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“Kids have better things to do than come to a big event,” youth minister Prentice Park commented.  “Kids are looking for something deeper, more meaningful, and they’re not going to get that at a big event.”  Jeremy Zach, also a youth pastor, echoed Park’s point: “In our setting, youth ministry can’t be event-based because we don’t have the budget or the space.”

Jeremy and Prentice serve neighboring churches in the Laguna Beach and Laguna Niguel communities of southern California.  Both churches average about 300 in worship.  Youth ministry in smaller churches like theirs relies on building personal relationships and creating space for conversations about Jesus.  Reaching an always-on, technology-native generation means more than serving pimento cheese sandwiches at an after-church fellowship.  Teens today deal with complex issues of identity, meaning, and the need to belong.  Smaller churches can engage teenagers effectively without having to produce big events requiring huge budgets.

During an interview, Park and Zach identified five keys to reaching and keeping teenagers engaged in ministry:

1.  Build relationships. While this doesn’t sound like new advice, both Park and Zach see relationships with teens as the number one key to effective youth ministry.  “Kids don’t need more ‘hello’ friends,” Park noted.  Building relationships is really about building trust between adult leaders and youth group members.

2.  Share ministry. Zach suggested a ratio of one adult leader for every eight teens when building a youth ministry.  “Students need to see adults living out their faith,” Zach said.  Having a 1-to-8 adult-to-teen ratio allows adults to connect with clusters of kids.  Youth ministry becomes a “network of networks” as adult sponsors get to know teenagers both individually and within their circle of friends.

3.  Create safe space. Both Park and Zach hold about half their youth meetings away from the church campus so that

non-church kids feel comfortable, too.  But creating safe space isn’t just about a neutral location; it’s also about creating an atmosphere where kids feel free to explore and challenge their faith without being put down or betrayed.  Park wants the student who says honestly, “I smoke, I drink, and I have sex with my girlfriend. I don’t belong in church.”  Leaders who are shock-proof help create safe space where at-risk teens can be heard.

4.  Listen and confront. While safe space allows kids to talk freely, Zach said teens need to be “listened to, but also responded to” with the transformational message of Jesus.  “If you come hard at them, they’ll come hard right back at you, but then they’ll come back for more,” Zach observed.  Many teens are looking for boundaries in belief and behavior.  Youth leaders often are the only guiding voices junior high and high school students have.

5. Engage in service. Teens can “belong before they believe.”  Both youth pastors engage kids by involving them in serving at the local homeless shelters.  “Kids, even non-Christian kids, want to help,” Park said.  Zach offers his high schoolers opportunities to help others while also meeting their school’s requirement for community service.  Although his youth group averages about 20 high schoolers, over 80 kids participated in a 30-hour famine program.  “Kids love to serve, they love to give their time away.”

Youth ministry doesn’t have to spend a fortune or put on a rock concert to be effective in reaching junior high and high schoolers for Christ.  Personal relationships, adult mentors, honest conversation, and opportunities to help others create an atmosphere where students feel they belong, and eventually are able to believe.

This article first appeared in Outreach magazine, Sep/Oct 2009, in my Small Church, Big Idea column.