Creating Space: 3 Tips for Cultivating a Healthy Youth Group Culture

I have been witnessing a wave break out in our youth ministry. Whether it be on a Sunday morning where a handful of teens are knelt at the altar during worship, or middle schoolers who created a blog so they could share about Jesus and invite people to youth group, or the constant begging for more events and retreats and hang outs (because twice a week just isn’t enough time for them to be together), or consistent teen presence every evening during our church’s 21 days of prayer. I believe that the wave always starts in the student section. And in each spiritual swell, I see something stirring in the youth at my local church and people are noticing. But what is it? What is shaping this group culture? There are three ways that myself, along with some leaders and students, have identified that help facilitate a healthy youth group:

1. Creating space for personal connection. We do this in a number of ways. Youth group in my local church is broken up differently than most. On the first and third weeks of the month, we do worship and teaching and, on the second and fourth weeks, we do 45-minute to one-hour small groups. These lengthier small group times allow for deep, fruitful, challenging discussion. We also eat a meal together every week at the beginning of youth group which provides a unique space for fellowship and connection. Overnight events, camps, and retreats are also a fan-favorite in providing personal and relational connection.

But a key for all of the above is the stance I have taken regarding cell phone use. The teens place their phones in a phone rack at youth group and we don’t take phones to camp or retreats. Not having their phones to rely on when they feel uncomfortable or awkward forces them to be present and engaged in the moment and with one another. It may not be popular at first among this generation, but I have only ever found it to be undeniably worth it (and at this point, the students would agree).

2. Creating space to serve and develop leadership skills. One of the easiest ways to create a sense of ownership in their faith and their church among the teens is by giving them an opportunity to serve. Serving orients their mindset towards others and it gives them a place where they feel they belong or bring value. We have student-led worship and tech teams in both High School and Middle School ministries, but they also serve on Sunday mornings in different capacities throughout the church (children’s, greeting, worship, tech, usher, etc). These experiences allow them to grow in their giftings, learn how to handle conflict, and build relationships with people of all ages.

Serving orients their mindset towards others and it gives them a place where they feel they belong or bring value.

3. Creating space to be discipled. We prioritize the Bible and prayer. More than anything, I want these teens to know God deeply and intimately. To know God, we have to dig into His word – and not just the popular, feel-good stories and verses. I want them to grasp the whole story, the full picture, even the parts that stir deep/confusing theological or life questions. I also want them to know God, we have to talk to Him. Giving teens the tools they need to confidently approach the throne is a game-changer. Our church embraces a prayer culture, and we echo that in how we do youth ministry. We conduct series’ on prayer and practice it through a variety of challenges and prompts in the large group and in small groups. I believe that it is essential to be biblio-centric and prayer focused in one’s approach to youth ministry.

One encounter with Jesus is all it takes. Just one. Be a pastor or leader or church or group that is constantly making space for teens to encounter Jesus. BIG moments with Jesus can happen in the smallest of moments or spaces – during the fellowship of a meal where an outcast kid finally feels like they have a seat at the table; during a one on one conversation where a leader simply “checks in”; during a worship song they’ve sang a thousand other times that suddenly hits different; during a biblical revelation or the laying on of hands in prayer; during small groups, or an encouraging text throughout the week, or serving alongside a faithful boomer in the nursery. To foster a healthy youth group, one must create space for relational, distraction-free, developmental, deep, and prayerful encounters with Jesus. One encounter with Jesus starts a ripple that uproars a mighty wave.

To foster a healthy youth group, one must create space for relational, distraction-free, developmental, deep, and prayerful encounters with Jesus.

Lindsay English
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