Like many others in ministry, I started out as a wet-behind-the-ear, newly married, 23-year-old optimist. I walked into a ministry setting that had been healthy but was on a downward trend. The student ministry at its peak had 30-40 actively engaged students, well over the 10% rule that we often talk about. However, something had happened, and this ministry was lucky to have three students attend youth activities. I was prepared to change that.
I knew that I could be exciting and charismatic in my approach to youth ministry. Surely, the students would see all that I could offer and love their new youth pastor… Was I wrong! In my first year, I was beating my head against the wall trying to connect with the students. I would line up great guest speakers and have powerful messages planned – only three to five students would show up. That was until I had events like Marvel movie nights or anything else that had no spiritual depth. Talk about frustrating!
As I started the second year, I reached out to a mentor about the approach I was taking in this ministry. He challenged me, and I am thankful he did. This friend provided me with great insight about my role as a leader. He knew that my strength was in developing a team culture and building up individuals to make a collective unit. My friend and I walked through a new ministry process for my context. It has forever changed the way I will lead.
We looked closely at my strengths and decided I needed to shift my focus from what I was doing with the students to building a team. This was a challenge at first, but it has turned out to be one of the greatest gifts I have been offered.
I shifted my focus from trying to get students in the doors to finding adult leaders who would invest deeply in the lives of students. We no longer looked at what our weekly attendance was, but at the amount of times we were making meaningful connections with the students. I learned very quickly that the more I focused on my team, the better it was for the students.
We developed E4, a discipleship pathway to walk with people on their faith journey.
- Encounter: Our leaders make the first connection with the student and their family where they are. This usually happens in a church setting (one of our students invites a friend, etc.), but can also happen within the community. This is largely done by our student leaders. We find it to be much more successful when students are making encounters with their peers.
- Engage: We engage the student with the gospel and provide opportunities for them to experience the grace and community that come through scripture.
- Equip: We then shift our focus to equipping these students to be disciples in the world, specifically in their context.
- Empower: We empower our students to be disciples.
These are the basic principles in our process with students. It is hard to say we do x, y or z because each student is in a different place, but ultimately we always encounter, engage, equip and empower.
I went from being a solo leader to being a team leader. Jesus set the example of building a team in ministry with one another. It took a mentor to step in and tell me that I needed to do the same. In Year One, I relied on myself. Today I rely on roughly 20-25 adult leaders making connections with a group of students on a weekly basis. We have seen numeric growth in our student ministry. More importantly, we have seen spiritual growth. The students and adults have both grown in new and exciting ways in their relationships with Jesus. We have also seen a new sense of community form and a desire to be in ministry with one another grow.
Our way is not perfect, but WE believe that “teamwork makes the dream work.” Even if you are sure you can do something better yourself, think about who can be blessed by serving in that way and step aside. None of us wants to deny someone a chance to experience God’s blessing!
Look closely at your ministry, take that leap of faith and give the team approach a try. I believe it will work for you, too. The term “church family” will gain new meaning, and you will have people hungry and seeking to be an active part of the ministry that you lead. This is one of Jesus’ greatest examples. Follow Christ’s lead and take the steps!
*The Rev. Bradley A. Lewis is at O’Fallon First United Methodist Church in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference. To learn more about his team approach to leading youth ministry and the E-4 discipleship pathway, contact him at email@example.com.