Building a Youth Ministry from the Ground Up
Dennis Steeger

Dennis Steeger is a 30 year youth ministry veteran. He served as the youth pastor at Grace Outreach Center in Plano TX. for 26 years. He is an adjunct professor of Youth Ministry at Christ for the Nations Institute in Dallas TX. He also coaches youth ministers and provides consulting services for churches that desire to develop more effective youth ministries. If you want more information about how to build a successful youth ministry or the consulting services available, you can contact Dennis Steeger at

Building a Youth Ministry from the Ground UpIt was over 20 years ago that I found myself in an interesting position. I was one year into a transition where a youth ministry legend and mentor had left our church and had handed me the keys to the car. The entirety of the youth ministry was now in my hands. Needless to say, I was a bit overwhelmed. Things went fine for a season, and then something changed. I could not put my finger on what had changed, but nothing was really working. I seemed to be failing miserably. Church attendance was up, youth ministry attendance was flat. There was no fruit from our altar calls, students weren’t inviting their friends. Things were so bad; I called one of my friends and informed them I was going to resign. Thankfully, he talked me off the ledge.

Clearly, something was wrong! Yes, I already had students who were coming…but they were not engaged. Yes, they showed up, but they were not committed. Yes, I preached, but there was no transformation. Our ministry was neither effective nor sustainable. I soon came to the realization that the youth ministry would have to be rebuilt from the ground up. It would have to be a total demolition and rebuild. We were back at the starting line.

Our ministry needed to change desperately and I was clueless about how to bring it about. I was fortunate to have an extremely talented and dedicated team of leaders and volunteers walking alongside of me. Together we went through the difficult process of rebuilding-and re-launching a youth ministry. The seven steps that I cover in this article are the exact steps we used to rebuild our ministry all those years ago.

After we went through the process of implementing these steps, our youth ministry began to experience incredible growth. Every meaningful number increased! The plan was working! However, there was this question I could not shake, it was always lurking in the back of my mind. Could it last? It would be two to five years to know with certainty if we had just weathered the latest storm of if our ministry was built to last. Was our process sustainable and reproducible? Twenty years later, I am happy to say that through the ups and downs, the good and bad, the joys and sorrows, the process has proven itself effective and sustainable!

If you believe your church is missing something and youth ministry might be the something your church is missing, know that you are not alone. Many pastors are striving to find answers to the very same question, “How do I create a youth ministry?” Don’t worry about every church that has a thriving youth ministry. Each one of them has been right where you are today. The starting line!

Everyone has an opinion about youth ministry. Is youth ministry necessary? Is it biblical? Is youth ministry effective? Is youth ministry a cultural phenomenon whose time has come and gone? The “experts” are all over the map on this issue.

I believe that youth ministry is critical to the church. However, mine is only one opinion. By the way, none of these opinions really matter. The only opinion that matters here, is God’s. If you believe, God is leading you to develop a youth ministry then His is the only opinion that matters.

Some people rely on research, some on opinions and others will look at the hottest, latest trends in the church world. Consensus of opinion rarely leads us to a good solution for the problems that confront us. Too often when wrestling with important questions, we fail, not because we did not ask questions, we failed to ask the right question.

In Levitt and Dubner’s book Think Like a Freak, they postulate that too many times we are ineffective in our planning and problem solving because we don’t ask the right questions! Asking the right question is the key to effective problem solving. What should be painfully obvious is that answering the wrong questions correctly will only lead to correctness not effectiveness or fruitfulness. The right question in this case is not “What is everyone else doing?” or “What do the experts say?” The best and only right question is “What is God leading us to do?”

Let me put it another way. Not everything in ministry is transferrable. What works at one church across town may not work at all in your church. So we are inevitably led back to the only pertinent question: “Is God leading my church to begin a youth ministry?” If this is the case, be obedient to that leading.

Beginning a youth ministry is not for the uncommitted or the faint of heart. It does bring with it the potential to change the hearts of a generation that is searching for life, hope and meaning. It can infuse energy and enthusiasm into a church body like few other things can. I am of the opinion that having a biblically functioning student ministry is worth the blood, sweat and tears that it requires.

Starting a youth ministry is not like going to the mall. Unfortunately, there are no youth ministry stores at the mall! I cannot simply go to the mall and pick up a leader or two and choose the newest model of volunteers that perfectly fit my church environment. We can learn something important about ministry from a trip to the mall.

It starts with the map. Every mall has one, a big map near the entrance of the mall. You approach the map and you see the big green dot! A map serves two purposes. It tells you where you are. “You are here!” Knowing where you are is the first important piece of information you need to successfully navigate to the desired destination.

The map also provides direction as to where you want to go. Knowing your destination is every bit as important as knowing where you are. The map shows you how to get there. Every ministry needs a map to help us get from here to there.

Where are you as a church? I am not talking about your physical location; I am talking about on the spiritual landscape where is your church? Is the church growing towards its mission and vision? What resources are available? Is there a glaring need that the ministry must address? Is there untapped potential to capitalize on? What need do you see the youth ministry fulfilling at your church? Jesus said to “count the cost” before we go into battle. Knowing where your church is on the spiritual landscape is akin to counting the cost.

How are we going to get from here to there? When starting any endeavor there are two key questions we must ask:

  1. Who is going to lead the youth ministry?
  2. How do we go about forming the youth ministry?

The focus of this article will be deal with question number two. Let me spend just a moment on question number one.

Who is going to lead?

Someone has to lead! Simply put, if there is no leader, there will be no followers. Proverbs 29:18 tells us that “Where there is no vision the people are aimless!”

Every ministry needs a leader to provide inspiration, direction and clarity! This ministry will need a cheerleader, a spokesperson and a chief strategist. That person is the leader.

If the finances are available then the easier answer is to hire a youth pastor to lead. If finances are an issue then the second, and more difficult, answer is to raise up someone in the church to lead. I will address this issue in depth in a future article. Whichever way your church decides to proceed, be committed to the process. Give it time!

Forming a student ministry that will be effective, fruitful and lasting is not only possible, I would say it is predictable given a few simple (not easy) steps. What I will offer is a way to accomplish the goal of forming a ministry that is not only successful but also sustainable. Let me also say that this by no means is this the only way. There are a hundred ways to cook a hamburger. Which one is better is a matter of opinion.

Starting a Youth Ministry

Let me start with a few assumptions before we move on. First, I will assume that beginning this journey is a response to prayer and guidance from the Holy Spirit. Attempting to start a ministry based on our will, our wisdom and our skills will surely fail.

Therefore, if we are responding to the Holy Spirit, the second assumption is that we have gathered a group of people committed to seeing this ministry be successful. I define success as fruitful, stable and safe, your definition may differ.

The third assumption is that you will operate in the fruit of the Spirit throughout this journey. You will need the fruits of love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in abundant measure…trust me on this one.

In addition, a set of three non-negotiable’s must be understood before we begin the process of formation.

The first non-negotiable is that the senior pastor must be involved in the process. The most committed person in this process has to be the senior pastor. The pastor must be the driving force in starting a youth ministry. You can BEGIN delegating responsibilities after the youth minister is in place.

WARNING!!! Don’t make the mistake of dumping everything on the youth minister at once and expect him to figure it out. Most will not! Figuring it out takes lots of coaching.

If the Senior Pastor isn’t 100% committed to the formation and success of the ministry then the giftedness of the youth pastor, the soundness of the structure of the ministry, the number of volunteers, the creativity of the ministry team will not matter, failure is inevitable.

The second non-negotiable is the church must be willing to invest in the youth ministry so that it has a proper chance of succeeding. This includes time, resources, people and money. An under resourced ministry will struggle to gain traction and will rarely find their effectiveness. As one minister told me, “It’s hard to have a world vision when you can’t pay the rent!”

The third non-negotiable is that the church must be willing to commit to a 2-5 year process to get the people, systems and processes necessary to build a youth ministry that will survive transitions, staff turnover and resource issues your youth ministry will face. Two years is the minimum that it will take for the youth pastor to gain the necessary credibility and for systems to work at their optimum levels. Fruit that remains is our ultimate goal!

7 Steps to Launching or Rebuilding a Youth Ministry that Lasts

Here are the seven steps that are necessary to establishing a youth ministry. It is important to do these steps in order. The steps are sequential; so do not skip a step. Each step builds off the other. It is a progression. Resist the urge to speed the process up. Remember the principle of seedtime and harvest! Embrace the process!

  1. Vision. Vision answers the two most important questions for both leaders and followers. Vision answers the questions “why do we exist” and “where are we going.” Vision always answers the question “Why?” Why does this youth ministry exist? Why should a student invest 6 years of their life being a student in this ministry? This is a function of the senior pastor. He must possess a clear picture of why the ministry exists. I do not pretend to know everything about leadership but I do know this: every leader has vision.
  1. Identification. Who are the key players? How do you want to staff and organize the ministry? Who is the point person (youth pastor or key volunteer)? What kind of administration will there be? Who is responsible for volunteers, etc.? It is important that everyone knows their role! Equally important is that each team member understands the chain of command and can identify who is their direct report. This does not flow out of an “I am in charge” mentality but from a “who do I look for to provide guidance?” mentality.
  1. Selection. There is not sufficient space to go into all the necessary criteria for selecting the candidate that will step in the role of youth pastor. There are three areas that we must pay attention to, because it will affect the longevity of the youth pastor. The three areas are culture, character and compatibility.

a. Does the candidate fit well into the church culture?
b. Do they possess the proper character to stand in the position?
c. Are they compatible with the relational quotient of the church?

  1. Culture. What exactly is culture? Culture is the “vibe” that your youth ministry has. Culture describes what you want your youth ministry to look and feel like. The culture of youth ministry goes beyond the youth room. It should be compatible with the culture of the church overall and the surrounding communities.It is very important to know the culture of your community. The last 15 years of our youth ministry, we did not do activities. The culture of our community was such that students were too busy; they didn’t need another thing to come to. We decided to give them connection opportunities after our Saturday night services. This worked well for those who wanted to build relationships and there wasn’t the pressure of having these huge activities that many youth ministries live and die on. This will help you build a youth ministry that enhances a student’s life and add value to their families.Culture is important but it is not all encompassing. The culture should never compromise the message, but the message should be presented in a way that engages the culture. What is the culture of our local students? Are your students super busy?
  1. Outcomes. No one can be successful while shooting at a moving target. Before we have our first meeting or plan our first service, we must define the win! What does the finished product to look like? Everyone must know what the main thing is and keep the main thing, the main thing. Systems and structures help to achieve and keep consistent the important ministry outcomes.

What do our short-term goals look like?
What do our long-term goals look like?

  1. Scoreboards. As much as most people do not like talking about numbers, as a leader you must. Numbers mean something. Some people make numbers the Holy Grail of ministry. Numbers mean something; they don’t mean everything. Nevertheless, numbers are important. More often than not, they represent people. They serve as a scoreboard helping us to understand the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that our ministries are facing. Peter Drucker has this insight on the importance of numbers; “What gets measured is your mission.”It is therefore necessary to do the hard work of deciding what is most important and devising a consistent method of employing practical measurements. These measurements will help you gauge the progress made or the challenges that need to be addressed.
  1. Reviews. Reviews are close to scoreboards. But they are different in two important ways. First, reviews are necessary so that the senior pastor and the youth pastor stay on the same page. Reviews also serve as an excellent tool to reduce the friction that can develop from disappointment, misunderstandings and mission drift. Every review should include the scoreboards. Mentoring is an important part of the review process. Assist with growth plans both personally and professionally.

You should do a thorough review of the youth ministry once per year and provide for quarterly updates so that you can address any communication issues, expectation variances, victories and challenges. These seven steps changed our “youth group” and rebuilt it into a student ministry.