Contemplative Youth Ministry- by Mark Yaconelli

Contemplative Youth Ministry

I must admit that I was a bit skeptical prior to reading this book.   However, after reading through the book for a second time, it has become one of my favorite youth ministry books.  Mark Yaconelli has a witty and authentic way of storytelling and teaching how to help students practice the presence of Jesus. I appreciate his journey; his mistakes, failures, lessons learned, and advice he has to offer all of us attempting (and praying) to see our students grow spiritually.

Central to this book is the theme of presence.  The author shares that the central problem in sharing the Christian faith with young people is this:

We don’t know how to be with our kids.

We don’t know how to be with ourselves.

We don’t know how to be with God.

But if we look to the life of Jesus as our example and inspiration, we find that Jesus enjoys being with people and being with God.  “His ministry doesn’t come from a pre-planned formula but instead arises in response to the real situations and relationships he encounters.”

To be “present” with our students means relating to youth in the way Jesus related to people…with authenticity and transparency.

The idea of “contemplation” means being with God within the reality of the present moment.  As Mark explains, “it’s about attentiveness–opening our eyes to God, ourselves, and others.”

Ignatious of Loyola referred to contemplation as “seeing God in all things.”  Brother Lawrence called it” the pure loving gaze that finds God everywhere.”  Teresa of Avila referred to this experience as “Awareness absorbed and amazed.”

One of the questions asked in the book really spoke to me.  “What is my deepest hope for the youth I know?”

As I prayed and thought through this, I could sense and feel the way God sees and loves my students.  I began viewing them through God’s eyes and not through my own agendas for them.

I especially appreciated the section dealing with being transparent and vulnerable before our students. Often, the assumption is that as youth leaders we must live above our students and, without realizing it, a certain level of disconnect and unapproachability inevitably creeps in.  Mark writes (and I agree) that youth want to know about our marriages or romantic lives.  They want to meet our friends and find out what we do when not in church.  They want to know what makes us angry and whether we agree or disagree with their parents.

They want to know how to live well and live fully human, and they need us as real examples that they can relate to.

Probably my favorite chapter is entitled “Becoming a Good Listener” simply because I struggle with this approach and quite frankly needed a healthy dose of inspiration and challenge.

The first part of this approach is learning how to surrender.  “We need to stop trying to make kids love God…to surrender means to recognize that we don’t control how God lives and moves. We don’t control our churches and we certainly don’t control the spiritual lives of our young people.”

As youth leaders, we need to be able to trust that our students belong to God; that God has been seeking to love them since before they were born and will continue to love them long after they leave the influence of our ministries.  This concept is revolutionary to me and freeing in the same breath.

We also need to receive from God, and place our students in positions to receive from Him as well.  “When we allow ourselves to be open and receptive to God’s love and presence, we begin to notice that God is alive and available.”

Mark provides a great chart comparing/contrasting the different ways we approach youth ministry when we’re rooted in anxiety rather than love.  Interestingly enough, I was able to use the same descriptions and characteristics and compare “traditional” to “emerging” youth ministry approaches .  In many ways, traditional youth ministry is based upon anxiety (control, professionals, products, results, conformity, activity, and answers).  Contrary, emerging youth ministries demonstrate and implement contemplation, processes, presences, guides, relationships, creativity, awareness, and questions.

This chart forced me to critically reflect upon my youth ministry and see how we have been operating in the past:  out of anxiety or love?

The next big section offers different ways to enter into the presence of God. Most are rooted in ancient Christianity and have been transformative for centuries.  Now, I have been doing a number of these for some time, but each process would be powerful if we can find ways to implement them into our youth ministries and model them for our students.

They include: Lectio Divina (holy reading, Centering Prayer (indwelling Christ), The Awareness Examen, Silent Prayer, Creative Arts prayer

By far, the best chapter for me (and I think one of the best chapters in all youth ministry books to date) is “Being with young people”

Being human is “seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, being moved by others and allowing others to be moved by us, responding with acts of kindness and receiving acts of kindness, and embodying a sense of delight in all our interactions.”  In many ways, author and professor Andrew Root picks up on this theme and wonderfully runs with it in his books Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry and Relationships Unfiltered.


We love young people when we see them with the eyes of Jesus; seeing them as they are, not as the culture judges them to be or as we wish them to be.

Yaconelli shares a wonderful story about being on a youth retreat with a particularly terrible bunch of students (haven’t we all had that experience before!)  He became angry and yelled at them and demanded that the fun stop and they all go to bed.  Feeling bad about the way he treated them he got up and walked around the sanctuary where they were sleeping.  Watching them, he began to notice their innocence and remembered their pain and hurt. His anger at them was transformed into compassion for them as he began to see them with the eyes of Christ.


We also need to listen; to open our ears to the words and feelings youth speak.  As a youth pastor, I often feel the need (and desire) to speak.  Even when students are unloading their problems and issues, I fight the urge to interrupt with my sound advise. Most of our activities at youth group are designed to help students sit and listen to us. But imagine if we could turn that around and listen to them.  “Its almost a conversion experience in this day and age to be authentically heard by another person.”  I couldn’t agree more.

I debated whether to share this story or not, but here goes.

A few years back I had the priviledge of attending a course on Postmodernity and the Emergent Church taught at Alliance Theological Seminary by Tony Jones.  I had met Tony briefly on a few occasions and we planned to spend some time together after class.  I will never forget the time, attention, and care he gave me while the two of us sat and chatted at an Irish pub in Nyack.  He asked questions like he actually cared about my life and he listened.  He could have talked about his experiences, his writings, his theology..and I would have listened and loved it. But instead, the whole evening was about me.  And the timing was perfect because I had issues that I really needed to talk about with someone, but no one (up to that point) had thought to ask.  I finally felt free to share with someone who would not judge and had no self interest.  My respect and appreciation for Tony grew that night and I left feeling such a weight lifted.

I want to be that kind of friend, mentor, and youth pastor to students.

“Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people are looking for an ear that will listen.  They person who can no longer listen to others will soon be no longer listening to God either.” -Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Action with Kindness

These are moments in which we embody the love of God.  This love of God “is often more powerful and transformative in small acts of love than in the lights, energy, and charisma of large outreach events.”

We need to take time to experience the everyday moments of life together with our students.  These can occur over simple meals, while driving or shopping, watching a game together, etc..

Before reading this book I associated contemplation with being still…perhaps a monk in isolation in a cave somewhere!

Parker Palmer debunks that thought and writes the following: “At root, contemplation and action are the same. As our youth ministry becomes infused with contemplative prayer and awareness, the effect is not more prayer and silence; instead, what begins to emerge is authentic action. Activities within the youth ministry no longer are chosen frantically from resource books; they no longer are prescribed from the outside.  Instead, as we widen our awareness, our actions with youth become more guided by their needs and the movement of the Holy Spirit.  Being prayerfully present to kids enlarges our capacity to act out of love rather than anxiety. Contemplative awareness nurtures our creativity and draws us to act from the heart. We find ourselves responding more and reacting less.”


As youth pastors, we should be amazed and delighted by students.  I have found that even though dealing with middle school antics and high school drama can be taxing, there is no greater joy than seeing young people “get it”.  I have more fun with students than with any other age group.  It is fun and a delight to be around them, and I feel blessed to be a part of that on a daily basis.  I know that if and when God leads me to do something else, I will always miss the joy I experience when with young people.

Jean Vanier writes that love is “to reveal the beauty of another person to themselves.”  When students are seen, they feel valued.  When they are heard, they feel respected.  When someone is moved by their situation, they feel loved.  And when others delight in their existence, they sense the very breath of God!

“Youth Ministry is about holding up a young person’s deepest identity until he or she is able to see it too.”

The last major section of the book developes a process of recruiting and training a community around you to serve the youth. Mark calls this a “covenant community” and he outlines some pretty complex and detailed steps to help build up your volunteer leadership team. Now, it is hard to deny the results he shares, but the six steps seem a bit much to me.  However, if you follow them I am sure you can double your team with solid volunteers.

A good point that he makes that we all need to be aware of is this:  You’re not just looking for a warm body, you’re seeking people who sense that their participation in ministry is intimately connected to God’s movement in their lives.   Secondly, when people spend time in prayer and relationship building, the ministry becomes a great source of nourishment; people enjoy the ministry, serve with great authenticity, and stay involved longer.

Another great thought found in this book is the idea that youth ministry is truly a calling and blessing at the same time.  For many of us, we need to be doing youth ministry.  We need to be with and for our students, because by doing so, we connect with God.  Mark writes to all of us youth leaders that perhaps we are more pliable among these youth, more open to God shaking us up or offering us a word of healing. maybe youth ministry is our spiritual discipline.

“It’s not just a place where we serve, it’s a place where we are transformed, healed, and made new.”

Below are a few more helpful and inspiring quotes I discovered.

“It’s this movement from prayer to presence–from being open and available to God to being transparent and accessible before teens-that is the real work of ministry.”

“Our first task as youth ministers is to be with young people just as Jesus was with people.  Our second task is to help youth develop the eyes, ears, and heart of Jesus for themselves.  We’re not only called to be witnesses among young people, we are also called, like Jesus, to be teachers. We’re called to awaken youth to the presence of God in the world.

To help do this we 1) point 2) question 3) invite 4) we create circumstances

All of this takes patience and time.  Faith takes time and we need to stick around long enough to see it go through its ups and downs, highs and lows, and eventually develope, mature, and blossom.

“Our role is to help youth recognize the ways in which Jesus is already near, already seeking trust and friendship.”

“An efficiently busy life is “more potentially destructive of spiritual growth than debauchery or alcohol or drugs.”

“The purpose of integrating contemplative presence in youth ministry is not to turn kids into monks, it is to deepen our awareness of god, others, and self so that we might become fully alive!”

“Through greater prayer and presence, we notice the moments of connection between youth and God and try to build our programs accordingly.”


Shift #7: From Facts to Experience/Encounter

“It is circumstances, not ideas, that change people.” author and Catholic priest Richard Rohr

Possibly the most significant way we can help youth notice their experiences with God is by helping them engage in real life; in real-life situations (out of the church and class room). We can then ask  them the eye-opening question- “How is God present here?

I once heard this statement:  “Facts don’t change people.  Experiences change people.”

Now, thinking back to the  Gospels and the book of Acts and the beginnings of the early church, you realize that it was individual’s encounters with the person of Jesus that transformed their life, not necessarily what they believed about him.  In fact, on more than once occasion Jesus healed someone and/or brought deliverance and restoration prior to any theological assent regarding his identity.

Here is a great story taken from the Gospel of John and serves as only one of many like it.

John 9

Jesus Heals a Man Born Blind

1As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. 2His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?”

3“Neither this man nor his parents sinned,” said Jesus, “but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. 4As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. 5While I am in the world, I am the light of the world.”

6Having said this, he spit on the ground, made some mud with the saliva, and put it on the man’s eyes. 7“Go,” he told him, “wash in the Pool of Siloam” (this word means Sent). So the man went and washed, and came home seeing.

8His neighbors and those who had formerly seen him begging asked, “Isn’t this the same man who used to sit and beg?” 9Some claimed that he was.
Others said, “No, he only looks like him.”
But he himself insisted, “I am the man.”

10“How then were your eyes opened?” they demanded.

11He replied, “The man they call Jesus made some mud and put it on my eyes. He told me to go to Siloam and wash. So I went and washed, and then I could see.”

12“Where is this man?” they asked him.
“I don’t know,” he said.

13They brought to the Pharisees the man who had been blind. 14Now the day on which Jesus had made the mud and opened the man’s eyes was a Sabbath.15Therefore the Pharisees also asked him how he had received his sight. “He put mud on my eyes,” the man replied, “and I washed, and now I see.”

16Some of the Pharisees said, “This man is not from God, for he does not keep the Sabbath.”
But others asked, “How can a sinner do such miraculous signs?” So they were divided.

17Finally they turned again to the blind man, “What have you to say about him? It was your eyes he opened.”
The man replied, “He is a prophet.”

18The Jews still did not believe that he had been blind and had received his sight until they sent for the man’s parents. 19“Is this your son?” they asked. “Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?”

20“We know he is our son,” the parents answered, “and we know he was born blind. 21But how he can see now, or who opened his eyes, we don’t know. Ask him. He is of age; he will speak for himself.” 22His parents said this because they were afraid of the Jews, for already the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue. 23That was why his parents said, “He is of age; ask him.”

24A second time they summoned the man who had been blind. “Give glory to God,” they said. “We know this man is a sinner.”

25He replied, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!”

26Then they asked him, “What did he do to you? How did he open your eyes?”

27He answered, “I have told you already and you did not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to become his disciples, too?”

28Then they hurled insults at him and said, “You are this fellow’s disciple! We are disciples of Moses! 29We know that God spoke to Moses, but as for this fellow, we don’t even know where he comes from.”

30The man answered, “Now that is remarkable! You don’t know where he comes from, yet he opened my eyes. 31We know that God does not listen to sinners. He listens to the godly man who does his will. 32Nobody has ever heard of opening the eyes of a man born blind. 33If this man were not from God, he could do nothing.”

34To this they replied, “You were steeped in sin at birth; how dare you lecture us!” And they threw him out.


What is apparent from this story is that the Pharisees were trying to trap Jesus, pin him down, and squeeze him into a particular theological box.  The blind man probably figured that Jesus was a prophet of some kind and perhaps gave his specific answer out of fear of the Pharisees.  Or perhaps, he really didn’t have many facts or beliefs about this man called Jesus, but he certainly knew what he just experienced. He was literally blind and now he could see, and this man named Jesus healed him!

I think in youth ministry what often happens is that we try to get students to believe certain things about Jesus before we really enable them to encounter him.  Maybe the encounter is what must predicate the belief.

In Youth Ministry 3.0, Marko uses a great analogy of a train to illustrate the difference of progression towards faith, and (ultimately) the importance of fact vs. faith.


Marko argues that in the past, facts could drive the engine of personal belief.  These “facts” would lead to a faith that was based upon those “facts”.  Experience could be helpful, but often not necessary and often declared they would get in way of true and authentic faith.  Now I understand what the writer of Hebrews says, 1Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. 2This is what the ancients were commended for.”

It is true that if God were to audibly speak or perform wonders and signs all the time in front of my students, it would not take a deep faith to believe in him.  So, the less amount of experiences we have, the potential is there to develop a stronger type of faith. However, a faith built solely upon facts may not be standing on solid ground.

Here is why.

Which “facts” are included as essential and who makes that call?  What if some beliefs or ideas that were considered “facts” a few generations ago are no longer held in the same light as they once were?

Imagine building a faith on the “fact” that the earth was flat and at the center of the universe?  Oh wait, most Christians did that a few centuries ago and excommunicated those who believed otherwise as heretics.

What if we are building our faith today on facts that may or may not be credible? What happens when one of those ideas comes crashing down?  In this book Velvet Elvis, Rob Bell uses the analogy of building your faith just based upon facts and likens it to building a wall of bricks.

Two things occur when Christians do this:

1) We spend a whole lot of time defending our wall, protecting it from bricks that do not belong, and trying to keep people outside (that’s what walls do)

2)  We open up the possibility of the entire wall crumbling down if one of the bricks happens to be pulled out or damaged. (kind of like that game Jenga)


Now, here is what I am not saying…Facts do not matter. They do. They are important . They are essential,

The apostle Paul writes this in 1 Corinthians 14:12-14

12But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith.”

So clearly, a faith built upon myths or false ideas that cannot be historical and factually proven is not going to last.  There would be no real power in that kind of faith.  The life, death, and resurrection of Christ is essential according to the apostles, as is his divinity and humanity.

One of the earlier statements of “facts” and theology believed by the early church was this:

6Who, being in very nature  God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.     -Philippians 2

15He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. 16For by him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him. 17He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18And he is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. 19For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, 20and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.   – Colossians 1:15-20

These appear to be some of the earliest doctrines recorded in Scripture and clearly what we can, and should, build our beliefs upon.   Beyond these, I am just not sure what exactly is essential and what is not, and therefore constructing and communicating a faith built or driven by a whole host of “facts” can become potentially dangerous.

And you know that’s true when we see our high school students enter college and told that many of these “facts” don’t exist (whether true or not).  We watch as their faith begins to crumble under the weight of doubt and uncertainty.  Now, we can try to give them new books on apologetics and thus begins a battle for their minds- beliefs about something and someone.

But…. if their hearts are already won because of their personal experience with the transforming and freeing power of Jesus…well that is a different story.

Back to the illustration of the train.  If experience/encounter lead the way, these cannot be easily discredited. One of the so-called ideals of postmodernity is that personal experience is everything. You will hear statements such as this, “Well that may be true for you, but this is what is true for me.”  Now this can be both a blessing and curse at the same time. Traditional apologetics don’t work in this scenario very often.  Sure, you will have exceptions, but it is very hard to “prove your point” to someone from a purely intellectual and rationalistic approach.

You can say 2+2 =4 and someone can say, “I see how you can come to belief that, but for me that equation does not work”.

Right or wrong, this is our generation of students. We can try to change them back into older worldviews, but we will spend energy fighting a losing battle and over time frustration will set in like trying to swim upstream against the current.    They have been taught (not modeled) a faith based mostly upon facts, and often these facts can be and should be questioned.  Some “facts” are Biblically based, while many are more products of culture and particular western worldviews than anything else.

What if God is calling us to reach students where they are at? (whether we understand or agree with the way they see life)

What if youth leaders focus on bringing students into a relationship with the person of Jesus. These “God-experiences” can broaden their perspectives on the spiritual,  and through the presence of the Holy Spirit, can lead to a personal faith.  This personal faith can and should lead to a desire to know more about the person of Jesus (which is built upon a core set of beliefs and “facts”).  Again, these are important, but maybe not what needs to drive our approach anymore.

Students still have questions that need to be answered. But for this generation, these questions are no longer about the credibility of the Bible and manuscripts, etc..  Sure some historical questions will arise from Dan Brown books and they can and should be addressed, but the issues students question have more to do with heart-felt concerns than purely academic or intellectual curiosity.

They are asking questions such:

Why does God allow suffering in the world?

How could a loving God send people to Hell?

Why isn’t Christianity more inclusive?

How can one religion be “right” and the others “wrong”?

Why have so many wars been fought in the name of God?

I am grateful for new approaches in apologetics such as Tim Keller who uses human reason and questions and uses these legitimate questions and concerns to point people to the reality and truth of God.

Generally, I have steered away from traditional apologetics, believing that Christ needs to be promoted more than defended. One author of the book iLead writes, “thoughtful apologetics are essential for reaching post-Christian, American teens.”   For starters, postmodern students are all about personal experience. call it what you want, but it is not going to change.  So if you want factual knowledge and evidence that demands a verdict to really appeal, you are going to have to start looking at some other generation.

I suppose arguments such as those advocated by Tim Keller, C.S. Lewis, and Ravi Zacharias are beneficial for students thinking about truth, philosophy, and the like.  However, in my experience, most teens are drawn to the experience and encounter of Christ.  As the author later states, “until our teens can see that Christ quenches their souls’ spiritual thirst more than the world, they will always pursue idols to their own harm.”  Therefore, as youth leaders we must unapologetically promote Jesus and allow His very life and nature to be on display in and through us.  To me, that is the living Word of God in action.

What drives and motivates students today?

Not facts. Not anymore.

They are bombarded with facts.  It is experiences that they want.  That appears to be the way this generation of students understand, process, and relate to life.

Who can blame them for wanting a concrete encounter with the transcendant God and not just a bunch of ancient ideas and texts, that (in reality) speak very little into their cultural context at first glance.

Today’s youth  long for and embrace experience.  They dream and desire deep encounter; with one another and with the transcendant and spiritual.

Isn’t that what Jesus offered?

His followers knew him. They met him. They encountered him and he changed their life.

Students believe what they see, feel, hear, taste, and touch.  They believe what they experience.

I believe that our God is one who wants us to experience him. To taste and see that the Lord is good.

As culture, society, and students evolve and change, let’s shift our approach from facts to experience and encounter; towards introducing our students to this person who can open their eyes, heal their brokenness, restore them to God, and give them a hope and a future.

The train is moving.  Will we be watching it pass, shoveling coal in the back, or at the controls excited for the adventure?


Shift #6: From Big To Small

Here is the over simplified statement.

We need to get smaller.

big to small

Ok, I don’t actually mean losing weight like in the Biggest Loser (kind of a cool and ironic title)

Youth ministries need to get smaller.

We have lost our sense of intimacy, community, and intimacy when we moved to the big arenas and stadium style seating in our youth rooms.  The early churches were house churches. They were small, organic, and probably felt much like a family gathering.  Small youth groups have a similar feel and that is a good thing.  These are the groups when each student is personally contacted and has relationships with the youth pastor and youth leaders.  Names are known, specific prayers are offered, birthdays are celebrated, prom pictures taken, sporting games, school recitals, graduations and hopefully one day weddings attended.

In these types of groups and settings, when one student is missing, it changes the dynamics of the entire community.  They feel special, wanted, appreciated, and invested in.  It is hard to have that kind of atmosphere in the midst of hundreds of students.  For those of you in large churches, don’t think of your situation as better.  You probably have a greater challenge in finding ways to create a sense of small and intimate than the small church leader down the road.

I personally cannot speak of that situation. I don’t know what it is like to have 500 students show up at a youth meeting like many of you might. But I hope to learn from you and possibly encourage/challenge you to put yourself in their shoes for the evening.  While I am sure the glamor and excitement of the lights, music, skits, band, and youth pastor protected on the overheard screen is appealing, how do those things reach down into the inner pockets of their heart and soul?  Sometimes students can easily hide behind the glitz never to fully engage their entire beings.  For deep healing to occur, for spiritual formation to develop, for authentic and life-long relationships to be built, and for the still small voice of God’s spirit to be heard, we must get smaller… somehow.

I have adapted and combined some previous posts regarding this and concluded with a new ending.  This new culmination serves as additional thoughts, questions, and challenges regarding the Big vs. Small issue of youth ministry.

My premise is that emerging youth ministries will celebrate being small or (for the bigger ones) find ways to create a more intimate atmosphere for students.


There exists a myth out there that bigger is better.  This myth certainly has impacted the maintstream media but has also found its way into youth ministry and has infiltrated our philosophies and approache.  I will explain.At youth group, we play a game about once a year called “Bigger or Better”

We send groups of 5 out into the community armed with one roll of toilet paper. (not to throw at houses and cars as some students have assumed over the years!)  Each group’s goal is to obtain something from a neighbor that is either bigger or better. Sounds pretty simple, but you would be amazed at the stories over the years…and the crap we have received! (not to mention a few police run ins).

One thing that this sort of game demonstrates is that the roll of toilet paper really is not very desirable.  And, while it is fairly easy to observe and judge which new item is bigger…how does each group decide upon what is better?  I would imagine their thought process and decision making would alter depending on whether or not someone really had to the use the bathroom!

Awhile back,  I was down south (in the heart of the Bible belt) and was talking with some fellow youth pastors.  One of whom had a very large youth group.  He was a great guy and never once actually threw out a number (like so many youth pastors do)

By the way…have you ever noticed when someone at a conference asks “How is your ministry doing?” generally they really mean to say “how big is yours?…..”

But this guy talked about their programs, the masses of “unreached” students who come into their warehouse each Friday to play video games, skateboard, make fried food, and hear a message about Jesus.

All of which sounded really cool (and since his youth group business card had a cool graphic design on it) I stood awed and amazed.

For some reason, I figured I could learn from this guy since his made mine look small (typical boy locker room stuff, right?)

I don’t mean to be crude, but this was actually how I felt that evening.

So when my turn came to speak about my ministry, I sheepishly told him what we did not have.

That list was pretty long and took some time to verbalize.

But then…

I shared with him the graduation parties I went to, the birthday parties, sporting events, and recitals I have been to. I shared with him the times I have had my students over for a meal, the intimate and honest conversations we have each night at youth group, and how I truly feel like part of their family over the years.

Tears started to form in his eyes.

And as he wiped away the misty glow he stated, “Man, that’s what youth ministry is supposed to be about. I envy what you guys have going up there in New York.”

Imagine that!  A big time Bible belt mega church youth pastor envious of some no name, no logo, no website youth ministry tucked away in the liberal North East!

So what’s so amazing is that in the pursuit of the Big, we have lost a sense of the Best.

Students really don’t care about being entertained or being surround by thousands of teens. Sure, it may generated a sense of temporary excitement, but what they ultimately value and appreciate are youth leaders who enter into their lives and not stand apart from it.

You see, it is easier to hide behind productions and programs that we do for the teens, than to enter into the messiness of teenage life and be burdened by their individual struggles, fears, and doubts.

But the last time I check, most youth pastors went into the ministry to do just that. But somewhere along the way we got the Bigger is Better itch (maybe at a conference or by visiting another youth group.

We come back to our tiny youth room with old couches and think..I must be doing something wrong.

We think…”Maybe a new book with new ideas will spark my ministry. Maybe I need a bigger budget. Yeah, that’s the ticket. A bigger budget will somehow lead to more students, and then somehow having more students will lead to more spiritual growth.”

I contend that sometimes just the opposite is true in emerging youth ministry.

I was recently at a panel discussion for youth pastors and the question asked by one of the youth ministry students was “how large is your youth group?”  While a few were teetering around 10-15, the majority of youth groups in our area hover around 25-35 students (who actually attend). Of course there is always that anomaly. This particular youth leader proudly boasted of over 100 students. Everyone was enamored until they heard me.

(you are probably thinking to your self, “self, how big is his youth group?)

I answered by saying we have _____amount of students, but are trying to get…smaller!

Stunned silence. This was probably not the reaction or answer they were expecting.

You don’t often hear youth pastors saying that they are trying to decrease in size.

Have you ever heard any type of entrepreneurial business or organization boast of downsizing?

But, if we were to be honest with ourselves, isn’t  that what youth ministry has actually become?

A sort of self-promoting entrepreneurial enterprise…that exists for the glory of God..(and self) but of course we keep that on the hush hush!

Usually, youth pastors try to get large budgets, higher attendance, more buses, and use what they have to leverage for more and better.

Kind of sounds like a start-up company turning into a Fortune 500!

And certainly the Wall Streets of youth ministries are known across the country, and envied by everyone.

well..not everyone

Now let me clarify the subtitle of this chapter. By downsizing I do not necessarily mean preaching so hard a message that would drive away even the apostle Paul from your youth group. Nor do I advocate installing morality detectors at the door to minimize the number of unruly or uncommitted students.

It should be noted that some argue for this, because Jesus was apparently always thinning out the crowds looking for the “true disciples”.

I don’t think it is wise to intentionally try to eliminate kids (yes even the really smelly and annoying ones who always seem to show up early and leave late)

However, rather then focusing so much time, effort, and often money into bring new kids in…

let’s focus on equipping and ministering to the ones we already have!

If the youth group grows, so be it.

But even if it does not (numerically), your current students will experience life-changing relationships that will impact their high school and college years through adulthood (and probably will be a greater impact for the kingdom of God down the road then many of the mega groups)

Here are some ides:

Rather than do your annual winter ski retreat that 50 kids will come out to, change your winter retreat to a weekend service project. your may “downsize” to 25 kids but will guarantee have more of an impact of those who do come.

Change your popular progressive diner night to a feeding the hungry night (help out with a food pantry, soup kitchen, or actually walk the streets and feed the homeless)

With big groups comes big challenges

But I think that one of the biggest problems is that the sheer size of a group can limit the possibilities and potential.

It is hard to be accountable to 50 friends.

It is hard to see how you make a difference when lost in a crowd of 2,000 at some conference

It is hard to commune (fellowship) with God and others when being shuffled around like cattle from thing to thing in the midst of an endless torrent of media.

Simply put, it is really hard to journey down the path of spiritual formation and connectivity in the big.

This could be one of the reasons why house churches worked so well for the early church and some people argue that the institution of Christianity in Rome (and subsequent building of massive worship centers) began the downfall of the early church.

Mark Oestricter (YS Marko) brilliantly states,   “Smallness prioritizes relationships over numbers”, and only in the small can students genuinely and authentically discover true mission, identity, communion, and intimacy with others and God.

He continues this theme in his book Youth Ministry 3.0

Communion necessitates small.

Contextualization begs for small.

Discernment requires small.

Mission is lived out in small.

So, if your current youth ministry is not as big as you once dreamed, thank God for that and refocus your time and effort on the spiritual health and growth of the students.

Another problem with large youth ministries is big events.

There used to be a time where I wanted to host big events…I have to admit.

The more students who walked into our doors, the more impactful I thought the night would be.

In my mind, this equation was constantly at work

more students= better youth group

Things have changed however.

Last year we hosted a Halloween party with another youth group.

We packed the place out, the kids were crazy, and it took us about 2 hours to clean up after. Of course with that came a bunch of noisy, chaotic teenagers running around our church loaded up on candy and dressed funky.

At first i thought I was the man!

I mean really…having that many kids in our church at one time (I could even somehow manipulate the numbers so it looked like our average attendance was increasing..brownie points for elders!)

But as I got to reflecting and conversing with my team, I realized that something was amiss.

I asked these important, and often missed questions, and received these answers.

How many conversations did you have with new kids?– zero

How many in depth conversations did you have with our own kids?– zero

Do you think the kids felt or experience the warmth and love of Jesus?– maybe, but doubtful

Then it hit me like a bulldozer plowing into an old building..or more like getting smacked in the privates if the truth be told.

We were so busy doing crowd control that we could not do youth ministry!

So, why did we do this event in the first place?

Now, sometimes these events are worthwhile for a number of reasons

1)  You can get to know new students and have new students get to know your program.

2) It can provide and safe and easy way for students to invite their friends to church.

3)  Once you have them in your church, you can lock the doors, give them pizza and then trick them into listening to a message about their sins!

But what I have experienced and conclude is that an overall approach like this is unhealthy and unwise and should not be our ultimate aim or goal (as it was mine when I first started out)

I mistakingly thought that we would really “arrive” as an established youth ministry if we could begin hosting large events like this maybe once a month. I would lie awake at night imagingin having multiple youth groups, kids coming in from the streets, maybe even atract a football player or two!

All the while, never realizing that what we have already been doing…had been incredible and powerful.

The Wed nights, emails, conversations, coffee times, MacDonalds visits, recitals, dinner invitations at home, with the group we already had…these were building long-lasting friendships.

We were really entering into the lives of these students, their pain and suffering along with their joys and hopes.

It is hard to do that with teenagers you meet just once and hardly have the time to even get their names right.

So for the sake of our students, let’s find ways to get smaller.  Perhaps through intentional small groups, more phone conversations, one-on-one meetings, smaller and more frequent events, etc… we can create an atmosphere where every single student feels cared for and nurtured.

In a way, we want to be like that great TV show back in the 80’s Cheers

Cheers- Boston


Our students want to go where “Everybody knows your name”.

I will close simply by posting the lyrics to the famous theme song from the show.  I think these words can aptly describe what we hope our youth ministries feel like to students.  Emerging youth groups will have that Cheers type of atmosopher and live out the lyrics

– Cheers Lyrics

Making your way in the world today takes everything you’ve got.
Taking a break from all your worries, sure would help a lot.

Wouldn’t you like to get away?

Sometimes you want to go

Where everybody knows your name,
and they’re always glad you came.
You wanna be where you can see,
our troubles are all the same
You wanna be where everybody knows
Your name.

You wanna go where people know,
people are all the same,
You wanna go where everybody knows
your name.

Let the journey begin

I told myself I would never plunge into the blogosphere..but you know how things go!

A few people have inspired me to start writing down some of my thoughts (or more like rantings)

So…we shall see! I intend to continue reading, writing, discussing, and reflecting about the issues of the “emerging” church movement, AND specifically as it relates to youth ministry.

Please let me know some of your thoughts, concerns, comments, questions, or musings, especially if you are a youth leader or youth pastor attempting to navigate the stormy seas between all things emerging (or “emergent”) and traditional youth ministry.

What’s your story?