y t h o l o g y

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The History Of Youth Ministry And Volunteerism

Jeff Grenell
The history of Youth Ministry is a remarkable journey. In some ways difficult to chronicle, but, exciting to research.

From Sunday School To Public School

It mostly began about 150+ years ago in the mid-1800's with Sunday Schools in the Church that began aged-group emphasis to youth for the training of young people in their Christian faith. Kind of the original 'small group' so prevalent in the modern Church today.

Along with this Sunday School model in the mid 19th century, we saw the YMCA movement in the cities of America that stirred the wave of para-church organizations working alongside the Church. The Y ministry placed Youth Ministry in a different setting outside the Church for the first time and began a public movement of Christianity in the marketplace. One of those organizations was Christian Endeavor, a major missions movement that impacted the world globally.

In the mid-1900's, one of the leading para-church organizations that changed Youth Ministry was Youth For Christ (YFC). And YFC authored the beginning of hundreds of such organizations across America that would rise up about the same time as one of the most historic Christian movements in modern history was just beginning.

In the early 1970's, the West would see an awakening that stirred California and the rest of the country in many ways. We call it the Jesus Movement. A grass-roots awakening which started a cultural phenomenon that influenced a wave of young people into the Church. And with this wave came an increasing need to disciple these young converts.

Just before the turn of the century, in the 1990's, the Church saw another powerful wave of Youth Ministry spurred by a growing number of mega-churches and full-time Youth Ministry teams that placed a major emphasis upon the middle school, high school, and university campus. These Youth Leaders would stir a generation of young people to take their faith to the public schools and transform the way Youth Ministry was done in the Church.

A Common Denominator In All Of This 

With all of that history aside, there is one thread that has never changed in Youth Ministry. The Volunteer. Because only about 80-83% of churches in America have a part-time or full-time paid Youth Pastor (Group Inc, Simply Youth Ministry, Youth Pastor.com), there is still a unique dynamic going on in Christianity. The volunteer Youth Leader.

If we are going to turn the Church over to the next generation, we must place a greater emphasis upon Resourcing, Coaching, and Training our Youth Leaders. And where it is applicable, Resourcing, Coaching, and Training our Youth Leaders to mentor the many volunteers who work in the Church. Obviously, it depends on the size, the philosophy, and the mission of each Church. But, we cannot deny the great need for a Youth Ministry Leadership emphasis in America at this time. There is too much at stake.

With the alarming rate of young people leaving the Church after High School and University, it is apparent that the Church must be intentional about developing children from birth to graduation. While reading an article this past week by Dan Reiland, the leadership guru, I was struck by his comments that if we are going to enlist volunteers at any level of leadership we have to listen to them. Reiland speaks of the wealth of knowledge that our volunteers can give us if we would simply listen to them.

Voices From The Volunteer Graveyard

With this in mind, I want to deal with several statements that I have heard from Youth Ministry volunteers over the years. Read through these real life statements and see if you can avoid some of the mistakes that I have made along the way with my volunteers:

"I never knew exactly what they wanted me to do" 
Clarity breeds production. As leaders we must understand that asking someone to 'set up the chairs' is really setting them up for failure. Because we have not given them directions on where to set the chairs, how many chairs to set up, or what time to have them set up. Identify a chain of command so that people know who to talk with in case they need questions answered. Create your own Job Description for tasks and make sure that everyone understands the task to be assigned.

"There was no training" 
One of the qualities of a great Youth Leader is equipping the people around them. This might include leadership modeling by the leader, personal mentoring of key people, small group training of teams, or even corporate teaching several times a year to the whole youth ministry on the vision. Take every opportunity to mentor and train leaders in life and small group settings. Along with this, don't forget the evaluation process along the way. Feedback can be a great mid-course correction on any team project. Training cannot be successfully done without interval evaluation.

"No one ever said thanks" 
Gratitude and relationship will build team more than assignments and meetings and manuals. A finely placed 'thank you' could energize a tired worker. My wife used to place a pack of 20 Thank You cards on my desk each month. It was my responsibility to catch people on our youth leadership team doing something positive. And then to write them a note. This brought our team together like few things I had done over the years. Try it this week with someone you work with or a volunteer in your organization.

"They seem like they are continually disorganized" 
Simplify. Learn the value of simplicity and stay away from complexity in programming, files, and schedules. Too often Youth Leaders have been characterized as unorganized. Arguably, the greatest miracle that Jesus ever did was the feeding of the 5,000. We have heard about the provision of God through the small lunch of the little boy near the crowd. But, there is one statement in the story that I believe was as important to that miracle as the lunch. Jesus asked the disciples to "sit the people in companies of 50". What was He doing? I believe He was simplifying and using the gift of administration so that He could do what He wanted to do.

"There was a serious breakdown of communication" 
There will always be a lack of communication in every organization. How well we minimize it will determine our success. But two things will help our communication.

First, we must ENCOURAGE communication on a regular basis. The two-way relationship between leader and volunteer is vital. Whether that is done in person, correspondence, by email, social media, or weekly meetings, it must be done consistently and become the culture of your organization. Make sure that key volunteers know everything you do. That will ensure that they can promote and market your philosophy to the rest of the tribe that you cannot get to on a regular basis. 

Secondly, we must ENHANCE communication through any means possible. As mentioned above, this can be done in person, correspondence, by email, social media, or weekly meetings. Regularity and variety are the key communication principles for every organization. Remember, in order for our vision to stick, we have to say it, say it again, and say it one more time.

"It seemed like it was all about achieving the youth leader's personal goals" 
Creating ownership with everyone is a must. Make sure that people feel they are more important than the programs. That systems are not celebrated above the managers of them. If we want each person on our Youth Leadership team contributing at a greater level, we must value their input and use their ideas. Creating a 'Super-friends' mentality and not a 'Superman' mentality will remove weakness in any youth organization. This is best done through servant-leadership that gets the focus off the leader and onto the organization’s mission. Every leader must remember that it was never about them, it isn't about them now, and it will never be about them.

"It wasn't any fun" 
The atmosphere of the Youth Ministry is key to young people. They are drawn to setting. Here are my top 5 culture-builders for a youth organization to have fun:

MAKE IT FUN with variety. For instance, in a youth service or at a youth event, don't do the same thing every time. Create excitement and return and retention with change. MAKE IT FUN with laughter. Encourage humor and a casual demeanor. Make fun of yourself and not others. A critical or even sarcastic atmosphere will repel young people. MAKE IT FUN with mystery. Bring pizza in for a youth leadership meeting or a special guest to speak at your next leadership meeting. Have students come to your next leadership meeting and address the leaders. MAKE IT FUN with love. I have told my Youth Leaders how much I love them and how much I value their work. Love will cause everyone to fall over each other to serve. Make sure that on a regular basis you are modeling time with the students and not just the leaders. The leaders may grow more in love with the students as they watch you spending time at schools or just talking with them before and after the youth service. MAKE IT FUN with free stuff. Buy leadership t-shirts, hats, or key chains for your leaders. When your leaders see that you are willing to use resources for them in a creative way, that kind of giving can be contagious.

If history repeats itself, the common thread in the Church is that volunteers are vital to Youth Ministry. Before we see another awakening in America, we must prepare this younger generation in the Church. It begins with Youth Ministry. These historical movements and awakenings may be sustained in a cooperative effort with adults, but, make no mistake, movements and awakenings are begun with young people.