This September marked the anniversary of me being in full time Christian service for 13 years (I know, I know, I don’t look old enough!). A large portion of that ministry has been working with children and teenagers. I don’t get to do it that much these days has God has opened up other doors of ministry and as a Church we have a wonderful team of young people who lead Elevation, our Friday night youth programme. But last Friday I had the pleasure of coming out of semi-retirement to preach to our children, and had the pleasure of seeing 16 of them (mostly un-churched) respond to the gospel. It was the highlight of my year so far! Tomorrow I get to preach to them again, and although on Sunday I am ministering in two healing and revival services to adults, I secretly (don’t tell anyone!) am more exciting about getting the opportunity to speak to our children and teenagers at Elevation tomorrow night.
After 13 years of working with kids, I have done lots of things right and lots of things wrong, but here are four vital principles I have seen work.
1. A culture of honour
The reason we called our youth meeting “Elevation” is because the word is all about lifting and going higher. In our society today young people are used to being told they are useless, a waste of space, lazy, bad, a mistake, will never achieve anything etc. In the Church we must model a different culture – a culture where young people are honoured, celebrated, lifted up and have their minds renewed so they understand their Kingdom identity – that they are special, loved, chosen, called, sons and daughters of God. Most Friday nights I stand at the door and watch as parents drop their children off at our youth meeting. It has broken my heart many times to hear parents shouting and swearing at their kids, even telling me “watch out for this one – he’s a bad kid”. Our youth ministries have to be places where we see and declare the greatness of God over each young person. We are not light on sin and have a strict disciplinary procedure but choose to operate in love and grace over condemnation and judgement. We prophetically declare who children are in Jesus and not who they are in Adam.
2. It’s all about relationship
Recently I met up with a pastor and leader from Kenya who was a Bible college student placed at the Church myself and my brother attended as children. Even though I was ten years old at the time and my brother only five, we both remember him clearly to this day and he had such an impact on us during the two years he was at our Church. The interesting thing is, we can never remember a single sermon he preached. But we can both remember the time he invested in us, just chatting to us and encouraging us. In fact, all the men and women who have impacted me the most had one thing in common – they spent time with me as a friend. As I preacher, my ego tells me that people remember every word I preach. But my experience tells me, people will remember very little. What they will remember is the time I spent with them. Young people come to Church because they want to feel part of a family (as many of them don’t have a proper family at home). Families are based on relationship. My wife and myself have spent countless hours spending time with the young people in our care. We have driven them thousands of miles taking them to events up and down the country, spent hundreds of pounds, cooked dozens of meals, and opened up our home countless times. It has been time consuming, energy sapping and emotionally draining. But I have loved every minute of it! Today many of these young people have grown to become some of the most polite, humble, spiritual and servant hearted people I know and they are seeing God do great things through them. We are told that leaders should have followers. But I am not sure that is Kingdom. Kingdom people don’t have followers but sons and daughters. And that means a lot of love and a lot of time.
3. The Word of God is the single greatest tool you have in raising disciples
So many youth ministries today place such an emphasis on games, tuck shop, live praise music, pool tables, chill out times etc. I have used all of those, but I still find that the greatest tool I have in raising disciples is going back to the tried and tested method of teaching and preaching God’s Word. The excuse of “our ministry is all about connecting with the kids, not thumping them with the Bible” is fine if you want to raise a shallow generation that will backslide the moment they hit 18. But if I could give one piece of advice to anyone wanting to raise men and women of God it would be this – preach the Word, preach the Word, preach the Word! Preach Jesus, preach a hunger in them for the things of the Spirit, preach holiness, preach doctrine, preach the Kingdom. When I became youth pastor of our Church in 2007 in my meetings I would preach for a good 45 minutes to an hour. Even today, although we are reaching out to younger children, we still preach for a good part of the meeting, and use testimonies, illustrations etc to keep getting God’s Word in them. People say, young people won’t listen for more than a few minutes, but the truth is young people will adapt to the culture they are brought up in. If they are brought up in a culture where they have to listen, they will. Trust me, young people will listen to dynamic, anointed, faith building, Jesus exalting Bible teaching. God’s Word is a seed, and if we get it in young people early, it will grow and bring them to a place of maturity in God.
4. Never underestimate the power of an encounter with God
I had the privilege of going to a faith school and I can still remember one day in the mid 90’s when the Holy Spirit broke into a morning prayer time. Lessons were abandoned that day as many of us lay prostrate in the presence of God. I was only young but that day marked me for life. An encounter with the Holy Spirit at best changes us and transforms us. Even if it doesn’t, it at least gives us a memory of the reality and power of God. In my early days of youth ministry I would lay hands on young people every meeting, praying for them to be filled with the Spirit and be baptised in fire. As I matured, I realised I didn’t need to do this every single meeting, but I do strongly believe that in our youth ministries there have to be times when we allow heaven to break in, the presence of God to touch lives and times of impartation where we lay hands on our young people and prophesy over them and praying for the power of God to touch them. It changes them, it marks them, it seals them, it opens their spirits to another dimension.
Many years ago I was at a Christian conference and got chatting to an older pastor. When I told him I was a youth worker, he said what I am sure he hoped was an encouraging thing “just keep serving, and one day you’ll get promoted to bigger things”. I am sure he meant well, but he obviously thought working with young people was the first rung on the ladder of Christian service and one day I would mature to proper ministry. I remember at the time thinking he was foolish, and I don’t think my opinion has changed. Some of my greatest moments in ministry have been with children and young people.
There was the time in a secular high school the presence of God filled the room and pupils and staff began to cry. There was the time in the USA preaching to an unsaved youth group and seeing all of them (around 50-60) come to the altar in repentance. There were my early meetings as youth pastor where we had powerful visitations and young people encountering God’s fire (some of whom are now serving God full time). There was the time in a children’s home in Kenya where a group of orphans, who have been rescued from poverty and are being raised up in a beautiful Christian environment gathered round to pray for us and showed us what true prayer and intercession is. And then is what God has done over the past twelve months in our Church here – we have seen so many un-churched young people come in and find Jesus and He is changing them week by week. Their behaviour change has been noticed by parents and teachers, they are sharing their faith with their friends, they are going home and praying and reading their Bible. It doesn’t look like a revival (whatever that is), is not that spectacular, but it is Jesus, changing lives.
I wrote this as an encouragement to any person who works with children or teenagers in any way. It can often seem like your ministry is seen as unimportant and in the background. It can be a ministry where we spend a decade sowing before you see the ultimate fruit. There is the pain of seeing more kids walk away from Church than those that go on to take their childhood commitment to adult hood. But the Bible says “Start children off on the way they should go, and even when they are old they will not turn from it.” (Prov 22v6). The years you spend with those young people are the most important years of their life, they will never forget it. I have known of many young people (my own brother included) who abandoned their childhood faith only to come back to it in later life. They never forget. Keep going, keep going, keep going! God is with you.