Read an Excerpt
where do i start?
committing to the essentials
In 1979 I was a rookie youth worker with no idea what I was doing. I took teenagers to R-rated movies; I had a Jacuzzi party in the baptismal because a 12-year-old thought it would be fun; I yelled at a group of parents; I taught a 15-year-old to drive using the church van, and I almost got arrested for having underage students in an over-21 club. Thankfully, a lot has changed, but it's been an eventful ride ever since.
As I write this, I'm still working with students in the church, and I love to talk about youth ministry, especially with new youth workers! Every day that I worked on this book, I thought and prayed especially for you. If you're just starting out, you're my favorite type of youth worker to help! (If you've been in the trenches for a few--or many--years, I love you too, and I'm confident you'll find help and encouragement in these pages.) I'm thrilled to play a role in your youth ministry journey. Whether you're a paid staff member or a volunteer, the principles and ideas in this book are written to help you survive and thrive as you work with teenagers.
Youth Ministry as a Marathon
One of my life goals (that I haven't accomplished yet) is to run a marathon. I've run several shorter races, but the 26.2 mile monster has eluded me so far. I watch them on TV, eagerly anticipating the day I finish a marathon.
Have you ever watched a marathon? They're inspiring. When I look into the eyes of the runners, I see two types of expressions. Standing behind the starting line, the seasoned marathoners are focused, mentally preparing for the task before them. They know what it takes to complete a race of this caliber, so they stretch to prepare their bodies, run in place to warm their muscles, and close their eyes to visualize the race's hills and mile markers. The vets know what's ahead. This isn't a party; it's abuse. And since they have to endure pain over the next several hours, the task is to run efficiently. Their bodies have even instructed their faces not to smile or to express any form of joy. Veteran runners know what they're doing.
The other runners are rookies. This is a fun group to watch. They typically stick together, taking in all the action from the free race T-shirts to the vendors selling running gear to the maps locating the portable toilets on the route. The rookies are excited, feeling good, smiling, bantering with others, enjoying the pre-race hype. Little do they know that their valuable adrenaline is being wasted long before the one-mile mark. Their actions are to be expected; after all, this is an exciting time, but it's also deceptive.
Watch the race from an elevated viewpoint. At the start, a mass of humanity moves forward as one group, bunched closely together, seemingly inseparable, until the second or third mile when the crowd begins to thin. By mile 10, some have decided to walk and are tempted to stop and watch a matinee. By mile 15, many are eating lunch early. After mile 20, only those who are the most prepared have a realistic chance of finishing well. Finishing is not only a matter of the body, but the emotions and the mind.
Running a marathon is a fitting picture of youth ministry. It's not an easy task within the church. If it were, we'd have more youth workers than ushers. Youth ministry is filled with long, tiring, often unrewarding, complex, unique, intense, humorous, joy-filled, and painful experiences. Many within the body of Christ have entered the youth ministry marathon, but many quit before long, having lost joy and satisfaction. They're wounded and weary.
The Race before Us
I desperately want you to last in your ministry to students. Longevity in our field is uncommon. This is both unfortunate for the individuals who leave and tragic for the health of the church. The longer you work in youth ministry, the easier it becomes, and the better you minister to students. Quick departures have a lot to do with inadequate preparation and unrealistic expectations. But, like running, setting the proper pace assures long-term results and your ability to finish strong.
As I wrote this book, I kept two verses taped to my computer that served as the foundation for my writing. I want to share them with you.
"And let us run with endurance the race that God has set before us." (Hebrews 12: 1)
Youth ministry--like the Christian life--is a race that requires both training and endurance. Fortunately, our endurance and strength increase as we run the race and follow the course God has set out for us. Our success in the youth ministry race has a lot to do with developing a big-picture perspective. Check out the second verse:
"Because of you I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl." (Micah 1: 8)
Oh wait...that's not the right verse. Here it is:
"But I will not do this all in one year because the land would become a wilderness, and the wild animals would become too many to control. I will drive them out a little at a time until your population has increased enough to fill the land." (Exodus 23: 29-30)
The wild animal reference shouldn't be viewed as synonymous with the students in your group, but this verse accurately portrays a youth worker's world. The Exodus passage describes God's plan for the gradual conquest of Canaan. God didn't want to overwhelm Israel by giving them the Promised Land in one day. Besides, knowing Israel wasn't completely prepared, God put together a journey that allowed them to develop their faith and confidence as they learned to depend on him. I can't believe I just admitted that I watch marathons on TV!