5 key ingredients for a thriving student ministry

Youth ministry is actually the best and easiest job on the planet!

I know many of you singed up for this gig because you love students and you desperately want them to love Jesus.  And while this initial passion will get you started down the road of student ministry, there are some other essential ingredients that are vital for a long term, sustained ministry.  Here are the 5 basic pillars for a sound infrastructure for your student ministry.  And when you put these in place, you can get back to the thing you were called to do! LOVE KIDS AND HELP THEM LOVE JESUS!

1) Everything is built on a solid and simple programmatic structure. Your program is the skeleton, and without a good one, your entire ministry is in jeopardy. Just like humans, every skeleton is unique, but for the most part have the same parts. As you develop your skeleton, don't try and reinvent the wheel. There is a reason that youth ministries for the past 30 years have had fun games, mixers, worship, teaching and small groups. Within every context, the flavor of this program will very, but most healthy ministries have all 5 ingredients. Whether your main program is Sunday morning or Wednesday night, or whenever, lay out your hour and a half and divide your time into 5 parts and begin to fill in the blanks. Before you know it, you have successfully created a youth ministry that builds community, grows faith, and creates space for ownership.

2) Make memories, the importance of a calendar. Whether you know it or not, you have a youth ministry calendar. There are events, sacred cows that mark your year. All you really need to do is be intentional about when and where they fit in your calendar. Special events are vital for creating shared memories. And for teenagers, these shared memories are the foundation for deep community. Again, simply think about what your church already does and values, then space them out and add some of your own flavor. If you attempt an event every month or every other month you are looking at 6-12 memory making, faith developing events. The ones that every youth ministry has tried that are easy to implement are: Winter Camp, Summer Camp, Mission Trip, Lock-In, Service Days, Urban Mission Trip, Bowling, Movie Night, Roller Skating, Sledding, Skiing, Backpacking / Camping, Water Ski on the lake, BBQ, Softball, etc. Simply take your church's sacred cows, add your own passions, and you are there! Don't feel bad for copying what other youth ministries do, that is how we all got our ideas.

3) Contact work. This is the bread and butter of student ministry. Back in the 70's and 80's Young Life brought this type of relationship building to the youth ministry world, and the world of youth ministry has never been the same. What is contact work you ask? Great question. It is simply showing up where students are. Spend part of your week out of your office and your world and show up in their world. Bring love, grace, food to your students and to their friends. When you think of your allotted hours, I think you should spend half of them with students. This means baseball games, foot ball games, band concerts, ice cream and coffee with groups of students, hiking, video games, etc.

4) Use a solid curriculum. For some reason, some people think that using curriculum is cheating, or worse, un spiritual. The truth is that you do not have enough time in your week to do all the things that are required in building a brand new youth ministry and develop a theologically deep and appropriate lesson week after week that actually has a true scope and sequence. Most youth workers who don't use curriculum simply rely on their dozen favorite verses or the particular thing God is teaching them that week. This is great for your spiritual development, but misses it for the unique spiritual development of students. For curriculum, I think there are two great options out there:

  • Orange's XP3: Orange is a complete curriculum system from beginning to end. They have a well though out and developed cycle and scope to their curriculum and it is brilliant. Their team is top notch and in their system give you every thing you need to kill it during your lesson. But not only that, they give you small group questions and form letters to send to parents. The only hang up is that it is a bit pricy. But if you have budget for it, DO IT!
  • Youth Ministry 360's Elements: Like XP3, they give you great lessons, small group questions, media, and form letters to parents. A unique part of the Elements curriculum is that they also provide a weekly devotional for students that reinforces what you just taught. Also, the price is just right! You can buy one 3 week lesson and try it out or buy their entire 25 lesson set and be dialed in for almost 2 years. Look at your budget and look at their products, and pull the trigger!

5) Communicate this all to parents and your supervisor. If you want to have this job for more than 6 months, then there is really only one thing you must do, COMMUNICATE CLEARLY! You can be killing it in your youth programs, or even sucking it up and it actually doesn't really matter. What matters is how your parents and your supervisor preceive you are doing. If they think you are doing well, then they will talk you up and it will be a win for you and your students. If they are questioning you, they will unintentionally share their angst with their circle of friends. The best hour you can ever spend in your job is emailing your parents and CCing your supervisor. What should you include in these weekly emails? Great question. If you buy XP3 or Elements, they actually write these emails for you! But if you still want to write them yourselves, just follow this simple outline:

  • Welcome, Greeting, Hi
  • Something you are excited about right now about student ministry.
  • Share with them what their kids can expect at the upcoming program. (What you will be teaching, how they can follow up, practical take homes regarding your lesson)
  • Communicate upcoming dates. You most likely have (or should have) an event in the next month, so clarify the details, the costs, and RSVP policy. Even communicate some upcoming dates that will take some actual preparation and have higher costs so parents can prepare. These would include camps, mission trips, etc.
  • How they can contact you for any questions or concerns
  • Ask for prayer requests for both them and their kids.
  • Thank them for the overwhelming privilege it is to meet with their kids, to love them and help them love Jesus.
  • Sincerely . . .

NOW: Soak up the good will of those concerned adults, and the new friendships with your students as you help them love Jesus!

That's it. It isn't rocket science, but there is some science to it. Don't over spiritualize or patronize this formula. I have been doing student ministry for 15 plus years. Every healthy youth ministry has these basic ingredients. The cool ones just have fancy names and graphics for each part. The learning curve for this job is awful. But it is also short. Do these 6 things and you have cut your curve in half. Remember, the sooner you get this structure in place, the sooner you can spend your emotional, physical, and spiritual energy doing the actual ministry you were called to do, not spinning your wheels trying to understand it.

Good luck on your journey.



PS: For the past 8 years or so I have had the privilege of being a youth ministry coach, and find endless joy in walking through ministry with fellow youth workers. If you would like to talk in person, on the phone, Skype, whatever, please feel free to contact me anytime! benjaminkerns@gmail.com