Starting a Youth Ministry from the Ground Up
During college I worked as a nanny. One of the girls I took care of was a middle schooler that loved to bake. One day, we decided that we were going to bake cupcakes—we would make some that she liked, and some that I liked.
This girl and I had two very different ways of baking cupcakes. You would think that as the adult, my method would be more intricate. But, no. I was totally fine with making cupcakes from a box because it was easier, whereas she preferred to make everything from scratch.
FROM SCRATCH. (Insert cringe here.)
Y’all, let me just say right now that I have never been a person who likes to make anything from scratch. For me, starting anything from the ground up always just seemed like way too much work. If there is a box of pre-packaged ingredients and a set of instructions, I will gladly choose that.
Wouldn’t it be nice if starting a youth ministry was as easy as making “box cupcakes”? A package of dedicated students here, a dash of pre-made youth events there.
But alas (I have literally always wanted to say that), chances are if you are trying to build a youth ministry from the ground up, you’re having to figure most things out on your own.
This is essentially what it was like starting out in my current youth group. I transitioned from working on staff at a church with tons of resources, programs and events that had existed for years (and a pretty nice budget) to a church with limited resources, very few programs and events, and a smaller budget. Needless to say, I was going to have to get creative if I was going to build a successful youth program.
If you are currently in a similar position, allow me to share some very important things that I have learned along the way.
1. Pray. And then pray some more. And then pray again.
I’m going to be honest: there are times that I forget this step and I realize what a huge mistake that is. It is so important for us to go before the Lord and ask Him for wisdom. He knows the group you will be ministering to—he knows each student, each parent, and each situation. He knows exactly what your group needs and it is vital that we go to Him for guidance. Make it a point to set aside time each day to pray for wisdom in starting your ministry and listen closely to God’s instruction.
2. Get to Know Your Group.
Your first plan of action might be to throw a huge event to kick off the launch (or relaunch) of your ministry. While there is nothing necessarily wrong with this, it might not be the best first step. What is important is that you get to know your students. Take time to get to learn them—their likes, dislikes, context, socioeconomic status, as well as where they are spiritually. This is important for a few reasons. One reason is that this builds trust and relationships between you and them. Another reason is that when you do finally begin to plan events, you will know what will be effective. For instance, if you’re working in a more urban context, planning a hiking trip might not be very wise as your event. (I did something similar to this. I’m still trying to block that memory out.)
If you take the time to get to know your group well, you will be more likely to plan an event that suits their needs, as well as one that will effectively minister to them right where they are at.
3. It’s absolutely, 100%, okay to fail.
You may have to repeat this one to yourself a few times. We don’t always think of failure as a positive thing but let me assure you: when it comes to starting anything from scratch, there is nothing wrong with failure as long as you learn from it.
Failing is how we figure out what works and what doesn’t.
Have you failed at getting students to come to an event? Take time to look and see what went wrong and begin to think through what you will do differently next time.
Have you failed at getting parents motivated about things happening in your ministry? Examine the failure, and research strategies that might be helpful to you.
I think Allison Trowbridge said it best in her book, Twenty-Two:
“…When we fail, why not have the best failure ever? Why not simmer in it and try to let its lesson sink in?”
In other words, let your failures teach you. Accept them, learn from them, and move forward deciding what you will do differently in the future.
Let me clarify: these are not the only things that will help you in the beginning stages of your ministry. Although, I do think that they encompass quite a bit. Know that building your ministry will include lots of time with God, hard work, strategizing, learning, and failing.
But that’s okay.
You can do it. I know you can.
Just trust God and know that He's got this.
We’re in this together.