Youth Ministry and the Church: Youth Pastors in Small Churches

First, a little about my ministry context.  I am one of two full time pastors at a small Presbyterian church in Covington, GA – a small (semi-rural) town outside of Atlanta. The church has around 150 confessing members and around 50 covenant children.  There are currently 26 youth (6th-12th grade) in the youth group, the vast majority of whom come to almost everything we do as a youth group.

Secondly, I have to give thanks and much credit for everything useful I have to contribute to Rob Rienstra, the Sr. Pastor at my church.  He is a great friend, mentor, and shepherd.  Much of what follows was put in place at his leading – hopefully it will be helpful to you in your context.

My official title is a bit of a mouthful.  I’m the “Assistant to the Pastor and Minister to Youth.”  As such, in addition to working with the youth, my job description includes leading the liturgical elements of our worship every other week, helping prepare the bulletin every other week, preaching on average every 6-8 weeks, doing VBS, and taking a group on a mission trip each year.

I’ve been in this position for over four years now, and during this time I’ve found the following five practices to be especially worthwhile for doing youth ministry in my small church context.

1. Don’t view your time in front of the entire congregation as fundamentally different than the time you spend in front of the youth.

One of the real benefits that we youth pastors at small churches have is that there are typically plenty of opportunities for us to minister to the entire congregation. I have come to view this time not only as additional time to minister to the youth, but as an opportunity to minister to their parents and to the other adults who volunteer with the youth, thereby building trust. Another perk of regularly being in front of the whole congregation is that it communicates to the entire church that youth ministry isn’t a totally separate entity.  We are integrated right into the heart of our congregational worship (at our church youth monitor the sound and can participate in the music ministry as well). Finally, my time with the larger church body has helped me to cultivate skills in praying, preaching, and teaching that directly translate into my praying, preaching, and teaching with the youth.

2. Meet regularly with the parents.

Because we don’t have as many kids on our roster, youth pastors at small churches often have margin to spend time discipling (and being discipled by) parents.  Not only does this give us insight into the daily lives of our youth, but it builds trust with the parents, and communicates to the kids that time with their parents is valuable.

3. Have a weekly 1-on-1 meeting with the Sr. Pastor to talk and pray together.

This is – without a doubt – the most beneficial time I spend each week. A typical meeting goes like this… We talk about what’s going on in our families, then we talk about what’s going on in the youth group, and sometimes we talk about what we’re reading. We always close in prayer, both of us praying for each other’s families, the youth, and the needs of the corporate church.  Not only has this grown me personally as I’ve been discipled by Rob, but it also keeps him aware of the needs of the youth and gives us focused time of prayer together.

4. Participate in your church’s leadership meetings.

I’m in a Presbyterian church, so we have monthly session meetings with the elders of the church.  I attend these meetings (at their invitation) despite my not being an ordained ruling or teaching elder in the church.  Being a part of these meetings helps me align my vision with the youth to the general vision of the church.  It keeps me abreast of shepherding concerns within various families, and provides an opportunity to report to the elders on what’s going on in the youth group.

5. Include a “cultural engagement” category in your reporting to church leadership.

Most adults don’t have the time or interest in engaging and analyzing youth culture.  For us, it’s a core part of our ministry.  Thus, when I make my report to the elders, I include a section on cultural engagement.  This lets them know what I’ve been reading and watching and gives me the opportunity to communicate any relevant cultural trends or messages that I feel might help them in their ministry to the church (or to their kids, as several of the elders have kids in the youth group).  Not only does this keep me accountable to this part of my job, but it also allows me to share what I’ve learned with the leadership of the church.

Clearly this list isn’t exhaustive, but my hope is that it gives other youth pastors in small churches some ideas on how to better communicate and coordinate with the other people God has put in the youth’s life (particularly parents and church leadership).  I’m happy to answer whatever further questions you may have in the comment section below.

Mark Howard was a youth pastor for five years before joining Elam Ministries, an organization that seeks to strengthen and expand the church in Iran and surrounding areas. Through Elam, he's had the opportunity to work with Iranian youth as well as talk with American churches about God's work in Iran. Mark has his M.A. in Theological Studies from Wheaton College Graduate School and serves on Rooted's steering committee.

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