Systems Approach to Vital Youth Ministry

youth worker circuit, a systems approach to vital youth ministry

I have been thinking a lot about systems and institutions these past few weeks. Have you thought about how the church works as a system, maybe the education system? Thus the system of youth ministry?

If you can understand what the system is working around you, then hopefully we can 1. understand what truly motivates people and the culture & 2. the opportunity to thrive.

So, forget all the youth ministry models you have heard/learned before. Those are great, but they are not the reality (in most cases we have observed. someone probably isn’t this way). Let me share with you Open System Organization theory and how this pertains to you and your youth ministry (as well as the church).

Let’s talk about Open System Theory with our approved graphic to reference. Essentially there is the outside world or context (1), the input of resources (2) and within your sphere of control is the throughput (3) or transformationl activities, then you have the output (5). We won’t worry about feedback from the system for our talk here.

Let’s see this as a church entity.

  • Our outlying context is the community or city that our church/ministry is placed within. In that context has certain attributes. An attribute for me, living in Nashville is that there is more of a professional musicianship available to me to tap into. Attributes could also be similar to items like high unemployment. Mostly what we will consider our context the people available to us. There might be some really successful youth ministries in the area, but run numbers across all the schools in the area and give some % of what teenagers are in youth ministries already. Will be pretty sure it is not 100%. So there are youth who could be brought into the youth ministry (individuals/families that could be brought into the church).
  • We do “outreach” to target those who we want to input into our ministries because we know that it will ‘benefit’ them. It also benefits us. A stat I read is that we would need to input some 5-7% of our our current members each year to keep a ministry at status quo (numbers wise). Other resources to input could be your budget, volunteers, and more.
  • Within the sphere is where we do those activities of the church that are intended to bring about transformation. This is your mission trip, bible study, youth group meeting, praise band, small groups, retreats.. you get the picture. In a manufacturing process this is where metal is melted and pressed to come up with some product. This is where musicians go into the studio to refine their songs. It is our hope that this is where youth are introduced to Christ and some transformation happens.
  • The output is the proof in the putting. You/I have a worthy product to show for our labor and input investment of church. The output in a retail industry is a product that people want to buy. Well, in our youth ministries the output varies widely on what people see as a good output of the youth ministry. For many this is numbers, sometimes it is youth sitting together in the balcony at worship, maybe it is a few youth who are going into ministry, most of the time it is a for a well behaved and squeaky clean teen, rarely is it a youth who commits themselves to missions with the poor or marginalized.
  • Suppose you can easily say that the feedback comes with people telling you or others that the youth ministry is great or they do not mention it at all.

I am sure you are feeling a little dirty looking over this as I have totally placed your & my ministry in a model of consumption. We have. But I hope you recognize that the educational system works this way (good schools put out good students & recruit ideal students). Manufacturing / retail services are rather obvious in this model of organization. This is the reality of the system that all our parents, pastors, teenagers, church members have adopted into and they hardly ever realize it. But it affects them and they will act upon how well they see the system working.

There is HOPE and it isn’t Luke Skywalker

The hope in all of this is that God works despite ourselves and our systems. In fact, God has been at work through Christ and the Holy Spirit in our systems since long before we named them something. So transformation really does happen and it really can happen in this system.

What can you do?

Here is what you can do within this system.

  • Know your context, all the things that are at your use
  • Actively Outreach, you need to have something that feeds the throughput. Maybe that is a children’s ministry, who knows. You need to have something
  • Know what are ‘successful’ outputs
  • Do activities/programs that produce those desired outcomes. Forget about the other activities.
  • Repeat the processes

What Wesley Did

John Wesley operated the methodist movement with systems to bring about transformation. His class meetings were lay led and were that entrance place for “input” of new members. The people of the class meeting would actively invite folks to ‘their’ class meeting. Conversion wasn’t instantaneous in the methodist movement. It could be months before you had a conversion experience that the class leader could recognize. You then moved into other means of grace activities, studies, missions with the poor & imprisoned. The results, or output, is not what we have today in the methodist church, but some very active populations who took their faith so seriously and convictions they were compelled to live into so deeply that people made fun of them.

Maybe this feels a bit like Neo waking up in the Matrix. It has been all around us for our lifetime, but we fail to see it. Maybe one day God’s Kingdom will transform the whole thing, but until then, it is good to be aware of what we are working with.

About Gavin Richardson

guy, husband, dad, church communicator, youth pastor, youth ministry trainer, dog owner, social media participant anthropologist, writer, speaker, internet community builder, bill payer, bit monastic, co-creator of but not necessarily in that order

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