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Small-church youth ministry requires a big commitment — and partnership

Some Churches of Christ are blessed to minister to youth groups of 100 teenagers or more.
Not so in Cordell, Okla., population 2,900. When I walk into my youth room at the 4th and College Church of Christ, I might find 10 kids — or two. There even have been times when I’ve had no one to teach. That’s a reality in a congregation of 90 men, women and children.
Based on my seven years of ministry here — and conversations with other youth ministers — I can say that working in a relatively small congregation is much different than ministry in a larger church. It’s not often that you find experienced youth ministers in congregations of 250 members or less. Some are first-time youth workers. Some are volunteers. Often, they’re ill-equipped to deal with the obstacles they face. And because of small churches’ inability to pay a livable salary, they may work more than one job to make ends meet.
However, with God, all things are possible. I would like to share some keys to ministry in a small church that I have found to be invaluable:
• Stay spiritually healthy. This is vitally important to any ministry. You are going to be asked to do a lot of things as a small-church youth worker that you may not consider to be youth and family ministry. Do them gladly, but do not get so busy that you neglect your spiritual health. Your time with God must be guarded.  
• Commit to stay for an extended period. Small churches do not need a minister to come in, get the “required” three years of experience and leave. This mentality has contributed to the decline of not only youth ministries but also preaching ministries in small churches. 
Small churches, especially in rural communities, are close-knit families. A minister can barely earn the trust of the church in three years. My suggestion would be to commit to a five- to seven-year timetable. This will make you more effective and allow the church to reap the benefits of your more fruitful years of ministry.
In Cordell, I substitute teach at school, have served in a local civic club and regularly attend community events. I have seen kids here go from junior high student to high school graduate. I regularly am asked to perform weddings, premarital counseling and to aid in the coordination of Fellowship of Christian Athletes events. These things do not start happening until you have earned people’s trust.
• Find a mentor and an accountability partner. Look for a ministry veteran you can talk to. There will be times when you come up against what seems to be an impossible situation, and a few questions from an experienced minister can open up a world of new possibilities. 
It also is important to protect yourself against the small-church laziness pattern that is caused by low accountability. Somebody should be aware of your schedule and what you are trying to accomplish. Have weekly meetings with your accountability partner to talk about what you have accomplished and what you have not. Be honest. You will not grow if you stretch the truth.
Every Tuesday for lunch I meet with a deacon who walks into the church building in his overalls. He is grateful to be out of the heat of the mechanic shop, and I am grateful for the hard questions he asks me. We all need someone to ask us the hard questions.
• Don’t be a lone ranger. Small-church youth ministries often are made up of kids off the street and teens of new converts. You might be part of a church with no teens, and you are hired or asked to bring the kids in. Either way, the teens you have in your sphere of influence are going to take a lot of time to mentor and teach.
It is not a job for one person. Put together a ministry team, even if it means training one person at a time. Teach them and make them aware of opportunities to grow as a volunteer.
I am training a new convert in our church who has a knack for reaching out to teens. He has been a Christian for almost two years and wants to be involved. I am seeking to empower him to succeed instead of throwing him into the deep end to see if he can swim.
• Finally, use the family atmosphere to your advantage. Small churches typically do not have gyms, hefty budgets or dynamic worship. Sometimes even the preaching and teaching are found wanting. However, small churches have a family atmosphere where children and teens alike can work alongside and partner with the adults of the congregation.
On almost every service project I organize, I give the teens opportunity to work alongside adults. This summer, the teens and I took over all of the children’s classes to give our teachers a much-needed rest.
True, we did not have a teen Sunday school class throughout the summer, but the lessons they learned were much deeper than any lesson I could give!  
I believe that small churches have an advantage here because, when it comes to reaching today’s youth, relationships with and exposure to generations who truly walk with God are what they are looking for.
If you are working in a small church as a salaried minister or as a volunteer, welcome to a frustrating and
rewarding work. Trust God to fill in the cracks where you are lacking. Give him the glory always.
Josh Yaeger is youth and family minister for the 4th and College Church of Christ in Cordell, Okla., and a graduate of Oklahoma Christian University. He and his wife, Jennifer, have a son, Bryton, with another child on the way.

  • Feedback
    Your comments I just read once again makes me realize Plainview Church of Christ may not be high in members but the fellowship we share is very important to our small church. I am 53 years old and have been a christian since I was 14years old. At that time it was only me & my cousin who were the only teenagers in the church. I’m hsppy to say today there is more youth involved in the church!!!
    Debbie Cunningham
    Plainview Church of Christ
    Plainview, AR
    September, 23 2011

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