Transforming youth ministry

WELS youth workers are exploring new and unique ways to get youth members engaged and equip them to share their faith.

Alicia A. Neumann

What do viral YouTube videos, playing Capture the Flag, and finger painting have in common? These are just some of the different things WELS youth workers are incorporating into their ministries to help youth connect with their peers and with God’s Word.

Forming a bond

“You can’t expect a group of teens to share their experiences or ask deep questions when they don’t know people around them,” says Sara Aker, member at Bloomington Living Hope, Bloomington, Minn., and presenter for the new School of Youth and Family. “When teens feel safe and comfortable, they are more likely to talk and share.”

That’s why Aker, who is also a teacher, uses games, ice breakers, and team-building activities when she assists with youth group meetings. “They are great for building trust within your group, and it gives them an opportunity to know each other,” she says. According to Aker, there are also a lot of teachable moments. “Sometimes a topic comes up that you weren’t expecting, but you can’t pass that up,” she says. “You have to ask, ‘What can we learn from this?’ ”

Aker says the activities don’t need to be big and grandiose—it could be something as easy as having teen use finger paints to illustrate the lesson. The point is just to get the teens moving. It’s even better if the youth leaders get involved. “I’ll jump in and play games with the youth,” she says. “When adults participate and act silly, the teens will be more likely to put themselves out there.”

Justin Heise, a student at Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary, Mequon, Wis., says games were a memorable part of his years attending youth group at St. Mark, Green Bay, Wis. “Some of my best memories were from playing Capture the Flag behind the church,” says Heise. “The games we played taught us to trust each other, and as a result we had a very strong youth group. We wanted to hang out with each other, we wanted to have fun, and we wanted to learn about the Bible.”

Heise later became a junior staff director at Camp Phillip, Wautoma, Wis., where he routinely used games as a teaching tool. “We’d make up games that helped illustrate the devotion or the Bible study,” he says. “Putting abstract concepts into action helped make them more concrete.”

Heise plans to incorporate games into his ministry. “They are good for more than just ice breakers,” he says. “When you put four or five people on a team and give them a challenge, they are going to bond. That bond builds up the church and encourages trust between the believers.”

Youth-driven Bible studies

After teens have connected with each other, it’s time to connect them to God’s Word. Jon Enter, pastor at Hope, West Palm Beach, Fla., and youth coordinator for the South Atlantic District, says when it’s time for devotion or a Bible study, it can be a struggle to get teens engaged in the conversation. That’s why he uses a youth-driven format. “We’re getting the kids in a comfortable environment where they can simply talk about their faith and about real-life scenarios that they’re going to encounter as Christians in the modern world,” he says.

Instead of worksheets filled with questions, Enter uses YouTube videos and open-ended questions to get youth talking. “It’s not me teaching them in a formal environment,” he says. “It’s them driving the conversations. I am on the side, helping steer the discussion into Bible passages that teach the truth we are discovering.” If tangents come up and the teens get excited about a particular topic Enter will make that the focus of an upcoming Bible study. “The goal is to get them talking and have them talk from the heart,” he says.

Jade Wiltsie, one of the youth members at Hope, says she loves that about the youth group. “The way Pastor does it, we can all just hang out and talk. There’s not a specific set thing we have to do,” she says. “We just show up and talk about the message and we play a few games and things like that.” She says one of her friends is very shy, “but when we’re in youth group he really opens up. Youth group does that for us—it lets us be ourselves in a Christian atmosphere.”

The Bible studies at Hope include teen-focused topics like bullying, college preparation, or helicopter parenting. Wiltsie said one of the recent Bible studies on body image made an impact on her. “Pastor wanted us to share if we’d change anything about ourselves,” she says. “I am very short, and I get made fun of sometimes about it. So I spoke up about it; then a few other kids did too. It’s amazing. I feel like I can open up and talk to them.”

During the course of the discussion, the teens are encouraged to answer one another’s questions so they can get experience talking to other teens about different issues. “I just feel more confident about my faith and how to explain it, so I can talk about it with other people who aren’t the same denomination as me,” says Wiltsie.

Jessica Thierfelder, another member at Hope, agrees. “Youth group helped my faith grow stronger and [helped me] not be scared to show it and tell other people,” she says. She attributes that, in part, to the strong bond she formed with the other members. “The thing I appreciate most about youth group is having friends that believe in the same thing as me,” she says. “I grew up in West Palm Beach, and there are no WELS schools close by. All of our youth go to public school, so it is hard to have friends that believe in the same thing as you. But youth group is where we do have those friends; that’s a great feeling.”

Enter says he hopes that as youth members connect and share their experiences with each other, they will feel more confident witnessing to others. “Many youth members have learned Bible passages, but they might not know how to share them or use them,” he says. “I want to equip youth members, so when we tell them, ‘Live your faith! Go tell about the love of Jesus! Pour it out into the world!’, they’ll know how to do it.”

Alicia Neumann is a member at Christ, Zumbrota, Minnesota.

This is the second article in a four-part series on the importance of youth ministry. Next month’s article will focus on faith experiences.

Enter and Aker are both presenters for the new WELS School of Youth and Family called Transformed: Equipping Youth Leaders. For more information about this eight-part video series or to order, visit and search for “transformed equipping youth leaders.” Special pre-sale pricing ends Oct. 31.


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Author: Alicia A. Neumann
Volume 103, Number 10
Issue: October 2016

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