"For Those Who Are Passionate About Reaching The Younger Generation"

Youth Ministry Topics Training Student Leaders

Creating an Idea-Driven Youth Ministry Culture

Steve Miller

A few Sundays ago, a 15-year-old girl complained to me in the church hallway about how our small group wasn't as good as her mid-week Bible study. Immediately, I launched into a detailed explanation -- the two groups differed in purpose, setting, etc. Later that day, as I mentally reviewed the conversation, I realized that I, a 44-year-old man, was intimidated by a 15-year-old girl! I was defensive. She was cutting my small group and I had to defend myself! In the process, I missed a golden opportunity to get invaluable feedback. Like "throwing your pearls before swine," she offered me her personal view of our group. I responded with an "Oink, Oink." Understanding the dynamics of that conversation and living out its implications has revolutionized countless businesses and could revolutionize your ministry.

Amanda's Youth Ministry Woes

You’re having breakfast with the area youth leaders when someone asks the inevitable question "So how are your ministries going?" Before the neophytes finish babbling on about the number of kids that attended the winter retreat, Amanda unloads in a fit of refreshing honesty:

"Our lock-in was a total disaster. From the time the kids arrived, they bucked the system, and showed little interest in all the great activities we'd planned for them. And another thing - our worship band plays its heart out to lead the youth in worship every week, but they don't seem to respond. What's their problem?"

From the four sentences Amanda gave us, can you guess a root problem in her ministry that’s sabotaging her events and programs?

For me, Amanda’s key phrases were: "activities we planned for them" and "our worship band" versus "their problem." It's "us" (adult leaders) versus "them" (students.) She seems to be leading with a model that’s considered the norm by many. The adults and perhaps a few student leaders planned the lock-in for the youth, without consulting others in the group. It’s a leader-driven youth ministry versus an idea-driven ministry. This simple paradigm shift is subtle but powerful enough to be revolutionary.

Your Ministry: Leader-Driven or Idea-Driven?

Reflecting on over 25 years of youth ministry experience, I've seen the "Leader-Driven" model for youth ministry as a recipe for almost certain failure. Amanda leads a "Leader-Driven Ministry." In her ministry, leaders study biblical principles, learn all they can about youth ministry, adopt a strategy, brainstorm among themselves how to implement the strategy, and proceed to plan a ministry for the youth. Ideas flow from the top of the organization down.

The implementation of the revolutionary paradigm shift to "Idea-Driven" involves leaders who also study youth ministry and build their ministry on biblical principles. They may consider themselves "Purpose-Driven," a la Doug Fields. But they assume that the working out of these basic principles or purposes will look very different from setting to setting. Thus, they develop a youth ministry culture where everyone, from first-time visitors to adult volunteers, freely and regularly contribute the ideas that shape the ministry. Ideas flow from the bottom of the ministry up. Before a lock-in is planned or a style of worship is adopted, youth are consulted and adults give their input to the leadership. Every member is a minister who dreams during the week how things could improve. When everything goes well, all feel they had a part. When things go wrong, all feel responsible to discover solutions.

Why Idea-Driven?

Resistance to this model will come from several quarters. Some will object that as leaders, they pray and trust God to give them ideas. "What ideas could students offer me that God can't provide?" Others could question whether young Christians would have the spiritual insight to provide good direction. Others let their own insecurities keep them from risking criticism. So why overcome the negative inertia and move toward an idea-driven idea culture?

1 - Groups that Grow Utilize Student Leaders Our marching orders are to make disciples all nations (Matthew 28:18-20), not merely to "keep the kids off the street." A two year study of five hundred youth groups found student leadership (including student input and involvement in decision making) to be a significant characteristic of groups that grow. (1)

2 - The church (including the youth) is a body, with the head being Christ, not the youth minister. If every member is a minister, then there's no human "top" from which all ideas should flow. Although some are more spiritually mature than others, thus having more authority to decide which ideas translate into action (Hebrews 13:17, I Timothy 4, Titus 1) we're all ministers. So why would I not expect ideas to come from other ministers (including youth and adult volunteers)? If we’re a body, we’d better start functioning like one. (Ephesians 4, I Corinthians 12,14, Romans 12, I Peter 4)

3 - Youth ministers don't have a monopoly on the Holy Spirit. (I Corinthians 12:7, Romans 8:14) Spurgeon thought it strange that people who speak so highly of what God has told them, think so little of what He has said to others.

4 - We're called to serve rather than be served. (Mark 10:45) How can we serve students if we don't know their wants and needs?

5 - Paul became all things to all men to reach them. (I Corinthians 9:19-23) Following the pattern of his Master, he adapted his ministry to reach each target group. In order to reach and disciple your group of youth, he would need a way to stay abreast of their specific characteristics.

6 – "In abundance of counselors there is victory." (Proverbs 11:14) Idea-driven ministries draw from the broadest base of counsel possible.

7 – Church leaders are primarily equippers (Ephesians 4). Consulting youth and acting on their ideas gives youth the confidence to develop their leadership.

8 – We are to treat others as more important than ourselves (Philippians 2). By neither soliciting their input nor taking it seriously when they offer it, we demean students and volunteers rather than lift them up. How many 13-year-olds ever have people consulting them for their opinions? They love it, and what a self-esteem booster!

Developing an Idea Driven Culture

So you want to move toward an idea driven culture. How do you go about it?

1. Deal with your theology. If you see "idea driven" as merely an interesting option, you may never escape the comfort zone of doing things the way you always have. Decide today that it's the right thing to do.

2. Swallow your pride. Irish businessman Feargal Quinn has captivated me over the past few months. He accomplished what most would think impossible, starting a chain of grocery stores proving so customer friendly that people drive past the huge supermarkets to shop his stores. How did he do it? According to Quinn, his astounding success proceeds from five assumptions that he calls his "Five Lessons in Humility."

  • My customers know more than I do.
  • My employees know more than I do.
  • Neither my employees nor I can be creative all of the time.
  • What I knew yesterday is not enough for today.
  • I'm not responding fast enough for my customer.

Living these out, Quinn continually solicits input from customers and employees, and LISTENS to what they say. He hosts customer panels, asks for criticism, talks to customers on the floor, provides suggestion boxes. By respecting and learning from everyone, he became the king of customer service and beat out the big guys. (2)

3. Take anonymous surveys. This is a great place to start, since people don’t want to risk hurting you. I took an anonymous survey of my 9th grade small group to find out what kind of music they liked. Interesting, the boys almost all liked a Metallica style. The girls almost all liked boy bands. I had to wonder if this phenomenon revealed why our large group youth worship was often made up of 80% girls. Our praise band played softer styles almost exclusively. They were excluding what ethnomusicologists call the "heart music" of the teen guys.

4. Do informal, individual Q. and A. This week I took a walk with 13-year-old Benji and asked him how he would change the youth ministry if he were in charge. He brought up the music style and commented: "I was at a school dance last week and saw how people responded to the different styles of music. I was surprised that they didn't all go for rap, since it's so popular now. Some liked it and some complained. When they played pop, people just kind of stood around. But when they got a little heavier, everybody seemed to love it." Do I change things based on one comment. No. Benji's observation may need to be refined by a "multitude of counselors." But like a good missionary, I'm learning about my "tribe" from their input.

5. Plan formal times for input. As a minister of youth, I took my student leadership team on an annual leadership retreat so that they could evaluate the entire ministry and help set goals for the next year. We'd take one area at a time, getting their input on how we're doing with the biblical mandates of evangelism, shepherding, worship, teaching, etc. Then we'd brainstorm ways to improve. We'd throw in some fun and team building as well! Other ways to structure formal input include letting small group leaders give input during monthly training meetings. I've found that usually their ideas (bottom > up) are better that what I had planned to share (top > down), and better received as well.

6. Take lay people with you to conferences. Giving them a bigger picture fires them up to dream bigger dreams and have a larger framework from which to birth better ideas.

7. Go with other team members to visit sharp ministries to be inspired by and learn from them. Our group lacked something in assimilation. By taking some youth to visit a friendly youth group, we picked up many workable ideas that are transforming our group in this critical area. Often, ministry weaknesses and strengths are much easier to spot in other ministries than your own.

8. Form a Creative Team. Give them your message topics a month in advance and let them brainstorm skit ideas, music, games, etc.

9. Creatively get regular input on key areas. Bill Hybels asked a diverse group of people (as I recall, it included a seeker, a businessman, a housewife, a theologian) to critique his messages each week on their bulletins. Without inviting such input from both "insiders" and "outsiders," we doom ourselves to developing a "Christian Ghetto," that impacts only insiders. Besides, the only way to discover blind spots is to get regular, honest input.

10. Make an agreement with a local youth minister who shares your passion for input. You’ll critique his ministry if he critiques yours.

11. Establish ministry teams. Our youth minister wanted a Web site for the youth group. I gathered about five kids at my house and asked them what they wanted in a site. I became project manager, keeping them on track. They designed and built the site. A couple of them opened Adobe PhotoShop and created a graphic for the front page in a couple of hours that was beyond my capability. Now they feel ownership. The youth minister e-mails them updates and ideas. They implement. Sure, I could have built a site for the youth group. But the team approach gets them involved, let's them feel ownership, and gives them the thrill of doing ministry. Plus, I don't have to fool with it. Having a worship team, decorations team, acts of kindness team, etc., gives people the opportunity to take a ministry and go with it, brainstorming and soliciting their own ideas.

12. Implement great ideas quickly and give credit where credit's due. To move beyond merely getting ideas and into creating an idea culture, make heroes out of those who give ideas. Compliment them for their input in front of other students and leaders. Over time your students and volunteers will start to get it. You believe they are smart. You believe in their ideas. You respect their criticism. They feel responsible to make this ministry all it can be.

Business Week Magazine called Jack Welch "The Gold Standard against which other CEO’s are measured." (3) He’s at the helm of General Electric, a company that makes more money than the gross domestic products of almost half the countries of the world.(4) What makes him so successful? One author says that his skill has been to recognize good ideas, distill them, and implement them. At GE, according to Welch, "The hero is the one with the ideas." (5) "We strive for the antithesis of blind obedience. We want people to have the self-confidence to express opposing views, get all the facts on the table, and respect differing opinions. … We value the participation, involvement, and conviction this approach breeds." (6)


Jack Welch took a sluggish giant of a business and honed it into a raging success. Super Quinn started a grocery store chain that beat out the big guys. Why these huge successes? Welch and Quinn say that in part their success came from developing a culture and organization that flattened out the bureaucracy and made everyone’s ideas count. As Michael Useem recognizes in a recent book, "If people are too intimidated or too reluctant to help their leaders lead, their leaders will fail." The business world seems to have discovered what the church has largely forgotten. It appears to be a classic example of Jesus' statement: "For the people of this world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light." (Luke 16:8, NIV)

Go for a walk with a couple of youth today and humbly ask for their advice. Don't get defensive. Listen. Thank them profusely their input, no matter how shallow or impractical it may first appear. It may be your first step toward revolutionizing your ministry.

  1. Ph. D. dissertation by Leonard M. Kageler, "Factors Associated With the Numerical Growth and Decline of Church Youth Groups." Fordham University, New York City.
  2. Polly LaBarre, Fast Company, Issue 52, page 88. For the online version surf to www.fastcompany.com
  3. Tim Smart, "Jack Welch’s Encore," Business Week, October 28, 1996, p. 154.
  4. Janet Lowe, Jack Welch Speaks, John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 1998 p. xviii.
  5. Day, Jr. and LaBarre, "GE: Just Your Average Everyday $60 Billion Family Grocery Store.
  6. Tichy and Sherman, Control Your Own Destiny or Someone Else Will, p. 71.

SIDE BAR – Why We Resist An Idea-Driven Group

Powerful inertia militates against developing a culture where ideas constantly come from all levels of your ministry. Here are some feelings you must overcome:

  • "When people criticize my ministry, I don't feel good about myself." The solution? Realize that you’ll feel even worse about yourself when you are invited to "the meeting." I was invited to "the meeting" early in my last youth ministry. Some of my lay workers had planned a meeting ostensibly to discuss some ideas. The night before, one of them called to warn me, "I don't want to blindside you, but this meeting is about some criticisms people have of your ministry." I could have avoided a gut-wrenching meeting had I produced a culture of sharing, where everyone felt free to tell me their impressions at any time.
  • "I don't want to look bad when people criticize my ministry." The problem? Pride. The solution? Recognize it as sin and get over it.
  • "I want to get credit for the good that happens." The solution? Realize that an idea culture keeps you from taking the sole blame when things go wrong.
  • "I'm afraid that they'll take the group the wrong direction." The solution? Trust God to lead through godly people at all levels. Godly leadership still decides whether or not to implement each idea.

"I'm the professional. What do they know?" The solution? Get real. The collective wisdom of your youth and small group leaders is probably vastly greater than whatever us "professionals" have picked up over the years.


Steve Miller is a 25-year veteran youth leader and is author of The Contemporary Christian Music Debate and the Leaders Guide to Jesus No Equal (both available through Reach Out Youth Solutions). He currently edits the e-letter "The Professional Youth Ministry Report" ,  writes the online "Legacy Lessons" , and compiles Reach Out's "Illustration Database."


This was first published in Group Magazine, Copyright May 6, 2002, Group Publishing, Inc., Box 481, Loveland, CO 80539, pp. 53,54, used by permission.

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