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Weekly Resources, Ideas and Articles from The Source for Youth Ministry
Tuesday, September 26, 2006
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By Jonathan McKee
September 26, 2006
And Whatever You Do, Don't Forget This...
Priority One for Youth Ministry Volunteers
by Jonathan McKee
Last week my friend Brandon, a youth pastor of a growing new church in West Sacramento asked me,
"Jonathan, what's the one thing I really need to teach my volunteers this fall?"
He reiterated. "You know... I've got some new volunteers, and some who began volunteering last
year. What are the most important things they need to know as we begin our ministry with kids this
What would you answer?
Do our volunteers really understand our expectations? Are we equipping them to carry out those
expectations? Ask yourself this: How many of our volunteers clearly understand the answer to
these two basic questions:
The answer is in the training and equipping of our volunteers.
- What do you want me to do?
- How can I be successful at it?
As a writer, it's often difficult for me to think outside of that paradigm; so I told Brandon,
"You know... the answer to your question would be a great article outlining key practices that
youth workers need to equip their volunteer teams with."
So, thanks to Brandon, I set out to provide just that: a resource that youth workers could use to
train their own staff.
But before simply regurgitating my experience on the matter, I thought I'd do a little research
and ask a bunch of others in the field what they thought was 'priority one' for our volunteers.
And that's just what I did. I took a survey. I asked authors and youth ministry professors; but I
also asked people in the field like Brandon that are on the front lines with kids making an
impact-youth workers that are leading kids to Christ, discipling them, and equipping them to reach
I admit I was a little surprised to see the similarity in all the responses. I was expecting a
cornucopia of different philosophies and methods. And even though different passions and small
stylistic differences were expressed, it's pretty obvious that a few staple practices have become
foundational elements for our youth ministry teams.
Here are the essentials that rose to the top.
Five Essential Youth Ministry Practices:
"Keep it Real." That's what kids say today. It's almost becoming clich?, but it seems to
have evolved from a desire for something authentic.
Kids don't want to be played. They recognize a fake 50 meters out. They'll know if you don't like
kids and they'll know if God isn't real in your life. "Be yourself," says John Senechal,
one of the youth workers I surveyed from North Dakota. "Kids hate a phony."
Les Christie, professor of youth ministry at William Jessup University responded to our survey
with this simple truth. "The bottom line in Youth Ministry is to love kids and love God."
It doesn't get any simpler than that.
Our volunteers need to authentically model a Godly lifestyle. That doesn't mean put on a tie and
say, "God Bless ya!" Authenticity means 'keeping it real.' We're just another person that
can't do it on our own and need Jesus desperately. If our volunteers don't need Jesus... then we
don't need them. Kids won't identify with people that think their perfect.
Our volunteers need to be themselves-even if they're geeks! One of the youth workers I surveyed
was my friend Rob who works with a bunch of unchurched kids at a campus club. Rob shared, "We
have this 50+ year old guy, a nerd who talks about robots and cameras. But he genuinely loves
kids. And they, in turn, love him. He's not trying to be cool or be somebody that he's not - kids
see right through that anyway."
Arizona's Travis Hearn said, "For some strange reason, adults fear that teenagers think they
are aliens - and they are right, they do! But, trying to 'fit in' or 'be one of them' is not the
right answer. The answer is in being you. Just be yourself and love kids."
Authenticity trumps everything else. Everyone working with youth needs to genuinely love God and
2. Connecting with Kids
Saddleback's Kurt Johnston responded quickly with his priority one for our volunteers: "It's
all about relationships."
That sums it up well. It doesn't matter what you call it: contacting, connecting, building
relationships... it's all about our relationships with kids. I don't think I received one
response that didn't include this important element. We need to connect with kids. But sometimes
this doesn't come naturally.
Connecting can be extremely scary for volunteers at first. Don Talley, Senior Director of YFC USA
Ministry shared, "In my experience, volunteers (whether in a church or para-church ministry)
initially struggle with the concept of 'contacting' or 'initiating relationships' with students.
Teaching your volunteers the importance of how to initiate a relationship with a teenager can
produce a ministry of hospitality and warmth."
Youth Specialties' President Mark Oestreicher agreed. "I think all volunteers need basic
training on how to connect with teenagers."
We need to help our volunteers understand the importance of initiating contact. This means that
we have to kill the horseshoe phenomenon. I talk about this phenomenon in my article
Why Your Volunteers
Should Be Like a Fart. You've all seen it-a bunch of kids in the middle of the room, and
adults around the perimeter in a large horseshoe shape. Guess what? We don't need mere chaperons
who want to sit around and talk with each other. Instead we need people that love kids and want to
get to know them. We need adults that will break out of the horseshoe and start initiating contact
with kids. I trained my jr. high staff how to do this by telling them, "Be like a fart." (Pardon
the example-Junior high staff speak "junior high" fluently.) Dissipate through the room evenly.
Whenever I saw staff bunched up in clumps, I'd simply tell them, "Break wind," and they knew
exactly what I was talking about.
Side note: I've been part of numerous youth groups where volunteers were never given
the opportunity to mingle and bond with each other. This isn't good. As a result, it was
always that much harder to break up "staff clumps" because they genuinely wanted to see each
other and never were given time to dialogue for even a few minutes. Let's be honest, it's
natural to want to say, "Hi," and catch up with your co-volunteers. And it's
frustrating when some 'Nazi' youth pastor is always breaking up conversation like a
disgruntled Algebra teacher. Avoid this problem by creating a time for staff to hang out
together before or after youth group, or at your weekly staff meeting. Be proactive by letting
them know, "This is the time to dialogue with each other because we really need to save our
youth group time for the kids."
But our volunteers not only need to understand what they should be doing-initiating contact, they
also need to be trained how to do this. We need to teach our volunteers skills as basic as learning
names, asking the right questions and listening. Entire
chapters, even entire
books have been written on this
"But this is NOT something our volunteers JUST do during youth group," Susan Eaton, a youth
worker in Northern Kentucky added. "I want them emailing kids, sending them cards, making some
kind of contact with them during the week. Don't just depend on Sunday night (youth group night)
to be enough. Be intentional about connecting with them during the week."
Bayside Church, a church making a huge impact in the Sacramento area has a similar philosophy of
ministry. Bayside wants every kid in the church to have at least one adult that's crazy about
them. "In order for a student to make it they need a dedicated fan," says Brock Morgan, YS
The Core Trainer and
Bayside's high school ministry director. "...an adult who will come alongside of them and walk
this journey of life with them - through the good, bad, and the ugly.
But how can we connect with kids if we don't understand them?
3. Understanding the Needs of Kids Today
An essential part of connecting with kids is understanding the world that they live in.
Dare 2 Share's Lane Palmer responded,
"Volunteers can't help a generation who they think are 'just like we were' as teens." We
need to equip our volunteers to dismiss their assumptions and really take a peek into the world
of teenagers today.
One way to do this is to take a glimpse at what teenagers value most today: their music,
social networking sites
(MySpace, Xanga, etc.), T.V. and movies. (Click here
for Jonathan's recent article on the effect of our kids' 6 1/2 hour per day average media
consumption habit.) Numerous ministries exist that provide
training in the area of understanding our
But research doesn't outshine experience. The best way to better understand our culture today is
to befriend kids living in this generation. Les Christie chimed in on this subject. "Our
volunteers need to understand what the needs are in the lives of the kids they are working with,
and to know how to best serve those needs. You do that by hanging out with them, and by listening
to them more than talking."
One of the essential ingredients of "understanding" is truly listening.
My buddy Rob said it well. "Too often our volunteers think the way to help is by saying
something significant or meaty. Yet, it seems like kids love people who don't always have the
answer but are willing to listen-people who won't judge them or try to fix them."
Dave Smith, a youth worker in Tampa cast his vote for the importance of listening. He shared,
"Gerry is 74 years old. He literally comes to our ministry on Fridays in a wheelchair, or at
best on a walker-type contraption. He has ear plugs because he is such a frail, old man that the
music hurts his ears. But that does not stop him from coming. And when he hits the door the kids
absolutely flock to him! They do so, not because his apparel is suave (far from it!), nor because
he is a charismatic, funny, extroverted adult leader. Nope. They hang with him because he listens
Listening is a window to understanding our kids.
Our volunteers need to understand teenagers in the world they live in today. But it doesn't end
4. Sharing the Gospel Message
Let's face it. All of this is meaningless if kids don't have an opportunity to know Christ. Chap
Clark, Senior Editor of the Youthworker Journal and professor at Fuller Seminary, agrees.
"Youth workers, paid and volunteer, need to realize that everything we do is for one purpose:
to convince each individual kid that God and his body, the church, invites them to the intimate
and wild dance of faith."
Our volunteers may know Christ and even live a life that represents Him. But can they verbalize
what it is to have a relationship with Him?
Pennsylvania youth pastor Chad Groff agreed that our volunteers need to be able to clearly
communicate the Gospel message. "First, they MUST know how to lead a student to saving faith
Let me not steer you wrong. An authentic lifestyle will speak louder than words. But when students
notice something different about us, we need to be ready to verbalize about the hope that's within
1 Peter 3:15 (NIV)
Notice what that verse says, and what it doesn't say. It doesn't say, "be prepared to trick
people into listening to a sales pitch that we are forcing down their throats!" But don't
miss what it DOES say. It says to be prepared to give an answer to those who see the hope within
"...Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for
the hope that you have..."
Every year at the beginning of the year I hosted a staff retreat for all of my volunteers. I
covered many of the essentials in this article. In addition, I required my staff to memorize a
Gospel Presentation and practice it
on at least two other staff people during the weekend. Then I required them to try it on someone
at home in the next week.
One of my volunteers, Kyle, was a college kid who still lived at home. In the week following the
retreat he told his mom, "Jonathan is making us practice sharing these
'Four Principles in
the Bible that You Just Shouldn't Miss!' ...can I share this with you?" She agreed and
Klye went through the Gospel presentation, sharing every story as practiced. When he arrived at
the end, he said, "Now I'm supposed to ask which of these people you are." (The method we
used left them with an opportunity to respond.) Kyle's mom pointed to the box that said "I
would like to have a personal relationship with God through Jesus."
Kyle stopped for a second and said, "Oh... are you acting like one of the kids that might want
to have Jesus?"
Kyle's mom said matter-of-factly, "No, I want that!"
Kyle hesitated for a moment... but then said, "Well what the heck, let's pray." That night
he led his mom to Christ and she started attending church with him.
Dare 2 Share's Greg Stier responded to our survey, "If Barna is correct and up to 50% of the
teenagers in youth groups across America are NOT genuinely born again, then job number one is to
equip our adult volunteers how to clearly and simply explain the gospel message to the teenagers
they are working with in their youth group. Without the gospel being the bedrock, how can we
expect to build a youth ministry that will stand the test of time?"
Greg and I have a similar passion for evangelism. And we've had some great
discussions about the
balance between lifestyle and confrontational evangelism. Our volunteers need to have a basic
understanding of that balance. They need to not only live authentic lifestyles representing
Christ, they also need to be able to verbalize what that commitment is all about.
5. Facilitating a Small Group
I'll admit, as much as an advocate for small groups as I am, I was a little surprised that this
skill made the list of foundational elements that our volunteers need to know. Regardless, the
majority of youth workers, scholars, speakers and trainers that I polled included this as one of
the foundational skills that our volunteers should develop.
I guess I shouldn't be surprised. In our ministry here at
THE SOURCE, almost all of the free curriculum we develop
for you includes small group questions. "It's ridiculous to write up a video clip idea without
small group questions today," THE SOURCE's
Matt Furby contends. "So many of
today's youth groups use small groups in some shape or form. Every discussion starter I write
always includes a creative opener, a relevant scripture, and small group questions that help
students get into the Word and understand the big idea that's being taught."
Our volunteers need to be equipped to facilitate their small groups. Note that I didn't say,
"monopolize" their small groups. Small group leaders are facilitators not speakers. And that's
probably good news for many of them. Because most of our volunteers don't want to have the
responsibility to have to be "profound" every week. But they sure wouldn't mind a
few good pointers on how to run
small groups without loosing their mind!
We need to help our volunteers become good small group facilitators.
Communicating the Five Essentials
My prayer is that you use this article and its numerous links to equip your volunteers with these
five key practices. Some of you already kick off each school year with a volunteer training
evening or weekend. Feel free to use this article and research as part of your training
But don't stop there. Find a regular time to train and equip your volunteer youth ministry staff.
Take the first 15 minutes of your staff meetings and read a youth ministry
article or teach some
helpful principles you just learned from a book. These times might be good times to teach other
key areas of importance in youth ministry like
boundaries-what's appropriate and
what's not. This article just scratches the surface of the many youth ministry elements worth
teaching to your volunteers.
Volunteers aren't always easy to find.
And once we find them... we'd like to
keep them. One of the best ways
to keep your volunteers is to answer the two questions I asked at the beginning of this article-the
two questions that our volunteers are all asking:
Teaching your volunteers these five principles will help you provide those answers.
- What do you want me to do?
- How can I be successful at it?
Jonathan McKee is president of The Source for Youth Ministry and author
of the book "Do They Run When
They See You Coming? Reaching Out to Unchurched Teenagers."
helps us better understand youth culture today, and equips us to actually reach out to these kids.
Jonathan studies youth culture and trends,
training across the
country and providing free online resources, training, & ideas for youth workers at
Something You Can Use This Week: Using Jet Li to Teach About Our Two Natures
How do we talk with kids about our sinful nature?
What is a good illustration of the battle between two natures?
Is there a video clip starring Jet Li that illustrates this?
Yes, yes, and yes! (okay, so two of those questions weren't actually "yes or no" questions...
but it sounded really good to say, "yes, yes, and yes!" And)
Here's a fun discussion by Matt Furby
about choosing to live by the Spirit and not our sinful nature.
Movie Clip: The One, starring Jet Li
Main Point: There is a war inside us between the Spirit and our sinful nature. Therefore,
we must choose to live by the Spirit and not by our sinful nature.
Attention Grabber: Movie - The One
The One is a pretty entertaining movie. To sum it up, it's basically a typical Jet Li
martial arts movie, combined with Matrix-style special effects. The movie takes place in the
future, where there are 23 universes, all similar versions of this one. An assassin named Yulaw
(Jet Li) has found a way to travel from one universe to another, attempting to kill all of the
other versions of himself. So in a nutshell, the movie is about Jet Li fighting against himself.
A good excuse for two Jet Li's in one movie. If you're not into martial arts or science fiction,
chances are you won't like the movie. On the other hand, if you're really into martial arts,
you'll be amazed to see Jet Li fighting himself using two completely different styles of fighting.
Pretty cool. As far as appropriateness, it's got a lot of fighting, a couple people dying, not
much blood, and there are a few "S-bombs" dispersed throughout the movie (that means a little
Clip: Taking myself on...
The clip we're using is during the last battle of the movie. The good version of Jet Li,
Gabe, must now confront the evil version, Yulaw, in an all out duel. Yulaw has just
defeated an agent of the inter-dimensional police (gosh that sounds cheesy), played by Jason
Statham (The Transporter, Italian Job). Now Gabe steps up to challenge Yulaw once and for
all. The entire scene is one big fight scene with only three lines of dialogue, but ends with
Yulaw defeating Gabe. It is a great illustration of how we fight our own sinful nature, and how
sometimes it just seems unbeatable. And trust me, the boys in your group will cheer. The clip
begins at approximately 66:06, when Jason Statham is hanging on the railing of a case of stairs,
and ends at approximately 68:48, when Jet Li is lying on the ground. Because of the nature of
this particular clip, you don't have to be as precise with the timer as some of the other film
You know, I'm tired of some of the stupid stuff I keep doing in my life. (This would be a
great time to share something that you might struggle in. Be sure it's appropriate to share with
students, of course.) It's almost like there's a war going on inside me. In fact, I would say
that a lot of times I'm fighting with myself. I found this clip from a movie called The One,
that gives a really good picture of what is going on inside my heart. Just so you can tell the two
apart, the bad guy is the one who takes off his jacket and ties it around his waist. Let's go ahead
and watch the clip and then we'll get together afterward to talk about this battle we fight with
(Really there isn't much of a script to write for this scene. But here are the lines:)
GABE: Yulaw! You came here for me. Now I am here for you.
After this, Gabe and Yulaw fight in a warehouse until Yulaw finally defeats Gabe. He knocks Gabe
against some sort of appliance in the warehouse and he falls to the ground. It seems as if he's
YULAW: After this, there will be only one.
GABE: I won't be the one. But neither will you.
This clip is exactly what goes on in my heart so much of the time. It feels like I'm at war with
myself. It seems like I keep doing the stupid things that I try so hard not to, while I just can't
do what I keep promising God I will do! Have you ever felt that way? You know, the Bible
actually talks about this battle that is going on.
Divide into Small Groups:
Let's break up into our discussion groups and try to figure out just exactly what to do with this
battle. Perhaps we can figure out how to finally win some of these fights. Then afterward we'll
come back together for a final word.
CLICK HERE FOR THE REST OF THIS VIDEO CLIP IDEA INCLUDING SMALL GROUP QUESTIONS, SCRIPTURE AND A
WRAP UP TALK
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