The best way to ground young people in the Word and to empower them for future ministry is to involve them in a mission-based youth group. By mission-based, I am not implying that the teenagers would be going on monthly mission trips or doing weekly door-to-door evangelism. I use the term “mission-based” to describe a missional attitude among the teenagers and their leaders.
The Attraction-based Model
Many youth groups today are “attraction-based.” The youth minister focuses on organizing events in order to attract the youth to the services. The goal of this model is noble. Big events and fun activities can serve as a successful evangelistic tool and can greatly help young people get involved in church. The Bible allows for diversity in how we strategize in getting the gospel to people.
The problem that some attraction-based models face is that too often the events themselves become the ends and not the means. Success is defined by the size of the crowd, not by the fruit seen in the lives of those in attendance. Furthermore, when the attraction becomes the end goal and not the means to an end, those who attend are usually left with just a “spoonful of sugar” and no medicine at all. The sweetness may attract a crowd, but the youth group is no longer offering anything of substantial spiritual value.
Another potential problem that attraction-based models often confront is the professionalism of the attractions themselves. When the church tries to attain the same level of professionalism as the world when it comes to entertainment (movies, music, events), we usually fail and wind up looking cheesy. If it is our music or movie-making or dramatic abilities that are going to bring people to church, we are in trouble! The world will almost always beat us at these things.
(That said, I do not advocate a retreat from the world in the areas of art, music, or movies. God, give us great movie-makers, great musicians and bands and terrific events! He knows we – and the world – can benefit from them.)
My point is this: the church must offer something above and beyond the glitz and glamour if we are going to effectively reach the youth culture for Christ. We have the gospel – something the world does not have!
The Mission-Based Youth Group
A mission-based youth group is entirely different in its outlook. The typical attraction-based model invites young people to church and then implicitly encourages them to ask, “What can this youth group do for us?” A mission-based youth group attends church asking “What can our youth group do for our friends, our schools, our church, and our community?” It is inherently outward-focused. Special events are the method by which we bring outsiders into the church in order to share the Gospel with them, see them saved, and then send them out as teenage missionaries.
Teenagers On Mission
In our world, everyone asks “What’s in it for me?” and most youth groups ask the same thing, because we have led them to think this way. I want the mindset of youth groups to not be “How can you serve us?” but “How can we serve you?”
When I use the word “mission-based,” I am not only speaking of the youth group as being “missions minded.” Of course, we want the youth to be eager to go on mission trips and share the gospel. But that is not enough. Teenagers need to begin seeing themselves as God’s missionaries in whatever place He has put them. Christian young people witness to the reality of God’s kingdom in their families, jobs, schools, and communities. Being the church Monday through Saturday is just as important as doing church on Sunday.
Counter-cultural and Culture-Redeeming
The mission-based youth group is simultaneously counter-cultural and culture-redeeming. No segment of society is off-limits when it comes to God’s redemption. We should welcome in the youth with wild hair, tattoos and nose-rings. We should have open arms for the intellectuals, the achievers, the thinkers and the athletes. We should comfort the abused and hurting. We should work to see minorities included and integrated within the youth group. The church is the one place where people that are different in many ways can come together united by the gospel.
The darkness of the outside world is not something to hide from, boycott, or scold from afar, but is instead the very place the youth are called to extend God’s light. A youth group should be a channel for God’s blessing to flow out to the surrounding community.
Against the World for the World
If I learned anything from my time tutoring middle-school children in failing Kentucky public schools, it is this: there are kids and families in our neighborhoods who are dealing with unspeakable pain and grief. I yearned to send those teens to a youth group that finds its purpose in representing the love and compassion of Jesus Christ for our broken world.
People who are always focused on their own troubles and problems continually find more troubles and problems to focus on. But those people who look outward and try to meet the needs and relieve the troubles of others find themselves empowered, joyful, and spiritually fulfilled in a way that they never could when they assumed all church ministry existed only for them and their needs. The mission-based model moves youth to a place of greater spiritual vibrancy as they see and meet the needs of the others.
The Relationship between the Missional Youth Group and Church
In the mission-based model, the youth group is not a church within a church or an island unto itself. The youth ministry exists as a special ministry to teenagers, for the church. Therefore, the youth group is directly accountable to the rest of the church.
There are two extremes in the relationship between the youth group and the church. The first takes place when the youth group is continually being served by those in the wider church but is never given an opportunity to serve anyone else. When this happens, the teenagers form the mindset of expectation, of receiving without giving. Then, the youth group thinks it deserves the support of the church, even though the group has done nothing to show the church why it deserves its support.
I saw the other extreme in a church that I ministered in during my time in Romania. The youth group did just about everything. The youth ran Awana for the kids; they had a special song service for the adults in every worship service; they taught the younger children to play the mandolins; they even held English lessons for the church. In this situation, the church expected the youth to do all the tough work, but rarely gave back to the youth group by sending them out in mission or in retreats. It was like pulling teeth to get the church to fund anything for the youth group.
The mission-based model seeks to strike a biblical balance between these two extremes. The youth group serves the church and the church serves the youth group. Ministers would seek to include the youth in service to other areas of the church.
The youth should be integrated into the church, making sure their service is employed during major activities (Christmas, VBS, Awana, other ministries). They should also be serving in worship. Perhaps there could be a youth choir or youth ensemble, a drama team, or a puppet ministry to be used occasionally at the children’s worship service. The mission-based model seeks to involve the youth in a variety of church-wide functions, and not just youth activities and events. When the youth group is isolated, the church misses out on being blessed by the youth, and the youth miss out on the blessing of being a blessing.
The Missional Youth Group’s Relation to the Community
As the youth grow accustomed to serving the wider church, they will become increasingly comfortable serving the wider community. When the surrounding community thinks of a church’s youth group, it should think of great teenagers who are constantly showing up to help in important endeavors. This is not only a good testimony for the community; it is also life-changing for the young people.
Youth can reach out to help the community, whether it is handing out water to marathon runners during the summer, or giving away snacks and water at Band Camp every year, or volunteering at a homeless shelter around Christmas, helping with the Angel Tree ministry, visiting nursing homes every month to sing, talk to and encourage the elderly, visiting shut-ins from the church, helping the elderly by seeing needs and then meeting them, perhaps by doing yardwork for those who can’t, helping paint a house or fix a roof. When parents or grandparents are in the hospital, why not send a group of teenagers to visit them?
Youth pastors need to lead the youth to look past their own personal needs and attention to the needy in the community and church. This way, they begin to live the Kingdom way now in their young age and will be accustomed to this way of living by the time they are adults.
From Theory to Practice
What are some examples of mission-based youth groups that you have seen in your experience? Is your youth group mission-based? If so, what does this look like? How has it helped your church?
- adapted from a series of posts on youth ministry in April-May, 2007