“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