring, often unrewarding, complex, unique, intense, humorous, joy-filled,
and painful experiences. Many within the body of Christ have entered the youth
ministry marathon, but many quit before long, having lost joy and satisfaction. They're
wounded and weary.
The Race before Us
I desperately want you to last in your ministry to students. Longevity in our field is
uncommon. This is both unfortunate for the individuals who leave and tragic for the
health of the church. The longer you work in youth ministry, the easier it becomes, and
the better you minister to students. Quick departures have a lot to do with inadequate
preparation and unrealistic expectations. But, like running, setting the proper pace
assures long-term results and your ability to finish strong.
As I wrote this book, I kept two verses taped to my computer that served as the
foundation for my writing. I want to share them with you.
And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us. (Hebrews 12:1)
Youth ministry-like the Christian life-is a race that requires both training and
endurance. Fortunately, our endurance and strength increase as we run the race and
follow the course God has set out for us. Our success in the youth ministry race has a
lot to do with developing a big-picture perspective. Check out the second verse:
Because of you I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl
like a jackal and moan like an owl. (Micah 1:8)
Oh wait ... that's not the right verse. Here it is:
But I will not do this all in one year because the land would become a wilderness, and
the wild animals would become too many to control. I will drive them out a little at a
time until your population has increased enough to fill the land. (Exodus 23:29-30)
The wild animal reference shouldn't be viewed as synonymous with the students in
your group, but this verse accurately portrays a youth worker's world. The Exodus
passage describes God's plan for the gradual conquest of Canaan. God didn't want to
overwhelm Israel by giving them the Promised Land in one day. Besides, knowing Israel
wasn't completely prepared, God put together a journey that allowed them to develop
their faith and confidence as they learned to depend on him.
This biblical principle applies to your youth ministry. God won't give you everything
at once. The foundation of your ministry is strengthened as you develop faith,
skills, leadership, experience, character, disciplines, and passion.
Where Do I Start?
Whenever you pull out this book to read a chapter, I'd love for you to imagine that you
and I are at your favorite informal restaurant, meeting again to talk about you and
youth ministry. The goal of the meeting is for me to coach you during your first years
as a youth worker. You're filled with questions, enthusiasm, ideas, hopes, fears, dreams,
and prayers for your new ministry. I'm there because I heard you have a passion for
God, a humble heart, a love for students, an eagerness to learn, and-hey, let's be
honest-because you offered to pay. But who really cares about the food? This is a great
setting for a heart-to-heart discussion about youth ministry!
The questions you're asking during our time together have been asked by most
youth workers over the years. The number one question I'm asked after I teach a seminar
or after someone has finished reading my book, Purpose-Driven(r) Youth Ministry, is,
"Where do I start?"
While many beginning youth workers would love for me to hand them a checklist
of the exact steps to take, it's an impossible request. Since every church is unique, each
youth worker complex, all students different, the steps you'll need to take won't be the
same as the next youth worker's.
Even with the variety of youth workers who will read this book, some commitments
are relevant to all youth workers regardless of denomination, church size, and
country they live in. In this chapter, I've identified 10 commitments I'd like for you, as
a new youth worker, to prayerfully consider making. They can serve as a foundation for
your effectiveness, health, and happiness in youth ministry. Copy the summary on
pages 21 and 22, post it in a visible place, and allow the commitments to influence you
during your next several months in the trenches.
Doug's Top 10 Youth Ministry Commitments
// 1. I will move slowly.
Speed often leads to pain. When we first moved into our home, I teased my wife about
her cautious parking habit. While it was a tight fit in our garage, it seemed to take her
an absurd amount of time to pull into her space. One day when I was parking her car,
I confidently and arrogantly zipped into the garage much faster than she did (I'm sure
I shaved 10-15 seconds off of her time), but I also caused over $250 in damage as I
broke off the side mirror. My teasing halted immediately, and this experience led to a
teaching principle ... for my children, of course: what looks to be quick and easy may
need to be approached slowly and carefully. The principle applies to youth ministry.
It's safe to assume you want to make some changes at your church during your first
two years. Great! But these changes probably don't need to be implemented right away.
With confidence, I can guarantee that even the changes that appear to be no-brainers
cause pain for someone. If you're a volunteer, immediately suggesting changes may
communicate a divisive or critical attitude to the lead youth worker. If you're the lead
youth worker, fast changes can appear arrogant or reveal a maverick's personality to
Instead of making immediate changes, keep a record of all potential changes as
soon as you think of them. This allows you to give them prayerful consideration. Hang
on to your list. Continue to be a critical thinker in the arena to which God has called
you, but realize you don't have to apply all (or any) of the ideas that come to you. Slow
down. If you're in this for the long haul, what's the rush? Hurried changes are often
perceived as lacking thought. (I've committed an entire chapter to making the change
process successful. See Chapter 11.)
When I arrived at Saddleback Church in 1992, I told my pastor that it would take
at least five years for us to begin to see a healthy, balanced, volunteer-laden, vibrant
ministry. This wasn't an arbitrary figure. I had come to Saddleback Church after spending
11 years in youth ministry at another church. I knew there's no such thing as a just-add-water
Remember, God didn't move the Israelites into the Promised Land overnight, and
he's not expecting you to change your church within your first two years. Relax. Prepare
your own heart before you change your church. Remember, Jesus took 30 years to
prepare for three years of ministry (and he had that God-thing going for him).
// 2. I will regularly check my motives and evaluate my heart.
God honors pure motives, and the more you check yours, the stronger your leadership
and decision-making will be. If your motives are pure, you'll persevere, reproduce
student ministers, be productive, and contribute effectively, all while having fun. Most
conflicts arise from unclear, mixed, or impure motives. If you don't personally evaluate
your motives, others will-and if they're not pure, the impurity will be exposed.
I've learned that to check my motives, I must continually ask questions about
Why do I want to lead this ministry?
Why do I want to teach this material?
What's my motive for saying yes to that request?
Why do I really want to change this program?
When do I let people know I don't have a clue about what I'm doing?
You may think of other questions you need to ask yourself. It's good for you to evaluate
your motives so you can lead with integrity.
In my early years, I wanted
to cancel a student-run praise
and worship night. Nothing was
wrong with the program, and
most people would have considered
it a fairly successful night for
students. I told people I wanted
to cancel it because it wasn't
growing and it was taking
students out another night of the
week (both good reasons). When
I held the mirror up to examine
my motives, I saw that my
motives were to be noticed, to
develop my credibility, and to
highlight my speaking gifts
(which weren't being seen
because students were running
the program). I used excuses as a
smokescreen to cover my real
agenda. My entire plan reeked of
bad motives. Thankfully I didn't
cancel the program, but I did see
my ugly, dark side that was close
to the surface and very real.
To keep your motives right,
commit yourself to an honest
and regular evaluation of your
heart, the source of your spiritual growth and leadership. (I have written an entire chapter
about your heart's condition. See Chapter 3.)
I've made my own pledge to never do any training if I can't talk about the spiritual
life of a leader. Unfortunately, I spent my first several years in youth ministry creating
fancy programs, inventing wild games, and growing the group to head-turning
numbers, all on my own power. I was the antithesis of John 15 where Jesus tells us to
be connected to the Father in order to bear fruit. I was connected to youth ministry
books and magazines instead of God and his Word. Believe me, I'm a different man
today and a much better youth worker because of my heart's connection. I don't have
the energy that I did in 1979, but my church doesn't have the spiritually immature
leader my previous church once had-I've learned to give myself regular heart checkups
// 3. I will steer clear of the numbers game.
You don't need to be in youth ministry long before you hear this famous question: "How
many kids are in your group?" I've heard it asked more times than I want to admit. Now
I feel embarrassed for the person who asks this question. It feeds into the myth that
bigger is better and that the value of your leadership is based on how many students
you have. Here's my fleshly response to this carnal question: "Who cares?"
Please commit during your beginning years to not engage in the numbers game.
Don't join the group of youth workers who erroneously base their value on how many
students attend a particular event. This is not a basis for determining value.
Carol was a great volunteer youth worker who left our youth ministry team
because she was "tired." Later when I asked for an exit interview, she admitted that the
real reason was because she felt she was ineffective. She had only three girls in her small
group while the other female leaders had at least twice as many. Even as a volunteer
small group leader, she felt the pressure to grow.
Truthfully, Carol was a great small group leader, and if she had had more students
in her group she wouldn't have had enough time to adequately care for them. She
played the numbers game, and at the end of the game, our ministry lost, Carol lost, and
those three girls lost. The numbers game is a losing game! Don't be fooled into becoming
Throwing out numbers can be exciting or debilitating depending on who you're
talking to. Bigger isn't better; healthier is better. Steer clear of churches and youth workers
who are driven by numbers, and surround yourself with those who are motivated by
serving God faithfully and pursuing health.