stuck on the youth ministry highway?

Highway Engineer Pranks

Permission to use granted by xkcd.com.

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.

Is the Way of Jesus in Our Way?

I’m troubled today, as I look across the world and witness the growing global turmoil. Troubled but not worried. Concerned. Not panicked. My emotions actually gravitate more toward wonder.

Malala Yousafzai

(We need youth with the tenacity of Malala to stand for truth and justice in Jesus’ name.)

I wonder about the lack of outrage among global youth who follow Jesus. Where are cries of young leaders tired of the rising violence, injustice, and devestation? Why are there no practical protests by global youth who insist on making peace the worldwide way of life? I wonder at what point will their passion, energy, and common sense demand better decisions by governments more concerned with saving face than serving the earth’s inhabitants.

And I wonder when the Church will make room for their voice and vision to create “kingdom come…on earth as it is in heaven.” We need a youth movement now more than ever! A generation of young activists tired of activities focused on making today easier, while watching their tomorrow deteriorate. Where are they? Why are they silent?

Jesus was a revolutionary leader who came to make a statement. Not about religion. About life — living today with an eye on tomorrow. Everyone’s tomorrow. His message was peace and the restoration of all things. And it was political. The young leaders he trained were looking toward a new day, and he taught them to think differently than their world, culture, society, religion, and traditions. He modeled, mentored, and mobilized.

Recent decades remain void of radical young leaders involved in a global movement for good. An uprising of peace by means of love through the message of Jesus by an outraged generation is simply nonexistent. But one must finally form once again. Locally. Regionally. And globally. Youth in action armed with God’s Word as their sole weapon of grace and truth.

Christian communities grounded in the complete Gospel story of Jesus Messiah need to stop playing games, practicing church, and placating to a desperate generation ready to take their rightful place as peers in the Body of Christ. We must engage them in God’s Word and in His work as equal members of the cause of Christ and turn them lose.

Youth programs have to change drastically in order to produce Christ-centered activists, not just Christian activities. If the means, methods, and models of youth work don’t result in radical young leaders, are we simply wasting our time? If so, young Jesus followers should refuse to tolerate our lack of confidence in God’s call on their lives.

I’m committed to raising the standard and releasing the potential of young people to build the kingdom Jesus came to preach. My sole purpose is to see a worldwide wave of a youth learning by doing and leading by example. I can’t create a movement (that’s Jesus’ responsibility), but I can continue to call for it, create space for it, and craft tools to support the mission and ministry of young people ready to discover their role within it.

My prayer is that the future of youth ministry will simply be defined as youth in ministry. May the Church repent from decades of reterick and retreats and replace our programs with practices that create radical activists reaching the world with God’s Word and His work of love.

The barbarian way of Jesus that called apprentices to hold nothing back and live relentlessly is lacking in the Church. I wonder if his way might be in our way and outside our comfort zone. Are we willing to embrace his model of youth ministry?

I wonder what that would look like. As I said, I’m troubled but not worried. Concerned. Not panicked. Because the way Jesus recruited, resourced, and released youth to build his church will always work. It’s time we follow his example. He did ministry with youth then removed himself and turned relentless, trained young leaders lose on the world. Thank God Jesus guided them by his spirit but got out of their way.


How are you making a safe space for youth to risk failure to discover, develop, and demonstrate their faith and pursue the passions God has placed on their hearts today?

Blind. Deaf. Dumb.

At age 44, there are parts of me falling apart. And I can’t do anything about it. Last summer, I added a hearing aid to to my life. Last week, I gave it a friend — bifocals. Both are teaching me valuable lessons.

deaf, blind, or just dumb.

“Can you turn up the TV, please?” Or, “What did they say?” Those words are no longer part of my vocabulary. I can now hear birds, wind, and conversations. I’m so glad my wife is persistent to push me (or parent me). “You need to schedule an eye exam, Tim.” I drug my feet but eventually got my butt to the optometrist. Now, I can once again see — near and far.

“Oh, that’s just a bird. What was I thinking?”

I need nudged from time-to-time — reminded to remember what leadership is really about — putting myself in a position where I can hear and see their hearts and hurts of people. Often, I get so busy being visionary that I’m blind to the needs of others right before me. Too worried about the weight of my own words that fail to listen to other voices.

Maybe you’re in a similar position. Tasked with seeing the big picture. Determined to hear the cries of the masses. You must know that both are impossible until you’re determine to see details among dreams. Hear whispers within roars.

Effective leadership requires intentional relationship. Being successful in the broad is a byproduct of being mindful of the miniscule.

I can wear bifocals and appear blind. Utilize hearing aids and function deaf. Tools are effective only when I am not dumb to neglect my need of them.

Here are 4 simple ideas to help you with this matter in your ministry:

  • Look for details.
  • Listen to whispers.
  • Linger in the little.
  • Leave the large up to God.

Please take a minutes to share your secrets of how you practice these priorities. I’d love to read your comments.