student ministry, youth worker, youth ministry

Making Challenge Work

By Doug Franklin September 1, 2011

A few years ago, Newsweek magazine came out with the top 100 high schools in America. The writer of the article noted that challenge was the one thing that differentiated the good schools from the great ones. My question is, why haven’t we discovered this in youth ministry? For so long we have been thinking entertainment will keep students coming to youth group. The truth is MTV will spend two million dollars today on programming and the average church youth budget is what – a couple thousand dollars? We don’t have a chance with those odds. We have to realize our best weapon in reaching students outside of prayer is challenge.

1. Raise the Expectation
To raise expectation is to take students where they have never been before. Require students to listen when others are talking. Set standards for behavior and stick to them. Prepare daily Bible study material for them and hold them accountable to doing it – also known as discipleship. Require applications for summer trips. Clearly communicate requirements for student leadership. You have to decide – is your youth program the ministry of your church to students or is it your student’s ministry to the world? When you raise the expectations, the latter will become true.

At my last youth ministry position, I took over a youth group in total disarray. Forty students were coming to youth group night but it was out of control. The last youth pastor had been there 10 years and everyone loved him. To my shock, he was even providing a place where students could smoke. After the first month, I called a parent meeting and told the parents I was putting an end to the smoking. Many parents told me I was making a big mistake and that many students would leave. They were right and it was the best thing that ever happened to that youth group. We went down to 15 students in two weeks. Six months later we were back to 40 students and growing rapidly. When I left, it was a healthy discipleship ministry based on growing students in the Lord and a majority of the original students had come back and had grown spiritually. The last youth pastor was not doing youth ministry, he was providing a place that students could get away with stuff that they couldn’t do at home. He thought making them happy was somehow helping them. Youth ministry is not about making students happy, it is about developing followers of Christ. In the three youth ministry positions that I have held, every time I raised the expectation on students they rose to meet them and amazing things followed.

2. Challenge Students Spiritually

What is the next step for your students spiritually? Offer some programs for students that want to take the next step spiritually. Have an in-depth Bible study group on Friday mornings. Require Bible memorization and additional cross referencing as part of the requirement to participate. You may want to challenge them to read through the Bible in one year. There are many ways of raising the bar spiritually but the important thing is to do it. 

After my first year in youth ministry as a small group leader in a Jr. High group I wanted to quit. An older leader named Chuck could see my frustration and disappointment. He challenged me to spend the last few weeks of the year asking the students in my small group if they wanted to have a relationship with Jesus. I told him he was nuts, all the kids in my group were Christians, although they were Christians that don’t care and won’t listen. He insisted, so I gave it a try. To my astonishment, there were students in my group who didn’t know Christ and were just waiting for me to begin to challenge them on their relationship with Him. Those last few weeks were different and I learned that students don’t just want Bible stories, they want truth, truth that they can live by and apply to their daily lives. From that point on, I have always tried to challenge students anytime I am in a teaching role.

3. Start a Leadership Program
Many years ago, I adopted the youth ministry philosophy of challenging the top. I always identify the sharp students in a group and start by challenging them. The results are always the same. The group grows faster and deeper. When the student leaders of a group are engaged, then the rest of the group will run as far as the leaders will go. Most youth ministries I see are based on challenging the bottom. When you purchase the latest youth ministry resources, ever wonder why it seems like it’s written for an 8 year old? When was the last time you bought a youth ministry resource and thought this is too tough for my students? Challenge the top students in your group and see things change.

Remember: Don’t start a leadership team because it’s the hot youth ministry trend. Do it because it will help your students grow in their walk with Christ. Every good leadership program I have seen in youth group starts with a youth worker who is passionate about leadership development. If that’s not you, that’s OK. Find someone in your church that can help you. At LeaderTreks, we have programs that can help you as well.

About the Author

Doug Franklin

Doug Franklin is the president of LeaderTreks, an innovative leadership development organization focusing on students and youth workers. Doug and his wife, Angie, live in West Chicago, Illinois. They don’t have any kids, but they have 2 dogs that think they are children. Diesel and Penelope are Weimaraners  who never leave their side. Doug grew up in…  Read More