Keep it Going


By Jen Bradbury

Young Woman StudyingI’ve often heard people moan about the ineffectiveness of big youth ministry events like the 30 Hour Famine or summer mission trips. Such rants usually go something like this:

You spend a lot of time, energy, and money on X. And sure, teens are into it for the weekend but even you’ve got to admit, it has no lasting impact on them or anyone else. As soon as they return home, life returns to normal. 

While that may be true for some teens, it doesn’t have to be the case for all teens. In fact, as youth pastors there are a lot of things we can do to combat the mentality that when the event ends, so too does that way of life. Here are some of my favorites:

1. Call out the passion you see in teens. Justice work gives us the opportunity to see teens in unique settings that others – including their parents – may never see them in. When you see teens get passionately involved in some kind of justice work, name that. Ask teens questions about why they find that particular type of ministry so interesting. Connect them to like-minded adults in your congregation who share similar passions and encourage them to serve together. Equip them with resources (like places where they can serve as well as books or articles about that particular area of justice work) that will help them in their ongoing ministry. Encourage them to keep cultivating their interest in that area.

2. Specifically ask teens questions about how your event will impact their life on an on-going basis. As you talk about world hunger during the Famine, ask teens: “It’s great that we’ve been fasting to raise money and awareness to fight world hunger during the Famine. But what will you do later this week, month, or year to continue raising money and awareness about this issue?

3. Ask teens to make a concrete commitment in the presence of their families. During the break the fast celebration at the end of your famine, ask teens to commit to continue serving in some way AFTER they leave the famine. Have them write their commitments down so you can hold them accountable to them. Then have them articulate their commitment aloud in front of their families. Hopefully, they too will get involved in their teens’ ongoing justice efforts.

4. Hold teens accountable for what they commit to. Build time into your small groups or various gatherings to check in and actually see how teens are doing at living out their commitments. Show grace when teens fail. At the same time, celebrate those teens who honor their commitments. Share their stories to inspire and challenge other teens to continue to work on theirs.

Whether it’s during a weekend event like the Famine or a domestic or international mission trip, I’ve started incorporating these four steps into every justice event our high school ministry participates in.

Often, teens fail to keep the commitments they make. But sometimes, they surprise me.

For example, at the end of last summer’s mission trip, it was clear that one girl in particular had developed a huge heart for social justice. I offered to meet with her one-on-one to read and discuss a book together. We chose Jen Hatmaker’s “Seven.” At the end of every discussion, I challenge this teen to do something. Sometimes these are big things. Other times, they’re little things. At the end of Hatmaker’s chapter on waste, I asked this girl, “How can you reduce waste in your house?”

She immediately pointed to her lunches and identified disposable items as a source of too much waste.

When last we met, this girl sat down and excitedly told me that she baked a tray of brownies at the start of the week and was now taking one to school each day in a reusable container – thereby eliminating the waste she’d generated from single-serve desserts. Since doing that, she’s become even more conscientious about the waste others produce. When a friend told this girl how much food waste her place of employment generates on a daily basis, my student wrote that restaurant’s corporate office imploring them to donate their food rather than throw it out. Since learning that donations are up to each individual franchise, this girl’s been stalking the manager at the franchise her friend works for. Her goal is to get him to donate rather than waste their leftover food. To help with her this, I’m connecting her to an older woman in our congregation who’s been gleaning and redistributing food from local grocery stores and restaurants for years. I look forward to seeing what God will do in and through this girl’s continued efforts!

To be sure, not every teen will respond like this one did but what I’ve learned the hard way is this: If we don’t actually challenge and equip teens to continue serving beyond our major justice events, they won’t.

But if we do, who knows how they’ll surprise us… And in the process, positively impact our communities for Christ.