When you work with youth ministry over the course of a few years you begin to see some patterns. Just about the time you get to build a really great rapport with kids, they grow up and age out of your youth group! It is a part of the rhythm of working with young people. With summer here, you’re likely starting to see fresh new faces in the group. Here are ten tips to rebuilding, once your core group has moved to a higher grade level and aged out of your sphere of ministry.
1- Don’t gamble
The temptation to look for the next big fix is always present. There is pressure from parents, and pressure from your leadership to produce results. In that moment of desperation we can turn to something other than God to fix our problem. Like the guy who enters the casino looking for the “big win”, we look for quick easy solutions. Some will turn to the latest trendy curriculum, and other ministries look for a rockstar youth pastor or student leader. Calm down, take a breath, and make a plan to rebuild.
2- Phone a friend
One of the most beautiful aspect of being Christians is that the body of Christ is big. Sometimes that creative nudge forward comes from the counsel of other youth ministries that are being innovative. Contact another youth pastor and ask what he does to rebuild.
3- Stop mourning
Change is hard. We all feel the loss of a shift in relational dynamics. The kids you are ministering to feel it as well. However, if you don’t transition to expressing joy over the young people that are left, you cause them to feel like they are constant disappointment. You are like a husband so grief-stricken at the loss of his wife that he cannot bear to look at the children. Meanwhile the children feel like its their fault.
4- Delight in the new
Jesus said in Luke 5:36-39 that “no one puts new wine into old wineskins”. He concludes the passage by saying that “no one after drinking old wine desires the new, for he says, the old is better.” In other words there is a sweetness in the harvest that God provided in the past, but a new harvest is necessary for a sustainable future. Celebrate that what God has done in the past in your youth ministry, but delight in what He is doing now as well. There is a new harvest to be had.
5- Work what you have
What are the resources God has already given you? When things shift and the group dynamics change, we can fall into the trap of missing what left. Instead of wishing you had it back the way it was, look at the resources you have. Invest in the young people you have. Look at the gifts that they have and put them to work with one another.
6- Assemble a team
Whenever you go through a transition where the group you shepherd is not united, it is time to pull together a team. Gather your associate leaders and share your heart with them. Assess the needs of the kids you have and work towards practical solutions. Assign each student in your group to a leader and have them specialize in building a relationship. Follow up with your leaders to find out how things are going and who is following through. A healthy team will lead a healthy flock.
7- Break the ice
It may be time to go a little heavy on the fun for a season. We all know that the goal of youth ministry is making disciples. As a result we need to make sure that the scriptures are being taught effectively and that our doctrine is sound. However, we can forget that the disciple of Jesus didn’t just grow through teaching, they grew through life experiences. Whether that was fishing with Jesus, or camping in the desert, or watching the miraculous, the disciples shared a common experience that was worth talking about. When kids have fun, share their personality, and have a silly story to share they bond with one another. Take a season and make sure your young people are meeting, mixing, and ice-breaking their little hearts out! It creates ownership within the group.
8- Celebrate their history
Have you ever been at a family reunion where people just sit and laugh while telling childhood stories through the night? There is sense in which, sharing the funny stories and history of students reminds them that they belong somewhere. It is experienced in the same way that we experience family. Nicknames, tall tales, and legendary moments create an environment where young people are accepted and celebrated for who they are. Remind and rehearse the legends of the previous week or trip. Show your kids that they are a family.
9- Take the time to pray
In a group setting, we often do prayer requests, or start our meetings with a prayer. This is right and good for us to do. I have noticed something different when you single a kid out and pray specifically with him or her. Take the time each week to pray with a student in your ministry. be especially aware of the opportunities that present themselves in conversations. Put your arm around your student and take them to Jesus.
10- Restate the gospel
Life can be disorienting. It is especially odd to navigate for students when relationships and peer groups are constantly shifting. When we remind students that they are a part of something that ties them to 2000 years of history and people, we anchor them to a relationship that outlives life. When we tell them that they are at the beginning of an eternal relationship with Jesus and that your goal is for them to grow, you affirm their connection to more than just your youth ministry. You affirm their belonging to God and his ever growing family.
Jeremy Nehf is the Youth Pastor at Heritage Christian Fellowship in southern Oregon. Jeremy and his wife Kristal have three children, Acacia, Elijah, and Eva. After planting a church in the town of Cave Junction, Oregon and pastoring there for 12 years, he joined the staff at Heritage and oversees the needs of Jr High and High School youth ministry teams.