It was two years into my first student ministry position when it became evident, I had a problem.

My students–especially my leaders–had negative, critical attitudes toward just about everything the church did. It seemed that any sermon, event, or activity the church engaged in, if it wasn’t new, deep, or against the norm my students would quickly tear it apart and claim it wasn’t from God. Somehow, a culture had been created that believed things had to be revolutionary in order to be from God. It was a culture that was critical and pessimistic toward most of the day-to-day church life.

And the worst part was, I knew this culture was my own creation.

When working with young people, every single thing you do is absorbed. Every response to a difficult situation is noticed. Every piece of non-verbal communication recorded. Everything we do works to create the culture and attitude of our ministry, and somehow my own struggles and internal wrestling with church operations had seeped out into the lives and hearts of my students.

When I recognized this problem of mine, I chose to make a change. But how do you turn the tide of something you unintentionally created for over two years?

Make Intentional Changes

I sat down with my ministry team and asked them the simple question, “As we seek to love and disciple these students, what are the most important values we feel called to uphold?”

What came out of that meeting was a list of four values:
– Relationship above all else
– Authenticity in all things
– Vulnerability with each other
– Empower one another

Thus, the theme of our student ministry was born…and against my wishes, it was named RAVE.

But merely coming up with values does nothing to infiltrate and affect the culture without intentional efforts to instill those values in the group. So, from that point on, every single time we gathered as a group, whether it was our weekly youth gathering, Sunday school, or even in small groups, we asked students to recite the values AND to tell us what they mean and why they are important.

Doing this week after week, within 6 months we started hearing students say things like, “I’m sorry I was rude to you. I didn’t put relationship before all else,” and “I want to be closer as a group so I’m working to be more authentic and vulnerable.”

Within only a few months, the culture of our ministry had changed entirely. They were now focused on loving everyone, especially those they previously complained about. They became more honest about what they were feeling without lashing out. They slowly but surely learned how to encourage and empower one another as well as the other members of our church as we all sought to love Jesus more.

I want to encourage you to observe and gauge the status of your ministry’s culture, and if you see things you don’t like, things that are not true to God’s character, ask yourself these questions:

1. What are the kinds of things you want to see in your ministry culture? What is truly most important?

Sit down with the people that are most involved and connected to your ministry to pray, discuss, and decide on a few values that are most important to establish the culture you’re looking for. Try to keep it at 3-5 if possible so students can remember it easily.

2. How can you instill those values in the regular rhythms of your ministry gatherings?

It may seem silly at first and students may even roll their eyes, but if it is a regular and repeated part of their experience with your ministry, it will slowly take hold and become a part of who they are.

3. How are you going to involve students in the process?

Ownership is key. The values you land on must become their values in some way. You could have a couple of student leaders help choose the values themselves. You could have the students read it every gathering so it’s not coming from you. Perhaps the best thing we did was have the students tell everyone in their own words what the values meant to them and why they were important. Whatever way you do it, make sure you help them take ownership of the values themselves.

Lastly, don’t forget to model the values yourself. Students watch everything we do and adopt the attitude we present to them. But rather than feeling under the microscope, take it as an opportunity to show them your own authenticity, vulnerability, etc. as you work out your group’s values for yourself.

Good luck and happy cultivating!

-Kurtis Vanderpool

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