The Urgency of Youth Ministry

In Leadership by Terry Linhart0 Comments

The thermometer showed negative two degrees as I walked across the small jet way onto the regional jet. It was cold – really cold. The water on the plane had frozen overnight, which meant no morning coffee inflight. Stink. I love coffee – even airplane coffee. The tractor pushing back the plane had difficulty finding traction on the icy tarmac. I was happy when we finally went airborne off the frozen tundra and headed for a warmer climate.

This flight route is one of my favorites, the eastern sky puts on a show each morning as it lightens and transitions from cold darkness to hopeful blue. A ribbon of horizon begins to ignite, the faint yellow line turns to orange and finally to a dancing red, an announcement culminating in the edge of sun appearing. The sky and world lights up in reflection from the sun and the it shoots up with surprising speed. A new day is here.

Sunrise is my favorite time of each day. Yes, I know, a rarity among youth workers. Maybe I learned to like it from my pre-teen days as a morning newspaper boy. As a pastor and teacher, the morning hours have become my favorite and most productive time to study, prayer, and write.

As I watched the sunrise from my little airplane window, I thought of its symbolism. We in youth work lead under a eschatological reality that at some point Christ will come again, bursting out like a sunrise, and the end will be here. How soon that will be has been debated for centuries. However, what can’t be debated is that at some point Christ will return and that it will be triumphant and glorious, making the sunrise seem like a dim light bulb.

The sunrise got me thinking about urgency in youth ministry. What is it the one thing that motivates me each morning to make the most of each day – to prepare my teaching, hang out with teens, or even complete my administrative responsibilities (sorry, I had to add that one too)? Many of us work out of mission or purpose statements, but what fuels our inner drive, the “I’ve got to my work well because _____” reality that only we know? How each of us fills in that blank will reveal what motivates us each day.

I’ve listed five urgencies here that I’ve noticed as the focus some in youth ministry. I know it’s an artificial list, I’m sure there are more, and I’d love to discuss them further. I think this list will prompt our thinking about what gives urgency in our youth work each day.

  1. Leadership urgency

    Some are motivated by the fact that they are given a group to lead and are responsible for them as the spiritual leader. They want to do well each day so they don’t let others down.

  2. Outreach urgency

    Some youth workers wake up each day and work to “reach teens” in a community or on a campus. They are drawn to those who are not Christians or do not attend Christian groups.

  3. Theological urgency

    Some leaders feel like they are contending for the faith. They focus on teaching well, grounding teens in “solid” theology, and are drawn to conversations about particular hot topics within Christian theology.

  4. Personal urgency

    Some have a personal story or need that propels them in ministry. They can articulate a calling or a desire to not have others go through what they did as a teenager. Other people have a personal urgency that centers on themselves, though they can’t always recognize it. They want to be seen by others as a leader and to be respected or known or to avoid conflict. So, they make decisions with an eye toward how it will make them look in the eyes of others.

  5. Social concern urgency

    Some engage in holistic youth ministry to fix larger community problems. They help kids stay clean from drugs, or protect kids from the evils of the world, and some work to help teens rise above their circumstances and realize their potential for vocational and academic success.

I was stopped in my tracks one day as I read through one of my favorite chapters. In the middle of 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says, “For Christ’s love compels us, because we are convinced that one died for all, and therefore all died.” (2 Corinthians 5:14). We often think of Paul as this great contender, a feisty voice that wanted to correct church evils. But, Paul was compelled by love, especially so with believers. In his defense to the Thessalonians, he describes his ministry motivation, “Just as a nursing mother cares for her children, so we cared for you. Because we loved you so much, we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well.” (I Thessalonians 2:7b-8) Paul’s urgency flowed out of his love for Christ and his love for others. It gave light to his ministry and framed his desire for evangelism, to see others come to faith in Christ (2 Cor. 5:11) – not as a corrective, but as a ministry from the heart.

We get that, but some days our sense of urgency isn’t focused in the right places. The routine can get us into a rut and we can’t see the sunrise clearly for the clouds in the way. We in youth ministry need to be urged on by our personal love for Christ and personal concern for the welfare of others in our communities. And that love ought to compel us to take our leadership seriously and focus on ways we can reach out with the theological truth that we love because Christ first loved us. (I John 4:19).

May the love of Christ be reignited in us as we spend time with him and may that love shine out in our ministry work today.

Header image provided through creative commons by photographer Imtiaz Tonmoy.

Terry Linhart is an author, strategist, and teacher who encourages and helps others be better and more effective in their ministry leadership, particularly those who work on behalf of young people around the world. He has become an experienced and credible voice in the field of Christian ministry and leadership. Terry is currently Professor of Youth Ministry and Adolescent Studies at Bethel College in South Bend, Indiana where he also chairs the Department of Religion and Philosophy. For over 25 years, he has focused on developing young leaders for vocational careers in ministry. He draws on his research expertise (Ph.D., Purdue) to consult with and support numerous national organizations. He has been recognized as one of the top 50 professors on leadership, strategy, and innovation.