Moving from “Program-First” to “Vision-Driven”

There have been some great pieces on the Youth Worker Movement lately about discipleship in youth ministry, and how we can be better about that work.  Our focus of discipleship, or “disciple making” in youth ministry is rooted in the United Methodist Church’s mission statement of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Does your church have a mission statement or a vision statement?  What about your youth ministry?  These statements should be the driving forces for our ministries.  At their best, vision statements boil down exactly what you value in your ministry, and what you hope to do as a ministry.  At their worst, they are empty phrases that sound catchy or look good on bulletins, signs, and posters. 

In my current church we have the vision of “the loving light of Christ, connecting and transforming.”  This statement is just specific enough to identify us as a church, and just vague enough to cover any number of programs that we offer.  As a result it can be easy to justify pretty much any activity we do as “connecting” and even stretch some programs to qualify as “transforming.”  Our biggest struggle with our youth ministry has been trying to identify what best fits into our vision of our church, but also with the larger mission of the United Methodist Church to “make disciples.”  Though this may seem like a church-wide issue, it is especially a need within youth ministry.

In an article for the book Growing Souls, youth minister Michael Hryniuk explains the current state of youth ministry in many American churches as having the goal to “bring kids to Jesus,” but he says that this goal seems so obvious to so many in the church that churches jump immediately to planning programs, ordering pizza, and opening a lesson from the Bible. It is very tempting to get caught up in this focus on a “plan first” youth ministry that emphasizes programs over the process of building relationships with young people.  Being caught in this process of constant programming and calendaring without proper reflection about what we are doing in ministry can end up undermining that central purpose of nurturing faith in Christ and a relationship within God’s grace.

My hope is that instead of having a culture of activity planning, we would become a community of question askers.  Asking the right kinds of questions about the purpose of ministry with youth involves careful reflection about the role of the church in the world along with reflection and prayer about how faith is nurtured to bring about committed discipleship.  After all, these are the questions that lie at the heart of the United Methodist vision to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Without first engaging in intentional reflection and contemplation there can be no effective ministries of the church, let alone ministries with youth.

There are many excellent books about reintroducing practices of contemplation and reflection into ministry with youth, and these are great resources for how to approach youth ministry in new ways.  But the process for local churches can be more simple than reading another book, or purchasing another set of Sunday School curriculum.  Our ministries need collaborative times of conversation where youth workers, parents, (hopefully) pastors, and youth gather together and discern the right questions to be asked.  Instead starting with questions like, “What will bring the most students in?” or “ What will be most fun?” our ministries should begin by asking, “What are the needs of young people in our community?” and “What do we have from scripture, our tradition, our experience, and our reason to address these needs?”  Collaborative contemplation and conversation about why we do the things we do in our ministries will be the first step in building bridges between young people and the larger faith community, and also growing a deeper faith for our young people.

We can ask these questions in planning, and we should definitely ask these questions to evaluate everything we do in our ministries.  In a leadership-training event at my college, our facilitator encouraged us to always evaluate and debrief any activity we ever led.  He said that, “If you don’t debrief everything you do, then it isn’t worth doing.”  The process of asking how things went, and more importantly, why they went a certain way can be critical in offering the best kind of programs that embody your church’s mission statement.  Asking the tough questions of our ministry leaders and our own decisions is also critical for gauging our effectiveness in the work of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

How do you reflect on your work as a ministry? 

Is it something you do often? 

How do you gather and analyze feedback on your ministry to make sure what you’re doing is in line with your vision?

–Marcus Womack


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