Our gigantic youth ministry experiment commences tomorrow night. Can’t wait to see what happens!- Tweet from Mark Cox 9:11 PM Aug 24th via web

This is the tweet that was that catalyst for the following interview. I love it when youth pastors take risks. I hate it when other youth pastors see other youth pastors take risks, and say , “I can’t or I’m not allowed to do that.”. After seeing the tweet, I knew I wanted to know more and I wanted to tell other youth past that risky youth ministry is not only possible but mandatory if we are wanting to reach students for Christ. Here is Part I of my interview with Risk Taker Mark Cox

Mark, tell us a little about yourself and about the current youth ministry you are serving.

I’ve been in youth ministry ever since I graduated high school. I spent my four years in college being a volunteer youth worker, and became a youth pastor as soon as I graduated college in 2005. I’m at a great church outside of Little Rock, Arkansas called Indian Springs Baptist Church. I happen to believe that I have the best students on the planet, but I might be biased :).

Our youth ministry has a pretty exciting history. Before I came, Daren Neely was the student pastor, and he led it well. Our youth ministry has always had a lot of influence with the students in our area. That’s why it was staggering when we started experiencing a decline in student involvement.

This interview came about because I saw your tweet and my heart just leapt in my chest and said, “This guy is about to do something risky. I want to know more.” Tell me about the youth ministry before the change,

Yeah, we’re definitely stepping out on faith.  Our student ministry has always been one of simplicity, strategy, and intentionality. We aren’t your typical “youth group.” We learned early on that a lot of the events that were expected by parents were dragging the energy out of us student pastors. When it came time to put effort into what matters most, we were drained.

So, we stopped doing the things that drain us (filling a calendar with meaningless events). We became a very simple student ministry. The few things that we decided to do well were our Wednesday night service environment (church for the unchurched), Sunday Morning Small Groups (the “next step” environment), and camps, retreats, and mission trips along the way.

This was a great change for two reasons: we could focus our efforts on making the few things great (rather than OK) and we could send our students out to create meaningful relationships with those who are far from Christ (rather than having another church event where we can hang out together).

This is pretty much what our student ministry looked like before our transition. We did a great service on Wednesday night, designed to reach any student on any level with God. We broke down into small groups on Sunday morning to dig into Scripture and go deeper together. And we planned a few strategic events throughout the year to keep the fire going.  And it was working…until recently things changed.

What was God doing in your heart leading up to the change?

As a leader, when things don’t go the way you would hope, one of the natural responses is to start questioning your own leadership. I don’t care who you are – when you’re not experiencing momentum in leadership, you tend to start expecting mediocrity. I think there were even times I started to make excuses for why student involvement was so low. I think I was just trying to make myself feel better by explaining it away. The truth was there, though. Students weren’t getting saved. Our outreach service had turned into a Christian club.

I was so frustrated, because I know the principles that lead to apathy, and I knew I let it happen. A friend of mine challenged me to re-read Andy Stanley’s “7 Practices For Effective Ministry” around that time. This is one of my favorite books and I figured it could help me sort through a couple issues. I got to the chapter that focuses on the third principle, “Narrow The Focus” and I had no idea what I was about to encounter. I was minding my own business, reading through the chapter, when I read the following words:

“Maybe you need to eliminate what works, so something else can work better.”  (“7 Practices, p. 106)

I froze. I knew what God was saying. He’d been preparing me for this moment for months. I didn’t need to process it. It was as clear as anything I’ve ever seen or heard. That day, He supernaturally communicated to me that I should kill our services, and move to a system that empowers the students to lead their peers. No more spectatorship. Transform the students into youth pastors.

From that day forward, I spent a lot of time talking to the wise counselors in my life (my wife, my youth pastor, and some other trusted ministry friends). They all said the same thing: God has obviously spoken to you. Now, you just need to figure out how to do it and get rolling.

What did the change look like and why was this the way you thought the change was supposed to go?

The change ended up being fairly smooth. I’d always been told that church fights would happen and stuff like that. I don’t know about other people, but that just wasn’t our story.  Specifically, we were killing our midweek student service to allow our students to lead evangelistic small groups in their homes, The goal is two-fold: to reach students who are far from God and to train our core students to become servant leaders in the same event.

In order to do that, we had to spend 3 weeks talking about what it would look like. This included a lot of vision-casting, stats, plans, details, steps, and communication. We recorded it on video, so we could replay it to those who missed out (we released all this in one of our most dead times of the church year). One of the things we were afraid of was that so many people would be gone during this transition, that when school started again, the people who missed these talks would show up at our building wondering what they missed. It didn’t happen this way. The beauty of social media is that you can implement buzz marketing if you just have a few committed students who are willing to get excited about it. Soon, word spread and people got educated.

The change itself took a total of 5 months. We spent almost a month talking about it on Wednesday nights, and spent two months training our student leaders. The first two months were spent honing in on what God was doing (and if He was the one doing it). I’m glad I spent that intentional time seeking Him, because driving change without the Spirit’s power is a suicide mission.


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