Programmes are prepared and run to a high standard and effort is made to continually improve their quality.
Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters. (Colossians 3:23)
Amidst the pressures, challenges and expectations of youth ministry, it’s easy to forget what a privilege it is to serve God. If in the world’s eyes, we were called to a position of great responsibility we would do all we could to ensure our work was done to the very best of our ability. After all, people are watching.
Youth ministry is God’s work, and we are serving Him under His gaze. How much more, therefore, should we strive to do our very best! When we take on leadership responsibilities, and we are doing it for the King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16) – the one who created all things (Colossians 1:16). When we observe His creation there is no doubt that God loves excellence (Psalm 8:1) and so as we serve Him, we too should strive for excellence even more so than we would if we were giving account to man (Colossians 3:23).
In a youth ministry that values excellence, people see their service as an offering to God – an act of worship. As such they serve with an excellent attitude and excellent effort, not because they desire any praise, but because they understand the privilege of serving God and want to see Him glorified.
There are two ways to motivate our leadership teams towards excellence. One is to use the external motivators of reward, guilt and shame. This approach may yield quick results, but motivation is short-lived. No one enjoys serving in this environment and soon you will be leading alone.
A much better approach is to inspire an inner motivation is which our team does their best because they choose to – not because we demand it. I have found the best way to do this is to remind them that they are not serving me or the church, or even the young people – they are serving God. I’ll do this, not in a way that makes them fear God but in a way that reminds them of His incredible love and grace toward them and the privilege they have in sharing in His work. Once they grasp this, they will want to serve with excellence.
An effective youth ministry values excellence while understanding that excellence is not the same as perfection. Excellence expects people to do their very best – it’s primarily concerned with attitude and effort. Perfection, on the other hand, is primarily concerned with performance and outcome, and as such risks pushing people beyond their capabilities and leaving them with a sense of failure and guilt.
I remember in my early days as a youth pastor, the pressure I felt not to mess up young people’s lives. As they got to know me and started coming to me for advice, I sensed a weight of responsibility to make sure that my advice was on the mark. If I got it wrong, I reasoned I could be responsible for hurt and hardship and even the loss of faith.
Since then, I have developed a much healthier view of my role in pastoral care and that of the Holy Spirit. He is the Counsellor (John 14:16-17) and He will lead people into an understanding of truth and what He wants them to do. I understand now that my role is to be faithful and to do my best. I will make mistakes, but God is much bigger than my mistakes and will cover over the cracks in my efforts to serve Him well.
Valuing excellence in youth ministry shows itself in a number of ways. The first of these is prayer. True excellence is ultimately about bearing fruit, and it’s only through God’s Spirit that fruit is borne through leaders’ efforts. Therefore, a youth ministry that pursues excellence will pray and will recognise that when things go well, it is God who deserves the credit. A good motto is to “Work as though it all depends on me and pray as though it all depends on God.”
The second step in achieving excellence is to examine our attitudes and uncover any unhelpful attitudes that might hold a team back. Excellence is compromised by an attitude of laziness or a desire to be done as quickly as possible with tasks that are not enjoyable. Programmes are prepared with an “it’s enough” attitude, often with the thought that leaders can “wing it” if need be. These leaders look for shortcuts to do what they need to do with minimum effort.
Each week I would prepare the discussion questions for our small group leaders well ahead of time. As we gathered before our youth meeting, I would ask them if they had any queries about the study. Some would have questions, but most sat there reading them for the first time. I would ask some questions related to the study such as “How would you answer question two?” and the silence was revealing!
Instead of berating them for obviously not preparing properly, I would acknowledge that they lived busy lives, while gently reminding them that we were serving God and that we needed to adopt an attitude of hard work and devotion in our preparation. That meant praying and carefully reflecting on the questions before coming. While I’m not sure we ever got full buy-in, this approach certainly helped.
A third way to inspire excellence is through encouragement. People are more likely to pursue excellence when it is encouraged rather than demanded. Whenever you see one of your team members do something noteworthy, point it out and encourage them – within the hearing of other team members if possible. Encouragement, which includes saying thank-you, leaves people feeling appreciated, believed in and safe from criticism when something doesn’t go as planned.
Encouragement also occurs quite naturally when a whole team owns excellence as a value. As team members witness others giving of their very best, they too want to achieve excellence in all they do, again, not because it is demanded but because it characterises the team they are part of.
As a final point to better illustrate what is meant by excellence, I’ve served for several years in two churches with quite different cultures. One had high standards of excellence and little by way of encouragement from leadership. There was also a critical element in the church that was quick to point to things not going as well as we would have liked.
The other church believed in excellence but was far more encouraging and nurturing. They were also more willing to give young people the opportunity to try things upfront such as speaking and leading worship. I know which church I preferred working in!
When we pursue excellence in this manner, our teams will appreciate it and will be inspired to give of their best. Furthermore, our young people will notice, and that same desire to do our best and be our best for God will be infectious.
CHECKLIST: TEN CHARACTERISTICS OF A YOUTH MINISTRY THAT PURSUES EXCELLENCE
- Leaders are conscious of the privilege of serving God in a leadership capacity.
- People see their leadership responsibilities as an act of service and worship to God.
- Excellence is pursued, not through rewards, shame or guilt, but through an inner motivation to give of their best.
- Excellence is not confused with perfectionism. Leadership is realistic about people’s capabilities and so attitude and effort are valued above performance and outcome.
- While striving to give of their best, leaders are aware that results and outcomes depend on God.
- Leaders rely on the Holy Spirit, through prayer, but this reliance is not used as an excuse for being under-prepared.
- People are expected to give of their best. There is no evidence of an “it’s enough” mentality.
- Preparation for programmes and meetings is thorough. There is no tolerance for ‘winging it.”
- An atmosphere of encouragement exists within the leadership team where people are inspired to give of their best.
- Young people notice that leaders set high standards for themselves and are doing their best for God.
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.