One of the challenges of youth ministry in a semi-regional community like the Southern Highlands is that — similar to rural youth ministry — lots of our school leavers move away. We’re close enough to Sydney, Wollongong and Canberra for those uni’s to be good options, but far enough away that a daily commute won’t work. The impact of this on youth ministry is that the crowd of usual suspects for youth leadership (school leavers, young adults, young workers) aren’t quite there; we have about 15 year 12 students this year, and almost all of them are moving away next year.
In Bowral, we’ve been working on two approaches to this; both come with strengths and weaknesses.
- Encouraging the part-timers.
This year, we’ve been blessed to have some of our keen Christian uni students choose a part-time option: from Sunday night through to Friday morning, they live and study in Sydney. Then on Friday they make the journey back to the Highlands; they live with their families on the weekend, they come to church here, and they serve in youth ministry on Friday nights.
It’s a great expression of young people graduating from youth ministry, and wanting to give back to the ministry as they move into the young adult years. They come with experience in the ministry, enthusiasm for the ministry, and relational connection with the young people they’re leading. But the cost is time to connect with their uni friends, and deeper involvement in uni ministries.
So while the ideal is to have youth leaders stick around for the long-haul, and lead a bunch of kids from year 7 through to year 12, we can realistically expect a couple of years before we encourage them to make the move full time. A big part of my leadership of the part-timers is acknowledging the sacrifice they’re making, and encouraging them continually.
- Training young people to serve.
The other approach we’re working on is to train up year 10-12 students and encourage them to serve on Friday nights.
Ruth Lukabyo has written a brilliant study of youth ministry in Sydney from 1930-1959, and notices two trends: youth ministries that are run by the church for young people, and youth ministries that are run by young people themselves. A big strength of the first model is quality control, but the cost can be a drop in youth engagement. A big strength of the second model is high engagement (and often dynamic growth), but the cost can be a lack of quality control that can lead to the introduction of heterodox teaching.
The ideal then, is a healthy partnership between church leadership and young people, where young people are given space and opportunities to run ministry, in the context of a happy partnership with church leadership to maintain the quality. So we’re doing two things towards this:
Opportunities — we’ve started inviting year 10-12’s along to our planning meetings to give them a glimpse behind the scenes. We schedule a handful of nights each term where they can run the activities, MC the night, lead a prayer spot, teach us the memory verse. Jimmy is one of our young guys who shows a lot of initiative, and has great people skills; this term I’ve offered him a project of finding 5 people to interview in our Friday night program to share their testimonies. The bonus of this is that our young adult leaders have a lighter load on these parts of the program, and can give their time and attention to discipling their youth in discussion groups.
The main part of our program I keep to the ‘for youth’ model is our discussion groups. I want our senior youth to still have this part of the program for them, with no pressure to lead but time to discuss God’s word, be encouraged together, and pray for each other.
Training — for this to work well involves lots of training! Which we’re working at in three ways: on-the-job; with other local churches; and at Youthworks’ Leaders in Training (LIT) camp. As our youth sign up to have a go at things, we do some on-the-job training. They’ll get a 1-page outline of the job they’ve signed up for, and some ideas to get them started; then freedom to have fun with it. After they’ve had a go, we invite them to our debrief meeting to sit with the team and reflect on how the night went - this is great for self-reflection and feedback, and helps them to feel like part of the team.
For more formal training, we’ve just started to run a training afternoon in partnership with another local church in the school holidays. We include a short Bible talk and 2 training workshops to teach some youth ministry skills, and we finish with a load of takeaway and laughs. Our big goal is to build the sense of partnership and friendliness between our churches as we all serve Jesus in our places. And our big set-piece training event each year is sending all our year 10-12 youth off to LIT; a camp run by Youthworks to train young people for youth and kids ministry. This is an excellent week away with stacks of other youth and leaders from all over NSW that does a far better job at training than we could alone. The biggest win for us here is the great culture that LIT sets, of young people serving in their schools and churches, for the glory of Jesus.
While it’s not quite my ideal of a team of adult leaders discipling a group of teenagers all the way through their high school journey, I’m starting to see that a happy partnership between a sacrificial, servant hearted team of young adults, and an eager group of Christian teenagers having a go can be just as effective.
The Rev’d Matt Jacobs is youth minister at St Jude’s Bowral in the Southern Highlands of NSW.