5 Critical Questions for Youth Pastors

Vibrating-steering-wheelSo I’ve realized in the past few years just how lackadaisical I’ve been in my student ministry.  It’s not that I lost my creative drive or passion for families…I just got comfortable ‘coasting’, so to speak.  I’d still invest in some ‘youth ministry awesomeness’ — but I wasn’t looking at my ministry or myself with a critical eye.

You may need to make a hard left to course correct…asking these questions could help yank the wheel.

1.  Why am I doing this?  Not this specific event, but church ministry in general!  If the answer is less than ‘Jesus called me to do it and because of that, I can do nothing else,’ consider a course correction.  It’s easy to get mired down in thoughts of family provision, lack of experience or training in another field, or just plain old ‘I don’t know what else I would do.’  None of those are reasons to stay in ministry…and they aren’t strong enough reasons to keep us there, either.

2.  Why am I doing this?  And by ‘this’, I mean, yes, that specific event – ministry – trip – etc.   If the answer is anywhere in the wheelhouse of “because we always do this”, “because I already have the route programmed on my gps”, “because we’d have revolt if we got rid of this”….it’s time to yank the wheel!  We MUST assess the reasons why we do what we do…otherwise this youth ministry becomes the newest generation of ‘we’ve never done it that way before.’

3.  Can I do this without Jesus?  If the answer is yes, then it’s not ministry…it’s programming.  I would jokingly tell my wife “I’ve been doing student ministry so long, I don’t even need Jesus anymore…I got this.”  Then one day, I realized it wasn’t as much of a joke as I thought it was.  I had mostly cut Jesus out of the process.  That’s not ministry.  If it’s not something ‘bigger than me’ to accomplish, then it’s not worth doing.

4.  Who is my Provider?  If our answer is the church, then we’re already in the weeds.  Make a hard U-turn!  We are not at our church for money, insurance, vacation time, or whatever other benefit we get that the guy down the street doesn’t get.  We’re at-will employees of Almighty God – and HE alone is our Jehovah Jireh…not the personnel committee, the church treasurer, the less-than-tithers or the lucrative givers.  Don’t make me rant about youth pastors who go or stay based primarily on money.  I was caught in that trap once upon a time…and it’s a miserable existence.

5.  Who is my First Love?  It really is the most important question of all.  Sometimes church work can suck the Jesus right out of us.  Be sure to intentionally invest in your personal walk with Jesus – independent of Bible study prep, sermon notes, or whatever other work-related reason drives you to Scripture.  Have you been embraced by Holiness today – have you sensed His presence – do you know His laughter – has He whispered anything to you recently?

Jesus is at the beginning and end of all we do as youth workers.  As you travel this road, make sure He’s also in the middle.

The Timex Standard in Youth Ministry

clock 2Have you ever spent an entire week sweating and bleeding and not sleeping alongside teenagers on a mission trip only to return home from the trip to a parent who is 40 minutes late picking them up?  It’s maddening.  We’re physically tired.  We’re spiritually spent.  We love our students and exult in all that God has done over the week…but we’re ready to go home.  We’ve had these kids for a week – the least the parents can do is show up on time, right?

And so the hypocrisy begins.

We internally rail on parents when they show up late to retrieve their students or the group has to wait because someone is running late for departure time.  But we’re also the first to pull out the Holy Spirit when we need to run late during Bible study.  I mean, we can’t rush the things of God – and maybe the Spirit is just thick amongst our students one night.

Or how about this one – we tell parents we’ll be back from the outing at a specific time, but we’re running late because…well, hey, things happen.  We are coordinating an eight car, two passenger van convoy.  And you’d think that fast food restaurant had never served a bus-load of teenagers with an abundance of special orders and a pocket full of pennies before!  Cut us some slack!

Life cannot be ruled by the clock.  Sometimes issues do arise.  Sometimes the Spirit of God does demand additional minutes to complete His work.

And sometimes parents run late picking up their kids.  If we want to hold them to a Timex standard, we better keep an eye on our own pocket watch.  Clocks can be sinister inventions…but they are also powerful communicators about what and WHO matters.

Best Thing I Heard at SYMC 2013: Day 3

figure-watering-grass1.  Water what’s strong.

Don’t waste time trying to nurse what’s dead – invest in what’s strong and allow it to overtake the weak areas.  LOVE IT!

2.  Sometimes the messenger IS the message.

Definitely sometimes the messenger enhances a message that might have otherwise been missed.

3.  I killed people in the Bible for lying to me.

Yep – God don’t mess around…so help me always be honest with you, Jesus.

4.  I don’t get carpet.

It’s a floor covering made of fiber, Matt.

5.  We shouldn’t be driven there.  We shouldn’t someday make it there.  We should start there.  (on our knees before Jesus.)

Bring me back to that place in my life, Lord, where prayer was the first thing – not the last.

6.  I am with you – even in the aftermath.

Thank God – I might even say ‘especially’ in the aftermath.

7.  God does say he care for the flowers – and they live in dirt.

God’s provision doesn’t always look the way we think it should.

8.  It’s time to focus less on the why and more on the who.


9.  I’m flippin’ Phil Bell.

It sounds so cool with a British accent.

10.  Dad, can you help me with my NHS forms?

I’d rather do ministry with that kid (and his brothers) than any other kid on this planet!

Everyone’s Called to Youth Ministry…

….comes out today!

I’m so excited!!  Not because my book got published – but because I truly believe this philosophy.  I think it’s transformational for youth workers who are tired of leading alone.  I think it’s rejuvenating for churches who need youth ministry to be about more than getting through another week of Bible study.  And i definitely believe it’s foundational for teenagers who need influence from as many adults as possible who are trying to follow Jesus!

Get your copy here!!  

Sifting through Joplin…and teenagers

(This post was written one year ago today.)

Recently, I took my students to Joplin, MO, to assist with the tornado-ravaged residents there.  The destruction was horrific and indescribable.  We spent the week perched atop what used to be an art teacher’s home – now merely a pile of rubble, literally.

We were instructed to find a spot on top of the seven foot pile of debris and start sifting through what was wreckage to us.  We were to rifle through a five foot radius, clearing until we reached grass.  That was no small task.

What was the purpose?  The art teacher wanted to recover any scraps of old artwork, supplies, or media that could be used in a future art project memorializing the city’s disaster.

So we literally siphoned through this man’s home – sticks, bricks, mortar, shingles, drywall and all – looking for slivers of porcelain, broken marbles, anything usable for his art project.  To us, it was all rubble.  To him, priceless.

During the week I realized just how much that is a picture of youth ministry.  We sit atop what seems like a pile of rubble (the lives of our students).  Sometimes what we’d like to do is just raze it – clear it – move it into a dump truck and start over.  It’s so much easier to just explain it to them, demand they get it, and move on.

But what our kids need is someone who will do the tedious work of sifting through the refuse and remains of their ransacked lives –pointing out the slivers of hope, beauty, and potential that God sees in them.

Your students – all of them – are priceless works of art waiting to happen….are you sifting through to find beauty among the ashes?  God has placed it there –invaluable artwork waiting to happen…..can you help them find those pieces?

Youth Ministry Safety Starts with You


The word conjures different meanings for different people.  In Texas, that word means ‘I have a gun…so I am safe, but you might not be.’  In the world of junior high boys, it means throwing a thumb to your forehead before you have to ‘claim’ the fart.  Apparently it means something in football, too – but I’m not athletic….so I can’t really speak to that.

Safety means different things to different people – but it’s a non-negotiable for ministry.  Especially with students.  Now I’m not talking about background checks on your volunteers (which should absolutely be done!).  I don’t mean carrying insurance and keeping your church vehicles well-maintained (which absolutely should be done!).  I’m talking about a culture of safety – and it starts with the youth leader.

Teenagers can be unintentionally ruthless in their teasing.  Create a culture of safety by requiring that jokes never use another student as the punch-line.   We’ve always had a ‘no-slams’ rule in our student ministry.  If a teenager cuts someone down, they have to give two compliments to the person….even if it was all in jest…even if the other person laughed.  Once, we were playing a game in our youth ministry group.  One of the teenagers said something off-handed to another student….something along the lines of ‘don’t be such a girl’ or something like that.  Everyone laughed – including the student who was targeted.  About 20 minutes later, and out of the blue, it took me and three football players to pry that kids white-knuckled fingers off the neck of the kid ‘who was just teasing.’  I am confident that the wounds ran deeply and silently enough in the assailant that he would have absolutely strangled that young man to death had we not been there to stop it.

Teenagers can be unintentionally wounding in their pranking.  Pranks seem harmless enough, right?  Wrong.  Pranks merely exploit the one for the amusement of the most.  And in a culture where most kids are trying to make sure they don’t say, wear, or do something that brings unwarranted attention to them…pranks can be a switchblade to the throat.  Recently, I heard a story of a sixth grader on his first youth trip.  He was nervous about going and almost backed out at the last moment.  During the trip – and while he slept – and with youth pastor sanction – the students painted this young man’s face with finger nail polish.  Harmless enough.  But when the young teenager awoke to find he had been violated, he had a complete meltdown.  Safety.  It just wasn’t there.  Not only was this kid not ‘protected’ – he was set-up by the adult he trusted and taken advantage of during our most vulnerable time…while we’re dreaming.  Not only that, but after his meltdown, the youth pastor simply said ‘Suck it up.’  No apologies.  Just more danger.

Teenagers can be unintentionally callous in their youth groups.  New kids come in – they’re never greeted, never spoken to, never engaged.  It communicates a silent death to kids who are looking for connection.  “You can’t find that here – you do not belong – we don’t know you – and we don’t care to.”

Is your youth ministry safe?  If you are allowing, encouraging, or participating in teasing…it isn’t.

Is your youth ministry safe?  If you have a heritage of pranks, initiation, and hazing, even seemingly harmless ones…it isn’t.

Is your youth ministry safe?  If you don’t stand in the gap for students when they’re wounded, taking seriously their tears, their hurt, their scars…it isn’t.

Is your youth ministry safe?  If you are the only person engaging new students…it isn’t.

Is your youth ministry safe?  It starts with you.