Youth ministry leadership basics.

Key WordsEdit

Children's Ministry, Youth Ministry, Leadership, Discipleship, Mentoring, Children's Church


A summary of Wallyman's experiences and lessons learned serving young people in the Seventh Day Adventist Church in Canada. This chapter was published in the book "We can keep them in the church".


Flying home for Christmas with my family requires that I know three things: first, where I am, where I want to go and how I will get there. As a church we also need to know where we are, where we want to go, and then we need to find a way to get there. My hope and prayer is that our church will not only retain our young people and build them into passionate disciples of God, but will also reach many of those youth outside the church who are hurting and in desperate need of a Savior is.

In my ministry experience there are several things that have worked in powerful ways to reach youth.

  1. The art of leadership. Everything rises and falls on leadership and as I’ve developed and matured as a leader, I believe God’s hand has blessed my efforts and changed lives.
  2. The understanding that kids need commitment and love more than they need coolness. They need role models with character and a passionate walk with God. The media gives them all the coolest role models possible, but I wouldn’t say that they have characters worthy of imitation.
  3. Third, relevant and powerful ministry doesn’t need to be complicated, but should actually be simple and real.

Our Situation

Okay, so we know that between forty to fifty per cent of Adventist youth leave the church by their mid twenties. By Adventist I mean young people, who by being baptized, have publicly said “I want to follow Jesus for the rest of my life.” Note that over half of them stay and that’s good, but we can do better.

Ask yourself why Coca Cola can sell sugar water all over the world while our church cannot even convince our own youth to stay connected to an incredible God. It makes no sense. God is relevant to every generation, every culture at every time. If ever He does not appear to be, it’s because we have misrepresented Him.

Overall our church growth is slower than the population growth in North America (in other words our church in North America is shrinking relative to the population). To say that is not the way it should be is an extreme understatement. Are you willing to sit back and wish somebody else would do something about it?

Our Goal

Is our goal to raise up nice kids who attend church every week, read their Bible every morning and wait for marriage to have sex? That is not a very exciting goal. Let me explain. None of those things is bad in and of itself, but you could go through all those motions and still totally miss salvation. God really wants people who passionately follow him, who change the world around them for Him and cause major damage to Satan’s territory. These people aren’t politically correct. They don’t believe all religions are equal, they get annoyed with bench warmers and pew sitters, and they are involved in real and powerful ministry. Passionate disciples who keep Satan on the run becomes the goal. Now that has some excitement to it.

If we are to drastically change the results of our ministry to young people (keeping them connected to God), we need to drastically change our approach. If we tweak what we are currently doing, we will tweak what we are currently getting, and loosing half our young people is not something I want to see “tweaked!” I want to see an about face.

“Over and over it is reported that the reason for leaving and staying away from the church is not doctrinal but relational.” Today’s youth relate much better when God is described in relational terms and doctrines are communicated in practical ways rather than focusing so heavily on logic and theory. Therefore, let’s find relevant ways to communicate our Bible truth to next generation. “It is not easy to design a church for today’s youth, but if we want Adventism to be around tomorrow, we have no other option.”

How to Get There

Design a church for today’s youth? That sounds nice, but what in the world does ‘drastically change how we minister’ actually look like? Simple, we keep the message but change the method--particularly the relational component. No one has all the answers, but here is what has worked for me.

Healthy change is brought about by leaders. Remember, “everything rises and falls on leadership.” Our church needs to effectively minister to our young people. So instead of reading about it, talking about it and wishing somebody would do something about it, you see the need, you lead the change that will meet the need.

The critical part about leadership is that the first person you lead is you. It’s my responsibility to continually grow and learn more about leadership everyday. As I read books, magazine articles, and find leaders who would mentor me, the more effective my ministry can become.

Simple Youth Ministry

A good friend once handed me a book called “The Secrets of the Simply Youth Ministry.” The title somewhat offended me. I had spent the first few years of my ministry thinking the bigger, the more exciting, the more dynamic and better produced a program a was the better. I had thought that the more orchestrated and organized my ministry was, the more effective it would be. But “simple youth ministry” just did not fit that paradigm. However, after reading the book, the stress level in my ministry has decreased by about half because I now realize that effective ministry does not need to be complicated.

As a youth pastor, I have purposefully sought out simple, yet effective, ways to do ministry and repeatedly I see it working. I used to think that there were two ways to do ministry. The first was the simple and boring way where students did not pay attention, and the teacher did not have to spend huge amounts of time in preparation. The second method, which I subscribed to in my first few years of volunteer ministry, was the more time and effort you put in the better. The problem was that I basically burned myself out over three years and came very close to burning out several of my staff members. Currently, I am seeking ways to have life-changing ministries that effectively reach children and youth, yet allows the staff to have healthy, balanced lives.

Here are a few of the ways I have simplified my ministry and maintained, if not increased, my effectiveness.

1. My long-term goal of ministry is not to have an incredibly dynamic and exciting ministry that attracts hundreds of youth. It is not to have a powerful program each week that brings kids to the front for tear-filled commitments. That can be great stuff, but I can very easily burn myself out striving for that and yet gain very little. My goal is simply to help young people become mature Christian adults. It’s so obvious, and it’s so simple. But, it is also bite-sized. This focus has led to do programming in a way that people are not attached to the program but to a personal relationship with God.
One of the problems with weekly dynamic and exciting ministries is that the young people graduate into a vacuum. Once they belonged to the program, but now they are too old for that aspect of the program, and because they are not yet attached to the adult church they leave. I want the children and youth in my church to be attached to God and serve Him all the while realizing that the church family is one of the best places in which to do that. Awesome programs are a tool to bring youth closer to God, but that’s a tool that can never substitute for closeness with God.
Building mature, adult Christians for me includes running a program for kids to that gets them excited about God and His church. Then, as they go through their teen years, we must mentor them into service and leadership positions. By the time they graduate from high school leaving church is not an option because they are running a significant part of it!
2. Simplifying my ministries has included harnessing social energy. Ever walk into a meeting where you should be paying attention to what is going on up front, but you just spotted a friend you have not seen for about three weeks? You find it hard to focus on what is going on up front. So often our teaching, whether academic or spiritual, fights social energy. We want those in the audience to sit still and listen to the program. What if we tried to harness this social energy instead of fighting it?
There is visiting in the church foyer before and after the main service and Sabbath school is supposed to be interactive, but that interaction is often dominated by three or four individuals. If interaction became more central to our actual programming strategy, the leader would take on more of a facilitator role than that of the main instructor. As an example, in one youth Sabbath school, we divided them into groups of four and asked that they look up about 20 passages of Scripture talking about the Sabbath and have a summary to present when the time was up. Later, during the large group discussion I could have pushed my own opinion on the topic, but most of the youth would have turned their brains off at that point. Instead each group’s opinions were compared and contrasted in relation to the verses they had just read.
If my teens want a weekly, exciting, dynamic program, they will have to run it. I will be there to support and coach them, help them with funding and other things, but I will not do a huge program for them. Let me explain. I have sat through some very exciting (and loud) youth programs with the youth half heartedly participating and later they complained and criticized it. At first I was in shock. I thought that this program was exactly what the youth wanted: dim lights, loud music, lyrics on PowerPoint and free food. The problem is that no matter how good the program is, if it is run by the adults for the students, it will almost never be good enough. Instead, I more often do a program with interactive, learner based-ministries. This is how a program might go:
  • KIDS zone: this is the children’s program. Before it begins the room is set up with several game stations (lego, Bible board games, games related to our bible theme etc.) and staff ready to play with the kids so that kids who are early can build relationships with staff and others and not get bored. This is followed by fifteen minutes of interactive games, from “duck-duck-goose” to “statues.” This time breaks down social inhibitions, gets the kids laughing and having fun and, especially important, visitors feel welcome and have the opportunity to interact with others in a very informal way.
Next, a fifteen minute song service that goes from fast paced action-songs to meaningful worship songs (often I remind the children that songs are a gift we are singing to God; He is our audience during our worship time). Fifteen minutes of visual-based teaching including object lessons, skits and stories comes next. Since kids are such concrete thinkers, many concrete examples and visual props are needed to illustrate every major point.
To bring KIDS zone to a close, we have fifteen minutes of small group time to review our lesson with three to six kids per staff member. They purposefully discuss what was learned and how they can apply that to their lives. Too often we teach kids the theory, but neglect to teach how this actually applies in real life.
  • In the youth Sabbath school classes, we go straight to the Bible. Sabbath school starts with a few interactive games that get them out of their seats and moving around. Then they are divided into small groups of four or five and study either a chapter of the Bible or several verses on a single topic. Everyone gets a chance to read, to share how the reading applies (or doesn’t apply) to their lives and may ask some questions. After about twenty minutes of this we gather into one large group and discuss what each group found and they then present some possible solutions. Although it is important that you, as a leader, research the topic or chapter yourself so you are prepared to handle these questions, feedback and suggestions from the students are encouraged and their responses are validated. We close with prayer.
  • To provide a fun place to hang out and a place to bring non-Christian friends who would not be ready to attend a church service, we have started a Christian Café on Friday nights. The youth and staff redecorate the Sabbath school room to somewhat resemble a coffee shop. Since lighting comes from lava lamps, candles and Christmas lights, the room is quite dim with a relaxing atmosphere. We play high-quality contemporary Christian music and just hang out for the first bit. Large sheets of paper tacked to a wall make it possible for them to draw and paint. A table with snacks is set. Later, a youth, a youth leader or pastor provides a short 10-20 min devotional (skit, testimony, interactive learning… this is very open) and then we do fun stuff like Bible Improv (similar to the show “Who’s Line is it Anyway” but on Bible themes).
  • The most meaningful program I am involved with is probably the simplest of them all. Even though it has been around for thousands of years, I do not think there will ever be anything more effective for developing spiritual maturity—small, peer group Bible studies. This is different from what happens in Sabbath School because a group of three to six young adults plan on reading the same ten to fifteen chapters for devotions for a given week. We come together on Sunday night in Tim Hortens and share how God talked to us through His Word and how it applies to us,, what are some honest questions or struggles we are having, and just generally how God is leading in our lives.
We keep casually inviting friends to join and when our group reaches about six people, we multiply into two new groups. We do this because we have a foundational value that everyone present gets to significantly contribute to the conversation. I have seen so many Sabbath Schools that are dominated by two or three vocal people while many others either sit there and watch (or stare off into space). Simply by decreasing the numbers to under six, everyone can easily get involved and others can learn from their valuable input. It almost seems weird to be in such a small group and not have one of the members contribute.
If I said that this ministry has caught like wild fire in my church, I would be lying. It is a spiritual habit that requires discipline and commitment. There is always an excuse not to do your devotions or show up to Bible study. To succeed, you simply have to make it what it should be: a sacred time to grow closer to God. I have found that as I stick to it and remain committed to casually invite new people, slowly people start to join as the Holy Spirit bugs them. I have found that often it takes months from the initial invite until they join. However, everyone who joins says that they really enjoy it and that is a real blessing to them, especially the experience of personal Bible study and community.
After having been to several seminars on how to lead effective small groups and even experimented with small group curriculums, I have found that when small groups are based on a program or outside resources, it seems to depend on the leader and others in the group come with a mind set of “I wonder what Walter came up with this week.” Similar to earlier comments about programs run by adults for the kids, I find that the best Bible study is based directly on the Bible and everyone brings their own contributions and insights. Like other learner-based, interactive ministries that I am experimenting with, it is less work for the leader, yet more effective.

Watch God Do the Impossible

The reality of all these ministry and leadership ideas is that no one really has it all together. All the best ministers I know of still do not have it all together. So relax, God is the only One Who has it all together and that is why we worship Him. Our job is comparable to the children of Israel crossing the Jordan; we have to do the possible by stepping out in faith, doing all we can and simply relying on God to change lives in ways we cannot. So don’t sit on the shore and stare at the giants of challenges we face as a church knowing in despair that the challenge is too big for you. Of course it is, but it is not too big for God. So go, do whatever you can with the power of God to reach out to the youth of your church. Learn all you can about leadership so that God can use you more effectively. Use these ideas or anyone else’s and adapt them to fit your local situation. Let your youth come up with their own ideas. You do the possible and watch God do the impossible.


  1. Maxwell, John C. “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.” Thomas Nelson, Nashville: 1998
  2. Dudley, Roger L. “Why Our Teenagers Leave the Church.” Review and Herald, Hagerstown, MD: 2000
  3. Eldredge, John. “Guy Ministry” Group Magazine. 07/08, 2002
  4. p. 99, Dudley, Roger L…
  5. p. 199, Dudley, Roger L…
  6. Maxwell, John C. “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership.”
  7. Carl A. Blunt “The Secrets of the Simple Youth Ministry.” Winepress Publishing, Enumclaw, WA:
  8. This is in reference to my experience with regularly scheduled programs, either weekly, bi weekly or monthly. With youth retreats and other quarterly to annual events, there is much more time to prepare, and they are rare enough that the “novelty” does not so easily wear off.
  9. For example a list of 10 “would you rather…”, “have you ever…” type questions in which kids have to vote with their feet and go to either one side of the room or the other depending on their answer. See Youth Specialties “Ideas Library.”

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