Nudging A Group’s Culture: Part 2

Last week we began by recognizing that the culture of a student ministry can determine its future trajectory, the group’s influence on the community, and gives people a taste of Jesus. Also, we discussed the importance of creating a Ministry Culture document and how it will help you learn about your group’s current dynamics. (Click here read Nudging A Groups Culture Part 1).

The first nudge that can help us push a group in the right direction is in Matthew 15:1-3.

“Then some of the Pharisees and teachers of the law came to Jesus from Jerusalem and asked, “Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don’t wash their hands before they eat!” Jesus replied, “And why do you break the command of God for the sake of your tradition?” (NIV)

During this encounter, Jesus is confronting many things- one of these things is the tradition that the Pharisees followed over many years. You see, they had let many things influence their customs. The least of which, as called out by Jesus, is the command of God found in Scripture. I wonder, have we done the same thing in student ministry? Do we know why we play that game? Why do we have small groups or why do we not have small groups? Why do we use a dinosaur for your collection plate? Where and why do we have that weird painting on the wall? Why do we have the lock-in and what activities do we have at your lock-in?

Often we end up with a culture in the student ministry that just happened. We allow things to begin because we are busy or because we didn’t think through what we were attempting. Our groups develop, and we do not always give it much thought. At times this is acceptable, I mean happy accidents can happen (Thank you, Bob Ross!)

I would challenge though that we as youth workers need to give more thought to the traditions that develop in our groups. We cannot be a people of, “this is how it has always been.” Are your traditions founded on Scripture and your theology?

The Pharisees would have done well to consider more closely their theology. As youth workers, we would also benefit from further reflection. Reflection upon Scripture and theology is the first real nudge that would be a great benefit to the culture of your group. Look at your Ministry Culture document and ask yourself, how does the content of this document speak to our beliefs about God?

For my context, in a Wesleyan Holiness context, we give considerable weight to the way we understand God’s grace. For instance, we believe in God’s prevenient grace (God’s grace given to those who do not yet know Him). So we ask ourselves when a student enters our youth room how we can express this form of grace to each student. Our theology, formed from Scripture, is teaching us about the environment we need to create in the student ministry. Everything about our group should be understood by how it helps or hinders our message that we hope to express to students.

The first nudge to creating the right culture for your group is this, allow your theology and Scripture to play a significant role in shaping everything you do as a group. They should form your traditions, actions, words, decorations, games, events, everything.

Begin with your next event or ministry season. Be intentional about allowing your congregation’s beliefs bring life to a few things in your future. I believe you will begin to see your message more clearly communicated to your students without the use of words.

May we use the nudge of theology and Scripture to move our groups closer to Jesus.


*For my Wesleyan friends, I strongly encourage you to read Jeremy Steele’s book Reclaiming The Lost Soul of Youth Ministry. The early chapters of this book do a great job at helping us consider theology, and it’s influence on student ministry.

Nudging A Group’s Culture

Beyond the work of God through His grace, the culture of a youth group may be one of the most crucial factors in determining a group’s trajectory and impact.

A culture that is exclusive will quickly hinder your ability to be God’s prevenient grace to those distant from God. An attitude such as this will describe God as unwilling to allow outsiders on His team. Our understanding of God says just the opposite- there is no such thing as outsiders. There are those who are wanted by God but do not realize their distance from Him.

A culture that is overly competitive will suffer in its ability to speak of a God that loves regardless of one’s worthiness. If your group is all about the win, what about those that lose? Competition can be healthy, but it can also speak falsehoods of God to those who already feel unworthy.

The Reality

The culture of a group is complicated and takes its developmental cues from many places: geographical location, leadership, congregational history, students’ preferences, socio-economical backgrounds of the families, local school district environments, etc. The reality is that we can never fully control the dynamics of a group. Nor should we try. Some sway or variation in a group’s culture can be a breath of fresh air and a form of God’s grace.

Although we do not want to control a group’s culture, we can choose to steer it a little. I like to think of it as giving small nudges much like the pushing of a boat in the water. A little nudge can move a boat significantly.

Where To Begin

To know where and how to nudge our culture, we must first understand the culture of the ministry. I know you think you have a good hold on your group. I agree- I know my group’s culture also. As any good leader should, we must admit to ourselves that we may have blind spots. We do not know everything that happens. So before nudging, it is time for a gut check.

First, create a one-page Ministry Culture document that describes the culture of your group. Be clear and concise in this document. In this document, you will explain what a new person would experience and what that would say to them about God. Honesty in this document is essential.

To do this, assess the culture of the group. Imagine you were an outsider, how would you describe the overall feel of the group? What stands out as positive? What gives you a negative feeling? Or maybe, you feel blinded because of your proximity to the group. If that is the case, ask an outsider that you trust to give you some feedback.

Involve others in the development of your Ministry Culture document. Ask student leaders, adult leaders, parents and even visitors questions like:

When you walked into the room, what was your first impression?

What two words would you use to describe people here? Why did you choose those two words?

What do our gatherings tell a person about God?

Over the coming weeks, we will look at ways to create the type of culture we would hope to see in our student ministries. First, I strongly encourage you to take the time to develop a Ministry Culture document. Ask the tough questions, the right questions, and the questions that will reveal your strengths and weaknesses. Then review the document with your team. Do you like what you see? Do you like what you are saying about God?

Warning, you should be prepared to be encouraged and discouraged at the same time. I believe though, that if you are willing to face the good and the bad, then a better future awaits your student ministry.

Simple. Important.

With a crackle of the speaker you hear the words, “may I take your order.” Suddenly, your mind goes blank. Have you ever experienced a momentarily lapse in memory? You knew your spouse’s lunch order, and then amnesia strikes. Have you experienced this before? As a leader, have you had this moment when leading?

I found myself more confused than when I began. A desk covered with an empty soda can, notes, ideas, prices, financial statements, potential event dates, and crumbled up papers surrounded me. Planning one of our upcoming ministry seasons proved to be more challenging than previous seasons. After several hours of brainstorming, I had fewer ideas to bring to the team than I had when I began.

The moment I hit the end of my rope, when I was mentally exhausted, I realized I forgot a few essential questions. What were we trying to accomplish? What are we hoping will occur in the lives of our students? How do we wish to reveal God’s grace to them during this season?

Asking these questions suddenly brought everything to a standstill. The answer to these questions would be hard to find in any of the events that we were exploring. Instead, the season needed a different look. So we scrapped the events. We moved away from events and towards strategic moments within our already occurring activities. Now, we wait. We wait to see the impact of the next ministry season.

All of this brought to light a simple guiding principle that generally guides all of our decisions. When planning the future, always know your purpose. What is the end goal? For me, that question is answered through our mission statement and by asking how we are revealing God’s grace to our students. For some reason, I was experiencing a bit of leadership amnesia. It took getting to my mind’s end to remember- always know your end goal.

Reaching Your Secondary Audience

30826_vintage_microphoneJust out of high school I worked as a pitchman. My job was to speak about products in a compelling way as to make the audience want to purchase what I was presenting. I would set up at flea markets and festivals attempting to draw the largest crowds I possibly could. The larger the crowd, the more I sold. The lessons I learned from this job have been invaluable to me in ministry.

One such lesson that I am often reminded of is that the immediate audience is not always the primary audience. The hardest part of developing a crowd is getting the permission to begin a presentation. Permission was granted when I could get one interested party to stop and listen to my presentation. What I found most interesting is that the person who purchased my product was usually not the one who gave me permission to present. Instead, my sales generally came from the onlooker, the person who joined the presentation late and listened from a distance. My immediate audience, the one who gave me permission to begin, rarely became my customer. My customer was the secondary audience.

The same is true in ministry. In youth ministry we have our primary audience: our students, parents, and families that are part of the church. We can have a positive impact on them for Jesus. My experience though is that when our primary audience gives us permission, and we seek to do our presentation well, then a door is opened to the curious onlookers. These onlookers are many times the ones that we get the opportunity to share the gospel with for the very first time. These onlookers or secondary audience can quickly become our “customers” as we share the good news of the resurrection.

A friend once shared with me that he was praying with a church member who was in the hospital. The nurse came into the room and asked to speak with my friend. He was worried because he often prays loudly and was certain that she was going to tell him to keep it down. Instead, the nurse said that her other three patients heard his prayer from their rooms. They all wanted to know if he would also come pray with them.

Friends, may we not shy away from our calling. May we seek to do well in our presentations, whatever they may be, so that we are presented with more opportunities to speak to this secondary audience. After all, the second audience is ripe for the harvest!

10 Lessons From 10 Years

Tomorrow is the 10th anniversary of my first day in youth ministry. It seems like yesterday that I started serving God through youth ministries. I was only 19 and what a ride it has been. One of the greatest hypocrisies of my life is that I was blessed to serve in youth ministry roles at such a young age and today I’m not certain that I would put a 19 year old in similar positions. Regardless, I’m thankful for the past 10 years. I’ve made a lot of mistakes and I’ve learned a lot. There are many things I would do differently if I could do them again. As I was reflecting on my past 10 years, I figured I would put together a list of 10 things I’ve learned (I could count more but I’ll save those for my 20 list that I’ll be doing in 10 more years). Take some time and read through my list. Some of the lessons on my list, I believe, can apply to anyone.


10 Lessons From 10 Years

  1. Youth ministry is full of highs and lows. From the highs of camps and retreats to the lows of the teen you invested so much time in giving up on their faith. Expect both and know that neither last forever.
  2. We must remember our place. Although it may be significant in its impact, we must remember that we only play a small role in the broad spectrum of a person’s life. Let’s not over emphasize our importance and remember that Jesus is still in charge.
  3. Teaching behavior modification does nothing for our teens and only makes happy parents and happy church members. We need to remember that our time with teens is short and so we should use that time to influence how they perceive and process information. Think tools for a lifetime not just tools for next week.
  4. Passion for change and passion for others are fickle and should not be trusted. On the flip side, deeply held convictions can be stale and stubborn. Instead we should seek some balance of passion for change, passion for other people and our deeply held convictions.
  5. The greatest life transformation happens in the small chunks of time and conversations that happen with individuals or small groups of individuals outside of the classroom or worship settings. Let us remember to take advantage of these times, even when we’re tired.
  6. Graduating kids out of the youth group every year is tough. Every year, between the months of May and August, I will grieve.
  7. Let’s not kid ourselves, the opinions of parents and church members matter. Even though at times we feel like they don’t understand the reasoning behind what we do, let us try to do our best to communicate the why behind everything. Many times people are not against what we’re doing, they just need the fog removed a little so they can see what’s really going on.
  8. Organization in youth ministry is rare. Strive to be organized. There are seasons when youth ministry runs at lightning speeds and organization becomes nearly impossible. Strive to be organized the rest of the time. It’s amazing how much credibility and trust you can gain from parents, church leaders and outside organizations with just a little organization. Someday when you mess up, you’ll need to cash in some of that credit you’ve gained.
  9. Think long term. Your attendance is down by 10% this semester; you’ve graduated your top singer and guitar player; you just can’t seem to win with a parent…no matter what you’re facing just remember that longevity and faithfulness will win out. In the end fun, passion and excitement are short lived and will never beat out faithfulness.
  10. The struggle between family time and youth ministry time is real and never gets easier. You will always be battling that balance. Try your best to set boundaries and don’t be afraid to defend those boundaries. I will always flex days so that I am not depriving my family of the time we should spend together. Always remember that you LOVE your family and CARE about the youth ministry- it should always fall in that terminology and order.



So here’s to the next 10 years and many more lessons!