This is a guest post from Steve Kozak, currently the Executive Director of Awana Youth Ministries. Previously, Steve spent over a decade teaching high school theology from Detroit to LA. He holds a Masters in Theology from Moody Theological Seminary and a Masters in Christian Apologetics from Biola University. Steve speaks and writes on youth culture and apologetics. He resides in Chicago, IL, with his wife and four children. You can follow him on Twitter here and read the Awana Youth Ministries blog here.
At the end of this post, I’ll share about a fantastic new apologetics curriculum that Awana Youth Ministries has just launched!
There’s no arguing that youth groups are great. Even beyond spiritual growth and discipleship, they’re often the preferred student safe haven for parents. And rightfully so. It’s in youth groups that kids often find quality friends, great mentors, and (let’s be honest) a place to stay out of trouble.
But above all, youth groups should have one common purpose: to make disciples who make disciples. And as parents that is why we should want them attending—so they can become highly prepared and spiritually mature disciples of Jesus.
That said, far too often we experience less than the ideal. Youth pastors are doing everything they can to keep students coming. If we can just get them in the door, entertain them, and feed them, we think we can make Jesus a little more relevant and appealing. But how can you, as a parent, know when those good intentions to disciple your child have resulted in something resembling a social club more than a disciple-making ministry?
Here are six signs.
1. Your child never makes new friends.
Now, I know what you’re thinking because this at first sounds counterintuitive. What does your child’s ability to make new friends have to do with a youth group being ministry focused? Let me explain.
If there isn’t an emphasis on making sure that new students are feeling welcomed and accepted, then we’re talking about something that amounts to more of a social club than a Christian youth group. A youth group should be designed to create community, so if your child continually hangs out with the same kids—or with no kids at all—it’s possible that community is not high on the leader’s priority list.
2. The greatest responsibility or concern among volunteers is who’s in charge of getting pizza.
Food is important—especially when we’re talking about teens. They eat. A lot. But is food (or any other non-ministry related factor) the primary driver used to entice students to show up?
The danger is when the attention of volunteers and leaders is taken away from the primary task of building relationships. It’s too easy to allow the details and aesthetics that go into planning for a meeting get in the way of what matters most. Don’t get me wrong; details are important and even sometimes vital, especially when we’re dealing with safety. But any time our attention is taken away from the mission at hand, we’re in danger of reducing youth ministry to nothing more than a social club.
3. Entertainment is emphasized over discipleship.
When Awana’s founder, Art Roheim, was looking for ways to get the gospel into the lives of local children in Chicago, he looked at the local movie theater and noticed the long line of kids waiting to see a movie. He figured if he could have enough fun with kids, giving them the gospel would be easy. Game time at Awana has been a hallmark of the ministry ever since. But even then, games and entertainment had a specific purpose—to create community and build relationships, so young children and teens would be open to hearing the gospel.
From that perspective, entertainment can be important. But ask your students when they come home from youth group what they learned, what they discussed in small group, what they prayed about, what challenged them, or how God moved that evening. If on a regular basis they boast about how much fun dodgeball was, you may be sending your students to a social gathering rather than into the presence of God.
4. The primary reason your child goes to youth group is to hang out with friends.
Friends are great. In fact, I just explained in the first point that making friends is a sign of a healthy youth group! I hope that in your kids’ youth groups they’re finding friends who are challenging them to grow spiritually and holding them accountable. I hope they have peers to walk alongside of as they walk with Christ. But what happens when they only want to go to hang with friends? Chances are, spiritually deep, encouraging relationships are not being formed. A great youth group will not only foster friendships, but friendships that deepen your child’s spiritual life.
5. Adult leaders are not actively investing in students’ lives.
I have witnessed this far too often. Well-meaning adult leaders sign up to volunteer in youth group, only to be completely disengaged with students. They act as if they’re chaperones at a high school dance assigned to merely making sure students stay out of trouble.
Adult leaders are far more important than that. They should be recruited to invest in students’ lives—a much different job than babysitting. When thinking about your child’s youth group experience, do they have an adult mentor who is meeting with them at group on a regular basis? Are the leaders in the group expected to invest in students’ lives? A strong youth group will make sure those expectations are clear and work to make it happen.
6. Preaching is motivational rather than exegetical.
If you’ve ever stood in front of a group of middle or high school students and tried to deliver any kind of message, you know that their attention span is about that of a goldfish. To overcome that barrier, our natural inclination can be to get them excited, entertain them, and motivate them. The underlying thought (conscious or not) is that if I dive into the Bible too much, I might lose them. They won’t pay attention, so even if I’m speaking about the Bible, they won’t learn anything anyway.
I want to emphasize a couple of things in response. First, preaching should always be exegetical—taken from the biblical text and focused on the biblical text. The truth in Scripture is timeless. It will connect. But second, youth pastors need to continually be students of how to communicate and teach effectively. What was considered good pedagogy twenty years ago is no longer considered best practices today. Youth leaders should never resort to motivational teaching to compensate for uncertainty over how to teach exegetically.
There are so many things competing for the attention of your kids and your family. Time is precious, and there is not much of it, so where you invest needs to be valuable. Spend time talking with your kids about their youth group experience. Be involved. Communicate with their youth leaders. Ask questions. Volunteer to help. If there are areas of improvement, be a solution. Remember, youth pastors and leaders have a terrible and wonderful job. Leading youth in a world that is changing faster than any of us can keep up with is an enormous challenge. They need you in their corner.
Many thanks to Steve for sharing with us today!
In conjunction with this blog post, I want to make sure you know about a truly excellent and unparalleled high school apologetics curriculum Steve has been working on with Sean McDowell for Awana Youth Ministries. Journey: Advocates is a brand new 32-lesson curriculum that teaches kids how to make a case for and defend their faith. Readers regularly ask me about recommendations for curricula, so I’m thrilled to say without hesitation that this one is now at the top of my recommendations list, thanks to it’s breadth, depth, accessibility, and superb execution. You can check out the 32 lessons and download a sample here. You can also check out this in-depth review from my friends over at Mama Bear Apologetics.
I strongly encourage you to consider how Advocates might play a role in your church’s youth group.
I’ll leave you with this trailer from Sean McDowell.