Beginning a new youth and family ministry is an exhilarating experience. Vision fills your heart as you anticipate what God will do. Important questions arise, “How do I approach this new venture? How do I communicate my vision and expectations? How do I build a program that will work for this particular ministry?” Nehemiah had a similar challenge when he went to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall. God had placed a vision on his heart but it was important for him to internalize the situation first. The following are snippets from Neh 2:13-18 (NIV),
I went out…examining the walls of Jerusalem, which had been broken down, and its gates, which had been destroyed by fire…as yet I had said nothing to…any others who would be doing the work.
Then I said to them, “Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, and we will no longer be in disgrace."
They replied, "Let us start rebuilding." So they began this good work.
Nehemiah spent an appropriate amount of time understanding the condition of the wall before revealing his plan. There are certain universal truths about teenagers and families. There are also specific needs to consider in each individual ministry. The first step in building a dynamic youth and family ministry is to identify both the common and unique needs.
The other vital component of building a successful ministry is to discover and utilize the resources available. Good leaders put it all to work; people, money, time, building space, etc. God provides the materials but each church is different and therefore inventory must be taken. It may seem like instead of a full set of tools, you only have duct tape, WD-40, and a screwdriver, but a lot can be done with little in God’s hands. More often than not, plenty of resources are available if you know where to look! Jesus fed thousands with only a few loaves and fish.
After properly identifying the needs and the resources in the new ministry, you can begin to build an approach or program. In other words, needs + resources = program. This simple equation allows for a proper assessment of the ministry and prevents putting a square peg into a round hole.
IDENTIFYING THE NEEDS
The world that we live in today is very different than it was a generation ago. Many adults assume that teens today face exactly the same challenges they faced thirty years ago. There are similar struggles with adolescent angst and sin but the post-modern world is more diverse, connected, and technology driven. Children begin puberty earlier and are not treated as adults until later, meaning kids today spend a longer time in adolescence, often without strong adult mentoring. Our country is facing declining moral values and a stronger disconnect from immediate family. Researchers, ministers, and authors seem to be addressing the problems in increasing measure. Associate professor at Fuller, Chap Clark, PhD, spent a year as a high school teacher studying teen culture and it’s distance from the adult world. He concluded, “Adolescents have been cut off for far too long from the adults who have the power and experience to escort them into greater society.”  Dean Borgman, in his book Hear My Story, describes the pain that teenagers are facing as a result of adult neglect. He says, “Teenagers especially need attention. If they are not offered good attention from friends and adults, they will take bad attention from anyone.”
Traditional youth ministry models often fail to provide a long-term solution for these problems. Teenagers need their families. The covenant built with Abraham and his descendents was generational (Gen 17:7). God reiterates the generational nature of the covenant in Deut 6:7 when he tells his people they are to pass on his commands, “You shall teach them diligently to your children.” It has always been God’s intention that family be the source of strength and spiritual transition to the next generation. As we build a healthy ministry we must work to reinforce the family. Wesley Black, in Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church states, “Churches that view youth ministry as only focused on adolescents, apart from their family context, are missing an important element. Youth ministry must face the challenge of discipling both teenagers and their families if they hope to make significant life changes. This is a whole-church effort, not just something that can be done by a few youth workers.”  This certainly provides fodder for a more family-based youth ministry model. Youth and family ministry is more difficult to build because it involves more people, more resources, and more teamwork.
Each church is different. Beyond the common needs that all teens and their families have which are stated above, it is important to identify what the specific strengths and weaknesses are in the ministry you are about to lead. This can take time. Proverbs 19:11 states, “A man’s wisdom gives him patience.” It is more important to take the time to understand a ministry and its specific needs than to quickly appear to have all of the right solutions.
It is easy to identify all different kinds of needs going into a new church, but it is vital to stay attentive to critical matters. There are three primary elements that drive youth and family ministry. Many of the teens that transition well into their adult years possess these three things. Many who have struggled with their faith after high school lacked in at least one of these areas. They are:
1. Strong spiritual family
2. Strong spiritual friends
3. Depth in the Word
How do you identify if a family is strong? In studying 14,000 strong families, Dr. Nick Stinnett identified six commonalities that bound the families together and wrote his findings in a book entitled, Fantastic Families. His observations provide a good base of questions to see the needs in the families you are about to minister to. Are they committed to one another? Do they express appreciation and affection to one another? Do they communicate well? Do they spend time together? Are they spiritual? Do they handle stress and crises in a respectable way? Many of the answers will take time to discover. Planning a number of family events with the teens and their parents interacting will help. It could be advantageous to spend the first three months of devotionals with the parents attending with their children to get to know each other.
How strong are the spiritual relationships within the teen ministry? There are also a number of good questions that serve as a starting point. Are the teens involved in discipling relationships? Are their best friends other Christians? Do they interact with respect and grace? Are their relationships diverse?
Unfortunately, a lot of teens growing up in the church do not really know their Bibles. It is important to see what the kids know, where their convictions are at, and what type of personal Bible study habits they have. This discovery will dictate the type of curriculum that will be developed.
There are other factors that influence a good ministry approach. Some examples are the number of Christians compared to non-Christians in the ministry, the city/rural dynamic, and the number of teens who have parents who are not part of the church.
IDENTIFYING THE RESOURCES
There are a number of resources to think about. When considering people, how supportive is the staff of youth and family ministry? The eldership? The parents? All of them will play a vital role in the development of your ministry. How many volunteers do you have to be involved in mentoring relationships? Are there others whom you could recruit to get involved?
How much is budgeted for the youth and family ministry? How many wealthy families could be engaged to provide food or a home to host an event? If these options are limited, could you do a fundraiser? Are there other significant events that could be used throughout the year to raise money for monthly needs (camp, dances, etc.)?
There are other resources, which are important to consider. Does the church have a facility to use? When are the best available times for the teens/families to meet? How tech-savvy are the teens and their families? What are the skill sets of the teens? What are the skill sets of their parents? For example, if a ministry had a number of teens that were interested in drama then consider engaging the teens in skits. This helps them learn and gives them an opportunity to give to the church by presenting the skits at Sunday worship. Consider the annual calendar and the activities that the teens were involved with.
BUILDING A PROGRAM
It is important to take the needs and resources into strong consideration before building a program. A fine-tuned youth and family ministry in one church does not translate equally to another. Start with the macro vision of what you want to build. Without great clarity of that vision, communicated regularly, people will not embrace the new direction. Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no revelation, the people cast off restraint.” Articulate from the pulpit, one-on-one, in newsletters and bulletins, and through our actions. As we reveal the vision with great colour and clarity, the ministry embraces it.
The three pillar building blocks identified above shape your ministry approach or program. How do we help the families to be spiritually strong? How do we help the teens build strong spiritual friendships? And how do we instill the Word of God into their hearts? When pairing the needs and resources, we may find that our families communicate fairly well and genuinely love each other but really lack in spiritual formation. We may look at our resource pool and discover an elder who is an exceptional teacher. Adding together this need and resource may motivate us to have a series of classes for the parents, taught by this elder, on how to have great family devotionals. If we had a number of teens that really enjoyed video production, ask a couple of families to act out a really good family devotional and a really awful one, videotape them at home, and share them with the group.
Building an effective youth and family ministry is a comprehensive task. It will undoubtedly cover weekly meetings, outings and events, a teaching plan, relationship management, and great faith. It is always important to step back and ask yourself if you are keeping your focus. As the leadership author, Stephen Covey is noted as saying, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” It is very easy to get off track from helping the families be strong, the relationships spiritual, and the Word of God being taught.
COMMUNICATION AND EXECUTION
After understanding the needs, recognizing the resources, and building a framework of a program, it is important to build enthusiasm. Having the staff, the eldership, the leadership team, and the families on board is crucial to your success. People need communication. The more they are included in the process and the thinking, the more supportive they tend to be in execution. Many ministers make a common mistake. After they have laboured, discovering needs and resources and building a program, they run to execute it. They often get resistance because the direction is different than the church is used to. Dr. Edwin Friedman, author and family therapist, calls this phenomena homeostasis. He defines it as “the tendency of any set of relationships to strive perpetually, in self-corrective ways, to preserve the organizing principles self existence.”  In simpler terms, homeostasis means a system will resist change. This is important for the visionary minister to understand so that he may be properly resilient. In order to facilitate a new direction, small but focused nudges must be made to the church in the direction of your vision. It requires great patience to bring about lasting change.
Another important consideration is creating initial victories. Find ways to build inertia. Which families are really enthusiastic? Which teenagers have leadership potential and are looking for spiritual direction? What project could be really engaging for a lot of families? If your ministry has less Christians than non-Christians, find a way to gather strength from the parents or other volunteers. The environment has to be one that you establish. If you are outnumbered, it may be difficult to create surroundings conducive to growth. Set the spiritual bar high!
After settling into a ministry rhythm, a long-term strategy for teaching the Bible needs to be planned. Answer the question; “What do I want to make sure that I teach to these kids before they leave my ministry?” In working with high school students, you have five years of teaching. A curriculum may not involve every week in its plan but a general approach is important. Outside of Bible books, characters, and topics, there are a number of spiritual needs to be regularly addressed with teenagers. Some of those topics are: sexual purity, guy/girl relationships, working through sin and conflict, communication and relationships, moral values, how to deal with peer pressure, and living out spiritual priorities.
Building a successful youth and family ministry requires a close walk with God, a strong vision, and great patience. A good minister takes his time to build with gold, silver and costly stones. As Nehemiah surveyed the condition of the wall in Jerusalem before beginning his work, a spiritual leader will consider the situation he inherits before hastily implementing new ideas. A careful look at the needs and resources available to him will ultimately shape the ministry. After developing a plan he places brick on top of brick, engaging his fellow workers in the process with him. After planting the right seeds in the tilled soil, he watches for God to make it grow.
Borgman, Dean. Hear My Story. Peabody, Mass.: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003.
Clark, Chap. Hurt: inside the world of today’s teenagers. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004.
Friedman, Edwin H. Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue. New York: The Guilford Press, 1985.
Senter, Mark H. III, Wesley Black, Chap Clark, and Malan Nel. Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001.
Stinnett, Dr. Nick & Nancy, Joe & Alice Beam. Fantastic Families. New York: Howard Books, 1999.
 Chap Clark, Hurt: inside the world of today’s teenagers (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 21.
 Mark H. Senter III et al., Four Views of Youth Ministry and the Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2001), 73.
 Dr. Nick & Nancy Stinnett and Joe & Alice Beam, Fantastic Families (New York: Howard Books, 1999), 10.
 Edwin H. Friedman, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue (New York: The Guilford Press, 1985), 23.