3 Clues into My Secret Sauce for Youth Ministry

I own more than 200 books written on the topic of Youth Ministry. They sit on my shelf — covers torn, spines cracked — now available to my leaders and others who may be interested in learning from other great youth pastors past and present. Sometimes I think, Who would have imagined that there would even be 200 books on this topic?!


In all of my reading and studying and searching for the silver bullet best practices of youth ministry, however, I am convinced that the batter of youth ministry only requires about 3 key ingredients (but feel free to add more for flavor) for good, hard, and faithful ministry with students. And the common base for each of these ingredients is relationship.

My philosophy of youth ministry is simple: faith begins and builds within a teenager (and everyone for the matter) through relationships. Yes, even the introvert needs a healthy friendship or two in order to experience the redemption of Jesus Christ. Think about our faith language: grace, love, salvation, redemption, mercy, restoration, reconciliation, and more. Each of these words require the presence of another. Scripture declares over and over through declarative statements and story that when two or more are gathered together, there you shall encounter the presence of our living God. A living God beckons one into relationship. The beauty — and at times, the bane — of our faith is discovered and fully embraced within the context of relationships. For more, read Andy Root's book, Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry. This emphasis makes the practical and functional implications of our faith at once both dynamic and messy. And it's precisely here within this tension that we discover the key ingredients of the secret sauce of youth ministry.

First, good youth ministry follows good contact work. Ministry begins with the individual, as much as we wish that it began with the program, our role, or even the church. It is much easier for you and I to enact policy or vision rather than listening to the plight of an individual and then responding with a well-suited program. Ministry belongs on the ground and in the streets. It is based in the local yogurt shops and skate parks. The holy gathering of the Body of Christ within the context of youth ministry is a cross country meet or homecoming game.

Additionally, this task belongs to the role of your adult volunteer leaders — just as much as you. I wrote a post recently titled "Adult Leaders as Chaperones to Adult Leaders and Youth Pastors." Talk about messy! Equipping leaders for the great and wonderful privilege of scoring wins with students demands much of your time and patience. Yet, the outcome is exponentially greater and rewarding for the whole corporate Body of Christ than not doing so, especially when you put your back into it and fight the good battles with integrity and spotlight leadership. Imagine a body, and consider the implications of only doing bicep curls. Your biceps rip out of your shirt, but if you forsake your core or your legs, then you become a distorted image of a fit body. If you hoard the relational capital of your kids and parents from your leaders, then you become a distorted body. Don't let your leaders miss out.

Second, good youth ministry follows good parent partnerships. I write about parent partnerships quite a bit on this blog. In fact, I am convinced that good youth ministry equals good parent ministry. Here, you need to play the slow cooker card, and take your time to build and nurture these relationships. It may take a year or two to earn the trust and commitment of a parent. And rightly so! You are stepping on hallowed ground when you enter onto their turf. Take time to listen. In fact, bite your tongue! If you feel the urge to correct, rebuke, or educate, then take a cold shower and resist — even if you are in the right to do so! Barring some catastrophe or abusive situation, be patient and learn the family dynamics of the system before you storm the gates and undermine the authority of the parent. Following this protocol, emphasizing relationship, and building trust will ultimately place you in a position of pastoral leadership. Before you know it, the same parent who looked upon you with a critical eye will become your strongest asset — and may even solicit your advice!

Last, good youth ministry follows a strong partnership with your Lead Pastor. Though I am listing this key as my final point, this may be the most important key to cluing you into the secret sauce of youth ministry. I cannot stress the importance of this relationship enough with the greater context of your entire corporate church ministry. Lead up! Investing in this relationship, nurturing it, and pursuing it at all costs will not only benefit you, it will pour over into every aspect of the church: your kids and parents, your leaders, your Lead Pastor's priorities and relationships, and the greater vision and implementation of the church within your context. It may seem presumptuous that this relationship could affect so many aspects of the church, but consider the necessity and rarity of a healthy and aligned team for the sake of the Body of Christ. This relationship is the most important, and if it is broken, then before you consider leaving your context, do everything within your power to repair it. It is an essential priority for the long term sustainability of your church!

QUESTION: What other keys would you include to your youth ministry secret sauce?