Shift #5- from Agenda driven to Presence centered


Typically youth pastors don’t like agendas.  If we attend a conference and an agenda is given to us, we usually intentionally blow off a good number of the “required” meetings.   Our eyes roll back when we sit in a board meeting and a lengthy agenda is handed to us and we know that we will be there for a long time.  We don’t like people telling us what we have to do and when we have to do it.

We feel a bit babied

Agendas can be useful and helpful to keep people on track and focused.  Agendas can lead to productivity and a sense of accomplishment, but when agendas dominate the day, there is a lack of freedom that quite often is counter productive to true growth and personal maturity.

Here is the deal with youth ministry.

We have 2 agendas.

The first agenda is what we hope to accomplish at each youth meeting. I have  attended some youth groups that actually have a print out of exactly what they are doing for every five minute span.


7-7:05- Welcome

7:05-7:12- announcement videos

7:12-7:15- prayer

7:15-:730- lesson


they even had a scheduled 14 minutes for “hang out time”

Sometimes students are even handed these agenda/ schedules upon arrival at the meetings and told they must follow.

I wonder, where is the room for creativity, flexibility, fellowship, the movement of God’s spirit?

The second type of agenda is more hidden, but can be more harmful.

We set up agendas for each student in our ministry. For example,  what we want them to get out of our lessons, how we want them to grow spiritually, what we want them to look like upon graduation, and so on.

My old mission statement actually had these words:  “upon graduation we want our students to…..”

So we spend all of this time creating programs that will attract students to our ministry and then set up structures and systems so that that will buy in and conform to our agendas for them.

Now there is nothing wrong (I believe) with having goals for your ministry and hopes and dreams for your students. We should. They will drive our prayer life and move us with compassion.

However, often what is lost is just being present with the students…no agendas driving our conversations or relationships.

You see if we have certain agendas and they do not pan out they way we planned or hoped for, then often we get disappointed and frustrated and those emotions wear on our sleeves like a bad stain of wine (or grape juice for you Baptists)

Often our affection, time, and prayer are affected by our agendas.  What happens to our relationships with students once they clearly will not live up to our agendas?  I recently had a conversation with a father of a former female student who is getting married to her girlfriend.  He told me, “My goals for my daughter (married, 2.5 kids, house in suburbs) is clearly not going to happen. My prayer now is that God’s will.”

Being Presence-centered simply means be fully engaged in the lives of our teens.  Looking at them with the eyes of Jesus. Actively listening to their stories, struggles, fears, hopes, and dreams and allowing them the freedom to be…them.

Mark Yaconelli writes these words about the presence centered ministry of Jesus:

“In contrast to our lives of spinning isolation is Jesus’ life of relationship and presence.  Jesus’ presence, his capacity to love and be with people, is transformative.  You can see it in the way he listens, shares food, spends time, weeps, walks, touches, responds, and cares for others.  Jesus enjoys being with people. He enjoys being with God.  His ministry, it seems, doesn’t come from a pre-planned formula but instead rises in response to the real situations and relationships he encounters.”

Wow!  If only our youth ministries could look and feel like that!

There are some very good books written about the need for “presence” and authentic relationships in youth ministry.

Presence Centered Ministry by Mike King

Revisiting Relational Youth Ministry by Andrew Root

Contemplative Youth Ministry by Mark Yaconelli

From my experience, the idea of presence centered ministry is two-fold:

1) We need to be fully present in the life of our students.

To be with them and for them in any and all situations. No strings attached. No agendas to meet.

We are there when the laugh and when they cry. We are there in the joyful moments and the depressing ones. We are they when they question God and when they are praising him.  We are there when they wonder about their sexuality and when they think suicidal thoughts.  We are simply there for them in and through all of life.

This means relating to youth in the way Jesus related to people- with authenticity, transparency, approachability, and accessibility.

The incarnation of Jesus is not about influence but about solidarity in common humanity, and so presence-centered youth ministry should be the same.

As Andrew Root writes, “Relational Youth ministry is about suffering with adolescents. It’s about sharing in their place with empathy, sympathy, and commonality…We must reach out to their (teens) humanity even if it means the suffering of our own humanity, for this is the way of the cross…We have offered them trips to Disneyland, sill games and cool youth rooms, not companionship in their darkest nights, their scariest of hells.”

We need to be fully present in the lives of our students as all times; through the good and especially through the bad and difficult days. Do our students know that they are unconditionally cared for and expected no matter what?

We may be disappointed with decisions they make, but will chose to be present in their life regardless.  We value them as human beings, created in God’s image, not as objects to be “won”.

2)  We place structures around them to allow the presence of Jesus to be encountered and experienced.

Ultimately the most important thing is for our students to be with Jesus and for Jesus to be with them and for them.  As hard as we try and as long as we stay, we cannot always be there in their lives.  We cannot be as present to them as God can.

Because of this reality, our task as youth leaders is to demonstrate the presence of Jesus in our own lives and guide students towards a position and place to receive as we have.  If we are to have agendas, programs, structures, or schedules in place for our students, i hope it is not to keep them busy, occupied, wired, and amped up.

Our students need to understand and experience that God is not some emotional high or abstract belief; He is a present reality- available and trustworthy, offering real rest, purpose, inspiration, and adventure.

I hope our approach and ministries focus around Presence.

Students being with their peers and caring adults and our students celebrating and experiencing the presence of Jesus.  Its not that Jesus can’t be experienced through a media frenzied action packed 2 hours of caffeine and games. More likely though, it is when we help remove the clutter, distractions, and busyness and settle down and rest in God that we receive. Jesus is always present. Its not like we are invoking him to come.

But traditional agendas sometimes don’t allow our students to see and hear Jesus in their midst. They are too occupied doing other things than simply being there in the presence of God.  Or, we are trying to convince them of something or motivate them towards something else.

In his conclusion to Part 1, Root writes, “relationships have been used for cultural leverage (getting adolescents to believe or obey) rather than as the concrete location of God’s action in the world…Youth ministry of influence has very little to do with the incarnation…the incarnation is not about influence but accompaniment.”

“Christ calls me into self-giving, suffering love for the adolescent, with no pretense or agenda.”

Here is a quick rundown and chart of the difference in the two approaches.  I am trying hard in my own ministry to shift toward the later approach and philosophy of presence.

Agenda-based (traditional) vs.      Presence centered (emerging) *Adapted from Contemplative Youth Ministry

Seeks control seeks contemplation (how can I be present to kids and to God?)

wants products desires presence (who will bear the life of God among teenagers?)

rests in results rests in relationships (Who are the students we’ve befriended?)

seeks conformity brings out creativity

wants activity  and business brings awareness (what are the real needs of my youth?)

Frank Rogers describes a ministry of presence as “seeing and being seen, hearing and being heard, being moved by others and allowing others to be moved by us, responding with acts of kindness and receiving acts of kindness, and embodying a sense of delight in all our interactions.”

I believe that in youth ministry, two of the most important things we can do is to see and hear. We need to see our students with the eyes of Jesus; see them as they are, not as the culture judges them or as we wish them to be.   When we see them through this lens we are moved with more compassion and genuine love and interest for them.

Secondly, we need to hear them.  This implies a real and active approach that does not jump quickly to correct or find answers for them.  I struggle to listen to my students without my normal “filters” of wrong and right.  I usually listen to see if they can repeat what I ‘ve told them or listen while formulating my solution and advice the entire time.   It is said that the person who can no longer listen to others will soon be no longer listening to God.

It is also a ministry of trust.  We must trust God and allow Him to move freely in the lives of our students. After all, we cannot control their spiritual growth. We can certainly try to manipulate it with agendas, but real, true, authentic growth is a work of the heart and a result of God’s indwelling spirit and presence in the life of the student.  God is in control. We can pray, lead by example, help place our students in the paths of presence, and be fully present to them by hearing and seeing with the ears and eyes of Jesus.

If we can begin affirming these things in our life and ministry, we will see the shift occur from being agenda driven to presence centered. And when all the agenda of youth group disappear after they graduated and leave our presence, our prayer is that  the presence of God will continue to lead, guide, and direct the rest of their lives.


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