Making Space for Encouragement in Youth Ministry

Youth ministry is arguably one of the most rewarding positions in the church. We get a front row seat to seeing the power of the gospel at work in the lives of our students. A student who rarely speaks shares something deep and profound in a small group that visibly impacts the whole room. We watch as students face and conquer their giants, whether it be the fear of public speaking or choosing to live out faith in Christ despite social rejection from peers. We may even witness a student’s profession of faith in Jesus Christ that moves us and our leaders to tears. There is immense pleasure in presenting Jesus on a weekly basis to middle and high school students who are hungry for gospel truth. 

Even as we experience these life-giving and transformative moments in youth ministry, we also can experience many disappointments: Sign ups for the fall retreat are at an all time low. A middle school boy leaves our church to join a more impressive youth ministry down the road. A high school girl with whom we’ve connected comes only for big events but not the weekly program. A talk we give doesn’t go over well, prompting a parent in attendance to doubt our competency as a ministry leader. Over time we find ourselves retreating inward, play the comparison game with other youth ministries. We might rewind the mental game film wondering what we could have done better while the state of isolation, despair and potentially burnout looms over us. Now the good work of youth ministry is met with the curse of living in a fallen world marred by sin. 

We can surely be tempted to focus on what’s not going right, while neglecting to pause and celebrate what God is doing. For this reason, we must seek to cultivate spaces of encouragement within our ministries. James 1 instructs us to, “count it all joy” when we meet trials of various kinds in order for steadfastness to take its full effect. In other words, cultivating encouragement is the means by which the Spirit gives us greater confidence and perspective as we point students to our all-sufficient savior Jesus Christ, the hope of glory. With this in mind, we’ll first discuss the methodology of encouragement, and then the practice.  

The Ministry of Encouragement

God’s word calls us to practice encouragement and to look to him in the midst of challenging circumstances. Let us consider three key passages.

Consider the words of Moses in Psalm 90. After lamenting the anguish of the human condition affected by sin in verses 3-11, Moses shifts from lament to petition and praise in verse 14 saying “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love, that we may rejoice and be glad all our days.” Moses teaches us here that in the midst of a world marred by sin, unmet expectations, and great loss, we can find encouragement from our God whose love is unfailing. Why? Because God is committed to the spiritual flourishing of his people, despite the present sufferings they will face in this life.  

Secondly, remember Jesus’ words to the disciples in John 16. Moments before Jesus’ betrayal and arrest, he says to his disciples, “I have said these things to you, that in me you may have peace.“ (John 16:33). If we examine the context of this verse, we find that Jesus is not only speaking about the imminent threat upon his life; he is also prophesying about the future persecution of the early church in Jerusalem.

Jesus has every reason to give into despair and hopelessness in this situation. And yet, Jesus perseveres in faith, choosing to speak words of truth and encouragement over his disciples. Even though they would face great peril in the near future, Jesus knew that the peace they needed could only come from him. In the same way, Jesus wants us to have peace in himself through the work of ministry he calls us into. Only in Christ can we bring peace to our students and their families. 

Thirdly, consider Paul’s words to the Thessalonians, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing.” (1 Thess. 5:11) Paul encourages the church of Thessalonica, a church under increasing persecution from the Roman Empire, to continue the good work they’ve been doing. The grounds for their encouragement is that Jesus Christ has already obtained their salvation (1 Thess. 5:9). Think about it: Your work as a youth leader is made possible because Jesus has accomplished the plan of salvation on your behalf, thereby obtaining and guaranteeing your freedom. The Holy Spirit resides within you, permanently! So whether you’re in a season of want or plenty, we get the privilege of resting in the promises of Christ. And this is also true for every student and adult in your ministry who loves Jesus! 

With this biblical methodology of encouragement in mind, let’s turn toward some practical ways to encourage our youth leader teams. 

Three Ways to Practice Encouragement

1. Celebrate Wins with Your Team

As church leaders in the 21st century we are naturally prone to the busyness of the culture around us. We spend our time planning and executing the next program, the next Bible study, the next recruitment for a retreat or mission trip. Celebrating the wins must be something we intentionally carve out time for to combat our already busy schedules. Write a detailed handwritten note to a volunteer that won with a student the previous week. Take your leaders out for a meal, or do an escape room for team-building. Make sure to include this in your annual budget—blessing your leaders and energizing their morale.

Our middle school leaders practice what we call “monthly encouragement.” Leaders take five minutes to encourage one another after our weekly program, calling out individuals by name for their unique contributions: such as how they interacted with a student that day, or their consistency in getting snacks out for students to enjoy during snack time. It’s a rewarding time that usually leads to laughter, and smiling faces.  

2. Invite Constructive Feedback

Feedback from your stakeholders can powerfully bless your ministry team, whether a compliment or as constructive criticism. Cultivating these strategic spaces for students and volunteers to speak openly and honestly about their experience at youth group allows for increasing trust between you and those investing in the ministry of the church. 

After a Christmas event last year, I sent out an anonymous survey to our student leaders asking how we might improve upon the event for next year. The feedback we received had some positive remarks, as well as constructive elements to it. As a staff we were able to read their suggestions to improve the quality of our games and give more direction for leaders who were helping and felt they were absolutely spot on. 

Proverbs 27:6 says, “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; profuse are the kisses of an enemy.” In short, Proverbs instructs us to open our hands and receive words of honesty from those who care for us and the health of our ministries. Consider scheduling a one-on-one meeting with a leader from your team, inviting him or her to share honest feedback about the ministry and how it can be improved. Craft a suggestion box and put it in your youth room so students can submit suggestions as well as prayer requests. Creating space to receive feedback can help both students and leaders find encouragement, aiming towards the common goal of seeing God glorified in your church, community, and beyond!

3. Seek a Kingdom Perspective

Youth ministers should never base their success on numbers alone. Doing this will undoubtedly create an atmosphere of discontent in your ministry and marginalize the students who show up from week to week. These students came to your event because Jesus ordained them to be there! (Eph. 2:10) Therefore it’s important to reorient your heart and the hearts of your leaders to see the bigger picture: The kingdom of God at work. Because of this, we ought to treat every student who shows up to our programs with genuine excitement, despite whatever expectations we may have had for the event. 

Use your small group time to dig deep with your students, teaching them to study the Bible and apply his word to their hearts. Don’t abandon the tools you use to track attendance, but rather utilize them towards deeper discipleship. You’ll take encouragement yourself as you encourage the others entrusted to your care.  

Biblical encouragement is not meant to be a quick fix to discouragement, but rather the lens by which we can look to God and see the work he is already doing in and through our ministry. He delights in using his people to transform the world, no matter how small or big. If you’re struggling with negative talk, take heart. You are not alone. Rest in Paul’s words in 2 Corinthians 12:9 when he says, “…But he said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.’”

We hope you’ll join us in Dallas October 24-26, 2024 for Rooted’s annual conference, where we’ll share more resources for gospel-centered youth ministry.

Ericson serves as the Director of Student Ministries at East Cobb Presbyterian Church in Marietta, Georgia. He received his M.Div. from Reformed Theological Seminary – Orlando. He and his wife, Rachel, parent three wonderful kids from ages 7 to 2. Outside of spending time with family, he enjoys sports, visiting theme parks, and all things Star Wars.

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