Targeted Programming in Youth Ministry

By Duffy Robbins

Wouldn’t it be great if our students just walked into our youth ministries already committed to faithful Christian discipleship? How cool would it be if you were interrupted one night at youth group during your opening prayer by some eager student who asked, “Can we play with our concordances again tonight, and then have heated discussions about theological issues before we break up into small groups to talk about how we want to spend our tithes? Oh yeah, and can I get a new Purity Bracelet; I gave mine to my girlfriend?”

It would be fantastic if teenagers came to us as ready-made, ready-to-serve disciples. But, that’s not the way it generally works.

Typically, a youth ministry is a mixed bag of kids with commitments all over the place.

If we’re to model our ministries after the incarnational approach of Jesus, we’ll need to work very hard to meet kids where they are – wherever they are – in the odyssey of faith. That means thinking about where our students are in their various journeys of faith and then developing and targeting programs that meet them in that place. One of the ways to imagine those various places of spiritual growth is to think in terms of six different levels of spiritual commitment.

LEVEL ONE: Pool of Humanity. This represents the teenage population within your geographical sphere of influence.

Your group may not have any influence on these students at the present time. The vast majority of these kids may not even know you or your ministry exists. But you know about them, and by God’s grace and power you want to reach them with the gospel.

Every Pool of Humanity is different. Your Pool may be an urban population with several diverse ethnic groups and nationalities, or it could be a small rural community with a fairly homogenous population. It may be a place marked by affluence, or it could be a place haunted by high unemployment and low-income families. It could be that within five miles of your place of ministry there are a number of middle schools, high schools, and private and religious schools, or it may be that your entire community is served by one regional middle school and high school. There are as many scenarios as they are ministries. One is not necessarily better than another, but they are different.

If we want to see a fruitful harvest, we’ll have to give attention to our peculiar ministry environment. Jesus makes basically this very point in his parable of the soils (Matthew 13:1-18). The key to response in this well-known passage is not the seed (the Word God); it’s the soil into which the seed is sown. Or, to put it another way, architects don’t just begin drawing up plans to build a structure; they begin by surveying the ground on which they want to build that structure. So it is when we want to build a solid ministry. Before we construct the program we give some serious thought to the teenage population in our community.

Has your congregation, have your youth volunteers, have the parents of kids in the youth ministry environment ever spent an evening together wrestling with this question: Who are these kids we’re trying to reach? What are their needs? What are their questions? What supports do they have? What supports do they lack? Sound programming begins with thoughtful tuning and careful listening.