Not everyone impacted by your youth ministry weaves the same tale. If you polled a random sample of a dozen teenagers who have come into contact with your youth ministry in the last year, what would be the result? You may find that it looks radically different to insiders versus outsiders.[1]

For example, these may be some of the results:

Insider: “My youth ministry is close-knit!”
Outsider: “That youth ministry is cliquish!”

Insider: “My youth ministry is deep.”
Outsider: “That youth ministry is boring.”

Insider: “My youth ministry is focused on holiness.”
Outsider: “That youth ministry is irrelevant.”

Insider: “My youth ministry is cool.”
Outsider: “That youth ministry is shallow.”

How do we effectively bridge the gap between insiders and outsiders? I think it starts with our youth ministry philosophy. If we have the pendulum of relational discipleship [LINK rel. disc. article] swinging, our youth ministry will exhibit five qualities.

1) It will be incarnational.
An incarnational ministry marries grace and truth. It is a place (a people really) where the Bible is clearly taught and the people are on a journey. The ‘space’ to journey, even when you may not yet believe, is a vital feature for a redemptive youth ministry. John 1:14 says that Jesus was ‘filled with grace and truth.’ For a youth ministry to be incarnational, it needs to avoid divorcing itself from culture, while also maintaining a counter-cultural environment where students learn what it means to be the church.

2) It will be indigenous.
‘Indigenous’ simply means ‘native.’ An indigenous youth ministry is made up of real people who are natives of the space they inhabit. This means the leaders meet the students where they are. Paul told the Thessalonian church: We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us.[2]

An indigenous youth ministry will avoid the pitfall of becoming a churchy subculture. The leaders will frequent the spaces teens do life. This will mean the sidelines of their games, or the front row of their recitals. This kind of a youth ministry engages youth culture, not to mimic it, but to redeem it. “The church is not a refuge from the world, but a refuge for the world”[3]

3) It will be intentional.
Andy Stanley talks about ‘clarifying the win.’[4] This is the simple concept of knowing what you are trying to accomplish in each venture, and putting in place a process to make sure you hit the target. Youth ministry calendars should be organized according to the mission they are seeking to accomplish. Sometimes this means clearing the calendar, so that youth and their families have space to breath. If you clear the ‘church calendar’ and allow people to live their lives where they are, youth leaders can be the church through engaging teens where they live, work, and play.

4) It will be authentic.
Be real humans. This means we don’t mimic other youth ministry cultures (or youth pastors) because we think they have it all figured out. We can learn from others without mirroring them. Staples of an authentic culture built on the gospel include confession, repentance, and accountability. Mature and transparent leaders are the lifeblood of authentic youth community.

5) It will be holistic.
A holistic youth ministry is one where you care about teen’s academics, families, and sports as much as you do their involvement in bible quiz, Sunday night church, and your most recent youth rally. I had a parent one time approach me with a card his son had received from a youth pastor after missing a Wednesday night youth gathering. The card said, “Hey man, really missed you at church on Wednesday! Wish you here. Please come next week. We miss you! God misses you!”

Please don’t ever send cards like that.

[1] An ‘insider’ being a teen who regularly attends, perhaps whose family is a part of the church. An ‘outsider’ being a student who does not attend and is perhaps not a Christian.

[2] 1 Thessalonians 2:8.

[3] I am re-quoting this line from a leadership lecture by Wes Davis at LJ 09/10 with the Northwest Ministry Network.  The quote was said to have originated with Erwin Mcmanus.

[4] In Seven Practices of Effective Ministry.