While I’m drinking coffee with young youth ministers, someone usually asks, “If you could start all over as a youth minister—knowing what you know now—what would you do differently?” Great question. Here are some of the first thoughts that come to my mind.
1. I would work hard for about fifty hours a week and seldom more.
Laypersons who love Jesus may be involved in ministry through the church around ten hours a week (including worship services). I would want to give that same amount of unpaid service. I also would want to serve about forty hours a week as an employee.
Across my thirty years as a youth minister, serving fifty hours a week would have meant cutting back. It would have meant admitting we already have one Messiah and didn’t need a second one.
If I had served only fifty hours, I could have spent more time in the throne room of heaven, could have soaked up more hours with family, and maybe played a little.
2. Away from the church I would seek to lead at least one teenager a week to Christ.
Why away from the church? Let me use an illustration:
Scene 1: A large, powerful combine sits in a barn. The machinery is fine-tuned and ready for work. Occasionally the workers in the barn start up that powerful engine and then engage all the thrashing mechanisms. Then they walk to the front of the combine with a few stalks of wheat. They carefully feed those stalks into the front of the huge combine and rejoice as a few kernels of harvested wheat fall into the huge hopper of the combine.
Scene 2: A large, powerful combine sits in a barn. The machinery is fine-tuned and ready for work. Often the workers in the barn start up that powerful engine and then engage all the thrashing mechanisms. Then they throw open the doors of the barn and drive the combine out into the white fields—allowing it to do on a large scale what it was designed to do all along. The workers rejoice as an avalanche of wheat kernels fall into the huge hopper of the combine.
Across my years in youth ministry, I was faithful to present the gospel inside our buildings. I was weak on mobilizing our ministry to win teenagers to Jesus away from the church. This hampered the harvest. If I were starting over, I would change that. Teenagers, volunteers, and parents follow only when the youth minister sets the example.
3. I would make parents and leaders my closest friends.
Ministry happens in the context of relationships. Looking back, the most effective parents and leaders were also those I brought into my personal world. If I were starting over, I would broaden the number of parents and leaders I shared life with.
4. I would find a way to give my teenagers a heart for world missions.
I now help take teenagers to the nations every summer. Invariably these experiences change the worldview of teenagers and make it likely they will have a lifetime passion for the world. If I were starting over, I would take students on such trips—even if my church were tiny and the challenges great.
5. I would do more formal studying on biblically sound counseling with youth and families.
A crumbling culture guarantees youth ministers are surrounded by deeply hurting people. If I were starting over, I would embrace training that would help me better respond. Since secular humanism has almost saturated the counseling field, I would ask the Spirit to help me discern who is offering training that is biblically sound.
6. I would move teenagers more into leadership roles.
Across the years I did a pretty good job of enlisting teenagers to be helpers (run the sound, set up the room, etc.). But if I were starting over, I would be much more intentional about moving teenagers into true leadership roles. Now I know that across the centuries teenagers were leading armies, running businesses, and parenting families. And now I know how important it is to ask: “Are my juniors and seniors almost ready to lead dorm Bible studies? Are they almost ready to plan collegiate mission projects for their peers?”
7. I would network with the other youth leaders in evangelistic denominations in the community.
These days “the kingdom of God” is a bigger deal to me than “my church.” If I were starting over, I would have a stronger passion to see ALL the teenagers of the city meet Christ and begin looking more like Him. That would propel me to invest more time in networking with other youth leaders, knowing that together we could reach and disciple far more than each working in his own silo.
As one expression of this focus, I would give even stronger support to campus club ministry. I would link arms across the body of Christ in order to mobilize all believing students to see their campus as their mission field.
8. I would stay closer with students called to Christian ministry vocations.
I always was thrilled when a teenager indicated a tug toward a ministry vocation. But after the hugs I never had a consistent process for walking beside and equipping that student for that calling. I am sure some are selling appliances at Sears right now because we did not follow through. If I were starting over, I always would have before me the names of the students sensing this call, and I always would know where we were in the process of equipping each one.
I probably won’t get to be a youth minister again. But you will. What would you change?