How to Train Your Youth Group for Real Ministry
Watch Out for Pastor-as-Seer Mentality
Sometimes youth pastors (and other pastors, for that matter) begin to kind of enjoy the way that students or people under their care look to them as the expert on all things having to do with the Bible and theology. They begin to buy into the idea that they have all the answers—that no one else could ever be capable of grasping and communicating the mysteries of Scripture in the ways that they can.
There are many serious dangers with a ministry that begins to tip in this direction. First, the students become dependent on their leader for almost everything when it comes to reading, studying, interpreting, and applying Scripture. They view him as the seer—the expert with the hidden keys to knowledge. His talks, messages, and sermons only drive this idea home more and more, as listeners come away thinking how wise and clever he is, rather than how deep—and yet graspable—the Bible is.
This, then, leads to a second and even more dangerous result: students never actually believe that they can make progress toward competently and confidently handling God’s Word—and even teaching it powerfully and clearly. The task of teaching and preaching—and sometimes, sadly, even ministry itself—is looked at as a specialty that only pastors can do in a meaningful way.
Looking years ahead, the third dangerous result is a church congregation full of people (who went through youth ministries with this understanding) who expect their pastors to do ministry for them! They pay the pastors, they think, to do the Word and gospel ministry so that they don’t have to do it. And since they have never really seen pastoral training modeled, this is a logical conclusion. Sadly, many churches are like this today, and Paul’s words in Ephesians 4 are completely ignored.
Now, even if you are excited about introducing a training element to your youth ministry, you may still not have any idea what that would look like! The goal of this next section is to provide a sketch for a youth ministry that is truly training-driven in the spirit of Ephesians 4. So, what would a ministry with gospel training as its focal point actually look like?
The first priority for students is increasing their ability to competently read, study, understand, and apply the Word of God.
First and foremost, my conviction is that training for God’s people needs to be explicitly Word training. The first priority for students is increasing their ability to competently read, study, understand, and apply the Word of God. Fundamentally, I believe this because of what the Bible claims it can accomplish. Listen to Paul’s wellknown words to Timothy about Scripture:
[Scriptures] are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Jesus Christ. All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. (2 Tim. 3:15b–17)
What can God’s Word accomplish in the life of a believer through faith in Jesus Christ? It can make that person “wise for salvation.” It can, when handled well, teach, reprove, correct, and even train in righteousness! God’s Word put to work can make Christians competent and well equipped for good works of obedience and ministry.
Friends, if God’s Word is this powerful and effective when it is rightly put to work in the lives of believers, then our first order of business in training and equipping young people must deal with their competence in handling God’s Word! The better their skills are in Word interpretation, use, and even teaching, the more we will see these very effects of God’s Word in their lives.
The next category for training in the context of youth ministry is certainly connected to Word training, but it is more focused and specific; it is the training of a student to actually disciple a younger student and help him or her grow in relationship with Christ Jesus.
Students must not just be “thrown out” and told to mentor younger students; they must be shown how to actually walk with someone in a gospel-centered, Word-driven, prayer-empowered discipleship relationship. Youth pastors do this, first, by modeling these kinds of relationships to their student leaders. Pastors show student leaders what discipleship looks like by discipling and mentoring them personally. Then, with that foundation laid, youth pastors can explain to their youth leaders why they did what they did, their motivation for it, and how the student can in turn apply those same discipleship principles to a relationship with a younger student.
Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry
Cameron Cole, Jon Nielson
This comprehensive handbook looks at every facet of youth ministry from a gospel-centered perspective, offering practical advice related to everything from planning short-term mission trips to interacting with parents to cultivating healthy relationships.
It is possible for a student to have good training in handling the Word, an excellent approach to truly Christian discipleship, and yet still be very weak in his or her ability to share the gospel clearly and winsomely to someone who does not know Jesus Christ. That is where this next category of training comes in.
Youth pastors and leaders should be training their students to share the biblical gospel fully, clearly, faithfully, and relevantly to unbelievers—even unbelievers who have little to no background in the Christian faith. Shame on us if we preach at them again and again, “Share the gospel with your friends,” and never equip them to do this well!
What does this training look like, exactly? First, it means that we give them content; we train and equip them to share the full biblical gospel. In essence, this usually involves summarizing the story of the Bible—from creation to fall to redemption to the hope of future glory and restoration. There is a lot there that needs to be shared, but it is possible to share it clearly and succinctly! Second, it means that they actually have to practice sharing the gospel—first in the safety of the youth ministry, but then in the “field.” They need to begin really having conversations with people who are not part of the church. The only way to get better at having real conversations with people about the good news of God’s eternal salvation through Jesus Christ is to actually start doing it— again and again and again.
You can do this.
You may be a youth pastor who has not yet attended seminary; you’re feeling ill equipped to engage in Word training with your students. Let me say it again, You can do this.
The key is that you are committed to making progress in your Word work, discipleship approach, and evangelistic capabilities. As you grow, your students will grow with you, as long as you intentionally commit to bring them along
This article is adapted from "Equipping Youth for Gospel Ministry" by Jon Nielson in Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practical Guide, edited by Cameron Cole and Jon Nielson.