Getting to Know God: Forming Cultures that Reflect the Image of God

Like you, I have sat in my fair share of youth ministry strategy meetings. We ask questions such as, “How do we reach teens in our community?” and “How can we inspire our youth group to take their faith more seriously?” Out of these conversations often comes a set of new practices, some helpful, and others not so much. We come back to our office Monday morning with a plan for ways we will lead our youth ministry into a new season. And as good as our strategy and philosophy might be, we know this rigmarole all too well. If the ministry does not move the hearts of students towards a deeper relationship with God, then it is worth as much as a box of leftover camp shirts.

If the ministry does not move the hearts of students towards a deeper relationship with God, then it is worth as much as a box of leftover camp shirts.

From the beginning, the narrative of Scripture reminds us that we are bearers of God’s image (Genesis 1:26), and therefore our actions reflect God’s character to the observant world. Yet we confess that at times our actions can reflect something other than God. In seasons of transition, where pressure seems to build at an alarming rate, our behavior, rather than reflecting the patient love of God, can reflect the opposite. Perhaps unintentionally, our ministries will take on the behavior of our lives.

I do not know God as well as I would like to. When I feel this, I turn to Scripture, for I believe it to be one of the most important lenses we have been given to see God in our world. In seasons where my anxiety seems to have a firm hold on my life, I remember the God who liberated Israel from bondage. In times when my sense of security in relationships wavers, I remember the God who bound God’s self to Abram in covenant. And when I feel the hardship of life is too heavy, I look to the story of God who, through death, overcame all that weighs us down. This is why my regular engagement in Scripture matters so much for me in ministry. As I have experienced seasons of significant change and struggle, my perspective on the God revealed in Scripture has grown cloudy. In times such as these, our views can change without us even knowing.

So what does this all have to do with our purpose and practice of youth ministry? As leaders, it is inevitable that our ministries reflect our lives, our perspectives, and behaviors. And if we reflect God and our ministries are reflections of us, I would suggest that our ministries are reflections of our perspective of God. What sort of God do our ministries communicate? Do our strategies and practices ask too much time from students, making them feel as though they have to earn their love from God? Or do we ask too little, making students assume that God does not care if we walk the hard road of discipleship?

What I am suggesting is that ministry strategy ultimately fails to move the hearts of students if it is not based in the true character of God. I am not claiming to have a better understanding of who God is. In fact, some days I feel like I do not understand God at all. What I am saying is that I am trying now more than ever. I am not suggesting that we abandon all pursuits of philosophy and strategy. Rather, when you sit down to plan your next season of ministry, before developing any plans, give attention to your relationship with God. Stay attentive to your soul. Especially in seasons of personal change, ones filled with pain or anxiety, pray for the eyes to see God more clearly. Pray that God would keep you attentive to your ongoing journey of transformation. “Truly, the best thing any of us have to bring to leadership is our own transforming selves.”[1] I speak as one who is slowly coming to understand this truth. Youth ministry that transforms the hearts of our teenagers begins with our willingness to stay attentive to our perspectives of God.

When you sit down to plan your next season of ministry, before developing any plans, give attention to your relationship with God. Stay attentive to your soul.


[1] Ruth Haley Barton, Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership: Seeking God in the Crucible of Ministry

Ryan Hannay
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