I don’t know what I’m doing.”
Said most youth leaders.
To no one.
In youth ministry, it’s hard to admit when we don’t know what we’re doing or where we’re going. It probably didn’t seem that way when you started. Or at least you didn’t notice. Confidence can run high at first — especially after a few initial successes — but as the months drag on, the way forward often gets blurry.
In fact, it’s likely that the more you’ve gotten to know students, the more you realize a great talk, an awesome retreat, or your contagious adrenaline won’t reach their deep and complex circumstances. Their problems and your solutions seem light-years apart.
We all want more than that — for our ministries and for us.
You want more of God’s creativity to flow through you. You long for God to lead you forward.
Building on a dozen years of research and working intensively with cohorts of 60 youth ministries and 120 youth leaders over the past four years, our team at the Fuller Youth Institute has developed an innovation process you can use to revive or refresh your youth ministry.
Here’s the good news: While it’s taken a while for us to unearth this process, you already have the raw materials — what we call the three C’s of innovation — to succeed. By practicing the two key steps inherent in each of these three C’s, you can draw your innovative capacities out of hiding and channel them in the right discipleship direction.
Innovation starts with compassionately focusing on people, not programs. You can unleash your compassion to spark innovation by taking two critical steps, the first of which is to empathize with your students — their perspectives, their feelings, and their needs. This initial step is the foundation of innovation.
Empathetically listening and asking questions has the potential to radically shift your assumptions — even about the young people you think you know best — and reorient all you do toward their most pressing needs.
The second key step toward compassion comes as you interpret the messages heard from your students. Careful interpretation allows you to understand their current tendencies and habits and discern the Jesus-centered replacements that bring more hope, freedom and love.
Your courage is what motivates you to step out, take risks, and try your innovative idea.
Peeling back the initial layers of students’ emotions to discover what they ultimately long for helps you identify the Jesus-focused goal of your entire innovation process.
Having compassionately empathized with and interpreted your students’ longings and losses, you are now ready for the second C of innovation: creativity. The first key creative step is to expand your ministry imagination. Spend some time envisioning new practices, or fresh takes on familiar practices, that could help your young people realize Jesus’ better answers to their most pressing questions.
Depending on your personality and team dynamics, you may want to use a fast-paced innovative process, like coming up with six possibilities in six minutes and then sifting through all the ideas. Or you could opt for a slower, more reflective individual or group process, such as reflecting on how God has worked in the past, is working in the present, and might work in the future.
Once you have an expansive list of possibilities, your second creative step is to narrow it to one viable new ministry approach. This step requires more than voting for the most popular suggestion. Rather, your team will need to prayerfully choose the idea that best intersects with your students’ greatest needs.
Your courage is what motivates you to step out, take risks, and try your innovative idea. Courageous initiatives start small, are tested with feedback, invite participation, gather support, and prepare for maximum success. As such, courage requires two essential steps: experimenting on the margins and launching your new approach.
We highly recommend to first test your innovative idea on the margins through smaller experiments. Multiple small experiments help gain initial input from students and others so you can improve your new approach before you launch.
As you take the final step and launch your now-refined idea, you’ll want to train your team and communicate with the broader congregation as the Lord makes your innovative idea a reality.
Combined, these three essential moves and the six steps that support them empower you toward new youth ministry innovation. But we don’t want you to move forward alone.
You can’t (nor would you want to) completely move forward toward compassion, creativity and courage on your own. In every step, collaborate, learn together, and grow in mutual support. This process gives space for God not only to help you develop new ideas, but also develop a stronger team that’s better poised to disciple young people.
They’re counting on you. We’re believing in you.
For more details on this innovation process, check out Sticky Faith Innovation: How Your Compassion, Creativity, and Courage Can Support Teenagers’ Lasting Faith by Steven Argue and Caleb Roose, releasing in January 2021 at fulleryouthinstitute.org.
This article originally appeared in the November/December 2020 edition of Influence magazine.