Can Youth Ministry really be done in 4 Hours a Week?

In 2010, our youth ministry program offered some sort of youth program (be that Sunday school, youth group, special Bible studies, retreats, trips, etc.) on 205 of the 365 days in the year.  That is just counting the number of days, not the number of programs to account for when we offered 2-3 things in a day like Sunday School in the morning and various Sunday evening programs…it was probably about 255 programs in a year.    Almost all of the programs offered were led by adults – either myself, another staff person or adult volunteers.  We had a fantastic youth leadership team and the students gave input on our plans, but if I’m really honest, most of the planning was done in our offices and most of the details were taken care of by staff.  If I say so myself, it was very professional looking, details got taken care of, we had a cool logo and everything.  I think it was run by adults because that’s what we believed we were expected to do & if it succeeded or failed, we got to hear about that first.

It wasn’t until I read the book “4-Hour Youth Ministry – Escaping the Trap of Full-Time Youth Ministry” by Timothy Eldred that I got the courage to stop the insanity.

Now, for years I’ve been on the bandwagon for having a student led ministry.  As a youth minister, I believe my job is to coach students how to develop their own gifts and to do their own ministry.  The young people I’ve known are talented, gifted, amazing, creative.  We did increase the amount of student leadership in the church, but I am almost embarrassed to admit how much of the ministry work I did when I should have been coaching students to run the show.

Tim’s book reminded me that my calling was not to run a program, essentially being like a wedding planner for youth events.  I knew this in my heart already, but I found myself caught up in working really hard to make sure programs were successful.  Sometimes implied and sometimes clearly stated, my success or failure was measured by how many people showed up, so I wanted everything to be perfect, welcoming, cool, whatever it needed to be so more people would come, and bring friends, too.

Tim points out the obvious – it’s about relationships.  And relationships don’t grow as well when you’re at a desk planning programs.  And the probably best way students can learn ministry is to do ministry first-hand.  So after lots of prayer and discussion as a staff team, we changed our ways of doing things.  We came to our student leaders with a blank summer calendar, talked about our purpose as a youth ministry, and asked the student leaders to prayerfully decide what the summer calendar would look like.  As they selected each event, they decided which students would be leading it, when they would plan the details, how they would promote it.  You could feel the excitement grow as they realized that they were really going to be in charge.

When you’ve got a team of students responsible for greeting new students and making them feel welcome, another team in charge of each aspect of the program…and you can even leave the room with no worries, that’s a beautiful thing.

Did I end up doing youth ministry in 4 hours a week after reading the book?  Maybe not immediately, but things are definitely in a healthier place.

Book review in short: it’s excellent.  It takes about 4 hours to read.  It may change your life in a very healthy way.

What if we threw away our curriculum and just used the Bible?

Last night at the Senior high Bible study I teach, I did a revolutionary thing.  Instead of coming into the class with a lesson plan full of activities, skits, handouts, etc., I brought the Bible.

Here’s how it worked:

We opened to a book of the Bible (Jonah – which is hard to find, so we used the Table of Contents).

I talked briefly about the background of the book to set the scene.

I asked for volunteers, and a youth read Chapter 1.  We talked about it verse by verse.  What do you think was going on in Jonah’s heart?  What must the Ninevites have done to get that reaction from Jonah?  What does this text say about the nature of God?  (What we concluded: God is powerful, creative, merciful, answers prayers and has a sense of humor.)  I had done some research ahead of time, so I added a little bit of information from scholars on the text.

Then we moved on to Chapter 2 and did the same thing.

At the end of the evening, we did what we always do.  We closed in prayer and passed out a little card with a Bible verse (Jonah 2:1-2) on it.  If the youth memorize it and can recite it next week, they get candy.  Maybe this is bribery, but I say it’s worth it if I get youth thinking about Scripture and getting it embedded in their thinking.

Here’s what we got from the lesson:

Incredible conversation.  The ability to discuss it without worrying about the theology of the author.  Depth.  Laughter.  Youth listening to youth.

Here’s why it’s revolutionary:

I have shelves of youth ministry curriculum in my office.  I tend to use it like a crutch or a lifeline.  Instead of relying on my own creativity and knowledge, I just grab the book of the shelf, pick what looks fun, look at the supply list and try to recreate someone’s learning scenario.  It’s not bad or inherently evil or anything, but it’s also not awesome.  It feels like creating entertainment more than creating engagement.   What I’ve learned is there is beauty in the simplicity of just reading the Bible and discussing it.  The youth agreed.

So my question/challenge for youthworkers out there: What would youth ministry look like if we made the Bible our main source of curriculum?  How would this change the face of youth ministry?  Pros/cons?  What keeps you from doing this?