Are we there yet?

Perhaps, because it’s summer, I find myself remembering long journeys made, either with our own children in the car or with our church youth group in a minibus. I have never met a young person who enjoyed the journey more than the event and I think most youth and children’s ministers aren’t any different in their approach to ministry. Forget about lengthy, gruelling planning and development meetings that seem to go on and on for ever, let’s get on to the real work of engaging with the children and young people face to face. It’s what we are employed to do, isn’t it? Making young disciples is the goal, isn’t it? Aren’t they the ones who will bring revival to this nation?

The problem

I have worked as a professional youth and children’s worker and trainer for nearly 40 years, and during that time I’ve encouraged many children and young people to follow Jesus and become his disciples. Similarly, I’ve trained hundreds of children’s and youth ministers to take up God’s call to see a generation rise up and take their place in church and community, to be salt and light in this nation and beyond.

However, there is a problem! We are swimming against a cultural tide – a tide that often seems to be apathetic to the things of God or even hostile towards Christianity. This can be exhausting; and we can feel downcast and at times dejected. 

This article is a simple encouragement, to anyone interested in the next generation becoming followers of Jesus. It is designed to help us on what can sometimes feel like a gruelling journey, and to stay faithful and mindful of him “who is able to do far more than we can ever dream or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20). 

This problem as I see it, is twofold – and it concerns ‘information’ and ‘transformation’.

Knowing what to do (and why and how to do it)

I’ve published three books to help us: Growing Upwards is about developing Christian faith in young people. It is about the knowing what to do and suggests that if we want to see our families, communities and nation changed for God we need young people who are disciples of Jesus and are prepared to forsake all else in serving him faithfully. 

The other two books are about how we can be transformed by Jesus: Free from Fear tackles our basic need to be radically converted by Jesus, irrespective of our situations and circumstances. Evaluating Youth Work is about how our youth ministry can be transformed by God in the churches we serve in (this can also be adapted to suit children’s ministry). In an ideal world, I’d love to sit down with every individual reading this article over a cup of their favourite drink, to listen, share and pray about their challenges and concerns. 

But this isn’t an ideal world; time alone doesn’t permit this. Instead, let me share three areas that can support you in the task of shaping the next generation.

1. We have had an encouraging past

In the 1990s, churches in the UK started appointing paid youth and children’s ministers. However, at that time the local authorities had far more paid posts. By 2010, that balance had changed with many more churches appointing paid staff in this field compared to local government. The church was now in the exciting position of connecting with vast numbers of young people. We were really beginning to make a big difference.

2. We have a challenging present

I believe we still are making a difference, but the going has got tougher. The road has become harder, and the church has struggled to capitalise on the cultural void left by the inherent weaknesses of secular humanism. We as Christians are facing multiple societal challenges and I think we are struggling to maintain our unique identity. Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s? This is the backdrop to our work with children and young people. Attempting to be professional, some churches are struggling with what to look for when appointing a paid children’s or youth worker.

Should they adopt managerial recruitment or selection processes, or should they be biblical and look for a worker who is called and equipped by God alone? For some also, the need becomes that call and that can develop over a long timespan.

Two key findings from my book on Evaluating Youth Work are:

  • A paid youth minister should have an external professional coach or mentor. This is to enable an objective perspective to aid the ministry.
  • A youth ministry should adopt a framework to evaluate the progress of that work against a clear set of standards.

To this end, I developed a framework entitled CONE, which in summary looks at:

Cultural considerations
How does the ministry engage with the culture in a wise way?

Openness to God
How open is the ministry to God’s leading and directing?

National standards
How close is the ministry to recognised professional standards? 

Enabling ministry standards
How effective is the ministry?

Obviously other established frameworks and grids exist which have different emphases. If you see my book, I hope you enjoy not only delving more deeply into CONE, but also exploring those other evaluative frameworks listed and adapting them in relation to your own work with children and young people.
My hope and prayer is that the youth and children’s ministries in churches begin to use external and objective measures of evaluation, and that as a consequence these ministries will develop and mature in quality and effectiveness.

3. We have a glorious future!

So, what does God require of youth or children’s ministry in order for it to have a glorious future? He requires us to faithfully follow him and raise up his leaders to lead his Church and extend his kingdom until Jesus returns.
We are simply expected to follow God’s great command: love God and love our neighbour with everything (see Matthew 22:36-40), alongside the great commission: make disciples, baptising and teaching them everything Jesus commanded (see Matthew 28:16-20). Jesus promises to be with us to the end of all things – such a glorious promise.

In regard to working with children and young people, all leaders should also pay special attention to “impress them [God’s commands] on your children” (Deuteronomy 6:7). We could infer the ‘your’, is directed at parents, however, it actually means the whole nation of Israel. For us today, it can also mean the church influencing our nation. Similarly, in Malachi 4:6 we see God will draw parents and children close to each other. So any quality youth or children’s worker should assist not hinder the God given aim of increasing godly family love and values. 

Selecting a youth or children's worker 

What might a church look for when appointing a children’s and / or youth worker or minister.
I have developed a rule of ten to consider when appointing youth and children’s ministers, which I have drawn on when advising church leaders. Each church should ask if the potential workers are:
1. Christlike in character and integrity (Romans 8:9).
2. Co-workers with the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit (John 14:16).
3. Competent (but not perfect) in leading children’s and youth work (2 Corinthians 4:7-9).
4. Caring in church and community engagement (Matthew 22:36-40).
5. Called and confident in God’s leading to recruit and develop teams of children’s and youth ministers (Matthew 28:16-20).
6. Called and capable of discipling children and young people, alongside their parents, in God’s word (Matthew 28:16-20 and Malachi 4:6).
7. Creative, but also cleansed by Father God: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you so that you might go and bear fruit; fruit that will last; and so that whatever you ask in my name the Father will give you” (John 15:16).
8. Compassionate in their leadership and management (Matthew 9:36).
9. Culturally aware, but rooted in Christ, knowing they need wise and godly discernment (Proverbs 9; 1 Corinthians 1:30).
10. Caring and kind in their approach to children, young people, and their parents (Deuteronomy 6:4-9).

We do have a glorious future! However, if you are a youth or children’s minister and you are daunted by the list above, then remember:

  • If God has chosen you, then he will equip you.
  • We are saved by grace and live by grace. We don’t live by works. He alone is able to equip you beyond your wildest dreams. So be encouraged.

People ask me if I would have done anything differently during my time at Moorlands College. The answer is yes – lots! 

However, as a senior manager I think the one thing I would have done differently would have been to ensure that every graduating student was advised to ask and seek out an external mentor or life coach, irrespective of their role in church. So today perhaps you might consider getting someone outside of your situation to guide, mentor and coach you? If you want to develop that Christlike character and to test out your calling, then seek to develop yourself by asking mature leaders to challenge and encourage you to help you be more readily available to God and his ways.
If you are reading this and are a parent, member of a church or church leader then be encouraged. Youth and children’s workers can really help this next generation rise up for Jesus. Remember, life and ministry are a journey and however lengthy that journey may seem, help is always available if we go along his pathway. 

In their own words

Some writers in the field suggest that youth and children’s workers have a short shelf life – perhaps 18 months? I don’t agree. I have not found any true source or quality research to back that opinion. On the contrary, I have seen many faithfully serve God for the long-haul journey.

Here are three examples of Moorlands College graduates who have stood the test of time in terms of being youth specialists. 

Dave Pegg is a Moorlands graduate who lives in Bournemouth with his wife and two daughters. He is schools’ work leader for PACE, leads Bright Idea Church and loves punk rock and films. He has been in youth ministry for over 20 years:

“God has used so many people to help me keep trusting and following Jesus and serving and sharing him with young people in schools. The older I get, the more grateful I am.”

Hannah Dengate is the well-being lead at Phase, Hitchin, having previously been a youth worker for five years and holds both an MA in Applied Theology and a BSc in Psychology in Education: 

“My passion is to see young people thrive. Resilience, obedience, trust, stepping out of the boat, support and courage are part of my journey in remaining faithful to this calling."

Jonathan Greenwood is the children’s and families worker at Park Road Baptist Church, Peterborough and the Chaplain of Peterborough United Academy. He’s been in youth and children’s ministry for over 15 years, including working with young people in Poland:

“God’s call is like the Emmaus road! I’m heading in God’s direction, but the road has been far from easy. But Jesus walks with me and guides my every step.”

So, are we there yet? No, we are not! And there is of course a sense that we will never be quite there! But, let us continue travelling together, encouraging one another in the hope and joy of Jesus Christ.

We will “press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called [us] heavenward in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).

COLIN BENNETT teaches on family, youth and community issues and enjoys golf, church, family and supporting Coventry City.