Akers, Tony

Leon had a marginal connection to our ministry-his parents had asked one of our volunteer couples if he could attend our upcoming mission trip. When the couple asked me if Leon could go, I was torn between my gut feeling that Leon was too disconnected with our group to make the trip and my respect for the volunteers who’d requested Leon’s participation. In the end I trusted their judgment that he was capable of handling the trip and our covenant guidelines.

Well, Leon carried himself very well on the trip-he did everything we asked without question and followed our covenant. I think he was inspired by our work feeding the homeless. He shared freely in our evening devotions and was fully engaged in what we were doing. But when we returned from our mission trip Leon left our ministry and never returned.

Later, some of our youth wondered aloud why he was allowed to go in the first place. He’d not been involved in our fund-raisers or pre-trip planning meetings, and he’d never attended youth group. Essentially, I let Leon go because I, his parents, and two of our volunteers, believed God might use the trip to “fix” him while developing some Christian friendships. Both goals, though noble, went unmet. In the process our own committed kids questioned our leadership. Honestly, I questioned it too.

“Can I bring a friend?” There’s a nobrainer answer to that question. But lately I’ve begun to wonder. In the past I’ve answered, “Of course!” But this is a more simplistic answer than the question deserves. I want to say “yes,” but the better answer is, “Yes, you may bring a friend, but not just to the ski trip. Why not bring them to Sunday school, youth group, or (heaven forbid) church?”

Yes we want our kids to bring their friends. Every day they’re surrounded by built-in opportunities to witness to the love of God. We want them to share their faith and we want them to bring their friends to our ministry events-but at what cost? When I throw open the door to everyone I also alienate some young people who’ve done the time, worked to raise the money, and have served on ministry teams to put events together.

This is why I developed a system to encourage our kids to reach out while honoring the commitments of teenagers who actively attend and long for relational intimacy. This system is based on a three-level approach.

1 LEVEL ONE-bring anyone!

Level One events are open to anyone and include plenty of adult volunteers, a safe environment, and lots of fun. Level One events include Sunday school, youth group, local outings, lock-ins, Super Bowl parties, concerts, and large-group games such as Ultimate Frisbee. These are wide-open opportunities to experience our ministry without making a solid commitment to the group.

LEVEL TWO-bring some

Level Two events are designed to increase relational and spiritual intimacy, but the invitation is limited. A Level Two event could be a small-group Bible study where we encourage students to fill a chair with an outreach friend. Or it could be an event that we open to only a limited number of “outsiders” so we can preserve group intimacy. Local mission projects are a good example of Level Two programming. More experienced students can show their friends the ropes of local service without the commitment a big trip requires.

3 LEVEL THREE-bring yourself

A Level Three event involves an element of relational or physical danger-they’re for kids who are active in our ministry, For example, we have a covenant group that’s designed to go deeper spiritually and includes a confidentiality commitment

I consider large mission trips Level Three events because they require a deeper level of trust in the group, especially when the focus is cross-cultural. A cross-cultural missions trip is not the venue to discover our new friend Johnny has a drug problem. On a big missions trip, one person’s actions can put your entire team at risk.

Some of my Level Three events require an application, mandatory pre-event training, and group-building experiences. Student leadership team retreats are a good example. I also consider extreme events such as skiing and white-water rafting Level Three programming because they’re inherently dangerous. In the event of an accident I need to know the young person involved and his or her parents.

I continue to refine these levels. For example, we’ve often planned trips to summer conferences that, in the past, have attracted many kids from outside our ministry. These kids actively helped with fund-raisers and participated in our ministry until the conference was over. Then many of them never returned. After this happened several times, our kids communicated that the expectation level I’d chosen for the event was too low. Now if the event does not have “staying” power I just bump it down a level and raise expectations.

As expectations increase, attendance decreases. But the long-run dividends translate to deeper, more meaningful experiences for those involved.

Does my approach seem harsh? Some fellow youth workers have said so. After all, aren’t we trying to reach all kids for Christ? The answer is, “Of course, that’s why we have this system.” I follow the faith-nurturing example the Apostle Paul described in I Corinthians 3:6: “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” By respecting each teenager’s faith depth and programming to that level, we prepare the ground for deeper intimacy among our kids, plant seeds of faith, and water those seeds expecting God to bring the growth.

Since I implemented this Three-Level approach to ministry, students like Leon not only continue to enter our ministry, but stay. No longer do we unintentionally make spiritual orphans out of marginal kids who experience God in a moment and never return. Instead, by honoring this approach we walk with them toward spiritual maturity.

TONY AKERS is a veteran youth pastor in Alabama.

Copyright Group Publishing, Inc. Sep/Oct 2004

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