Looking Around You – Evaluating Your Youth Ministry

by Dave Keehn

“Eye spy with my little eye…” – a child’s game, a way to pass the time on a long road trip or the secret to effective ministry?  You decide…

In Mark 6 we read of one of the greatest, most famous, awesome miracles that Jesus performed… walking on water!  The disciples were boat people: fishermen who lived on and loved the water.  In the late afternoon, after a long day of feeding 5,000+ people with a “Happy Meal” (another incredible miracle that Jesus is well known for), Jesus puts his disciples in a boat to cross the lake to the other side, where he will meet them later.  Jesus goes to pray until evening comes, when he proceeds to join the disciples WALKING ON THE WATER.  However, the disciples are still in the middle of the lake, straining to row to the other side because of the wind and waves.  Remember, these disciples are boat people.  They know how to operate a boat, and yet there they are – straining in the middle of the lake.  Are they frustrated?  You bet they are.  There is nothing more frustrating than doing something that you should be good at and getting nowhere.   Are they tired?  It was about 3am when Jesus strolls by them WALKING ON THE WATER!  Yes, they are tired.  In this context vs. 48 says these incredible words “He was about to pass by them…” In other words, the disciples were so focused on their hard situation, that they almost missed one of the greatest miracles right in their presence!

I often wonder if I am missing God at work all around me because I am straining at my “oars,” focused on myself and the issues that I am facing.  I wonder what incredible miracles are happening in the lives of people around me?  In the midst of intense Youth ministry (when is Youth ministry never intense? … we always have someone wanting, needing, asking for something more from us) I find it easy to get tired and frustrated.  It is at those critical moments that I am most vulnerable to miss what God is doing all around me.  Yet, the ultimate task of a leader is to see what is happening and act accordingly.  Therefore, as we end this school year – let us take a timeout and consider how do we best evaluate what God is doing all around us that we may be missing.

Some of my best evaluation tools are my leaders’ stories.  After each ministry night’s program, I gather my leaders together to debrief what took place.  This is NOT a time to say the “video didn’t work” or “the drama was great”, but rather a time to celebrate.  I ask leaders to share with the rest of the team what they saw God do.  I also celebrate them as I share how I saw God work through various leaders.  This gives the entire team a chance to celebrate what God is doing all around that we may have missed.  One of my leaders told the story of the “God-change” in a student over this past summer.  Through the challenge of a mission trip she was exposed to the needs of others.  She saw God use her in a powerful way.  The result – her life is different.  She has experienced God’s power and wants more of it!  She is now thinking of giving the first two years after High School to go to the mission field to see what else God wants to do with her.  Without offering my staff a chance to hear these stories, the rest of our team may never have known what God is doing in the life of this student who never stands on our stage, but sits quietly in the back of the room.

I also ask for a written summary – a short, half page form – from each of my leaders every other week so that I can see which students are being mentored.  I then can follow up with these leaders and ask what is God doing in the life of a specific student.  This allows me to see if a specific need, issue or blessing is becoming a common theme for our ministry.  If you are not holding your team accountable for their ministry responsibilities – how do you know what is going on in your ministry?  If you expect something to be done, you must inspect it!

However, recognizing God at work all around us requires us to look in the right place.  Programmatic issues, attendance numbers, etc. are not the best tools to see God at work. In fact, many times I can falsely think my ministry is effective because a video was “awesome” or we had a bunch of students.  Too often, that type of evaluation has lead my ministry to be a “mile wide and an inch deep”.  I want more significant God-works than sharp programming.

So we have to evaluate further …

Stephen Covey states one of the keys to highly effective people is “beginning with the end in mind.”  Have you sat down and prayerfully considered what character and faith qualities you want to see in your students when they graduate?  This is a great starting pointing for evaluation.  How are your students developing according to the goal God has given you?

In my ministry we have identified Spiritual Growth Steps that we desire to see in our students take.  These include (but are not limited to):

  • Participate in a worship service,
  • Develop Godly character through accountable relationships,
  • Embrace God’s heart through Bible study and prayer,
  • Build relationships with non-Christian peers for the purpose of sharing the Hope and Truth of Jesus, and
  • Seek to serve God’s Kingdom through their passion and talents. 

We have also identified the individual progression for each of these qualities.  For example:  Embrace God’s Heart in Bible study and prayer would have the following growth progression:

  1. Attend a small group Bible study
  2. Reads the Bible on their own (small group leader follows up on this through discussion)
  3. Memorizes Scripture (with accountability partner or small group leader)

Each of these progression steps allows us to evaluate our ministry.  I.e. How many students can we identify that are, on their own, reading the Bible.  The result of our findings will dictate our emphasis in the coming months.  The challenge is to communicate these Growth Steps as elements of the journey to know and love God, not “pharisaical” duty-driven “check-boxes” to mark off as a form of religiosity or false spirituality.

Another example of this type of assessment was created by a group of youth ministry professors conducting a study of “Exemplary Youth Ministry” (http://www.exemplarym.com/?page_id=55).  They have identified seven qualities of a mature adolescent spirituality.  They include seeing students: seeking spiritual growth – both alone and with others; believing that God is present in the world; acting out of a commitment of faith; being active with God’s people; possessing a positive, hopeful spirit; living out a life a service; and living a Christian moral life.  With each of these qualities, a series of evaluation questions can be asked to assess the level of maturity present.  The qualities and questions can be unique to you as you desire; the key is – are you seeking to see what spiritual maturity exists?  Ask “how can I take our students to the next level?”  Are you looking for the works of God in your ministry?

Are you straining at the oars, focused on obeying the instructions you received from Christ?  Have you looked up to see if Jesus is doing a miracle around you that you haven’t noticed yet?  Wouldn’t you want to join in on the miracles and celebrate them!  Works of God challenge me, inspire me, and tempt me to leave my “oars” and get my feet wet – walking on the water where Jesus is!  These works of God, I believe, are all around us if we would just look!