Youth Worker: No More Splashing Around in Shallow Ministry

Youth workers are working hard, but the reality for many is the countless hours they have put in are not resulting in the transformation they are hoping for in students' lives.

Kara Powell, executive director of the Center for Youth and Family Ministry at Fuller Seminary, worked in youth ministry for 19 years. She came to a point where she had a "scary" realization.

"Here I had given countless hours to something I believed in ... and was passionate about it. And while, of course, God was changing students' lives, it wasn't the type of transformation that I was hoping for and I think I had been clinging to the verse in the Scripture that God's word will not return void," she said in a Youth Specialties (youth workers organization) interview.

The reality for many ministering to students is their ministry is not quite where they want it to be, noted Powell, who co-authored Deep Ministry in a Shallow World with Chap Clark, professor of youth, family and culture at Fuller.

Many youth ministries end up running the same programs and conducting the same retreats every year and hope kids will change from it.

"That's what we do in youth ministry," said Powell.

"The reality is 'more of the same' generally brings more of the same."

Others try running ministry based on what Powell calls "anecdotal evidence" – it worked for this person so I'll try that with my ministry kids.

"We need to avoid 'cut-n-paste' youth ministry," Powell stressed.

Although a certain model or program may work in one ministry, the students, leaders and community are different in another ministry.

"Things need to be more contextual than just cutting and pasting a program that worked in a church down the road."

Youth workers also pick up ideas from books but Powell calls for deeper reflection. "We need to ask harder questions."

Considering the diversity of settings among youth groups, Deep Ministry in a Shallow World presents a new model – Deep Design problem-solving process. It asks youth workers to asses the current reality of their youth ministry; look into new sources of insight rather than relying on the same programs; find out what elements others are implementing in ministry that could help you and your ministry; and figure out how to piece all of that together.

In the end, Powell hopes youth workers will work "smarter" and not harder.

"I would rather do one hour of work that is more strategic than three hours of work when I'm splashing around in the shallow end."

That means, taking some time to pull back and reflect.

Upon having deep reflection, youth workers walk back into their ministry settings more inspired and realizing what they need to eliminate and what they need to concentrate on, said Powell.