I’d been at my last church for only a few weeks and it was evident that some wholescale changes needed to be made to the youth program. Few were coming, few enjoyed it and even fewer were staying in the Christian faith past grade 10. However, it didn’t take long before I heard this question, “Have you asked the youth what they want to do in youth ministry?” In fact, I heard this question multiple times and it usually went like this, “Sure, all these changes you making may sound fine… but have you asked the children?”
It’s a funny question when you think about it. At that stage, I was in my late 40s, had been in youth ministry for over twenty years, had written and taught extensively on the subject… and I was supposed to ask the youth what we should be doing in youth group. It was as if they were the fountains of all things wise when it comes to effective discipleship and evangelism.
I need to say from the start that I like young people—I wouldn’t be in this game if I didn’t. And, I think young people can say some really awesome things. However, I’m not convinced that they should be the decision makers when it comes to a church’s program.
So, after being asked whether I’d “asked the youth” for the 18th time, I decided… well, to ask the youth! I sat down with a group of them and said “please write down on this piece of paper what you would like to have and do in this youth group. After a minute or so I collected all their answers—answers that I still have tucked away today. Here is what they wrote:
-A big screen TV
-A donut making machine
-A big screen TV and a donut machine
-A new youth leader who doesn’t think he knows everything like the present one!
Awesome stuff! Absolutely classic. Eight years later (after five years in that youth group where some really great stuff happened), I’m reading Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0. It’s an interesting book and, while there are some ideas that I would avoid, I think it is a necessary read for youth ministers today (I use it as a text in my classes). On page 35 he talks about how “speculating” is one thing that children and pre-teens are not able to do. They cannot “hypothesize” and “speculate about the likely outcomes of the various options”. This is an interesting point. It is also something that we need to factor into our youth ministry decision making.
Teens are notoriously self-focused and preoccupied with what will benefit them. They struggle with thinking through possible outcomes and they may find it difficult to make decisions that, while painful now, will bless the group long term. This will mean that wise leadership is a must when it comes to guiding where the youth group is going and what activities it consists of. An example of this may be what the group does on a Friday night. The old way was to have hockey and movie nights. A nice short-term option. However, when we changed to small group Bible studies, the group not only grew spiritually, but the numbers went through the roof as well. This was an option that the youth would rarely have come to on their own.
To leave the decision-making in the hands of youth is really not the wisest of options. In the end, let’s remember what scripture says:
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it. (Prov. 22:6)
But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have become convinced of, because you know those from whom you learned it … (2 Tim. 3:14)
Fathers, do not exasperate your children; instead, bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord. (Eph. 6:4)
While these verses may not directly be talking about how to make decisions in a youth group setting. I do think it is clear that we should be guiding and equipping youth to make wise and godly decisions. We have to show them how (and why) this is done. When they are a bit older (and more developed as young adults), we can involve them more of the decision making process.
To leave the decision making in the hands of youth is not only a dangerous mistake, it is also, common practice. It appears to be wise, and possibly even godly. However, given the fact that teens are just entering into the ability to speculate (if you agree with Oestreicher), a youth group based on what the youth want to do may end up being a group that revolves around little more than donuts and big screen TVs.