A New Measure for Youth Ministry

David Brown

Much of our work through Pinnacle has focused on the changing context for ministry in the 21st century. We have talked and written extensively about the culture in which our young people are growing up. Our era of exponential change is experienced as everyday life for the emerging Generation Z - also known as the “Screen-Agers.”

Studies are already showing the passion and creativity, loyalty and determination that this most diverse generation in American history possesses. As leaders in congregations, we want the young people in our churches and communities to discover and pursue a life of meaning and purpose in this evolving world.

For most of its history, church-based youth ministry has been highly attractional, leader driven, and segregated from the rest of congregational life. Success has been measured by the same metrics as much of congregational life - buildings, bodies, and budgets. This model and these metrics have proven less effective in our 21st century context.

How, then can we reimagine youth ministry for a new era? How do we as churches and individuals create opportunities for our children to thrive in this changing culture? What is our strategy? How will we measure our success?

We cannot measure by any other standard than the outstretched arms of Jesus. Outstretched to welcome life lived fully as a human being. Outstretched to embrace the child, the leper, the prostitute, the legalist, you and me. Outstretched to gather his close friends for an intimate meal and meaningful conversation. Outstretched in suffering for a world full of broken hearts, broken lives, and broken relationships.


God entered the world wrapped in the tender flesh of a newborn. In the person of Jesus, our God became human and experienced the

fullness of life in the real world. In Jesus, God walks beside us, God is with us, God expresses ultimate love for us, and God shows us how to be fully human.

And God continues to be incarnated - living in human form - even today. That’s you, and that’s me! The concrete presence of Christ now lives in us and in our person-to-person encounters. We are the flesh and blood where Christ presence is made known.

In the aftermath of Easter, two unnamed disciples trudged down the dusty road to Emmaus. In the midst of their disappointment and doubt, they discovered Jesus as they broke bread with a stranger. We encounter Christ through companionship: literally bread-sharing.

What does it mean to “break bread” with the young people in our congregations and communities? First, it requires making our way to the table.

One August, just a few weeks before the start of the school year, I received an e-mail from Judy. She had recently connected with our congregation and I had only had a few interactions with her, so I was surprised to read her e-mail. It said, rather simply:

David: I would like to speak with you about making a commitment to work with the Youth on Wednesday evenings. Judy

Judy would not have been at the top of my list for youth worker recruitment. Judy was old enough to be the grandmother of most of our teenagers; in fact, she did have a teenage granddaughter. Judy did not seem to have a magnetic personality, a hip wardrobe, or a knowledge of pop culture. I was excited about her willingness, but had to wonder how well she would connect with our teenagers.

As we talked, Judy became excited about leading a small mission group on Wednesday nights. She would be mentoring a group of five or six young people working at a ministry site each Wednesday night. Judy’s group began with weekly visits to homes for adults with disabilities. They lead games and karaoke, read books, and did make-up and nails. The first few weeks, I overheard teenagers calling Judy “grandma” behind her back.

But slowly, as the group realized her commitment to being present and her genuine care for each of them, the tone of the group changed. Judy laughed with, cried with, prayed for, and grew to love this group of teenagers. And she led them to care for each other and for each person that they worked with.

In the spring semester, Judy’s group transitioned to working with two men living with HIV. As Judy devoted herself to entering the lives of these teenagers, she taught them a beautiful way of sharing their lives with each other, with disabled adults, and with men struggling with a stigmatizing disease.

Judy’s story reveals that incarnational youth ministry has nothing to do with relational magnetism or some unquantifiable “coolness” factor.

The incarnation show us something different. It shows us a God who loved the world enough to enter the world in the humanity of Jesus, to be with us and for us. To be incarnational in youth ministry has everything to do with gently entering the lives of adolescents as we invite them to enter our own. It has everything to do with authentic relationships.

Judy made herself available. Judy sought out relationships with teenagers. Judy made her way to the table.

Jesus had no hidden agendas. Jesus did not use friendship as a mechanism for evangelism. Jesus LOVED, pure and simple, and demonstrated that love by pouring himself into relationships with every person he met – outcast, demon possessed, tax collector, Pharisee, fisherman, royalty, teenager, senior adult.

Incarnational ministry means sharing in suffering and joy, meeting people with no pretense, agenda or secret motives, without even seeking to influence, only to share life together.

An incarnational approach to youth ministry cannot be limited to volunteering in youth ministry activities or supporting the work of your youth minister (although these are almost always welcome). Rather every adult disciple in your congregation is invited to walk through life with the young people in your congregation and community.

You are invited to listen to and act on behalf of the young people in your church and community. You are invited to be in relationship with a young person, not to influence them, but to walk alongside them. You are invited to care for the young person in need and to reach out to the one who is alone.

A new measure for incarnational youth ministry: Every adult disciple in your congregation walking through life with the young people in your congregation and community. And for no other reason than to help each other become more fully human, more fully like Jesus!

In addition to his role as Consulting Coordinator for Pinnacle, David Brown leads our Student Ministry initiatives. He offers individual coaching for youth and campus ministers, a Youth Ministry Check-Up for your congregation, and a Making the Shift in Youth Ministry process that can be tailored to the particular needs and context of your ministry.

You can reach David at (803) 984-6964 or davidb@pinnlead.com

Helen Renew