A youth ministry veteran confesses that he is a recovering programming junkie and is learning to break his addiction.
Like many youth ministers in the United States, Timothy Eldred, executive director of Christian Endeavor International, used to spend most of his time in the office brewing ideas for flashy programs that will draw a young crowd, he confesses in his new book, 4-Hour Youth Ministry: Escaping the Trap of Full-Time Youth Ministry.
But the programs are not working and young adults are leaving the church in droves when they hit college, he points out.
It was during a period of soul-searching that Eldred realized that he needed a radical paradigm shift in his way of doing youth ministry.
"In a very real sense, you're going to learn how to quit your job," writes Eldred, who has 20 years of experience in youth ministry.
Youth pastors need to stop being program directors, which he compares to a "wedding planner for kids," and become a "mentor of mentors."
Instead of adults planning and executing the programs and enticing youths to come, he contends, they should let the youths plan and lead themselves and support them as mentors. By letting youths plan and lead, a youth minister can cut "multiple hours of crazy" down to four hours of conversation and coaching of young people a week and be more effective.
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"I am a recovering youth ministry addict. Not recovered," confesses Eldred in his latest book. "My new priority was getting into young peoples' lives. Their schedules determined mine."
He adds, "The idea of investing my time in relationships below the waterline where real development occurs in young lives was revolutionary (to me)."
The new mind set meant Eldred was hardly ever in the office but instead among youths working to connect and build relationships. Instead of tracking student attendance each week, he focused on recording his connections with each student.
Connections were categorized into four types: personal, intentional one-on-one communication; group, time spent with a small group of friends; verbal, brief verbal conversation over phone; and written, an email, letter or note on a social media site.
Eldred writes that as the connection boxes in each category are filled, attendance naturally increased.
"Let's be honest. We have never spent more time, money, energy, on attracting youth and have less to show for our efforts," the Pray21 author highlights. "[W]e are trying to reach young people with artificial means of ministry when they are clearly asking for something simple, something authentic. Relationships."
Decades ago, youth groups were led by youth and adults helped guide them, he notes. During that time, the majority of young people in youth program stayed in church because they owned their faith.
"Make no mistake, you are desperately needed," he clarifies. "But for a completely different role today. Mentor."
Eldred says his new job description is no longer youth pastor but mentor, coach and friend of youth. He does ministry with youth not for them anymore, he emphasizes.