Uniting Theological Depth with Practical Ministry to Students

Many volunteers within the church feel overwhelmed at the thought of serving in the youth ministry. What is expected of a volunteer? What about being able to answer the tricky theological questions teenagers often ask? In Lead Them to Jesus: A Handbook for Youth Workers, veteran youth pastor Mike McGarry offers a comprehensive tool to equip and encourage every member involved with the youth of a congregation to create and maintain a fruitful ministry to students.

In a two-part approach, McGarry tackles both the practical side of ministry and provides the biblical depth needed for effective, gospel-centered ministry to today’s youth. In part one, he leads readers through essential theological truths they should be prepared to discuss with students. Part two focuses on the hands-on skills every youth worker should cultivate.

In this interview, we talk to him more about Lead Them to Jesus.

Q: What experiences did you have in ministry that led you to writing Lead Them to Jesus?

I wrote Lead Them to Jesus for my own team of volunteer youth workers. When I came to my church two years ago, it became clear that one of my top priorities needed to be recruiting and training new youth workers. So, I started looking for a good resource that I could put in their hands and just couldn’t find what I was looking for. There are a ton of youth ministry books and blogs out there, but the ones that share practical “how to” tips don’t come at ministry from a gospel-centered framework, and the blogs who do share this framework are great at theology and biblical teaching but don’t often get into the practical side of ministry.

As I made a list of topics I wanted to discuss with my new team of youth workers, I realized that this list would take forever to get through. After refining the list, I started writing short articles that I could send to my team. Then, I realized I was starting to write a handbook that would serve far more youth workers than just my own. Quite a few of these chapters were refined through discussions with my volunteer team because I literally wrote the book for them, and readers are benefitting from the input of my team.

Q: Who will benefit most from reading Lead Them to Jesus?

I’m hoping that teenagers are the ones who benefit most from this book. Even though the book is written for youth leaders and not for students, everything was written with actual students in mind. As I wrote, I was constantly asking myself, “How would my volunteers and students engage with this material?”

When youth workers read this book and discuss it together, I think they’ll sharpen one another, and this book will just be the sharpening block. Volunteers are the backbone of every youth ministry, even if they have a paid youth pastor. So having volunteers who are well-trained to engage in theological conversations while understanding how the gospel transforms all the practical elements of youth ministry too . . . I’ve got to think this will make a significant impact on the students in our ministries.

Q: What is the scariest part of ministry for youth volunteers?

Probably saying “Yes” to the invitation to serve in the ministry. Showing up to youth group as a new youth worker, and not knowing any of the students there, can be really intimidating. This is especially true for quieter, introverted youth workers. It’s just awkward until you’ve hung in there long enough to start building trust, but it’s so rewarding when you finally start connecting with a few students.

I’d say the next scariest part is when students confide in you about something they’re struggling with. Maybe they’re questioning their faith or their sexuality or there’s something going on in their family. You can feel out of your depth real fast.

Q: Please explain the two parts of the book.

One of my core passions in youth ministry is to unite theological depth with practical ministry to students. Too often, we think that youth ministries have to choose between the two. But that’s just not true, and this book is my effort to show that to youth pastors and their volunteer teams.

With that in mind, the book is composed of forty short, blog-length chapters. The first section of the book focuses on theological questions every youth worker should prepare themselves to discuss with students. Some of those are blatantly theological (“What is the Trinity?”) and others are apologetics type of questions (“Can I really trust the Bible?”). The second section equips youth workers to develop those practical skills that will help them lead students to Jesus with a faith that endures. One of the things that sets this apart from other resources is the way I want youth workers to see how the gospel transforms the way we navigate conflict with students, partner with parents, and even how we play games together.

Q: What are some of the toughest theological questions you prepare readers to answer?

The toughest theological questions are the most personal ones. I mean, obviously the Trinity is a challenge, but that’s a toughie because of how complex it is. But it’s a different ballgame when a student admits they’ve been sleeping with their girlfriend and they don’t think it’s a big deal, or they’re looking at porn, or they’re confused about their gender identity.

Answering questions about sexuality are the most complicated and difficult because it’s just so personal and because of all the cultural baggage. There’s also the struggle of how much and when do you talk with parents about what their kids are telling you. It’s so important for us to lean into those difficult conversations with grace and patience while believing the best about each other. As youth workers, we always want students to know that we are for them, even when we disagree.

Q: So much of our culture teaches tolerance and acceptance of everyone and everything. How big of a factor is that influence in whether or not a teen leaves the church after graduation?

I think tolerance is the most important topics we (almost) never talk about. Tolerance has been weaponized in our “you do you” culture to mean something it’s never meant before. When I teach about Christian Tolerance, I define it this way, “Tolerance means respect despite disagreement.” It’s more than just putting up with someone—no one wants to be treated that way. As Christians, we want to love your neighbor and our enemy with generosity and respect, even while we continue to invite them to receive the grace and truth of God.

Maybe you’ve heard people point out the irony of tolerance for being so intolerant. I get that take. It’s not a wrong observation, and there’s a place for pointing that out to people. But tolerance is more about your posture than your opinions. So, if you come at someone to logically defeat them with this “intolerance of tolerance” argument, then you may gain the upper hand but you’ll still lose the conversation because the person doesn’t feel heard or cared for. In my opinion, many of the students who graduate and walk away from the church are doing so because of intolerant postures, not because they fundamentally disagree with our theology.

Q: What do youth workers need to understand about the religious worldview of Gen Z?

Understanding the religious worldview of today’s teenagers depends on a few simple-but-complicated realities. You need to dig into Tolerance, Safety, and Cancel Culture.

First, tolerance is the new Golden Rule. GenZ is the most diverse generation of Americans, not just ethnically but spiritually. In previous generations, you could talk about unbelievers from Tajikistan who need Jesus and it took a missionary going there to make a difference. There was no connection between the people “there” and the students in your ministry. Today’s teenager, however, might think, “I just played Rocket League with someone from there last night.” So, if you approach religion with an “us vs. them” mentality, you’re going to misunderstand this generation. Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists aren’t nameless or faceless people to them.

Second, safety is the new American Dream. Just think about all the school shootings and the ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. We’ve all heard stories about helicopter parents and now we have “lawnmower parents” who take on the responsibility to pave a clear and easy path for their kids in life. Students have simultaneous grown up over-protected and fearful about getting shot at school. And then there’s the mental health epidemic. This cocktail of social issues has led to a deeply ingrained craving for safety.

The final key to understanding the worldview of Gen Z is realizing that the prevalence of cancel culture is an effort to guard tolerance and safety. If you threaten someone’s safety, you’ve forfeited the right to be tolerated. From students’ perspective, it’s not that you’re being cancelled and not-tolerated; you’ve chosen to cancel yourself by being unsafe. If your religious views threaten someone’s mental health or safety, then your religion is demonized as full of hate.

Q: Why is asking, “What do we expect from a growing teenage Christian in our church?” such an important question for a church’s leadership?

Pastors and senior leaders in the church are responsible for the spiritual care of their membership. That includes the children and teenagers. When parents bring their children before the church for infant dedication or infant baptism, the church body makes a vow before the Lord to co-evangelize and co-disciple those kids with the parents. If church leaders don’t take this vow seriously, even during the teen years, then they should stop making those vows. I know that’s a strong statement, but I’ve talked with a lot of pastors and elder boards who admit they’ve never discussed ministry to teenagers beyond the obligatory report from their youth pastor.

Additionally, the hot-button issues usually hit the youth ministry before any other place in the church. Just think about the ways that youth workers are needing to address sexuality and gender issues before just about any other area in the church. So, if you want to talk with pastors who have experience engaging in these sensitive areas, I think a lot of people could learn from youth pastors. This is why it’s important for pastors and elders to be engaged in ministry to students.

Q: Why do teenagers need to be involved in the church as a whole, not just in youth group?

As a youth pastor, my goal is to pastor the teenagers in the church into maturity in Christ. The goal of youth ministry isn’t to raise teenage disciples, but adult disciples whose faith took root in their teen years. So, it’s essential to plan and pray for the long-term benefit of students in our ministries.

If teenagers are at youth group while the adults are gathered for worship, then those students don’t actually go to church at all. I know a lot of churches where this approach was embraced, and I love those friends, but I just think it’s counterproductive to what they’re hoping to accomplish. I’ve heard the arguments, and I get the motivation, but students only hear, “Church is boring so we made this cooler alternative for youth.”

Ultimately, we need to answer the question, “Are we structuring the ministry to optimally engage students today, or to help them construct a faith that endures?” I know we don’t need to entirely choose between one or the other, but I do think every youth pastor (and every church) tends to lean toward one direction or the other. It’s important to be honest about that if you want to be well-balanced.

Q: What are some of the attributes of a great youth worker? As a youth leader, what are some things to keep in mind as you recruit volunteers?

Volunteers are the backbone of any healthy youth ministry, so recruiting good leaders is pivotal. The most important thing to look at is their faith. Youth leaders can’t take students deeper than they themselves have gone. So, if you have really engaging but spiritually immature leaders, then they could connect really well with students but won’t be much help in making disciples. Do you see evidence they’re genuinely converted? Have you or others you know seen the fruit of the Spirit in them? It’s tempting to assume that young adults who are cooler and more easily relatable to teenagers would be ideal youth workers, but that’s not always true.

Some of the best youth workers I’ve ever served with were empty nesters. They’ve parented teenagers and they’ve lived life, and they wanted to help teenagers discover what lies on the other side of adolescence. I’m convinced that every ministry should strive to have a diverse team of volunteers: some young adults, some parents of teens, some single adults, and some empty nesters. This way, you’re connecting students with godly adults at different stages of life for them to know and learn from.

Always talk with the other pastors and a few key leaders in the church before you talk with the person about serving in the youth ministry. I could’ve saved myself a few really difficult and awkward conversations if I had. If you or someone else raises a flag about someone, then walk away. It’s much easier to say “No” before they start than telling them why you’re removing them as a youth leader. Obviously, there are other worse scenarios at hand too. It’s better to serve with an understaffed team than with a full roster that includes people who shouldn’t be youth workers.

Q: What does a healthy group culture look like? What are some things to watch out for?

This is a really important question. You’ve probably heard the saying, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” It’s cliché for a reason. I like to think about youth group church and church culture this way: What are the things we do without thinking about it? What’s our default setting?

One of the most common ways youth groups have a toxic culture is through sarcasm. As a naturally sarcastic person myself, I’m prone to default this way. Maybe that’s why I’m calling that out. But it’s probably one of the reasons I’ve been able to last in youth ministry this long—I resonate with the sarcasm that runs throughout youth culture. But when this is allowed to take root in a youth ministry, it just cuts people up.

Here’s my best diagnostic question: If you give a compliment and the person doesn’t know if you’re serious or if they should wait for the punchline, then you have a problem. Instead, let’s form an atmosphere of welcome. We want students to breathe easily among one another and know the youth leaders are truly for them. In my own ministry, that means we do a lot of policing about how humor is used among friend groups and almost every week I need to remind someone, “Nope, we don’t do that here. We don’t talk to each other like that here. That’s not what we’re about.”

Q: Can you share some of the other areas of practical advice offered in the second half of Lead Them to Jesus?

One of the chapters that I think youth workers will really want to revisit frequently is the chapter about discipline. This is a consistent issue that youth workers need to work through, and it’s especially easy for volunteers to default toward either their own parenting posture or the way their parents disciplined them. But I try to encourage my volunteers to remember as soon as you yell at your group, they know you aren’t in control anymore. I’ve been there, so I get it. But it’s not worth it, and it’s not the pastoral posture.

We usually see one of two approaches towards discipline: law or grace. The law drops the hammer on the kid and tries to give them a taste of their own medicine. Sometimes leaders even go so far as to publicly shame students. Others lean so heavily on grace and patience with students they hardly raise an eyebrow at bad behavior. But the gospel shows us something different: God looks our sin in the eye, and then he gives us grace and calls us into repentance. Isn’t that a better alternative for us to practice with students?

Q: Do you have any final wisdom or encouragement you’d like to offer either to those just venturing into youth ministry or to seasoned veteran leaders?

Youth ministry is worth it. You’re not going to get much public recognition, and few will be impressed. You’ll have to overcome some stereotypes and baggage people hold against youth ministry. But, in the end, you are shaping the faith of the next generation, and there’s a lot of dignity in that.

In my sixteen years of youth ministry, I’ll tell you this: some of the kids whose faith was strong at graduation have walked away, while others who were spiritually complacent are active church members who are raising their own kids in the faith. You can’t measure the effectiveness of your ministry by what you see. Don’t let yourself get too discouraged by a bad night at youth group or low signups for that event you spent the last month promoting. What you’re doing matters. Keep preaching the gospel, applying the gospel, and displaying how the gospel has given you hope.

In the end, if all you’ve given kids is the gospel, then you’ve given them everything.

Find Mike McGarry’s blog at www.youthpastortheologian.com or follow Youth Pastor Theologian on Facebook (@youththeologian) and Twitter (@YouthTheologian).

Lead Them to Jesus was chosen as the Youth Ministry Book of the Year for 2021 by Rooted Ministry

Lead Them To Jesus Cover

Lead them to JeSus: A Handbook for Youth Workers

Veteran youth pastor Mike McGarry offers a practical, comprehensive tool to jumpstart your youth ministry and help youth workers with biblical answers to the tough questions students ask.  In a two-part approach, he tackles both the practical skills and biblical depth needed for effective gospel-centered ministry to today’s youth. 

About the author

Mike McGarry

Mike McGarry, DMin, served as a youth pastor for nearly twenty years and is the founder/director of Youth Pastor Theologian. He and his wife, Tracy, have two teenagers and are committed to investing in the next generation. Mike is the author of A Biblical Theology of Youth Ministry, Lead Them to Jesus, and Discover: Questioning Your Way to Faith and has contributed to Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry. He writes and speaks frequently through Youth Pastor Theologian.

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