Youth ministry is an exciting, wide-open field. But going into it without preparation is kind of like charging into a dense forest without a map. The best of intentions won’t keep you from walking in circles, unable to really get anywhere.
What you need is a map and a good compass to get you where you want to go. Read on to learn how to get pointed in the right direction as you prepare to build an effective youth ministry.
1. Choose your youth ministry path.
What vision has God given you for working with youth? There are many contexts in which you can minister to young people. Here are just a few examples:
In Your Local Church
This is probably the first to come to mind if you were in a youth group yourself. As a youth pastor working for a church, you’ll often interact with teens inside the church walls. Even when you go out into the community for service projects, outreach or fun activities, the church will be your hub.
By contrast, camping ministries can be largely independent. Worship, Bible studies, learning activities and games happen in the context of God’s creation. If you love the outdoors, a camp ministry might be perfect for you.
Intercultural Youth Ministry
You might see yourself working with young people abroad, in places like South America or Africa. Or, perhaps you see yourself working with students from other countries who are studying right in your neighborhood. Either way, building relationships across cultures requires understanding the challenges of intercultural dialogue.
2. Start your degree program.
Being successful in youth ministry begins with a firm educational foundation. After you have sought the Lord’s direction and a general idea of a path to pursue (which He may prompt you to change later!), you can focus your college experience.
A degree in Bible and theology will give you a foundation in interpreting the Word of God and applying it to your life. Then, coursework specific to your chosen field of Christian ministries will provide you with the tools you need to communicate those truths effectively to young people as you build a youth ministry.
Your degree may end up being a B.S. (Bachelor of Science) in Youth Pastoral Ministry or a B.S. in Camping Ministries or a B.S. in Intercultural Youth Ministries or something similar.
3. Learn about youth needs in your context.
Are you going to serve young people in your hometown? Then your studies should involve understanding the socioeconomic challenges youth and their families face there. Everyone doesn’t have the same experience growing up in the same town. You’ll need to broaden your perspective of the place you think you know.
The point is, wherever you plan to serve, understand that place. This is equally important if you plan to serve overseas, where the challenges young people face may be quite different from your own struggles as a teenager.
When possible, make plans to travel there to see the culture firsthand and interact with the people you hope to minister to.
4. Prepare yourself.
Seek the advice of people who have done youth ministry (people like the faculty members who teach youth ministry at CSU). Going into this with rose-colored glasses won’t help anybody—you or the young people. You’ll be better off after asking lots of questions about the challenges you’ll face and the joys you’ll experience!
Also, it’s a good idea to meet with a mental health counselor. Even the healthiest person will find ministry taxing at times, and a counselor will be able to teach you techniques to manage stress and anxiety. You’ll be able to pass on what you’ve learned to the youth you serve, too.
Talk to your own pastor about your aspirations. Ask for prayer support.
5. Lay the ground rules.
As you prepare to meet with young people for the first time as the ministry leader, think about how you’ll create an environment for growth.
How often will you meet and when?
What will your expectations be for behavior?
How will you handle consequences be for misbehavior?
What goals do you expect everyone to work toward?
Once you’ve established minimum expectations for mutual respect and safety while in your care, and after you’ve articulated a purpose for the group, you can invite input on the rest.
Maybe you’re planning certain activities like Bible study and worship, but outside of that, what are you open to doing? You’ll need to encourage them to contribute if you want buy-in. Seeing their ideas come alive will give them a sense of ownership in the group’s identity, and that will keep them engaged.
6. Raise up leaders.
You’re not going to be able to do it all yourself. One of the key skills you’ll learn in your youth ministry degree program is the ability to delegate.
Without volunteers, you won’t have events. You will need help! And some of those helpers will need enough autonomy to be able to help you effectively.
Example: If you have 50 kids in your youth group and they all need rides to your service project, you’ll appreciate having someone else in charge of coordinating transportation!
To encourage those partnerships, you will need to build relationships with people in the church, the parents and extended families of your students, members of other churches and others who are qualified who might want to support you.
Eventually, your ministry may grow to the point where you can hire an assistant, perhaps an associate youth pastor. At that point, it will be great to have so many trusted potential applicants to choose from in your pool of volunteers.
7. Get creative.
If God has given you a vision for explosive growth one day, you’ll need to do some work to create it! You’ll get great ideas on how to attract youth from faculty in your youth ministry degree program. They’ll be able to tell you what worked for them, and what flopped.
But ultimately, you’ll need to use your God-given creativity to reach kids. You’ll create programs like:
Tutoring for students struggling academically
Service projects open to unchurched teens
Support groups for teens struggling with addiction
Whatever it takes to reach kids who need to know the love of Jesus Christ, you and all who support you will do it!
8. Go one on one.
As you study youth ministry, you’ll also learn how important it is to bond with teens and their families individually. Some will need this more than others. But you will need to make time to get one on one with those you serve.
When you engage with youth one on one, you become more than a teacher. You become a mentor or kind of an older sibling. It gives you opportunities to ask more personalized questions. It gives them the space to answer those questions and to ask their own. This discipleship is an essential part of the ministry.
When you engage with parents and guardians one on one, you become a parenting partner. You can encourage parents in this role, cheer them on as they do their best for their children. And you can give them insight into how they can connect what their teens are learning in youth group to family life.
9. Be present in the schools.
Youth ministry can become ineffective when young people see it as something separate from “real life.” If youth group is just a thing they do on Sunday night, it loses its importance to them. That’s why you’ll learn in your college program how to take your ministry to them, and how to help them serve, too.
This requires partnering with schools. Administrators and teachers need to see your presence as a benefit to the students. They’ll need to get to know and trust you before they’ll allow you to offer a Bible study on school grounds, for example.
10. Partner with the church.
This one may seem obvious, but it’s far more important than new youth ministers tend to realize. Your degree program will help you understand the reality of church partnerships and how it can make all the difference in how successful you are.
Your youth ministry program will not be an island. Even if it’s not literally in a church building, you will be a part of the church in some way. That means you’ll need to learn how to listen to other church leaders, how to promote your ideas to them persuasively and how to gain agreement.
Do you feel the Lord calling you to some sort of youth ministry—leading a youth group, taking young people on mission trips or running a camp ministry?
10 Steps to Building an Effective Youth Ministry
Choose your youth ministry path.
Start your degree program.
Learn about youth needs in your context.
Lay the ground rules.
Raise up leaders.
Go one on one.
Be present in the schools.
Partner with the church.