Beyond Conventional Youth Ministry

By Guest Contributor August 25, 2015

By Joel Mayward

When I arrived for my first day teaching a summer language arts course to incoming freshman, I felt both out of my element and right at home. The vast majority of my youth ministry experience has been with suburban evangelical church youth groups. You know what I mean: large worship services with some sort of game or icebreaker, a time of worship, a relevant message. Maybe a mid-week small group program. Camps, retreats, and missions trips.

I’m not a teacher in the professional sense, but the summer school program didn’t require a teaching license or credentials. For four weeks I taught ninth-grade English to two classes of at-risk Latino youth. By the end of our time together, they would read a novel, write an essay, and give a presentation. I now have a much deeper respect for middle and high school teachers!

There was no youth group, no church, and no expectation of the spiritual. Yet I discovered that this, too, was youth ministry—only in an unconventional setting. Here are five lessons I learned (and re-learned) over the course of a month with these incredible students:

1) Every young person has a story worth hearing. During this language arts course, I taught students the elements of storytelling by reading a novella filled with personal vignettes. I had them write their own vignette as an essay to tell us part of their story. Their essays were honest, raw, and eye opening. Stories about past abuse, broken marriages, betrayal, and incarcerated family members were all infused with an underlying theme of hope—hope that they would escape the cycle, that they’d get an education, that there was something good in their future. All it took to get these students to share their personal narratives and perspectives was an adult asking.

2) Spiritual questions and conversations happen in “normal” life. We didn’t talk about God or the Bible—I couldn’t bring up faith at all—but that didn’t mean our conversations weren’t haunted by the presence of the Spirit. To tell students that they have a story worth telling, that they have a voice in this world, that they can imagine their futures with hope and not despair—these words speak vision and meaning into their minds and hearts. We talked about racism, economics, romance, integrity, and respect. There is no real division between the spiritual world and the normal world. Everything we do is infused with the spiritual.

3) Adult presence matters. So many of the students were considered “at-risk” because a parent was abusive, was in jail, abandoned the family, or had serious mental health issues. Many of these students were on their own in the world, being raised by an older sibling or living with a relative who wasn’t truly present. Young people need caring adults in their lives to model life, listen, and walk alongside them. For some students, I was one of the only adults they had encountered who treated them as valuable human beings, not inconveniences or sub-humans.

“Find ways to expand your horizons beyond the traditional youth group setting.”

4) You won’t connect with everyone. Not every student or co-worker will like you. Some will really dislike you—even hate you. While some of my students were engaged and seemed to enjoy my presence, others lumped Mr. Mayward in the “all teachers are idiots” category. Remember, you’re not doing this youth ministry thing to be liked; you’re doing it because God loves you and he loves them, and he wants you to love them too, even when they don’t like him or you. Love the people you connect with, and love the people you cannot stand to be around.

5) You can’t make anyone do anything, but you can offer invitations. Because it was a temporary summer course, I had little-to-zero accountability for whether students behaved or did assignments. It was a pass-fail class—if they did the essay and showed up regularly, they got credit. I had to rely on persuasion and inspiration to keep the class focused, which wasn’t always successful. Some students just didn’t want to be there or do the work. I couldn’t make them do anything, just like I can’t make anyone believe or follow Jesus. But I could still invite, persuade, exhort, and listen. I didn’t want to manipulate or cajole anyone into doing the work; they had to choose for themselves what to do. It turned out that, when I chose to listen to them, show care and concern, and spoke words of affirmation and grace, they were more likely to do the work.

If you’re a youth worker in a church or Christian ministry, find ways to expand your youth ministry horizons beyond the traditional youth group setting. Teach a class. Coach a team. Give music lessons. Volunteer at a local school or community center. Be a mentor through a non-Christian organization. It may require rethinking your schedule and your priorities. Yet through this unconventional youth ministry, you may find that Christ will teach you how to love, serve, and listen in new and life-giving ways.

CC Image courtesy NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center on Flickr.

About the Author

Guest Contributor

The LeaderTreks Blog is proud to share the hard-earned wisdom of student ministry leaders from many different backgrounds and professions. From time to time, we will feature guest blog posts from writers other than our regular contributors. We include these posts to provide additional perspectives and insight that we’re sure will help develop you and your ministry…  Read More