The Hard Truth Every Youth Pastor Must Accept about COVID-19

We all know the difference between good friends and average friends. Good friends tell you the truth, even when its unpleasant. I am not an infectious disease doctor, nor can I read the future — but I think there are some hard realities about the COVID-19 season that many youth pastors want to deny but must accept. I know this because as recently as May, I did not want to acknowledge what appeared to be likely. If we cannot accept the hard reality, then our ministries are in jeopardy.

Heres the hard reality: COVID-19 is not going away in 2020, and probably not 2021 either. If you have put your ministry on pause with the assumption that you will resume business as usual this fall or sometime during the 2020-21 school year, your ministry is probably in big trouble.

Andy Crouch, along with several other scholars, offered this caution back in March, and their portents appear increasingly accurate. They encouraged leaders to view this season as a “little ice age” and not a “snow day.” Crouch et al. wrote, “The priority of leaders must be to set aside confidence in their current playbook as quickly as possible, write a new one that honors their mission and the communities they serve, and make the most of their organizations assets.” They encourage all organizations — businesses and nonprofits alike — to rethink of themselves as start-ups.

I would echo this sentiment as we consider the coming youth ministry season. The idea of starting over creates stress, burden, and despair for many. If youve been in youth ministry for a long period of time, its likely that you worked hard to create structures, processes, and routines. To break those down feels miserable. However, as cut-throat as this sounds, the quote, “Change, adapt, or die” has never been so apt. We all must plan to change and adapt. Now.

Where to Start?

Situations in various contexts vary greatly, so one cannot propose a one-size fits all plan. Still, some principles apply across the board that I recommend.

First, consider your ministry’s mission: What do you try to accomplish? While ministries differ and have their own nuances, the fundamental mission of any church ministry is to make disciples. We are all trying to lead students to mature faith in Christ that lasts. With that clarity, you can discern which activities promote effective discipleship and which activities do not. What you will be encouraged to find is that the most essential and effective practices in making disciples basically remain intact. You can still pursue your mission.

Secondly, write down what you still can do in spite of COVID-19. It can become easy to focus on all that you cannot do. No retreats, no large gatherings, no Sunday worship, etc. It’s natural to lament these losses, but focusing on what you cannot do will only depress you and will not help you move forward. What you can do varies based on geography and each student in your ministry.

No matter where you are, you still can pray for students. You can read the Bible over the phone. You can have conversations. In my local area, we can meet outside six-feet apart. We can go on walks with students if we remain a safe distance apart. Identify the things that you can do that promote your mission and build a ministry around that. It may mean lots of outdoor Bible studies under tents or with heaters. It may mean spending your days on the phone or walking countless miles. What matters is making disciples through God’s means of grace in a relational context. You can do that, and this season of minimalism may turn out to be the most fruitful season of your ministry. Be encouraged!

Finally, be flexible, be nimble, and accept inefficiency. Given how fluid the situation is, you may make plans that come crashing down. Accept this reality up front. I would encourage you to have multiple plans for your ministry this year that are vary from very conservative to more loose, relative to COVID-19 safety. In my area, regulations loosened up and we had a large, outdoor gathering during the first week of the summer. Within a week, a massive virus spike hit our community, and we had to revert to our most conservative meeting plan. (Students had an assigned seat, outside, six-feet apart, and could not move from their seat during the entire Bible study.)

No Need to Fret, God is in Control
Along the way, do not forget the sovereign goodness of the Lord. God did not take his eyes off the wheel when he allowed this pandemic to come into your sphere. He remains in control and he remains good.

God has plans for your ministry. The format of the plans likely differs from what you experienced back in February and expected back in April. Still, we can take heart that God is making all things new, regardless of the circumstances we encounter (Rev. 21:5). He is making all things new in the lives of your students and families.

This deviation from the norm provides an excellent opportunity to pray, to trust, and to follow Jesus. He has created this disruption in your ministry for a reason. If we follow him, I truly believe we can witness a very fruitful season of ministry.

For example, COVID-19 has made the youth ministers in my ministry aware of a need to help students grow in their one-on-one relationship with Jesus. In early summer, we started a mentoring program to help students grow in their devotional lives. The lockdown made us aware of the opportunity to focus on this area that we’ve historically overlooked. We have seen good fruit so far.

Youth minister, I pray that you will not lose heart. Be prepared to change, re-think, and pivot. But do not close yourself off to the possibilities and the hope of what God is doing. From his throne and by his Spirit, Jesus is making all things news. That includes your ministry, the hearts of your students, and your own faith in Christ. He is making them new.

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years at the Church of the Advent, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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