10 Ways to Be a Better Youth Leader

set_apartA lot of Christians think they aren’t cut out for youth ministry. But if you love Jesus and you care about kids, everything else falls into place.

In my five years working with middle school students I’ve met multiple 80 year olds who are incredible youth leaders—and it’s not for their spunky personalities and crazy dance skills. They love Jesus and they love kids. When you boil it down, that’s what really matters.

If you start with Jesus, all of the intricacies of youth leading should align conceptually, biblically, and practically. You should be able to trace everything back to Jesus.

Here are ten things every youth leader should know:

1. Have a purpose for everything

Let’s be honest. From the outside looking in, there’s a lot of weird stuff that happens at youth groups. Beach ball ballet, cricket-spitting contests, fruit baseball, and an endless list of games, skits, and programs that don’t seem in any way connected to sharing the gospel.

But if you know the purpose behind each component, then even the goofy and weird parts make sense.

Some games give lonely, left out, or neglected kids the chance to be noticed, cheered, and celebrated. Other games force kids to work together—regardless of who they’re friends with at school.

Wacky leader skits can create laughter, break down walls, and show kids that there is a childlike joy in everyone. For leaders, those same activities can offer an opportunity to step out of their own comfort zone and put kids before themselves.

I’ve worked with leaders who refused to put themselves in front of kids and be goofy alongside them because “it wasn’t their gifting.” It’s definitely important to recognize what you’re good at and what you’re not good at (so you know how you’re best suited to serve your team), but if we understand the why behind each aspect of youth group, it becomes a lot less about us and a lot more about the kids, Jesus, and the ways we let God use us.

2. Humble yourself

The more cool, holy, or amazing you present yourself as, the more distant kids will feel from you.

You’re also the person who happens to be proclaiming the gospel and sharing about Jesus—do the math.

Leaders should show kids that Jesus meets them right where they are, loves them as they are, and desires to be a part of their lives right now—not once they become as cool, holy, and amazing as their leaders.

You were a kid once. If you’re made of flesh and blood, you probably sinned once, too. It’s not always best to share all the details of your sin without a relational foundation, but the more vulnerable you are with kids, the more likely they are to share the sin in their lives too. If we hide, so do they.

Humility isn’t just important for our relationships with kids. If you serve in a youth ministry, chances are good that you work with a team of volunteers.

Serving in ministry together is a surprisingly dangerous opportunity for selfishness to creep into our lives. It’s easy to feel like by being on the team we are fulfilling our duties, checking the box, or doing our time. But if you’ve committed to being a part of the team, share the load. Don’t dump everything onto one person—especially not the person giving the message. If someone else on your team is directly communicating the gospel, help that leader give kids their best by allowing them to focus on preparing their message.

3. Seek the kids in the corners

No matter how awesome your youth group is, there will always be kids in the corners. The ones who show up because their parents made them come, or a cute boy or girl is there too. They think the games are dumb and the leaders are weird. Or maybe they just want everyone else to think they’re too cool to be there. Either way, God has brought them to your youth group, and he’s entrusted them to you for an hour or two each week.

Sometimes kids genuinely aren’t interested in what’s going on, and you can’t and shouldn’t force them to join in. But sometimes kids stand in the corners to see if anyone will notice.

If a kid without friends comes to youth group, where he/she doesn’t have friends, how do you make the body of Christ look different than school? Involve them. Love them. Imitate God’s relentless pursuit of their hearts.

4. Share the joy of the gospel

The gospel isn’t boring. A lot of kids think it is, because their only exposure to it is from reading a translation of a 2,000-year-old book, or listening to messages crafted for adults. Jim Rayburn, founder of Young Life (a youth ministry designed for kids who don’t go to church), once said “It’s a sin to bore a kid with the gospel.” Whether or not you agree with Rayburn, Christians can’t overlook the potential damage of presenting the most exciting truth in the history of the world as stale, old, and irrelevant. The Bible is living and active (Hebrews 4:12), and there are countless ways to show kids that the life and truth it contains is applicable to their lives today.

5. Know your kids

Knowing your kids means more than just knowing who they are. It means knowing how they will respond to different situations, and preparing your events with them in mind.

Some kids love being the center of attention, and some kids fall apart when you put them in front of a group. It’s important to give kids equal opportunity to shine, but the risk of humiliating a kid or making them feel alone and outcast is not worth the potential reward of making them feel adored.

If a kid is checking out your youth group for the first time and you’ve never had any interaction with them, you might want to be careful about throwing them into a game that requires them to be outgoing and comfortable in front of everyone.

It’s also important to know where your kids are at spiritually. This doesn’t mean you should ask every kid who comes through the door, “Do you believe in Jesus?” Those conversations should happen, but not before you develop a relationship with them and earn the right to ask those deeply intimate questions.

There are countless reasons why a kid might walk in through the doors of your youth ministry, and a lot of them aren’t Jesus (at least, not from the kid’s perspective). Over-spiritualizing a kid’s experience can actually prevent them from having a spiritual experience. St. Francis of Assisi is often attributed with saying, “Preach the gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” Youth ministry is an excellent context to practice reflecting Christ through the way you love and live.

6. Don’t embarrass kids*

Kids live in constant fear of humiliation. The last place they should have to live out their worst nightmares is at youth group—where they are also learning that they are loved and valued by God.

*See #5 and #1. If you know a kid well enough and you’re confident that their class-clown spirit will allow them to embrace and appreciate the experience, and the embarrassment serves a purpose, mild embarrassment may be acceptable.

7. Meet parents

You could be the nicest, most caring and trustworthy person on the planet, but if parents don’t know you, how can you expect them to trust you with their kids?

Building a relationship with parents is especially important for middle school and elementary school ministries, where kids are fully dependent on their parents to even be able to show up at your events. Sometimes meeting parents is effortless because they actively seek out the leaders who work with their kids. Other times, meeting parents takes work.

Even if they don’t care who you are or who their kids hang out with, it will always be worth it to you in your ministry to get to know the people who have raised the kids God has placed at your feet. When kids leave, walk them out to whoever picks them up. Better yet, offer to give them a ride, and use it as an opportunity to introduce yourself to their parents. Don’t let the inside of the church be the only place your life overlaps with your kids’.

8. Put your relationship with Jesus first

This may seem selfish in a way, but the reality is, the more we put Jesus first, the more we love those around us. When you put your relationship with Jesus first, the purpose and significance of everything you do and say to others is amplified, not reduced.

Phrases like, “You can only lead someone as far as you’ve gone” may be cliché, but they still carry weight. If you aren’t pursuing your own relationship with Jesus, how can you honestly encourage kids that it’s important to their faith? If you aren’t reading your Bible, praying, and surrounding yourself with Christians who are wiser than yourself, you aren’t offering your best to your ministry, your kids, or God. These are your tools of the trade, and if you aren’t using your tools, how can you do your job?

9. Honor your commitment

Hopefully getting involved with a youth group wasn’t just a passing fancy you had in church one day. Stepping into ministry of any kind is something that should be prayerfully considered, discussed with God and with wise people in your life, and surrounded with spiritual preparation.

If you’ve committed to leading kids at your church or through another ministry, honor God, your kids, and the leaders on your team by being trustworthy, accountable, and invested in the work you are doing together.

Today’s kids have been dubbed “the fatherless generation.” Youth leaders can’t abandon them too. Leaving ministry should be considered just as carefully and prayerfully as entering it.

10. Get a mentor

One of the biggest dangers facing people in ministry is burnout. It’s easy to be excited about something when you first get going, but after a couple years, or a decade, how do you stay excited? And more importantly, how do you draw from your experience while still treating each experience and each kid as something entirely new and wonderful?

The key is having a mentor.

If you are constantly pouring into the lives of kids and nobody is pouring into you, sooner or later you’re going to feel empty. Whether that mentor is a pastor, a more experienced leader, or a wise friend from church, you need somebody who can offer you fresh perspective, hold you accountable, pray for you, love you, and inspire you to keep going (Hebrews 10:24).

What else do you think youth leaders should know? Tell us in the comments!

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Comments

  1. Actually, here's another one for those NOT in youth ministry: NO, Youth Ministry is NOT "something you do before you get a REAL job as a pastor somewhere." That attitude really drives me nuts…

  2. Some awesome insights.

  3. Great things to remember
    Said it kind of already but be sure each child knows how special they are to you and even more to God.
    Teach them to keep their eyes on Jesus
    be there no matter time or place

  4. Thank you for introducing us to the blessings of youth ministry!

  5. Very true!

  6. Glenda Bailey-price says:

    I think we are sometimes afraid of them hahaha..it can work both ways..the youth at our church are amazing..at a recent cookout I just went and sat with them…interested in them just to hang out..they were so warm and welcoming..i thought they might think I was crashing in their space…..but no…I was interested in hanging out and seeing what was happeining in their lives…and they were interested in what I had been doing… even with the ones who are into drugs and alcohol….need us …they might not admit it..but when we show love to them..and not ridicule..just love and guidance..i think its then they begin to listen….I thought I was just cut out maybe for working with the kids until some young men God put in my path proved me other wise…they had been in street gangs..i know they wondered why this old grannie cared about them…but I did..and now they help with youth groups called jabez in mexico.. made me think of timothys grandma in the Bible how she influenced timothy…and probably his friends….don't be afraid of them…they need us to take part in their lives…you never know who doesn't have a dad or mom ..or has been shut out….problems at school….worrying about being accepted by (the crowd) and following them…… my response to them when asked why do I care.. I care about you because I care about what has happened to you or…is about to happen to you…and there is someone else that loves and cares about you….enough to die for you and me..and is here to help you…

  7. Kenith G. Lewis says:

    Great lessons for youth leaders. Be blessed!

  8. Sherry Rubert says:

    Amen!!!!!

  9. Youth is a blessing

  10. Amen to this! :)

  11. Thanks. just 4 month a go I started a fellowship children and last sunday with some youth and women.I need this and leadership

  12. Very useful and insightful thoughts

    Amen!

  13. Charles Hadfield says:

    We don’t have an actual youth group, in fact we have very few youth as we are a small congregation. I would like to start one for the few teens and early 20′s but I don’t know how to go about it. Has anyone some suggestions for me? Any advice would be appreciated too, I realise there are serious misgivings on the part of some when an elderly man is interested in the youth but I don’t want to let that stop me. What sort of format do you use? How much bible or bible study is involved and what sort of games are played.

    Thanks for your help, in advance.

    Charles

    • Ryan Nelson says:

      Hi Charles,

      Are there others in your church who are interested? I’d highly recommend bringing this to the leadership at your church. If there isn’t an existing ministry for young people, then they can encourage other individuals in the congregation to join you. There needs to be a clear partnership between the leadership at the church and your new ministry.

      As far as pulling this off practically, sometimes special events are a great way to work into a regularly scheduled youth group. For example, you might start encouraging the teens and early 20′s people to get together to watch a football game, or have a BBQ—a large get together of some sort where you can cast your vision for the ministry, or even start to learn what they want and need. There are many different kinds of youth groups, and each is catered to different ages, walks of life, and spiritual maturity.

      I would encourage you to consider treating teens and early 20′s as separate groups. I’m not sure if you were suggesting two separate groups or not, but they are in very different places in life, and will see themselves as separate. Some of those people in their early 20′s could be very effective leaders for your ministry to the teens.

      There are a lot of great resources out there for getting massive lists of crazy games (a lot of them are hit or miss). Here’s a list my friend Shane Prudente put together: http://cov.younglife.org/Documents/Games%20PDF.pdf. This is a good one as well: http://greenbay.younglife.org/Documents/YLGB%20Games.pdf.

      From a kid’s perspective, Bible study is generally separate from the main youth group meetings. It’s an open invitation to dig into the Word and learn more with a knowledgeable leader, but you can’t assume that every kid at your youth group is interested in that (YET). Again, think of the kids in the corners. It’s definitely important to have Bible study that is connected to your group and catered to your age group, but it doesn’t have to be part of the main gathering (though it certainly could be, if you learned at say, a BBQ, that the kids desperately wanted/needed something like that).

      The length of your talk/message and the amount of Scripture you use is largely dependent on the kids you have. The younger they are, the harder it is to get them to focus for more than 15 minutes or so. With the older group you mentioned, it depends on how familiar they are with the Bible. Knowing that will help you decide what is too much, and what is too little.

      Here’s a general template I use all the time with middle school ministry:

      Welcome
      Mixer (a game that forces them to mingle)
      Upfront (everyone is sitting down, except a few kids upfront playing the game)
      Relay (a game that puts them on teams)
      Upfront (a skit can also work well here)
      Raffle
      Announcements
      Talk (about 10-15 minutes)

      For high school or older, I tend to go with less games, and more entertainment (skits, etc.). None of those suggestions are strict guidelines. We have a reason for everything, but you don’t have to follow those templates if you feel inclined to try something else!

      Thankfully, there are a TON of great online resources out there to help you get started, but there is no substitute for open communication within your church. Your congregation, your church’s leadership team, and the Holy Spirit are your biggest assets.

      Hope this helps,

      Ryan

  14. Manasseh HABARUGIRA says:

    Thank you for introducing us to a such ministry . God bless you all who make in application these 10 things.

  15. Good stuff. Amen

  16. Apostle Dr. Patrick Utulu says:

    The youth s are the future of the gospel and Leadership. They deserve Games attention for our own profiting. I am in agreement with the author.

  17. These are good advice am actually a youth leader myself but I wish I could have for off line reading

  18. I have been working with the youth about a year. I read everything I can to help with the youth. This was helpful and thank you.

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