The youth ministry is a place where Christian values and standards are upheld, and God is glorified in all that takes place.
Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. (1 Corinthians 10:31)
1 Corinthians 10:31 makes a great motto for a youth ministry: “Whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God!” While it’s true that Paul was talking about “eating and drinking” (a vital ingredient of any youth ministry!) it’s also true in a much broader sense.
What does it mean to do everything “to the glory of God” in youth ministry? It means firstly that God is honoured in our actions. Ask yourself the question, if Jesus was to walk into your youth room at any time (and He does!), would He be pleased with what He saw? Similarly, does anything occur within the youth ministry that you would prefer be kept secret? If you find yourself thinking “I hope no one (especially parents!) finds out we are doing this”, it is a sure indication that you have strayed from being God-honouring.
Secondly, God is honoured in our youth ministry’s “culture”? Every youth ministry has a culture of expectations and behaviours that permeates its activities and relationships. An outsider should be able to walk in and before long notice that something is different about your youth group, and the young people in it. This “something” is reflective of God’s nature and Person and is evident even before God’s name is mentioned. To quote a Biblical analogy, “even the rocks cry out” (Luke 19:40).
One night, one of our leaders was recalling her first night at youth group as a 14-year-old. She had no previous church involvement when invited to come by a friend. What she remembered from that first night, was not the Bible study or message that was preached. She recalls we were playing some “silly game” when suddenly it hit her: these people really like each other!
Through the game, a sense of God’s love and acceptance was communicated through the relationships she observed. She felt safe and included and wanted to keep coming.
This culture though is more than just a sense of love and inclusion. It has to do with the degree to which leaders and young people love Jesus.
My first experience as a youth leader came in a youth group where the underlying attitude towards Jesus was one of indifference or apathy. People came because they enjoyed the fun but few were truly passionate about following Jesus. Whenever a new person started coming they saw little in our young people’s lives that challenged them to consider Jesus.
Fast forward to another youth group I led and the culture was completely different. The majority of the young people were excited about their faith and this excitement was contagious.
One night I was leading a small group of 15-year-old boys and we were joined by a new boy whose family had moved from another city. Keen to impress, this boy looked for any opportunity to make a joke or fool around. Presumably such behaviour had made him popular in his previous youth group but unfortunately for him, the boys in this group were eager to participate and learn about Jesus. Before long he realised what was happening and began to listen and make more serious contributions. After being part of this small group for several months he made a firm decision to follow Jesus.
Peer influence is a normal part of teenage life but this influence doesn’t need to be negative. A God-honouring youth group will become one in which young people are influenced to take God seriously, both loving Him and loving one another.
Another way you honour God is in the programmes you run. That doesn’t mean constant Bible studies and no fun. God is glorified when you fully enjoy the life He has given, providing that in their enjoyment, leaders and young people are pleasing to Him in all that they do and say. No game you play, no movie you show, no activity you take part in should contradict His two commands: to love Him and love one another.
Another good test of your effectiveness in honouring God is the extent to which the youth ministry reflects Paul’s charge to the church in Philippi. He is honoured when all that takes place can be defined as “true, honourable, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent and worthy of praise” (Philippians 4:8).
I was training an intern in another church and she once confessed to me that she had hired a movie to show at youth group without first adequately checking its content. As the movie, a comedy, progressed she felt embarrassed at the sexual innuendo that it contained and the way in which her young people were obviously enjoying the jokes. She took a deep breathe, stood up and stopped the movie explaining to the young people, over their protests and groans, why she was cutting the movie short. She didn’t win many accolades that night but God was pleased with her because she feared Him more than she feared the young people.
When we set out to be popular in the hope that young people will like us or even admire us, we are robbing God of His honour and seeking to gain it for ourselves. While it is nice to receive compliments and affirmation, remember that, “fearing people is a dangerous trap, but trusting the Lord means safety.” (Proverbs 29:25)
God is also honoured when leaders’ motives are pure. When I first started serving as a youth pastor I wanted to build a big, strong youth ministry. Of course, I said it was for God’s glory but the reality was that my motives were mixed and it took time to learn that it would be God who built the ministry and that, for my own good, He was not about to share any glory with me (Isaiah 42:8).
Next, God is also honoured when you take risks and depend fully on Him. It is possible to “play it safe” in youth ministry, never attempting to do anything you don’t think you can handle.
Each year in a youth ministry I led would prepare, practice and present an outreach programme that we would take to several churches and communities. It was always a worthwhile undertaking that bore fruit but a huge amount of effort was involved. Whenever it came time to commit to doing another, a part of me was reluctant. What if not enough young people were interested? What if they didn’t take it seriously enough and performance was substandard? What if there was no evidence of fruit, or what if I couldn’t find churches willing to host us?
Instead of asking all these questions I really only needed to ask one: “Does God want us to do this?” Honouring God means placing yourself in leadership situations where you need to totally depend on Him to come through for you. Then when He does, the honour goes to Him because you know better than anyone it was not you who accomplished something of value, but Him.
CHECKLIST: TEN INDICATORS OF A CHRIST-HONORING YOUTH MINISTRY
- No activities and no conversations initiated by leaders take place that would be cause for shame in the presence of Jesus or embarrassment if made public.
- It would not take a newcomer to the youth ministry long to notice that there was something “different” about those present – something that reflected God and His love.
- An expectation exists that young people will take God seriously, both loving Him and loving one another.
- A solid core of young people who come regularly, do so because they are interested in finding out more about Jesus.
- Activities that directly honour God such as worship, Bible study, prayer and preaching are present, even if they are not as popular as nights where the focus is on other things.
- God is regularly credited and thanked for steps of faith young people take and for all that is good in the youth ministry.
- The only motive behind the ministry is to honour God – it’s not about having the biggest youth group in town, the best programme or the most popular leaders.
- Compliments and praise are graciously accepted but everyone knows that the real honour belongs to Christ.
- Leaders lead with faith, willingly placing themselves in situations where they need to pray and trust God to answer prayer.
- Healthy “risks” requiring faith in God are regularly undertaken by the ministry causing people to pray, not because they should but because they must.