First Third Conversations

Top Ten Characteristics of a Healthy CYF Ministry

Family MinistryA blog post by Pastor Nancy Lee Gauche

I read this post on Kenda Creasy Dean’s Blog on April 14, 2011, and it got my juices flowing around this question: "What are the Top 10 Characteristics of a Healthy Youth Ministry?" There are a million lists like this floating around, but my challenge to you is to make your own list related to your present context and culture.

I’m asking myself the same question, but in my present contexts that question expresses itself like this: “What are the Top 10 Characteristics of a Healthy CYF Graduate Program?” You might give me some feedback on that one! Read Kenda’s list below, but don’t stop there. Write out your own top 10 and then share it with a dream team, a volunteer team, or even a group of young people. They can probably help you out with the list by giving some feedback!

10. Safe space.

Young people need safe spaces in their lives where they can “be” themselves instead of trying to “prove” themselves. Safe space can means time, relationships, or physical space where young people have the emotional, relational, physical, and spiritual freedom to explore, to risk, and to fail in a safety net of love–real love, not the Hallmark stuff. Safe spaces give youth the experience of being really “seen” and known as God sees and knows them, as beloved brothers and sisters of Christ.

(It goes without saying that “safe space” in youth ministry assumes a system of protection for sexual misconduct is in place.)

9. A culture of permission and creativity.

A safe space yields permission–permission to take risks, to move outside comfort zones, to initiate and to lead. Healthy youth ministry creates a culture of permission where young people can follow Christ where they sense they are being led, where adults are guides but not programmers, permission givers rather than gate keepers, trail guides rather than tour operators. Creativity requires freedom–which safe space and permission provide. .

8. A culture of theological awareness.

Youth ministry ought to help youth see their lives the way God sees them–which means becoming aware of theological categories like grace, forgiveness, redemption, sin, hope. One of the findings of the National Study of Youth and Religion is that churches are not helping very much on this front. The result is that kids growing up in churches frame their lives in pretty much the same was as anybody else–which makes it tough to buck cultural norms that run contrary to the gospel. Healthy youth ministry creates a culture of theological awareness, teaching young people how to imagine themselves as participants in God’s story.

7. Integration into worship and congregational life at every level -- while maintaining significant peer groups of faith

Teenagers need people to reflect back to them who they are; this “mirroring” is basic to the process of identity formation, and for the church to be absent from this process is a lethal sin of omission. Only in the church do young people begin to see themselves through the eyes of people who try to see them as God sees them: beloved, blessed, called. Interaction with Christian peers is part of this process, but adults are significant mirrors as well.

Christ calls teenagers, like the rest of us, to follow him–which makes youth as integral to the Body of Christ as anybody else. Separating youth out from the larger congregation is both theologically irresponsible, and a pragmatic mistake. Segmenting youth exclusively into “youth activities” leads young people to associate church with their peer groups–making “graduation” into the intergenerational faith community extremely difficult .

6. A community of belonging that is authentic, fun, and passionate about living as Christians in the world.

Truth is, it doesn’t really matter if the community of Christians in which youth participate is a youth group, a choir, a drama troupe, a Bible study, a parachurch organization or even the congregation as a whole (though the larger the congregation gets, the less likely people are to experience it as a community of belonging apart from small groups of fidelity, intimacy, and prayer). The point is that teenagers need to feel like the church is a place they belong, and not just attend–and belonging means they participate with joy alongside others who are living in the same direction.

5. A team of adult youth leaders who are actively growing together in faith and who embody the quality of community with one another and missional attitude that we want our kids to have.

You can’t lead where you don’t go. Adults need to unpack their own baggage so we don’t accidentally bring it into our relationships with youth–and we need to model the kind of spiritual investment in ourselves, in one another, and in the world, partly because it’s a faithful way to live, and partly because youth need examples of what communities that support each other in living as Christians in the world looks like.

4. A supportive congregation where people actively seek God and that talk about God as the subject of sentences.

Let me unpack this one. First, I’m convinced by the 2003 Exemplary Youth Ministry study that congregations where young people reliably develop mature faith “talk about God as the subject of sentences.” Two things are important in that phrase: 1) People talk about God, which means God is a lively concern in these congregations; and 2) God is the subject of sentences, which mean when people talk about God, they are saying that God does things. God is an actor in their lives, in the life of the congregation; God is doing things through them; God is alive and present and in their midst. And, they talk to God as well as about God. You can probably think of churches where God is about as inert as the couch in the church parlor. But congregations that help young people have vital, lively faith talk about God as the subject of their sentences. God happens to them and through them.

3. A senior pastor who is crazy about young people.

See #4, above – all these things are true for people who lead congregations as well. The senior pastor or head of staff, in many ways, embodies the congregation’s “brand.” If a congregation supports youth ministry, it will be clear because the head of staff talks about young people (positively) in public, includes them in leadership, embraces the faith development of parents, knows youth and their leaders by name, and makes himself/herself available to young people for spiritual conversations. The senior pastor is youth ministry’s head cheerleader: Go, team.

2. Lots and lots of parents who are growing in, and living out, their love of God and neighbor (and who are aware that this matters to their kids).

You’ve heard it before: parents are the most important youth ministers young people ever have. No variable in the National Study of Youth and Religion is more important in young people’s faith identities, or in their ability to sustain those faith identities between high school and emerging adulthood, than parents who are religiously active while their kids are teenagers. And if young people don’t have parents who are investing in faith, then churches need to be places where kids can find adults who are investing in faith, and who are willing to “spiritually adopt” these teenagers so they can eavesdrop on what it looks like to be an adult follower of Jesus Christ.

1. Jesus.

I know, I know: the “right” answer in church is always “Jesus.” And of course, Christians understand God as three-in-one, so Jesus is not the only person of the Trinity who matters in youth ministry, so please don’t misunderstand me as reducing God to the Incarnation.

But Christians understand God as Triune through Jesus, whose life, death, and resurrection reveals who God is and who we are in relationship to God. Doing youth ministry without God is like doing dinner without food: you can come to the table, but there’s nothing to eat…so why bother?

Please see this site for Kenda's original blog post and to read more of her writing! 

Author Bio:Nancy Lee Gauche
Hey Friends! Glad to meet you. I am a pastor, leader, and teacher/learner who gets a kick out of developing leaders and equipping people for public Christian ministry.  I am energized by all things faith-driven.  My strengths drive me to be energized by the process of learning and I thrive in dynamic work environments. Right now I find myself working in the field of Children, Youth & Family Master’s & MDIV Concentration at Luther Seminary in St Paul MN!

The Children, Youth and Family niche at Luther Seminary brings together a great team of leaders and students who make a difference and bring great adventure to life! Investing in the “first third” of life as I find myself spilling into the “last third” creates connective synergy. I couldn’t be happier!

I am married to an amazing human being, Pastor Paul Gauche, and together we are the parents of two young adult children: Sarah, who is married to Travis with little Ruby Grace our grand-baby! They make their home together in Charlottesville, Va.; and Soren, who resides in downtown Minneapolis. Right now, Shelbui the dog keeps the Gauches’ good company! 

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