In her address to the Democratic National Convention, First Lady Michelle Obama said, “We are playing a long-game here." Though the First Lady was, of course, talking about the long-term political agenda of the Democratic party, I believe she could just as well have been talking about youth ministry.
I saw this first-hand a few weeks ago, when my church's junior high and high school ministries participated in a joint service project - a simulation designed to help students learn about refugees. When the facilitator for this event walked in, she commented, “Has it really been four years since we last did this, Jen?”
Indeed it was. In 2008, the same facilitator led my high school students in the same simulation. Those who were freshmen during that simulation graduated from high school in June. As a result, I intentionally repeated the simulation in order to help a new generation of youth begin to understand and empathize with their refugee neighbors. My goal in doing so was to create a hunger and thirst in my current junior high and high school students in order to encourage them to continue serving this community in the same way their predecessors did.
This kind of intentional repetition of activities is an integral component of long-term youth ministry, the type of youth ministry that most benefits teens and the congregations they're a part of. Long-term youth ministry acknowledges that change happens slowly. It recognizes that lasting faith formation happens over time, the cumulative affect of months, if not years, of discipleship. It asks not just, “What do we want these students to have learned and experienced at the end of this year?” but also, “What do we want these students to have learned and experienced once they've graduated from high school?” In response to these questions, it's plans are cyclical and strategic.
Long-term ministry recognizes youth ministry's place in the overall faith journey of students, acknowledging and honoring those who have previously impacted a student's faith as well as those who will continue to do so in the future. As part of this, long-term youth ministry recruits adult leaders hoping they will serve for multiple years, knowing quality relationships take time to form. It also takes time to invest in it's leaders, knowing that doing so is good stewardship. Long-term youth ministry also invests in student leaders, believing they are fully capable of contributing to congregational life as young adults but also knowing that such an investment will pay dividends for years to come as student leaders become leaders in whatever congregation they eventually call home.
Long-term youth ministry is intentional, not rushed. It savors questions. It takes time to process experiences and to help students connect the dots between significant experiences and conversations. It is patient, painstakingly investing in students week after week, month after month, year after year, knowing the fruit of this investment may not be immediately apparent, but trusting that it will be well worth the wait.
This kind of long-term youth ministry is not easy. Yet, it's critically important for developing committed followers of Christ.
That's why when it comes to youth ministry, I'm playing the long-game.