stuck on the youth ministry highway?

Highway Engineer Pranks

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My friend, Brian Aaby, posted an great question on a youth ministry Facebook group yesterday.

Meeting with another Youth Pastor tomorrow to discuss some “long term planning” aspects… on average, how many months in advance do you have the specifics of your ministry planned (not just big picture, but who’s doing announcements, leading the game, which game, etc.)?

The sincere replies nearly caused an aneurysm for me because they typified much of what has us driving around in circles on the proverbial youth ministry highway.

I weighed into the conversation, but I deleted my brief response this this morning to avoid sounding like a complete, insensitive jerk. So I’m going to take some time to share my thoughts in detail—which will confirm that I’m a complete insensitive jerk.

framing the right questions

Brian’s thought-provoking inquiry opens the door to my favorite activity—coaching youth workers. I want to share a strategy for answering Brian’s question that allows you to bring out the gifts, talents, and passions of students without feeling the need to provide all the answers.

I’ve discovered in 24 years of youth work that my job is very simple, if I follow this principle. I prepare saints for service; I don’t prepare services for saints. (Ephesians 4:12).

Timothy Eldred | Whiteboard BoundariesThat formula puts everyone—including me—in their proper position as integrated members of the Body of Christ. Instead of calling plays, I determine to only define boundaries. This image illustrates it well.

Last week, I sat down with our student leadership team to address some needs we’re facing. I took the time to describe upcoming obstacles from my perspective as their advisor, coach, mentor, and guide. Some of the items on the agenda I distributed were weekly issues, others monthly, some annually. A few were simple. Some complex. We discussed each aspect, and they accepted my POV that these were important matters that required attention. Then I exercised the most critical element of my job—I left the room and gave them time to problem solve on their own.

Six trained, capable, emerging teens wrestled through every item until they created an action plan for their ministry. They presented it to me for input and troubleshooting. I asked a few questions they failed to address, but in the end, they owned the outcome.

My responsibility in defining boundaries is to clarify WHAT needs done to ensure that lifelong discipleship and leadership development is taking place in context of a youth program. Providing a safe space and place for young people to answer the HOW, WHOWHERE, and WHEN of the what empowers them to enact a ministry and mission they own, as they experience God working through their lives.

Perhaps we’re stuck on the youth ministry highway because we have too many good answers for problems we don’t need to solve. Let’s begin asking more and better questions of the youth we serve. Train them in a messy environment where their voice matters and has meaning. In the end, it will produce the outcome we desire—a generation of youth in ministry for Jesus Christ.

free resource download

Endeavor | Seven PromisesDownload this simple, 7 Promises, poster. Print it and hang it on your wall, as a reminder of your real role of releasing young potential.

under our care or under our thumb?

There’s a fine line between support and suppression—between control and care. Let me quote one of history’s most dangerous leaders. A figure who crossed that line to exploit a generation for his agenda.

He alone, who owns the youth, gains the future.
— Adolf Hitler

thumbI just heard a disturbing story about missionary workers who clearly are unaware of their responsibility to release potential. A young, 12-year-old boy named, Danny, determined to accept the responsibility to distribute resources that tell God’s love story. The materials were created to share the Gospel in conjunction with the broadcast of the movie, The GodMan. The books were boxed and ready for rollout, but no one was taking the responsibility in Danny’s church. His response to what he viewed as a crisis, “I will do it myself.”

Going door-to-door at Christmastime, the young man put thousands of books in the hands spiritually hungry households. He asked his mother, “For Christmas, all I want is your help. Will you drive me around to tell the message of Jesus?” He even contributed his own cash to cover the cost of transportation.

This story captures the growing desperation of a global generation ready to respond to the cause of Jesus and do something significant now to transform their world. The response by any parent, teacher, and church leader should have been public praise and support. Instead, Danny was confronted with these words, “By whose authority did you do this?” “Why didn’t you ask us for permission first!”


When that story was shared with me, I was infuriated. When teens take initiative to put their faith in action for a kingdom cause or concern, our response must be nothing less than, “Awesome. How can I help you?”

Church leadership is called to “equip saints for the work of service” (Ephesians 4:12) and release their God-given potential. These young saints must be seen as co-equals, co-laborers, and co-owners of the cause of Christ.

Young leaders are under our care, but they are never to be under our thumb begging for permission to serve.

We don’t own youth, as Hitler suggested. We steward, guide, and help them accomplish the passion God has placed upon the their hearts. That’s the real role of a youth worker, parent, or any adult influencer.

Questions to answer:

  1. What advice would you give Danny to keep him from getting discouraged?
  2. How would have you helped him achieve his mission and ministry for Jesus?
  3. What are you doing to make sure youth have the freedom to explore their passion?

I’d love to hear your replies and comments as to how churches can set youth up for greater success to put their faith in action.


6 months later, Danny received a surprise Christmas gift from OneHope to honor his hard work and efforts. He also got a huge applause from an audience of his Albanian peers and a room of grateful church leaders this week. 

3 easy mandates to releasing potential

keep-calm-and-be-talmidimHave you ever been invited to play on an “elite” team or participate in an “honors” program of any kind. If so, you probably remember the chest-puffed-out-pride you felt knowing that someone thought you were good enough to earn a spot on the all-star roster.

Recognizing potential requires relationship with emerging young leaders longing be to selected to do something significant today.

On Monday night at our high school Track & Field banquet, I watched the demeanor of athletes who walked forward one after another to receive their league, regional, or state medals for a year of dedication and discipline. They all carried themselves with confidence, as their name was called to come up to take their place among a select, chosen few.

trackMy favorite moment of the event each year is another award given by coaches, which typically goes to runners who may not be the best-of-the-best — The Most Improved. This honor doesn’t usually get handed out to the naturally gifted or most talented athletes. Coaches determine recipients based upon work ethic and personal growth from the beginning to the end of the season. It is a coveted honor to be chosen for this award.

As an unconventional rabbi, Jesus didn’t wait for students to come seek him out. He hand-picked his Talmid — disciples — who fell short of being voted the best-of-the-best in their educational system and chose them to follow him as part of his Biet Midrash (house of study). He saw beneath their surface, recognized their potential, and issued an invitation because he believed they could become just like him and spread his message — his yoke — to everyone, everywhere (that was the commission).

Recognizing potential requires relationship with emerging young leaders longing be to selected to do something significant today. And they aren’t looking to be invited to a meeting, event, or program. They desire something much deeper — a call to revolution — because someone believes they can actually do it. They can be part of the global construction of a new world — a new kingdom of God’s design.

There are three mandates we must make priority if we are to ignite young leaders and unleash this generation for Jesus:

  1. Spend more time connecting them to life-giving relationships.
    This doesn’t mean we can have a personal connection with every young leader, but we can make sure each one has someone pouring into their lives, mentoring them in their faith journey. Spend the majority of your time making that happen!
  2. Call them to take risks and enter unchartered, dangerous waters.
    This might mean encouraging them launch out on their own to pursue the passion of their hearts (which can only be recognized through relationship). Or make sure your life in Christ is so appealing that they want to walk in your steps.
  3. Celebrate their hard work and personal growth both publicly and privately.
    There must be intentionality to honor their willingness to step out of the boat to risk something that can only be done because they are confident that Christ believes they can do it, too. You must instill identity by honoring their efforts.

How are you calling young leaders and igniting their confidence and calling to become talmid who follow in Jesus’ footsteps today? Let me know by commenting below. I’d love to hear your words of wisdom.