by Adam Hatton
When I started in student ministry, the easiest way to create excitement was to tell students we were going to have free pizza. They would flock to the youth room! Now when I say we are going to have free pizza, I get texts from students asking, “What kind of pizza?”, “Is it gluten-free?”.
Times have definitely changed, and our ministry methods need to change with it.
Momentum is the key element needed in any student ministry. Regardless of size, there needs to be a buzz, an excitement around what is going on with your student ministry. If there is no momentum, your ministry will ultimately fail to reach students.
I’m convinced that so many youth workers experience burnout and leave student ministry within their first five years, not from a lack of effort or submission to God’s will, but from a lack of momentum. I have worked in small and large student ministries, and believe me when I say that it is a lot easier in any ministry when you have momentum. Here are three principles that I believe ring true in any student ministry that can bring momentum to your Wednesday nights, summer camps, and student events:
Students Like Excellence
True statement: Students like things that are excellent.
They have parents, teachers, and coaches pushing them every day to be their best. This is one reason that students can tell in a split second if something is done poorly. If you put your lesson together an hour before service, they know. They are asked to practice a sport or rehearse a concert ten to fourteen hours a week, so they know excellence when they see it. They will pick up on a lazy youth worker in a hot minute. They know if you’re not striving to make your student ministry the best it can be.
They may never tell you, and they may just never come back. Nothing can stifle the momentum of a student ministry faster than a lack of excellence. If you have a worship leader sound-checking as students walk into room or tuning their guitar right before they start a song, the student is thinking, “They are not ready. This is going to be boring and terrible.” Showing students a video clip that is not working screams that you didn’t care enough to check it before you played it for them. So why should they pay attention? This just doesn’t apply to large group gatherings, either. If they step into a small group setting and the leader is consistently reading off a piece of paper, they know the leader is not prepared for small group. So why should they come prepared for small group?
On the other hand, if things are sharp, polished, and attention-grabbing, students will be excited to be there. But I’m not saying that more money and technology will automatically make things better. One of the most momentum-shifting moments I have ever experienced took place outside in a field with someone playing an acoustic guitar and a time of teaching with some creative learning moments thrown in. It had been planned and practiced, and it took the students completely off-guard.
Teenagers can be brutal and will form an opinion in less than 5 minutes. Have you thought out every aspect of what you ask your students to participate in? Are all of the small tasks being done while striving for excellence? By the way, doing things with excellence means you have planned weeks ahead. You have poked holes in the original plan to make it better. Most importantly, planning weeks in advance to make things excellent means you have been praying for weeks in advance for the Holy Spirit to show up in those moments!
Students Like Transparency
Transparency can create momentum in your student ministry because it is counter-cultural to what they experience everywhere else. Deep down, students are sick of fake. They interact with fake people all the time, pretending to be someone they are not. They see people trying to impress instead of just being real. They have people lie to them about what they stand for and believe in. Sadly, most teenagers not only see this at school, but at home with their parents as well.
Students are ready for someone to be real with them. They want to know that life is hard and that adults struggle, too. They want to know that other people doubt themselves and that it is normal to be in a dark place from time-to-time. When someone speaks up and is transparent with them, they take notice. They start to listen. When they realize the world beats up on everyone, they start to realize they are not alone.
One night I shared with a group of students that I had struggled with God in the past because He allowed my stepfather to die from cancer. I poured my heart out for thirty minutes and even cried a little (it couldn’t have been a pretty sight). The next week, I had more students share their struggles with me than I had the entire year before. Suddenly, this idea of being transparent had caught like wildfire! Students were ready to voice their struggles so they could finally move past them. If you create a culture of transparency in your student ministry, it will create momentum for students to be real with you.
Students LOVE Community
In my many years of doing student ministry, I have found that nothing creates momentum faster than authentic community. We can read all throughout the Bible that God created us to be in community with Him and with each other. It’s built into our DNA as humans beings. It’s all about relationships. Starting a culture of community with students can be very difficult to pull off, but once a few students buy in, it quickly becomes an avalanche of momentum.
If students don’t think you truly care about them, they will never care about anything you are teaching them. If you don’t show them love through relationships, it will be hard for them to understand that God loves them and wants to be in relationship with them. I know this is painful to hear, but it’s true. Until you have relational buy-in with your students, you will never have the momentum you need to have a successful student ministry. If you never learn their name, hobbies, and passions, they will always feel like you are just trying to sell them on a lifestyle that is a lie. Student ministries have massive back doors with students leaving because they don’t feel part of a community.
I am not going to lie to you; building relationships is difficult and can be a grind. It is a lot of watching terrible middle school sporting events and miserable band concerts. It is remembering to text a student about the test they asked you to pray about to see how it went. It is remembering that first time visitor’s name and their favorite TV show the next time you see them. It is not enough to high-five a student once a week before you start preaching! You have to be willing to work hard enough to gain relational value so you can ask the hard questions about the sin in their life. If you have too many students in your ministry to pull this off by yourself, you know it is time to recruit more volunteers to keep this community momentum train moving. Every student in your student ministry needs to know someone is excited to see them when they walk in the door! Once students know your student ministry is a place they can be known and be a part of something bigger than themselves, they will invite their friends to come be a part of that same great community. True, authentic community will bring your student ministry tons of momentum.
Creating momentum in your student ministry is not easy, but God didn’t call you into student ministry to accomplish the easy things. God called you into student ministry to change the world for His glory, one teenage soul at a time! The sacrifice is great, but the reward is even greater!
About the author:
Adam Hatton has been serving in student ministry for over 10 years. He is the Lead Student Pastor at Biltmore Church. Adam and his wife Jessica, along with their two daughters, love living in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Asheville, NC.