I landed my first job as a Youth Pastor when I was twenty-two years old feeling full of confidence and aspirations. I took youth ministry classes, did a training program, went to seminary, and had been serving in church leadership roles for a while. Out of the many books I read about youth ministry there was one in particular that made a big impact called, “Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry” by Andy Root. This book inspired me to be intentional in my relationships with teens because Jesus, Immanuel, is intentionally relational with us. Outside of regular church activities, I made a point to show up in student’s lives whenever I could. I went to their extra curricular activities. I took teens out for milkshakes after school. I came to their schools for lunch. My husband and I had students over to our house for dinner. I even showed up at their house if they called me in crisis (with parents permission of course.) Even after the birth of my son, I toted my baby around everywhere to keep up this model of relational youth ministry. Our Southern suburban/country church was small, but our youth group was growing. I believed this model of being relationally intentional was the key to success. Life in Tennessee was great, but we had to leave Tennessee behind when my husband got a job at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
Right after moving to Michigan, I gave birth to my daughter so I decided not to work for a while. When my daughter was almost two, I was hired at the Vineyard Church of Ann Arbor as a part-time Youth Pastor. The church had been through a split and the youth group was struggling. I was confident that I could help bring it back to life. So I dove in trying to do everything the way I did before. I tried to have some super fun events; I tried to be intentionally relational. I quickly learned that teenagers had less time and interest in church activities in Ann Arbor than they did in the South. Not only that, but going to youth group in the South was just a thing many teens did. The teens at my last church all lived close by, and they were already friends who went to school together. The teens at Ann Arbor Vineyard attend different schools scattered around the area, and most of them don’t even live in Ann Arbor. Also, Ann Arbor kids don’t seem to think “youth group is cool” the way the Southern kids do.
It took me a while to realize the lack of growth and interest from students wasn’t personal. There was a cultural and demographic problem that I just wasn’t used to. What worked in Tennessee was not working in Ann Arbor. Not to mention, I was now a mother of two, so showing up in teenager’s lives outside of church felt nearly impossible. I had a few options. I could quit, or I could change the way I was doing youth ministry.
1) I decided to switch gears, and try new things in order to make space for growth. Here are things I have been working on…I am leaning on the strength of my other adult leaders. I am recruiting more leaders as well as encouraging them be intentional with teens relationally.
2) I am changing my expectations for myself. I had to learn to put boundaries in place for myself as a mom and part-time employee of the church. I no longer attend student lunches, and I only attend extra curricular activities of students maybe a few times a year. I have my own kids now who have their own activities. I am learning to be OK with this and to encourage other leaders to go if they can.
3) I am trying to focus my limited time into equipping families to help their kid’s grow in their faith. When parents take initiative to help their kids grow in their faith, this is known to establish a lasting faith. Teens may show up to church often, but if I can help equip their families, this will be far more effective than just another church program.
4) God keeps reminding me to get off the throne, and let God be sovereign. The growth of the youth group is not up to me. The deep spiritual growth of just a few teens is always worth my time. I can’t lose focus on the teens who do show up because I am stressing over the ones who don’t.
It’s hard to say yet if it’s all working yet, time will tell. I have definitely seen some numerical and spiritual growth happening compared to when I first started. For now, I try to tune into the still small voice of the Spirit that constantly says: “Keep faithfully loving and discipling the people I put on your path, and let me do the rest.”