"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Five Core Principles Core Principle #3: Discipleship Ministry

Youth Groups That Change Lives

Steve Miller

New Page 1

Youth Groups That Change Lives
Discipleship Secrets from Standout Youth Groups
By Steve Miller


?Make Disciples!?

It was Jesus? final mandate, His marching orders to His followers before His ascension.  What does it mean to youth workers? To me, it simply means that I can?t measure success by how many youth are coming to my church or attending my events. Neither is success measured by how thrilled the pastor and parents are with my ministry. According to Jesus, success is spelled DISCIPLES. When we cut through all the fluff, the bottom line is this: am I producing long-term, genuine followers of Jesus?

When I first started out in youth ministry, I asked around to find the ?sharpest? youth ministries, so that I could learn from them. In my mind, ?sharpest? meant the groups that attracted the most teens and had the most decisions to follow Christ. I narrowed it down to two.

I?ll never forget the first group I visited. Apparently, I arrived a year too late. They?d attracted tons of students each week to do fun competitions, hear a top-notch Christian band, and hear a presentation of a well-crafted message. But when the praise band decided they were good enough to hit the road, the kids stopped coming. Hmmm. High profile. High interest. Low impact. Where were the disciples?

These days I seek out groups that are producing disciples ? students who are putting Jesus first during their teen years and retaining their faith into adulthood. I want to learn from them. Sometimes they?re not high profile. Sometimes they?re not the largest groups. I certainly don?t have all the answers wrapped up into a slick formula, but I?m learning.

For this article, I explore two very different groups, running very different programs, in very different locations, from very different denominational backgrounds - yet each has a reputation for developing mature, committed followers of Jesus.

In the following interviews, you'll discover some emerging patterns that I hope will fuel your fire to join me in the quest for disciple-making youth groups.

Crystal Lake, Illinois: St. Elizabeth Ann Seton Catholic Community - Wes Slawson ? Producing Servant Leaders

Jesus stated that He didn?t come to be served, but to serve. He lived it out by washing feet and serving the lowly. If we?re producing disciples, they should exude servant leadership.

Rick Lawrence of Group turned me onto this group. He said, "Although our work camps are all about service, one group consistently stands out. I'll never forget the first day this group came to my attention. The kitchen staff reported that, after the kids had served all day, some of them showed up after supper to volunteer with the dishes. Every year at camp, St. Elizabeth's Church never fails to startle us with the depth and consistency of their service. They set the pace for the other groups."

Why, in a day when most students spend weekends and lazy summer days vegging-out in front of the latest video games, do St. Elizabeth kids find their joy in service? And why are many of their students pursuing Christ after high school, with many pursuing full-time ministry? A chat with their youth minister, Wes Slawson, convinced me that this phenomenon wasn't accidental, but intentional - a pattern that could be replicated by other youth groups serious about producing servant-leaders.

 1. Seek God's Face  

"We spend lots of time in prayer deciding what type of mission to do," Slawson said. "Once we discern God's mission for us, we know it's God's thing, and where the Lord guides, the Lord provides. This puts the emphasis on God, not us." Ann, an adult volunteer, said, "the students' openness to prayer and openness to God is simply awesome."

2. Let Service Pervade Your Program

For Wes, service isn't just a work camp that he schedules each summer. Service happens year-round. "We do service projects throughout the year," Slawson said. "The first Saturday of June, we join other organizations in helping a Chicago neighborhood and interacting with the residents.  Besides the Group work camp, we also offer a relational or evangelistic trip during the summer. Then there are the weekly opportunities for service both within our youth group and reaching out to friends."

 3. Provide Training

While going the extra mile by volunteering in the kitchen may at first appeared spontaneous, I found that these "random" acts of kindness weren't so random. Strategic training prepped them to find and respond to opportunities to serve.  

"When we began summer missions five years ago, we intentionally asked the adults to model a servant's heart," Slawson said. "We determined before the work camp that we'd offer to help in the kitchens. We instilled the mantra: 'Always look for needs to meet.' In successive years, we've found 70 percent of the same people going to camp each year. The new see the old setting the pace in leadership, so that service perpetuates itself."

According to Slawson, year-round training ensures that they arrive at service opportunities ready and equipped to serve. "My overall goal is that everyone is trained in missions, whether or not they go. The life skills and ministry skills we teach to the entire group equip all students to serve. We intentionally and personally call every student and adult volunteer to walk more deeply with the Lord. Some of the most outgoing individuals are people who would never have even joined a group in the past."

"When numbers started getting big (88 will go to this summer's work camp), we divided up into ministry teams: equipment team, food team, servant team (looking for additional ways to help), encouragement team, heart team (loving smile, small gifts). Each team has specific job descriptions they're responsible to perform."

4. Prioritize Community and Relationships

"It's all about relationships," Slawson said. "Our adults are taught to take advantage of travel time to get to know students. We do a Survivor Camp to emphasize group bonding. One hundred thirty three students will go on short-term missions opportunities this summer, including the Group camp and a trip that focuses on evangelism. We offer a giant buffet of retreats and conferences, some of which challenge our own youth to follow Christ, others that emphasize relationships, etc. These build worship skills, deepen their faith, and help them develop leadership."

Here are snippets from Christina, a high schooler at St. Elizabeth's, "We know and trust each other?we become a family?outsiders come in because we talk to them about how great the missions trip was?we make so many friends?it's all about relationships?.  Someone offered free plane tickets to take the entire team to the New Orleans trip. We turned them down because we wanted the relationship time on the train. After Survivor Camp, we realize it's not about us, but about God?we get a high on service trips and return on a God high."

5 - Rally the Church Behind the Youth

Service trips and training takes time and money. According to Slawson, without the backing of the congregation, it couldn't happen. "We keep the kids in the spotlight of the church's attention. Because of this, our parish is hugely supportive. This year's missions efforts will cost over $100,000.00. The youth ministry will raise the entire amount."

6 - Think Outside the Box With Your Program

I was amazed at the absence of a high-powered, weekly youth meeting, with a great praise band and all the trappings. Instead, meetings consist of small groups, monthly training for mission trips, occasional rallies, and the trips themselves. Their draw is relationally charged mission trips, something that even small groups, without the cool youth buildings and talented musicians, could emulate.

7. Leadership at the Top is Key.

Wes didn't really point to himself and his leadership. Others did. Here are snippets from a conversation with Ann, an adult volunteer at St. Elizabeth's: "Wes is key?he relates well with students and relates God's will to them?all feel included?he surrounds himself with people who care?he's sincere."

According to high schooler Valerie, "Wes is a really great leader?we spend lots of time team building?we can be ourselves and be accepted?we'll do a 2 1/2 hour leadership meeting, TP an adult leader's house, hang out with them till midnight, then get coffee with them?being a part changes your heart?service is just what we do?it's fun."

Poulsbo, Washington: Legacy Youth Ministries, Christ Memorial Church, Assemblies of God - Mario White - Producing Long-Term Followers.

Where the heck is Poulsbo? Wherever it is, God's at work there. With only 7,000 people in the community, 250 to 300 teens show up for their Tuesday night meeting. But what impresses me most is that when the students go off to college, they report how they're connecting with ministries there, carrying on The Legacy. After high school, they talk about what a great foundation they received and how they're continuing to grow in Christ.

What's making it happen? I talked to Mario White, their high school minister, to find out.

1. Prioritize Leadership Development

SM - You're in the northwest and word of your remarkable group is reaching me in the southeast. To what do you attribute this astounding success?

MW - "Of course, it's a work of God. But from the human side, I attribute it primarily to strong leadership development. Most leaders are young. College students lead high school students, high school the middle school students, the younger respect the older. I tend to lead the most spiritually mature, whether they be middle school or college. They in turn train other students in leadership."

SM - What materials do you use?

MW - "We use leadership books popular among adults, such as John Maxwell's Twenty One Laws of Leadership, or books by Andy Stanley or Bill Hybels."

SM - The students actually read those books?

MW - "Not generally. We tend to take the principles and put them in a format the kids can relate to, perhaps in a seminar format."

SM - What kind of leadership responsibilities do students take on?

MW - They have a major part in producing our Tuesday night service. They do outreach, sound, lights, drama. Also, they lead small groups of from 8 to 30 students on other nights.

2. Develop a Powerful Meeting that Becomes the Hub of Your Training.

SM - I've got to wonder if they would be as excited about serving and leading if your midweek service were a dud. Sure, leadership training and service opportunities are important, but doesn't having a mid-week meeting where God shows up make students aspire to leadership?

MW - Yes! I think it's easier to inspire discipleship in the context of a movement. The Tuesday night meeting is exciting! The formula for the meeting is actually pretty simple: passionate worship, drama, announcements on video, relevant teaching. 

3. Focus on Your Mission

MW - Although the Tuesday meeting is high profile, you've got to look more deeply to find what makes it tick. The BIGGEST THINGS are to train leadership, work as a team, and to focus on our mission: "Love God, Love People, Make Disciples." All our leadership focuses on the relational aspect, patterned after the way Jesus worked with His disciples.

Join Me in the Quest for Youth Groups That Change Lives!

Solomon, a pretty wise guy, argued that nothing we desire can compare with wisdom (Proverbs 8:11). One way to acquire wisdom in youth ministry is to humbly go to those who are producing disciples, observe their ministries, and ask how they do it.

"Listen to advice and accept instruction, and in the end you will be wise." (Proverbs 19:20)

Seek out disciples in their 20?s who say, ?My youth group changed my life,? and ask, ?What was it about your group that changed you?? Find a couple of groups each year that are making a difference and interview their staff, students and volunteers. Prayerfully discern what might work in your location. Then, let's go make some disciples!

Side Bar

A Remarkable Study of "Exemplary Youth Ministries"

In my 45 to 50 years of youth studies, this study will be the most comprehensive, the most important, the most authoritative and the most illuminating of all youth ministry studies. - Dr. Merton Strommen, author of Youth Ministry that Transforms

Interested in learning more about the characteristics youth groups that make a difference? Keep your eyes on The Exemplary Youth Ministry Study! Dr. Wesley Black, professor of youth ministry at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, is one of many leaders who are involved with a study that he describes as "huge."

"First, we set out to find the top youth ministries that were producing real disciples," Black said. "We made a point to cover a variety of denominations, ethnic groups, geographical locations, and sizes of churches." According to Black, they chose over 100 disciple-producing churches that participated in the 300 item survey.

They've collected the data, but have not completed their analysis. Watch http://www.exemplarym.com/index.htm for the survey results, which will be highlighted in upcoming books and conferences.

Dr. Black emphasizes that any trends he's seeing are very preliminary and sketchy, since the final word isn't in. Yet, there are some common themes:

?        Groups representing many different programs are effective in producing disciples.

?        A strong relational approach (adults to students and students to students) is vitally important. Respondents say things like, "They know our names." "They care about me." "I feel welcome." "It feels like a family."

?        There's a core of dedicated volunteers.

?        Students sense ownership and are involved in leadership.

?        There's a strong sense that God is at work.


Steve Miller is a self-styled wisdom broker, researching and collecting web-based resources to help ministers and educators change lives. His materials can be found at www.youth-ministry.info and www.character-education.info . He lives in Acworth, Georgia, with his wife Cherie and their seven sons.


Written for Group Magazine and published in their Sept/Oct issue, entitled "Discipleship Secrets from Standout Youth Groups" pp. 77ff. Reprinted with permission of Group.