the shape of leadership

So You Want to Start a Youth Ministry?

Elements of a successful launch

Ashton Peters on November 17, 2023

If you asked a group of pastors about youth ministry, most would probably affirm its importance. Some might even recall coming to God as a child or teen.

In fact, a 2003 Barna Group survey found that two-thirds of all U.S. Christians accepted Christ before age 18.

Despite this reality, many churches today do not have a full-time youth pastor, and some have no youth ministry at all.

We can help remedy this. Over the past 15 years, I have helped start or rebuild a couple of youth ministries.

Early in my career, I served as a bivocational youth pastor at an Assemblies of God church in Arkansas. When I stepped into that role, the congregation had been without a formal youth ministry or youth pastor for more than six years.

Building from the ground up, we worked to create a youth ministry that met regularly. It eventually included a worship team, small group system, and outreach events.

Later, I accepted a youth pastorate in Oklahoma. Though it was a full-time position, there was little structure in place — and student attendance was in the single digits.

Through the Lord’s faithfulness, that ministry grew into a thriving youth group with more than 100 students.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach. Every congregation is different in terms of context and resources. Nevertheless, I believe there are four essential elements of a successful youth ministry launch or revitalization.


1. Clear Vision

Many people assume a new youth ministry begins with planning a bunch of events. However, outlining key aspects of the discipleship process should be the first order of business.

Establishing this framework enables you to create events that align with ministry priorities.

In other words, you should decide who your youth ministry will be before choosing what it will do. Instead of filling a calendar with activities, sit down with your lead pastor and fill a whiteboard. Ask about the church’s mission and vision. Then discuss ideas for integrating those into the youth ministry.

Also identify ways to reach your community. Every church’s situation is different. Understanding what is likely to work in your setting is vital.

At every step, pray about what the Lord is calling your youth ministry to do.

Make sure you are learning and growing as well. If you are new to youth ministry, read books on topics such as youth culture and student spiritual development.

Amid the busyness of ministry, set aside time daily to pursue God. Your example will help shape the next generation of believers. Be sure you’re modeling commitment to Christ above all else.


2. Solid Relationships

Build relational bridges with key stakeholders, including the lead pastor, parents, potential youth volunteers, and students.

Partner with your lead pastor, seeking input and guidance throughout the process.

Get to know other adults in the church as well, especially parents. Take the time to talk with them and ask about their students’ lives, needs and spiritual development.

Starting out, you may be tempted to measure your youth ministry against others that are well established. Such comparisons are unfair and unhelpful.

Learn about the church’s volunteer vetting and training processes, including procedures and policies regarding background checks and working with minors.

After gaining familiarity with those processes, identify and form relationships with individuals who might become part of the youth volunteer team. No matter the ministry size, students benefit from having multiple leaders investing in their lives and participating in the discipleship process.

When forming relationships with students, start with those who are already attending your church.

I have seen leaders become so preoccupied with attracting students from outside the church they inadvertently overlook the needs of the teenagers in front of them.

An evangelistic mindset is important, but the first relational priority should be connecting with students and parents within the congregation to find out how you can serve them effectively.


3. Realistic Expectations

Unrealistic expectations will only lead to a sense of failure and disappointment. Setting practical, attainable goals at each phase of the process is crucial. As you and your team experience some wins, it will help build momentum.

There are several areas in which you must personally manage expectations. If you are bivocational or unpaid, you will need to plan around other work obligations. Determine a realistic amount of time you can devote to the youth group, and develop a ministry schedule you can handle.

Also maintain realistic expectations regarding your budget and resources. As you faithfully work with what you have, you can expect God to bring an increase. However, you also need to remain aware of the resources you are currently stewarding so you can use them wisely.

Starting out, you may be tempted to measure your youth ministry against others that are well established. Such comparisons are unfair and unhelpful.

There are no shortcuts to building a successful ministry. And if there were shortcuts, you would miss out on opportunities to learn and grow.

Most youth leaders face the same challenges, just on different scales. Your ministry may be new, but that doesn’t mean you’re the only one stretching a budget, working through scheduling conflicts, struggling to find qualified volunteers, or dealing with disengaged students.

Youth ministry isn’t for the faint of heart. You’ll never be perfect, but you can still accomplish the work to which God has called you. Give yourself a break, while trusting Him to see you through.


4. Proper Attitude

As with most things in life, the right mindset can make a big difference.

Remember that anything worth building takes time. Practice patience and enjoy the journey.

Celebrate even small wins. If you don’t acknowledge these moments as the leader, others won’t either. Whether it’s a student following the Lord in baptism or your group exceeding their previous Speed the Light giving record, cheer on those wins with everyone around you.

Don’t take yourself too seriously. Youth ministry is full of funny moments. When a microphone malfunctions or a middle schooler pulls a silly prank, learn to laugh at the craziness rather than feeling like a failure.

Stay focused on your calling. There will be times when nothing seems to go as planned. Remind yourself of the dream God has placed in your heart, and continue moving forward in faith.

Place reminders around you of what you are doing and why. My office is full of mementos from students and mentors that keep me focused on the mission of reaching the next generation for Christ.

Launching or relaunching a youth ministry is a process that takes time. In those early days, it can feel like a daunting task.

I encourage you to take it in small and consistent steps, faithfully following where God leads.


This article appears in the Fall 2023 issue of Influence magazine.

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