Growing by God’s Nudge
When my youth group comes up in a conversation, I know the question will follow, “How do you get your kids?” It’s a longer story than they may want to hear. But I never tire of telling it.
The story begins with a nudge from God to give one message to a group of skateboarders that had recently lost their youth pastor. I was in my forties and had hung up 20 years worth of all-nighters and retreats. One cold December night, an “up for a challenge” church elder and I stood before those skater teens, as they demanded answers from me, an outsider who didn’t even attend their church. One look told me they needed the love of Jesus.
That night about four years ago the group was about 20 students; it's now more like 100. The key to this growth has come through knowing and meeting the needs of the kids who walked through our doors. Our youth leaders didn’t have time to eat supper before youth group began, so we would bring meals for the adults to share. It wasn’t long before the kids were talking about how good the food smelled and told us they hadn’t eaten either. I am not sure why I was surprised. A majority of the parents in our town have at least a one hour commute to work, leaving many teens alone and hungry after school. The word got out in our congregation and a youth meal team formed to prepare and serve dinner! We did not require the kids to stay for the service following the meal. We just wanted to get them in the doors so we could love on them. Through that open door, God started opening our eyes as well.
By the time we were averaging 50 teens at our youth group, things had changed a bit. We were about a 95% unchurched youth group, although we have since banned the term “unchurched” when talking about our kids. We started using the terms “exposed” and “not exposed” to Jesus. The majority of our teens walked to youth group, in all types of weather. They are the third and fourth generations of families who have had no relationship with God in their homes. Bible Quizzes were out, but new outreach opportunities were in. As I kept looking for advice for “the model” of ministry we were experiencing I just couldn’t find the right book. So we kept praying to be God’s hands, eyes and feet. He was writing the book.
We faced a lot of challenges. There were times in which twelve youth group leaders and a $3,000 budget didn’t seem to be enough. We couldn’t transport the kids because we didn’t have enough cars. So, we prayed for a FREE bus. God answered our prayer with the most beautiful yellow school bus I have ever seen. It takes an understanding pastor and board of elders to love a group of kids that occasionally puts a hole in a church hallway or loosens doors off of their hinges. We had all the perfect pieces fitting into our puzzle.
By the second year the numbers were growing weekly. We knew we would soon be reaching 75 and with that came challenges. The parole officers knew where to go on a Wednesday night to talk to their kids. We praised God that we could work within the system. We started connnecting with the teens on a deeper level and they began to trust us with their “stuff” — cutting, drugs, alcohol, and poverty. Once again our church followed the call and began a food bank. We stayed faithful to God’s plan of giving them Jesus, even if it meant reinventing things.
We didn’t realize the first time we took them Christmas Caroling they wouldn’t know the hymns and carols, so the next year we practiced. We didn’t know when we said “Youth Retreat down payment of $10” that many would not be able to afford the down payment. Our church congregation responded again by sponsoring students to attend the retreat. When we opened a skate park we didn’t realize we would have such a crowd that a second youth group could be started just with skaters. The lessons we were learning went on and on.
We run our youth service like many other youth groups. We start off with worship music, which includes some of the teens playing and singing in the band. This music was so new to the majority of our students that often we felt like we were singing strange songs in a strange land — to them, we probably were. Following worship 40 to 50 high school teens meet for a combined lesson, while middle school girls and middle school boys meet separately. Special speakers, game nights, group events to get to know one another jam-pack our year.
The first night we hit 100 teens there was no confetti falling from the sky or blinking lights. We knew it looked a bit heavier on the kid side than leaders. So we went back to the congregation again. We now have a team that hangs with the teens prior to the meal and a youth team that minister during the service. We have no full time staff, but a ragtag bunch of leaders ranging in age from 25 to 60. Our church has sidewalks dented from grinding and a sanctuary rug that is well worn from sneakers, along with a youth group straight from the heart of God. We have seen lives changed through the love of Christ as stone hard emotional walls have been torn down. Teens are walking in our doors on a Sunday and some have brought their parents. Even still, we consider this a model in the making.
Out of everyone, I am the one truly blessed. God allowed a 40-something mom to be part of a ministry that is experiencing what can be done in the lives of teens when a church really listens to the call of God in their town. For me it is a perfect fit!
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.