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How To Deconstruct A Youth Ministry Program: Encouraging Youth Pastors To Play With Lincoln Logs

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When solving problems, dig at the roots instead of just hacking at the leaves. – Anthony J. D’Angelo

At some point, honest youth pastors will have to ask these questions about their youth ministry programs:
–  why does this program seem flat?
–  is this program worth all the $, time, staffing, energy, and resources?
–  why do the same students keep showing up and we have no new students?
–  is God moving us in a different direction, programmatically?
–  how long have we been doing this program…and is it still effective?
–  what can we do differently or change up?
–  are we doing too much?
–  do we have to stop this program?

Why I think youth ministry program deconstruction is healthy:

Before ditching or quitting a program, it should first be deconstructed. One cannot simply throw it away without learning from what worked and didn’t work.  This would be a waste of time, energy, resources, and a huge learning opportunity.

In some cases, a youth pastor may be forced to deconstruct a program because:  1) he/she is doing too much 2) he/she has been doing the same program for years 3) he/she needs to learn how to contextually develop a youth group program 4) he/she and his/her students are bored 5) a shift is needed in ministry strategy and values 6) he/she made too many reactive cosmetic changes and 7) he/she is just crazy and like to self experiment in youth ministry.

One of the best ways to learn is to take something apart and try to rebuild it. As kids this is how we learned.  We took Lincoln Logs or Legos, built something, broke that thing down and then tried to put it back together with a few new features.  This same reality applies to deconstructing and reconstructing a youth ministry program.  Often times, we need to break our ministries down in order to build them back up again…so that when we rebuild, they are stronger.  It is so much harder to build than to take apart.  But the effort is worth the benefits you will reap.

Do our churches foster a deconstructing program environment?

I realize that many church traditions and denominations don’t encourage deconstruction, but if you have margin to do it, do it.  Thankfully, in 99% of my youth ministry career, I had bosses who trusted me, so I had the freedom to do whatever, programmatically.  Plus it helped that I was in smaller environments, so if I really screwed something up not that many people were mad and it was easy to communicate what happened.

My warning:  If you decide to deconstruct youth ministry programs: it is going to be messy and risky, people will get mad, you will see what is at the heart of your program, you will learn and think a lot, you will create more problems and questions…and quite simply…you will break stuff.

So how does a youth pastor deconstruct a program?

The answer: You have to break down the program by using the Socratic Method.  The SM involves you proactively being skeptical about your youth group program. The method is all about simulating new ideas and developing better critical thinking patterns by asking contradicting questions about your youth group program.  It is through the questioning process that the answers come.  During the process carry around a pen and notebook and write down your every question, answer, thought, and observation.  Here is a framework for how to apply the Socratic Method in youth ministry deconstruction:

–  measurement:  identify what variables are driving your program.  It is important to clarify what marks in your programs need to be tracked so that you can question the appropriate variables.  Nothing can be managed if nothing is measured, which is why it is essential to ask the question:  what is being measured in our youth program? i.e.:  attendance, small groups participation, content, community engagement, growing relationships in Jesus, or service projects.  It is helpful to get a fresh-objective-outside pair of eyes to evaluate the program.  Invite another youth worker to observe your program.  We are too emotionally involved in our wonderfully made programs, so bringing a third party to identify what the inherent variables are that are governing the program might be a good idea.  Plus your intended variables may not necessarily be as intentional and apparent as you think they are.

–  common approaches for youth group programming:  take a survey of the most common ways that youth ministries are run.  Read youth ministry books, blogs, and magazines that talk about youth ministry programming. There will be strings of commonality between all of the different ways to program.  Once you identify the common denominators ask the question:   “What if I did the opposite?”  Circa 2006, I read every book (that I was aware of) that talked about youth ministry programming and ask myself what if I did the opposite?  What would it look like if I engineered my youth ministry programs in the reverse direction?  So I tried doing the reverse and I mixed it up. Compile a list of common  youth ministry programming practices and ask the questions:  what if I did the opposite?  Is the “common” way to do things the best way for my ministry?  What has worked about the “common” ways…and what hasn’t?

–  study other exceptional youth ministry programs:  visit, observe, and assess other youth ministry programs both locally and nationally.  Learn from others guys and gals who are on the ground killing it.  Find guys and gals who have been doing youth ministry for 10+ years and ask them a lot of questions about why and how they program.  Be a friendly skeptic.  The guys and gals who excel in youth ministry have patterns in the way they program which make them killa.  Study and question their patterns and techniques.  Their experience building youth group programs and insights are very helpful for a youth pastor navigating the muddy waters of developing a youth group program.  If you want, I have a list of youth ministry programs that are doing some cool stuff.  Just contact me and I will give you a list.  Also, I am always looking for new case studies.  So if you are doing something unique contact me and give me your name, church name, and a brief synopsis of your youth program.

incubate and iterate: Let your observations sit in your mind for a bit.  In your notebook, compile, analyze, develop, and organize the observed data.  It is important to process thought after an intense period of questioning.  After observation, attempt to articulate a few guiding principles that were discovered in your youth group program deconstruction process.  Once you feel good about the discovered principles, put them into action by reconstructing a new program.  You talked with and observed other experienced and educated youth pastors, so now it is your opportunity to break the rules and build a program while getting on your knees praying to God He will guide you in the right direction.  If not, start all over again.

The advantages of deconstructing youth programs:
–  break down a program by asking skeptical questions and file your conclusions into a system
–  find similarities and differences between other programs and apply patterns from 1 program to another
–  you will hopefully never be tempted to copy another youth ministry program again
–  you gain programming experience fast because you have analyzed and learned from top level youth ministry programmers
–  very early on you get to see if God was really in your man-made youth ministry program
–  you learn how to contextually think by applying appropriate patterns that will work in your youth group context
–  students love when things change up
–  at first deconstruction can be scary.  Just go for it and have fun with it because you get to creatively create and tear down programs

About Jeremy Zach

Orange XP3 Specialist | Youth Worker | MDIV | Hot Sauce Addict | Dr. Dre Beats Lover

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  1. Great post. I too like to build from scratch. The last youth ministry program I was in I got to build from the ground up. This last one, I’ve had to do some slow deconstruction and reorganization. Would love to pick your brain some time.

    • @Chris-
      Great. Sounds like we are smoking the same stuff. Shoot me an email and we can chat. I would love to learn about your context and compare notes about our discovered principles for youth ministry programming.

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