I am a 66-year-old-youth pastor. My hair and beard have been gray for several decades now – and I can’t play the guitar. I don’t have a TikTok account and I’ve never played Fortnite. I’m too old to play tackle football with kids (or with anyone for that matter), and I hate staying up all night. I am enrolled in Medicare and I have my AARP membership card.
However, I can say emphatically that I love kids – and can’t see myself doing anything else except working with emerging generations in a local church setting – for absolutely as long as I can.
I know that I am way too old to play tackle football, but we should never get too old to minister to kids.
Believe me, I get it. My games in youth group can be lame, and my illustrations are sometimes old. I’m not the guy to lead worship for today’s teenagers, and I am certainly not the person to lead all-nighters.
But, since most of the kids in our church are from dysfunctional, hurting, and broken households, they look at me almost as a grandpa. My wife and I minister to kids who may not have positive relationships with their parents, but they love their grandparents and respect them. Their grandparents are the ones who provide for them, who take care of them, and who encourage them.
So, maybe working with today’s younger generations (like Gen Z and Generation Alpha) makes sense for older youth workers. Maybe it’s time for older youth workers to refocus our ministries, renew our sense of calling, and allow kids (middle schoolers, high schoolers, and even young adults) to reinvigorate our ministries with today’s young people.
Older youth workers can have amazingly effective ministries. Here are some things to think through:
- Reaffirm your call as you get older.
Has God called you to work with youth? If so, keep on doing it no matter how old you are. I don’t think the call of God is age related.
- Stay relevant. Do your research. Stay connected.
How can you stay up on today’s students? Maybe older people are inherently out-of-touch, and we’ll have to work harder to learn all we can about today’s youth and youth culture. The best way to learn about kids, by the way, is to spend time with kids!
- Concentrate on your strengths. You’re not good at everything. Use what God is blessing.
Older youth workers probably are not the best game leaders, and most likely shouldn’t be worship leaders at this stage of life. But they are really good at building inter-personal relationships and they are probably ideal storytellers of what God has done over the years in their lives. And, they probably know the Scriptures and can successfully teach God’s Word to others.
- Recruit others to help you (and find people to do what is now hard for you to do). Build a team around you.
Yeah, since we’re not all good at everything – why not make a conscious effort to recruit other Godly adults in your church to work alongside of you. Teams built with diversity are probably best suited to connect with the variety of kids in your group.
- Make much of relationships… with individual kids, with parents, and with others in the church.
Older youth workers should be really good at developing healthy and positive relationships with individual kids. (Of course, churches will need to develop and enforce child protection policies for all adult workers!) Older youth workers also have the credibility to work with parents of teens too. Plus, they are likely to have the respect of other people in the church as well.
Friends, I can’t tell you how thankful I am to still have the opportunity to work kids and their families at this stage of my life. Our youth group doesn’t play crazy games and we don’t entertain kids with the energetic music or creative videos that I have produced, but we love the Lord and we love kids – and we want to see our students grow up to go on for God.
The apostle Paul had it right when he challenged his student, Timothy, to “Let no one despise your youth, but be an example to the believers in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity” (1 Timothy 4:12).
The context of this verse gives clear indication that this great missionary leader was encouraging young Timothy to make sure that his private life substantiated his public message. In other words, he was telling us that young people can and should be examples to older people. From reading this passage, one can conclude that others in the Ephesus church were older (maybe significantly so) than Timothy. Yet, he was instructed to be an example to them. This same principle can be a clear mandate for teenagers today.
Our students can have a church-wide impact. I’ve seen it happen and probably so have you. Students come back from a conference, camp, or missions trip fired up to do something great for God. The Lord has been at work in their hearts, and they come home totally on fire and completely dedicated to the cause of Christ. The adults hear their testimonies and sense their passion to do something great for God. This genuine enthusiasm is contagious and infectious to people of all generations.
I’ve seen this phenomenon lead to a spirit of true revival that has effectively spread throughout the entire church. Let me tell you quickly about one such occasion in a church I know. It started when the Lord used one of the volunteer youth workers to lead a teenage girl to Christ. This 16-year-old new believer then led her best friend to Christ. These two baby Christians quickly became motivated to start a Bible study to reach other friends for Christ in their local public school. Almost at the same time, some of our regular attendees had recently returned from a major youth conference and were eager to see God continue to use that event to change lives back home. One young man prayed accept Christ and another made a public decision to be more vocal about his faith. On one particular Sunday almost twenty teenagers made public decisions to commit their lives to Christ. Soon several of their parents followed them, and other adults soon followed. Without any exaggeration, this sense of revival very quickly spread throughout the entire church. God used two new Christians and a handful of other students returning from a youth conference to impact that whole church body.
I don’t want to presume that I can identify here in this short article all of the factors that the Lord can use to bring this kind of church-wide revival, but I do believe Paul’s instruction to young Timothy that he could be an example to other believers. I find it interesting that 2 Timothy 4:12 identifies some specific areas in which young people can be an example to older Christians. (“…in word, in conduct, in love, in spirit, in faith, in purity.”) Students can indeed impact others through their words, their manner of life, their love, their enthusiasm, their dedication to God, and through their moral purity.
The key is that the youth ministry should have personal, public, and positive exposure to other ages within the church. Let me explain.
1. Make sure that your students have personal exposure to other age groups in your church.
Students need to get to know the adults, and the adults need to get to know the students. It’s that simple. We must build significant interpersonal and inter-generational relationships in our churches. I believe that this process starts when godly adults are willing to take the initiative to develop these nurturing and mutually beneficial relationships with kids. Don’t expect most kids to go out of their way to get to know adults. That’s probably not going to happen. (Just make sure that your church’s child protection policies are known and enforced.)
The adults in your church will probably need to be taught to be proactive and seek out individual students to mentor. It’s a well-reported fact that over 90% of today’s teenagers are interested in positive and growing relationships with adults. But, remember that the obligation is on the adults to make these relationships happen.
This exposure can happen in several very effective ways. I am a firm believer in making sure your students are welcome to actively participate in all areas of your church ministry. Also, youth workers need to plan creative and well-organized events for the adults and teenagers to interact together. You will undoubtedly find that you need to motivate both adults and teenagers to be involved; but once you hold these positive events on a regular basis, the existing walls of aloofness and intimidation will break down.
I also believe that one of the most important and effective ways to nurture these inter-generational relationships is for the groups to spend significant time in prayer together for specific and strategic needs. Acts 12:1–17 sets a Biblical precedent of various generations who prayed together. Praying together shows other people your heart, your burden for the lost, and your desire to see God work.
Don’t forget that this process works both ways. The adults in your church will impact students as they demonstrate their vitality and genuineness in prayer, but the teens will also reveal those same qualities to the adults. It is powerful for teens to hear adults pray, but it is also beneficial for adults when they hear kids pray.
I encourage all youth workers to brainstorm and then implement other ways to help the different generations in your church develop intentional and growing interpersonal relationships between members of the various generations.
2. Give your students public exposure to other age groups in your church.
It is also important to give students public exposure to your church. I admit that I am a long-time fan of “youth services” and other ways for the teens to interact with other generations in a public way. The first time I ever preached was during a youth night service where the teenagers took over our church’s entire evening service. But please recognize that I do not believe that these periodic services should be the only way for teenagers to get involved in your church. If these youth services are the only public exposure the students have, it can lead to the feeling that the teenagers are actually “on show” every so often and not really a vital part of the church.
Why not let your teenagers take an active role in the regular ministries of your church? I think that some talented teenagers chould participate in the worship team during regularly scheduled church services for example. I like to encourage and train other teenagers to serve as ushers or greeters. I also think students should be encouraged and taught to tithe and to participate in church business meetings. After all, this is their church too. They should be involved.
Young people should also be given the opportunity to serve with adults in your church’s kid’s ministry, or other key areas of service. The key here is the part about serving alongside of adults. This team ministry can be an amazingly effective way of training future leaders and servants for ongoing church involvement. When adults and teenagers work alongside each other, they see each other’s heart for God and for other people. This, too, will break down the walls of suspicion and negativity between the generations. This principle should work both ways. Make sure your students have exposure to adults as well.
3. Give godly students positive exposure to other age groups.
Another thought that I want to emphasize concerning exposing teenagers to the other generations in church is that the exposure should be positive exposure. You want the adults to see kids who love the Lord and are passionate about serving Him. It is contagious to see godly kids who are genuinely enthusiastic about the Lord. That cannot be ignored! Therefore, make sure you give this exposure to students who are not fleshly or carnal. I am not saying that external things are the most important characteristic. Please do not hold your teenagers to higher external standards than you require of the adults who serve. But I am saying that the students who participate in other organized church ministries should be living for the Lord. (I also believe that this standard should be expected of adults, by the way.)
God’s Word is very clear on this idea, “He who is faithful in what is least is faithful also in much; and he who is unjust in what is least is unjust also in much” (Luke 16:10). However, unless there are habits of unconfessed, public sin, all Christians should be actively involved in church ministry (Ephesians 4:11–16.)
What a powerful visual aid to see students who love the Lord and want to serve Him! Adults can’t resist the excitement and eagerness from teenagers who are truly motivated about living for the Lord. In fact, when adults see the passion and enthusiasm of teenagers who really want to live for God, the external things will become almost non-issues.
I also want to emphasize that the ministry experience should be positive. In other words, you want students to enjoy serving the Lord and to do so without being coerced or made to feel guilty for not serving. Ministry should be fun and exciting. It is a blast to serve the Lord. Yes, it is difficult at times, but look at all the Lord did for us. We should want to serve Him and live for Him because of our desire to be obedient to Him. That’s what we want from our students as well.
Yes, I believe that Paul had it right. Students can be an example to “big church”!
What should our youth ministries look like after our students can return to our church buildings for youth groups? I am wondering if there will be a “new normal”; and if so, what should change from the way we did ministry before COVID-19?
Here are a few of my thoughts about some key categories of what SHOULD change when we can meet physically again with our teenagers:
Youth workers and other church leaders will need to think this through right away. What must we change about our physical buildings, our meeting set-ups, the way we take attendance, and the way we play games during our youth ministry gatherings?
It probably makes sense to ask everyone to wear face masks and to arrange our seating setup to ensure the 6’ distancing guidelines. We probably need to consider if and how we should serve food and drinks for our attendees. Even the way we distribute sheets of paper or ask kids to check-in on a computer kiosk will need to be reconsidered.
Parents of some teenagers may not be too worried about these things, but other families will be! All they have heard for the last several weeks has been to follow the rules of social distancing. So it doesn’t make sense for churches to not heed those directives when our groups can meet again.
We will all need to be careful. It is important to strategize and plan now for our ministries to open again. Things will not be business as normal – especially in the minds and hearts of some of our church people. So, it is very important right now to begin the planning process of what your ministry is going to do when you can open the doors.
Some states will require attendance limits, and I know that some churches are considering offering multiple meetings times to accommodate those limited numbers. (For instance, some states are still discouraging groups of more than 25 people to gather in the same location.) Some churches are also planning to continue using Zoom as well, knowing that some kids will not attend our youth groups in person. That way they will still be able to be involved in some way in our programs.
Making sure that your people are safe will need to be a top priority. Plus, you will need to clearly communicate to all possible attendees what your church has done (like thoroughly clean and disinfect your building’s entry way and meeting rooms) and what you will keep doing from now on for people to feel safe in your building.
You will need to develop a comprehensive checklist of safety items to accomplish before kids show up in your building. Then it is very important to let your people know what you have done to protect the kids.
Your kids will undoubtedly crave in-person, human connections with their friends and mentors that are a part of your church’s youth ministry. When they can return to your building, the tendency will be to “party”, to have fun, and to renew friendships and to rebuild relationships. Those things are especially important (we’ll talk more about that below), but it may be even more important to make much of God and His Word upon their return to church youth group. Your kids will need to hear you talk about God’s purpose for this crisis, that His work in the world is not thwarted, and that their role in His mission is still in effect. They may crave fellowship, but they will need Biblical answers taught by Godly leaders – and our Lord has put youth leaders in an ideal position right now to direct kids’ minds toward His Word.
- Fellowship and Human Connections
Several weeks of isolation away from others (friends and classmates, teachers and mentors, youth groups) in a stay-in-place world will probably motivate your teens to crave time with additional people. As I mentioned above, they will certainly want time to reconnect and hang out with their friends in informal, unstructured conversations. I am not saying that doing that is NOT important. It is very important, and wise youth workers will need to plan time when their buildings are open for teenagers to do just that. But, don’t forget – they’ll want to party, but they need to hear from God – so let’s be sure to balance our programming to allow for both to happen.
There is another matter that I need to highlight. There are likely to be many kids that will need some type of emotional, social, or even physical support from the church once this pandemic is over. Being out of school and having extra time at home will not be positive for everyone. There are many dysfunctional, broken, and hurting households out there. Church leaders must be sensitive toward these hurting households and need to have a plan to provide helpful resources for troubled kids and parents.
- A Break from “Screen Time”
More than ever, today’s kids are living in an online world. The church and many youth groups have moved online, but our kids are already there. They live in a “Fortnite”, contrived-reality world. Their lives are dominated by social media personas, where “likes” carry way too much weight.
My wife and I have 9 grandchildren, with the oldest being only 14 years old. Each of them has had access to an iPad since they were very young. It is not all that strange to them to have school online. Their schools have utilized internet-based educational systems already.
However, the current COVID-19 situation has led to an ever-greater amount of screen time for our kids. This may be difficult to pull-off, but I believe that kids will need a break from their devices. I am not saying that we need to make new youth group rules to limit their use of cell phones. I am saying that meeting in person may take on an even greater significance once the stay-at-home directives are released. Let’s prepare now for how important our youth group meetings will be once we can gather in person.
- Help for Fear and Anxiety
Younger generations are already struggling with fear and anxiety – and the coronavirus pandemic may exacerbate these feelings even more. Everyday they are being told to stay 6 feet away from other people, that they can’t see their friends and relatives, that they have to wear facemasks, and that everyone they meet might be a potential carrier of the virus. We are running out of toilet paper, disinfectant wipes, and now meat. To make matters worse, almost every news program rehearses the number of casualties of COVID-19. Today’s young people are likely to emerge from this pandemic with even greater levels of debilitating anxiety.
Church youth groups will need to be beacons of hope and comfort to these needy young people and their families. We can offer the Truth of God’s Word to a hurting generation. Caring adult youth workers can have an incredible impact by demonstrating Christ’s unconditional love to parents and kids alike. That is another reason why church leaders, maybe especially youth workers, should plan now to actively consider what their ministries will look like once people can return to church buildings.
In the early days of this current Coronavirus situation, the World Health Organization suggested a plan to help thwart the spread of what became a world-wide health crisis, the contagious proliferation of COVID-19. Their plan was to limit person-to-person contamination by what is known as social distancing, or “to slow down the spread of infectious diseases and avoid overburdening healthcare systems, particularly during a pandemic… by closing schools and workplaces, isolation, quarantine, restricting movement of people and the cancellation of mass gatherings” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_distancing).
Of course, the practice of social distancing is really nothing new. The Bible, and especially the Old Testament (Leviticus 13 – 14, and other places), teaches about the terrifying disease of “leprosy” – where infected people were placed in literal isolation away from the general population of society.
It’s important to remember that the current instruction to segregate from other people is not accurately “social” distancing in today’s technological world. It’s probably more like “physical” distancing. We are being told to stay at least 6’ away from other individuals, not to gather in large or even small groups; and in some areas, we have been instructed to “shelter in place”, to stay in our homes, and not go out at all.
But we still can make connections with other people. Ours is not really a matter of total social isolation. We can communicate – and that provides the opportunity to minister to other believers and to share the Gospel with people who do not know Christ. It’s probably just a matter of intentionality, effort, and creativity.
Ministry leaders have had to answer a key question about what is becoming the new normal for believers, churches, and other ministries during the current practice of staying away from other people.
How can we do outreach and ministry in a culture of social distancing?
Of course, we can champion the amazing ways some churches are utilizing technology to accomplish their mission right now. Watching the ingenuity of innovative ministry leaders to apply Google, Facebook, Zoom, Go-To-Meeting, Instagram, and other media platforms to communicate God’s Word, to minister to others, and to reach out to our communities is absolutely incredible.
But we must not forget that “low tech” ways exist to reach out and encourage others too. We must keep in mind that there are practical ways to make personal connections with the people we want to mentor even during times of social distancing.
Here are some basic principles of mentoring during a pandemic that may be worth considering:
- Mentoring relationships may mean more during times of crisis and difficulty.
There’s something quite special when a mentor reaches out during a difficult time. It means they are thinking about you – that they are concerned and that they care about what you are going through. Mentors should do whatever they can right now to connect in any way possible with those they are mentoring.
- Mentoring is not necessarily a commitment of a great deal of time.
I don’t believe that effective mentoring necessarily requires a commitment of “extra” time. It is basically, doing what you do, just doing that with someone younger than you, or with someone who needs a mentor. As everyone is saying, these are weird days right now – and a Godly mentor can have an incredible impact by even taking small action steps to keep in touch with others.
- Mentoring relationships require taking the initiative to connect.
Any healthy relationship requires effort. Mentors are the ones who should take the initiative to make intentional connections. As I mentioned above, this does not necessarily require a commitment of a great deal of time, and it certainly does not require technological expertise. But it does demand a certain degree of purpose.
- Mentoring can use “low tech” instead of “high tech” methods.
I gladly applaud the efforts of so many church leaders who are demonstrating their knowledge and creativity during these days of the pandemic. I am not very talented with technology, but I’m thankful for how today’s communicators are utilizing technology to make a global difference for Christ in these days of social distancing. But friends, let me emphasize to you that mentoring does not require a degree in computer science from MIT. Nor does it mean that you have to learn how to use Zoom or even Facebook Live. In fact, it has been my experience that “low tech” methods are often seen as more valid and more genuine. We can always get some envelopes and some stamps, or make a quick phone call to keep in touch with the people we are mentoring.
- Mentoring is probably more effective with “high touch” methods.
There are so many simple things we can do to make personal, yet intentional connections with those we are mentoring. I am not trying to “blow my own horn” here, but just this past week I made several personal phone calls, wrote and mailed a couple of dozen of “praying for you” notes, mailed a bunch of small care packages, and sent some McDonald’s gift cards to kids from our church.
Readers, we are not living in isolation. We have ways to make connections with others. But, it’s important to remember that key principle from Proverbs 18:24, “The one who has friends, must show themselves to be friendly.” Let’s all take the initiative to make connections with others – especially those we are mentoring. Blessings to you.
It was a summer day following my sophomore year in college, and I was sitting up in my hospital bed after waking up from surgery from an athletic injury. I admit that I was feeling sorry for myself that day. I was in a “poor Mel” and “my life is terrible” mood. My right arm was bandaged to my chest because of my shoulder surgery and my left hand was also bandaged due to the intravenous fluids’ hookup after the surgery.
On the hospital tray in front of me was a plastic cup filled with ice chips – and my open Bible. It’s a long story that I won’t go in to here, but my Bible was turned to Hebrews 12, and here’s what I read, “My son, do not despise the chastening of the Lord, Nor be discouraged when you are rebuked by Him; for whom the Lord loves He chastens…”
That day, sitting alone in a hospital room, God used His Word to literally change the complete direction of my life. I had been living completely for myself, only prioritizing my own goals and plans. Even though I had put my faith in Christ as a child, my life up until that moment was quite focused on me and what I wanted out of life.
God spoke to me that day! No, not in an audible voice – but, His Words were loud and clear. God loved me enough to have something better in store for me than a life for myself. I was discouraged because I didn’t see God’s hand in this. That day it all changed. God loved me enough to work in my life. This surgery was not what I wanted, but it became the catalyst for real change in where I was headed.
I began to sob, not because I was “discouraged” by my life’s circumstances, but because I saw that God loved me enough to “chasten” me and that He had something better for me. That day I confessed my selfishness and admitted to Him that I had been wasting my life. That hospital room became “holy ground” for me as I dedicated my life to Christ and committed myself to follow His will.
Friends, I get it that my life’s story is no big deal when it is compared to the stories of many others, but it is what happened, and this was what God used to help me commit my life to Him and to do His will. My decision that day was to quit wasting my life and to use the rest of my life to make a difference for eternity instead of living focused on myself. And, I’ve tried to do that ever since.
It’s Thanksgiving season, and I can’t begin to express my thankfulness for my wife and family – and for the many years of satisfying and meaningful ministry that He has given us. Sure, we’ve had our ups and downs along the way. Everyone does. But we’ve lived our life trying to see God’s hand in what He wants us to be and to do.
As we’ve sought to do God’s will, we realized that God had wanted to use me to impact the next generation – and to do whatever I could do to utilize my gifts and abilities for that purpose. That’s why I’ve spent the last 45 years of my life actively involved in various aspects of ministry to students – and that’s why I began to focus my writing and speaking ministry to help motivate and encourage as many young people as possible in their walk with God. My ministry has been one of challenging them from the Scriptures not to waste their lives, but instead trying to help them to commit to doing the will of God.
In my personal bio on Twitter, I wrote that I am an “observer of cultural trends”. I have a compelling desire to be someone that makes the biggest difference that I can for eternity. I can’t do everything, but I want to do what I can to impact lives of the next generation. So, I became a youth pastor, a college instructor and administrator, a leader of a youth ministry organization, and a writer and speaker to do just that. My motive has been to observe where cultural influences are headed and to use my God-given gifts to do whatever I can to impact the lives of young people through those trends for eternity.
That is exactly why I’ve written my books, Inter-Generational Youth Ministry and Going On For God. I noticed cultural trends and wanted to do what I could to help people with those things. I wrote books on mentoring and discipleship because I wanted to help others also impact the next generation; and my kids and I put together a booklet on helping young people make Biblical decisions for the same reason.
That summer day in the hospital room was indeed a “holy ground” experience for me. Every now and then I drive by that hospital and tear up a little bit again because God used that place to change everything about Mel Walker’s life. I know this story is no big deal, but now you know why I do what I do. Thanks for reading.