Youth Ministry Ownership

A sense of ownership doesn’t mean anything without actual ownership.

There’s a lot of talk in the youth ministry realm about creating a sense of ownership in youth ministry. A lot of times, this conversation runs around in circles on the playground of naming events and groups, decorating youth rooms, and designing cool t-shirts. We’re trying to make sure our students are really ‘buying into’ the ministry and feel like they’re critical to what’s going on. We know they’ll show up more consistently if they have this sense of ownership, and when they show up more consistently we’ll be able to pump them full of God’s message for their lives, right?

While our intentions are mostly golden, I wonder if we’re trying to create the wrong thing.

Do our students really need to feel a sense of ownership in our student ministry, or do they need to actually own their place & responsibility in ministry? Can we see the difference here? I wonder if, in trying to create this sense of ownership, we are helping them settle for something less than real ownership?

Do the students in your ministry really “own” anything? For many of us, the answer would have to be, “No.” They may have picked the paint colors and come up with a catchy name that they like, but they don’t really carry the responsibility of ministry in any real, concrete ways. We and our teams of adult leaders carry it all. And so, the kids show up faithfully… but what if our students really begin to see themselves as the church of Jesus Christ? What if they begin to take seriously His directive to follow Him & make disciples?

It’s difficult to unleash young people into the ministry that God is wanting to do through them because we want to protect them.

It’s risky because they’ll mess up and make us look less competent than we want people to think we are.

It’s dangerous because they may not yet have the skills to match their passion.

But it’s absolutely essential because God doesn’t settle.

Don’t settle for a sense of ownership.

Develop owners.

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 2.3

The first time I went to a Catalyst event (in 2009) was a refreshing moment of revitalization for me. I was at a pretty low point in my ministry spiritually or emotionally or maybe I was just tired… feeling like I was making little impact or headway. Essentially, I was out of gas and ready to quit. I’d neglected my own spiritual well being long enough that I had nothing left to give. But before my career in burgers was really forced to take off, I headed to L.A. for Catalyst West. I was reminded there in so many ways of why I’d chosen the paths I’d chosen and who it was ultimately who would lift me up if I’d just be still long enough and let Him re-grip my heart.

Jud Wilhite and Matt Chandler delivered a couple messages at this year’s Catalyst Dallas that were similarly convicting and strengthening for my soul.

Wilhite’s message from 2 Corinthians 5 emphasized the fact that we’re called to a faithful and sincere heart – not a ministry that looks spectacular on the outside. His advice for surviving the roller coaster of ministry leadership was:

  1. Do a gut check.
  2. Stay a little bit crazy for God.
  3. Be compelled by Christ’s love.

I need to stop from time to time and re-examine why I’m doing what I’m doing. Is this youth ministry primarily about Jesus, or something else? Is my identity found in Him or in my influence as a pastor? When that is settled, the mess of ministry is not nearly as overwhelming. One of my favorite lines I’ve heard from Wilhite is that “Ministry is messy. Get over it & get a mop.” When my identity is settled in who He is, the messes are still draining, but there is a reserve that doesn’t ever seem to be used up.

A few hours later, Chandler talked about how pastors too often wear out because:

  • We struggle to really believe the Gospel of Grace.
  • We avoid suffering and struggle.
  • We fail to understand the doctrine of adoption.

We burn out when we replace intimacy with Jesus with anything else. “Don’t replace a passion for Jesus with pragmatism.” It’s tempting in ministry to do what works. In youth ministry, that might mean expending so much energy on hype and games that there’s nothing left of substance… because that will get students to show up. But when that desire to get people here exceeds our passion for knowing Jesus and making Him known, we’ve cut ourselves off from the very source of our ministry’s vitality. Life changing relationships in ministry only grow out of intimacy with Jesus.

This doesn’t mean that pragmatism is worthless, though. The very next session featured a presentation from Nancy Duarte that was much less soul-nurturing reminder and much more effective communication tactics. She did a great job illustrating the practical incorporation of story into presentations by filling the gap between what is and what could be, and creating resonance by finding value in everyone listening and touching them there. 

Catalyst has definitely created some resonance for me.

How is God resonating through you?

7 Things That Would Get Jesus Fired From Youth Ministry

Let me just state from the outset how deeply my tongue is in cheek with this post. I mean no disrespect toward the Author & Sustainer of Everything. Please keep the hate mail at bay. He’s awesome, and I hope my youth ministry looks as much like His would as possible (sorry, though kids, I will not be making wine for youth group any time soon). I just had a random and mildly humorous thought pop into my head the other day and thought I’d write about it. What if Jesus was hired to be the youth minister at a typical church? I wonder if the church as it’s established in our part of the world at this particular moment in time would run Him out of youth ministry as quickly as the Pharisees ushered Him out of the Rabbi business?

Would we really fire Jesus?

While He’s definitely got the whole Messiah thing nailed down, I think Jesus would probably not be employed today as a youth minister. At least not for long – He’d get fired. I overheard some of the ladies talking with a couple elders in my head the other day, and here’s why they want to fire Jesus:

He tells some of the kids they don’t really need to go to Bible college for a year – but they could go to Uganda for a while instead to work in some low paying orphanage. Now, just how are they supposed to provide for themselves in a place like that? They have a future to be thinking of you know… How are they going to meet someone nice in some slum village on the other side of the planet?

He just doesn’t understand the importance of the fellowship hall’s memorial carpet. Mrs. Alder donated that carpet 30 years ago in memory of her dear father, who laid the bricks of this church with his bare hands and his own trowel. How can He let those kids walk around there dumping their Kool-aid everywhere? It’s disgraceful.

He lets those skater boys hang out in the same activities as my 12 year old daughter. Those boys are trouble. I don’t want them near my girl, tempting her with all that rebellion and scorn for authority. They need to learn some respect before they’re welcomed around here.

He’s always spending His time with His favorites. They even have secret events the other kids don’t know about. It’s really not very fair.

He’s always talking in metaphors that a lot of the kids just don’t get and even purposefully confusing them sometimes. That whole “eat my flesh” game just sounds creepy to me! Maybe even demonic. I think they’re risking some pretty dangerous misunderstandings?

He thinks they need to make Him and His stuff their highest priority – like they should do whatever He says or something. My kids don’t have time to be around for His every beck and call. They have football camp and art lessons and all kinds of stuff going on. He’s not the only thing going on you know. We’ve got vacation plans to the Bahamas this year, how’s my kid supposed to be gone for a ten day mission trip to Haiti?

He made wine.

At this point, I quit my imaginary eavesdropping and thought about the things I value for students in my ministry and for my own kids… I have to admit, that sometimes, as a parent, the safety and security I want for my kids may be at odds with the radically life altering Way of Jesus. As a youth pastor, the high calling and expectations I share with my students may not always gel with their parents’ desire to see them live the American Dream.

Students, if I’m pushing you, please know I only do so out of a desire to see His Dream come alive in your life. The spark of life that He’s placed within you is begging to be fanned into a flame that will honor Him. I just don’t want to see you settle for a merely ordinary life.

Parents, I know you love your kids and you’ve invested in them far more heavily than I ever could. I want to do everything I can to honor and maximize your investment. But there is Another who has invested far more than any of us deserve. Let’s defer to Him, and let’s agree to never fire Jesus from our ministry to our next generation.

He’s their only real hope.

Don’t fire Jesus.

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 2.2

One of the sessions at Catalyst this year contained an incredible amount of pithily packaged wisdom from Jon Acuff and John Maxwell. Acuff explored the question “Why don’t we use the best of our creativity to celebrate the Creator?” It’s a great question. I hope it’s one that people will continue to ask themselves (including those I addressed with that very idea in yesterday’s Letter to Graduates).

Sometimes we let our fear of what people think get in the way of creatively celebrating our Creator. Acuff talked about how “haters only get loud when you do something that matters.” Opposition can be a sign that what you’ve undertaken is worth doing, not that you should quit doing it. In addition to that, he described how “critic’s math” can make the positives disappear. When we’re not celebrating the life the Creator has given us, it’s so easy for one critical voice to outweigh all the positive ones in our lives. I know when I am getting distracted by frustrations instead of celebrating the joys God has brought, it doesn’t take much effort from a critic to scramble all the positive memories of lives changed all around me. That’s why Acuff’s final bit of advice is so critical: Don’t miss the party going on because you’re too busy getting stuff done. 2 sisters hosted a party with Jesus. One of them had a blast, the other was frustrated and irritated and not nearly as gracious as she intended to be. Don’t miss the party.

John Maxwell’s message was also full of great advice, tailored to a room full of young leaders. He probably had about 17% fewer punchlines than Acuff, but made up for it by making sure every list was appropriately numbered! He shared some great questions to ask someone you’d like to learn from and emphasized that “Everybody can teach me something.” What an attitude! How is that reflected in my life? In yours? Are we teachable?

Following up on that question, Maxwell shared what he said was advice he’d share if we could sit down at home and just talk. While the seats at BentTree are adequate, I’d love to be able to sit down in Maxwell’s living room, or dining room, or driveway… and talk. He’s a guy who’s getting stuff done AND is enjoying the party! There are probably 9 or 13 secrets to doing that, but the 5 he shared were enough to think about for a while. (Dear John Maxwell, please call me when your driveway’s free for the rest – I have 7 questions to ask you.)

  1. Get a personal definition of success.
  2. Intentionally add value to other people every day. Who can you add value to today? How?
  3. Work on strengths/gifts in matters of ability – work on weaknesses in matters of choice.
  4. Follow the ‘rule of 5’. Do 5 things every day that will help accomplish what you’re seeking.
  5. Trust God every day with your lunch. There was only 1 person in the crowd when Jesus fed 5000 who didn’t need a miracle – and he was the only one who could be the conduit for a miracle to be delivered to everyone who would have gone hungry without one.


A Commitment to Serve

Nearing the end of his days with his disciples in and around first century Jerusalem, Jesus wanted to show them just how great His love was. I can imagine them sitting around the table, talking about the crazy crowd that had erupted as Jesus rode into town & the lady that poured perfume on Jesus… It really didn’t seem to mesh with Jesus’ talk about dying and all that, but wasn’t he always talking all cryptic like that? What a wild couple of days.

And then, to show them a love greater than they’d ever noticed in a way that they could no longer miss it, Jesus excused himself from the discussion, left the table, and began to wash his friends’ feet. To show them His love, He served them – even in a way they would have thought humiliating. (Notice that none of them had volunteered for the job?) Though they rightly called Him their Teacher and their Lord, He took the responsibility normally given to the lowest household servant.

Nearing what they thought would be his crowning achievement…

In His final days…

One last lesson to drive home the point…

One more moment to give them a glimpse of what His Kingdom is all about…

And Jesus… washed… feet.

If a youth ministry is going to leave a mark on this world that is worth leaving, we have to get this right. We have to help students see that being a part of His Kingdom means joining the crew to whom Jesus said (after washing their feet) “I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.” We, young and old, are to follow Him in His example of humble service.

A commitment to service as the church is one of those gravitational nexuses I have found myself pulled to in student ministry. Student ministry that continues the kind of Kingdom revolution that Jesus started is marked by this commitment to serve. It’s not enough for kids to commit to being in a Sunday school class or showing up for camp and a minimum of 47 Sunday morning services per year… It’s not enough that they sign up to pass the offering plate once in a while or play in the praise band… It’s not even enough to get them to willingly stack chairs and shuffle tables around for every event that causes the gym to be transformed into a fellowship hall (AKA a gym with tables and chairs in it). It’s great for students to serve the church, but they also need to serve the community AS the church.

There are a few things that happen as a result of this:

  1. Students get to be an integral part of God showing Himself in someone’s life.
  2. Students get to see how their humble contribution of whatever they are can be greatly multiplied when placed in God’s hands.
  3. Students build relationships with adults while they serve together. I’m convinced that those relationships (which are missing in many churches) are more valuable than most of us currently realize ~ certainly more valuable than yet another message from me or than any curriculum I’ve come across.
  4. Adults in the church begin to see the young part of their church in a whole new light ~ they’re not a bunch of freeloaders, they’re just still looking for the right ways to contribute to the church’s mission.
  5. People outside the church get to see the multi-generational church in action, unmistakably loving those whom God loves.

So, how do you teach students to serve? You serve. You take them with you when you serve. You make opportunities for them to serve, too. Here a few examples:

Help out a Habitat for Humanity project, do a road-side cleanup, serve in a soup kitchen, clean a park, shovel sidewalks for neighbors, sort items at a clothing bank or homeless shelter, rake someone else’s leaves, take a service trip to a nearby town, or a mission trip to a reservation or inner city or another country, paint someone’s house, volunteer at a health clinic, shovel poop at the fairgrounds… the list is pretty much endless if you’re willing to serve.

With summer arriving, a lot of students will have large blocks of available time. Help them make the most of it by finding some service opportunities and helping them develop their commitment to serve as the church. How will you help them serve?

—If you’re one of my students (past or present), help me out a little bit in the comments section – what’s been your favorite or most meaningful service activity we’ve done together?


Here are the links to the rest of the Foundations of Youth Ministry series. Check out the other posts and be sure to use the subscribe field at the top to get new content via e-mail:

5 Marks of Youth Ministry That Makes a Difference

A Permanent Attitude of Worship

A Kingdom View of God’s Church

A Passion for Revealing God

A Hunger for Depth in Relationship With God

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 2.1

Andy Stanley opened the main sessions with an encouraging message from Galatians 6, where Paul told the early believers they should not become weary of doing good because the harvest will only be reaped in time if we do not give up. He also said to do good as you have opportunity. Stanley mentioned a couple dangers in ministry that can be avoided: Burning out, or checking out. As a ministry grows, accessibility becomes a casualty (i.e. I can’t be available for 80 kids in the same way I can be for 4 kids). When we try to remain accessible to everyone, burnout is often the result. On the other hand, if we use ministry success as an excuse to be more inaccessible than necessary, we are checked out, literally hiding in our positions.

The solution, summed up in a single phrase as is usually the case with any message from Andy Stanley, is to “Do for one what you wish you could do for everyone.” Sometimes, we can be way too worried about being fair. But we don’t need to be fair. (Jesus sure isn’t.) We need to be engaged. We need to do the good that we can do, and know that by helping one, we often end up helping many more because it is God working in and through His people to do more than we could ever imagine doing on our own.

Who is it that needs your help today? You can’t say yes to every request for your time and attention – but choose those opportunities that will allow you to invest long-term and deeply into someone‘s life.

After another couple messages from Jon Acuff and John Maxwell (more about those later), there was an interview session with Katie Davis that illustrated the opening message vividly. (I wrote a little about her a couple weeks ago here.) Katie has spent the last several years (since her first year out of high school) caring for kids in Uganda, providing an amazing ministry for some of the poorest kids there. She is also the 23 year old mother of 13 girls that she’s adopted there! Her story is a perfect example of someone standing in the midst of tremendous need and doing what she can. She can’t feed and and take care of the medical and education needs of everyone, but she’s helping hundreds because she’s been willing to help a handful of “ones” and watch God multiply her efforts as others join her through Amazima Ministries.

A few weeks ago, I’d talked with my students about Katie and had read her book (Kisses from Katie), so I was familiar with her story. It was cool to hear from her in person and see a couple of her little girls interacting with some of the other people there at Catalyst. Katie’s interview was a great reminder that, not only is God present in the end results, but He is present in the mess of the process as well.

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 1.3

When I grow up, I want to be like Reggie Joiner.

As I sat in the final lab session on Wednesday, that thought kept rolling through my mind like a penguin on rollerblades. Every time I hear Reggie speak (I think he’s the type of guy that will be ok with a total stranger calling him Reggie) or read what he’s written, I feel like I’m hearing/reading what I would say/write if I were a lot wiser and more articulate! This time was no exception.

He talked about the story Jesus told of a Samaritan who liked someone who was not like him – and how we need to live in that same mode. “You don’t have to be like someone, to like someone.” If we are going to be serious about loving the people that Jesus loves, we will have to like some people who aren’t like us. Maybe they’re white, and we’re not – or they’re not and we are… Maybe they’re poor… Maybe they’re gay… Maybe they’re too young… Maybe they’re too old… Maybe they’re just kind of strange… The point is that in Matthew 22, Jesus redefined the word “neighbor” (you know, those people we’re supposed to love as ourselves) to include those who are very different – even to the point of liking people we’ve been opposed to before.

In liking people who are different than we are, we can open the door to helping them understand God’s love (as well as understanding it better ourselves). Sometimes we get caught up in the idea of “loving someone to Jesus” (or loving someone so that they will love Him/us back) and miss some pretty foundational aspects to meaningful relationships. Joiner (I think he’d be ok with a last name only reference, too) shared 5 statements that “your neighbor needs to know”. This list was fleshed out in some great stories that he shared to illustrate those foundations being built.

My neighbor needs to know that:

  1. God’s love is bigger than my religion.
  2. I will be present as a friend even if they never believe what I believe.
  3. Even my own faith is not 100%.
  4. I’m not trying to change them.
  5. The Bible is not just a good book.

Some of those may be a little hard to digest at first bite, but let me encourage you to chew on them for a while. I think he’s right. I think when it comes to loving our neighbors, we’ve become too utilitarian in loving them in order to get them to join ‘our side’. I know in our hearts, that’s probably not what the vast majority of us are trying to do, but I’m afraid that’s the way we can come across. I’d love to see my students learning to communicate those 5 things in their relationships more consistently.

As he shared stories of life change, one of the themes that came out was the need to allow questions. Why do we think we always have to have all the answers? Do we really think that? And what about when people ask questions to which we do not have an easy answer? Chastise them for even asking…? Do people have to leave the church to ask their hardest questions? When it comes to parenting, mentoring, youth ministry, etc.,

If we don’t allow our kids to process their doubts, they’ll never own their own faith.

I love it that right now, we are in a season of a lot of questions in our youth ministry. It tells me that my students are wrestling with who God is and who that makes them… It tells me that maybe when they grow up, some of them will be like Reggie Joiner, too.

A Flak Jacket Prayer

Disturb us, Lord, when we are too well pleased with ourselves. When our dreams have come true because we dreamed too little, when we arrive safely because we have sailed too close to the shore. Disturb us, Lord.

-Sir Francis Drake

A dangerous prayer.

Pray it often.

Put on a flak jacket if it’ll make you feel more ready for whatever is to come, and pray it sincerely…

Lord, disturb us.

Offend our sensibilities when our sensibilities leave no room for your Spirit to move.

Burn away our bravado when we stoically stay the course we’re not even meant to be traveling.

File off the dull edges of our fear, until our fear of You has sharply sliced through life to wisdom.

Lord… disturb us.

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 1.2

After the opening lab session, the stage was set for an awesome 3 days.

And line by line, those who stepped onto that stage delivered the wisdom, inspiration, equipment, challenge, & passion that I’ve seen at every Catalyst I’ve been to. I was convicted, encouraged, emboldened, & moved throughout the week.

Mark Batterson did a great job emphasizing the importance of prayer to God’s work in and through His people (which I posted about here), and the challenge to “Be Present” rang throughout every session. One of the more challenging sessions for me was the second lab I went to, with Michael Hyatt talking about building a “Platform: Getting Noticed in a Noisy World”. I’ve read quite a bit on Hyatt’s blog, so I knew generally where this would be headed, but there was something about the title that bothered me.

There were actually a couple other options during that time slot that looked interesting to me, but something within my was provoked enough to let myself be batted back and forth a little bit. Should I really be drawing attention to myself? Aren’t we supposed to “decrease, so He can increase”? (One of the things about Catalyst that I really have appreciated is that they don’t attempt to tell you what to think – they challenge you to do some thinking.) Before the session started, I was wrestling with this aversion to self-promotion in my own head and jotted down a couple lines in my notes:

I linger safe in the shadows. I don’t want to call attention to myself. I’m a horrible self promoter. But, am I losing opportunities to show Christ by hiding my light?

As he defined what he meant by building a platform, I kept coming back to the thought that this kind of platform is not about self aggrandizement and is not opposed to the type of humility God calls for. It’s about letting light shine into dark places. It’s about delivering the most important message to people that desperately need to hear it. Have we created a way of appearing humble that decreases our capacity to deliver the message with which Jesus entrusted?

The next lab I attended was a great follow up, digging into “The Power of Digital Connection to Catalyze Change.” Claire Diaz-Ortiz of Twitter, led the lab through a series of stories of the power that social connection has had for good. The power of social media is in connecting people to each other’s stories – and everyone is desperate for connection that transforms.

In a great “Conversation on Worship” with Carlos Whittaker, Amena Brown, and Michael Gungor there were a couple statements that really stood out. Go back a few decades, and in church culture, there were only a few who really wanted to be the worship leader. Today… total reversal. Every kid that graduates to 4 chords on a guitar thinks he wants to lead, but this isn’t an entirely healthy culture creep. Worship (and leading it) is not primarily about music. It’s not about being cool, hip, relevant… It’s about seeing freshly, the face of Jesus. Sometimes a leader of worship needs to “disturb and disrupt a calloused Christianity” that has dimmed sight on His face. As Michael Gungor spoke about his writing process, he asked a question that is still echoing in my head/heart: “Are we leading/writing/building on the noise – or on the silence?” Life is noisy – sometimes even a spiritual life can get some jammed up with stuff that we miss the Voice that’s only heard in stillness.

You’re not going to “find time” to be still – so make some. Being with our Father in still moments of undivided attention needs to be a higher priority.

Catalyst Dallas Reflections 1.1

After last night’s writing got posted to the nether-net instead of anywhere it could actually be read, I’ll be posting some Catalyst thoughts in a little more bite sized pieces… more or less.

Tuesday, I’d planned to just kind of float around a bit and relax before the flight to Dallas for Catalyst. My Catalyst week was extended though, when God decided to start teaching me before the Labs had even begun. Actually, maybe it was the quiet drive time to the airport or the lunch or the visit to a thriving ministry in Denver or the reading at the airport that got my attention and got me listening to His Voice a little more attentively.

I was reminded that Jesus’ call on my life (and yours) was not a call to come and watch – but to Come Alive! Like I said in Tuesday night’s post, I don’t know how that’s all going to be fleshed out yet, but I know I’ve done too much watching lately of things that are not named Jesus.

In the first lab session, Mark Batterson spoke about what can happen when God’s people humbly pray and act in obedience to what they hear in prayer. What have you heard in prayer lately? (Full disclosure: I wouldn’t have had a very exciting answer to that question last week, either.) In Acts 10, Peter and Cornelius were regularly praying and became drawn into the extraordinary work of God.

It was a great reminder that God sometimes tells us to do stuff that He’s never told us to do before. Peter and Cornelius’ “normal” did not include the other. Peter the Jew – Cornelius the not Jew. And yet, because of their obedience, The Way became more than just another little first century Jewish sect. The splinter cell broke through the walls that separated Gentiles from Jesus when Peter was willing to risk his reputation and comfort in order to make God’s reputation great!

I wonder what dreams I’ve neglected because they just seem a little crazy? Am I sleeping to drive the dreams away so I won’t lose my reputation as a moderately sane individual? Have I grown too comfortable in letting other people define the boundaries of my ministry for me? When Jesus tells me to go “kill and eat” am I picking up a knife and fork, or am I waiting for someone else to tell me it’s ok?

If you’re a person from whom I’ve been seeking approval, I hope you’ll grant me a little extra grace in the coming months as I try to stop. It’s not that I don’t value your opinions or your input – and I’m sure I will still be seeking those in ample measure – but your approval is not necessary when I’ve already been given instructions from my Maker.

Our hope is in Jesus alone. He alone is the way to where we need to be. I hope you’ll join me in seeking Him and doing whatever it is He tells us to do.