Programming is effective in meeting the needs of those at various stages of maturity and Christian growth.
I had to feed you with milk, not with solid food, because you weren’t ready for anything stronger. And you still aren’t ready. (1 Corinthians 3:2)
In my first year as a volunteer leader of a youth ministry, one girl stopped coming to our youth group. When I talked with her she told me how she had started going to another youth group and had made a commitment to follow Christ. It was hard enough to hear her say that she didn’t think our youth group was the best place for her to grow, but the comment that really stung was when she said she felt sorry for the other young people in our youth group were missing.
The remarks that most hurt us are those that we know contain an element of truth, and I knew there was truth in what she said. It made me determined to make any youth group I led, a place where those who wanted to grow in their faith, could. But it also led to a dilemma. There were young people in our youth group who were open to finding out more about Jesus. How could I run a programme that would meet their needs and the needs of those who were already Christians and wanted to go still deeper?
It’s a dilemma you may well be familiar with as most youth groups have a mixture of young people who are already strong Christians and those who are new to faith or are simply exploring faith. How do we include the four key programming elements of Bible study, fellowship, worship and prayer in our programmes in such a way as to meet the needs of those requiring “solid food” and those requiring “milk” (1 Corinthians 3:2)? An effective youth ministry will take account of these different stages and even ages and programme appropriately..
Of course, this is easier said than done. My resolve over this girl who had left was to hold an extra weekly programme for those who wanted to go deeper. It was a successful strategy that attracted a small but faithful core, yet I’m aware that holding a second programme each week is not always practical for leaders who are already very busy.
Such an approach may also have the effect of siphoning off those who are good Christian role models for others from the main weekly meeting and for these reasons many leaders try to meet the needs of everyone in a single weekly programme. It is challenging but not impossible.
As you set out to do this keep three things in mind. Firstly, if you pitch things a little lower, those who want a little more will still be able to translate what is said to make it more relevant. For example, sometimes adults get more from the children’s talk than the sermon on a Sunday morning. They take the simple truths and apply them to themselves in deeper ways than the children.
Secondly, new Christians or even those who are not yet Christians can be impacted when experiencing programme elements aimed to meet the needs of more mature Christians. Many times I’ve seen newcomers impacted through a time of worship, or a time in which young people openly share in-depth and pray for each other.
Thirdly, it is possible to offer options that meet a range of needs. One option is to use small groups for Bible study, sharing and prayer. One church I started working in had divided the youth ministry into small groups, but each group contained both boys and girls at different ages and stages of growth. Noticing that there was a huge difference in maturity and life experience between a thirteen-year-old boy and an eighteen-year-old girl I suggested we re-form these groups according to age and gender, given that girls tend to mature earlier than boys. I was met with doubts initially but in time the leaders agreed and the switch was immediately successful. Each group discussed the topic at their own level of depth and small group leaders were able to adapt their teaching to better suit the maturity of those in their groups.
As the young people matured in these groups, the leaders learned to adapt with them. I would notice that, especially in boys groups, the superficiality and low attention span of thirteen-year-olds changed once they hit fifteen. By then they were starting to ask good questions and would even share serious needs. By eighteen they invariably wanted more time and depth in their small groups and had learnt to pray openly for one another.
Another way in which options can be used is to programme in such a way as to target different young people at different stages of faith over the course of several weeks. For example, one week might involve an in-depth Bible study while another might focus more on a topic that is relevant to all young people. Still another week might look at a topic that introduces some aspect of Christian belief (for example a Youth Alpha episode) while another week might be a social event that those who do not normally attend are invited to.
Regardless of where young people are at on their faith journey, Scripture must be presented in a manner that is both relevant and can be understood by them. That’s not to say it needs to be watered down or in some way compromised for those with less understanding or interest. The message stays the same even if the manner in which it is presented is tailored to suit the listener.
For an example of this, compare Paul’s sharing of the gospel to the Jews in Antioch (Acts 13:17-41) with his sermon to the Greek philosophers on Mars Hill (Acts 17:22-35) and his message to Herod Agrippa (Acts 26:4-23). Here were three different people(s) from three different cultures with three different levels of prior knowledge. Faced with this, Paul wisely and skilfully crafted his message to apply to each one.
The fellowship element of programming is a little easier to manage. Some will be more ready to share openly than others and leaders need to exercise care in both encouraging a depth of sharing without pressuring young people share more than they are comfortable with. Here again, there is value to be found in creating small groups containing young people at similar stages and levels of maturity.
Similar considerations need to be borne in mind when spending time in worship and prayer. For some, two minutes is long enough while others will complain if you stop after ten minutes.
In one group I was leading we would conclude the programme with a couple of worship songs then young people were free to either leave for supper and socialise or stay for more worship. This was yet another example of options being given so that the needs and preferences of different young people were met.
Finally, special events throughout the year such as camps provide further opportunities to vary content so that at least some of what is done is appropriate to a wide range of young people.
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT PROGRAMMES APPROPRIATELY
- The youth ministry programme contains elements that are appealing for newcomers and those on the fringe.
- The youth ministry programme contains elements that are suitable for those who have an active and growing interest in following Jesus.
- Programming reflects an awareness of the different maturity levels of the young people.
- Programming makes allowances for the fact that girls tend to mature earlier than boys.
- The programming strategy for meeting various needs matches the available time and resources.
- The teaching element of the programme meets different needs without compromising or watering down the message.
- The fellowship element of the programme encourages a depth of sharing without undue pressure.
- The content of worship and the amount of time devoted to it meets a range of needs and preferences.
- The content of prayer and the amount of time devoted to it meets a range of needs and preferences.
- Special events such as camps deliberately include elements appropriate to a range of young people
CCCNZ Youth offers a coaching programme for key youth leaders and youth pastors who would like help in implementing these principles as well as learning leadership skills. Contact us if you are interested.