Lockdown has been a time of great uncertainty and anxiety – and yet, it has also been a time of unity and love, as the UK church, empowered by God, has rallied together and stepped out in faith to serve each other and those around them.

Young people have long been labelled screen junkies, constantly glued to their smartphones, 24-hour gaming, YouTube and Twitch, or dancing away to the latest TikTok trend. So it came as a bit of a shock that, when the world moved online due to the lockdown restrictions, the young people we had assumed already inhabited the digital world were some of the hardest people to reach. 

The surge in online church services and Zoom meetings has been a lifeline to many churches and their congregations, but many quickly discovered that kids don’t use Facebook and that they would much rather be able to watch from afar than be seen by everyone on Zoom calls. They also appear to prefer consuming content in their own time, rather than being tied down to live events. 

If, like so many others, you have found that engaging with young people during lockdown has been an uphill struggle, then be encouraged that you’re not alone. Of course, it’s important to say that there are many examples of youth groups that are connecting well with their young people, and some that are even flourishing. Wherever you’re at, to ensure you get the most out of your youthwork and invest well into your young people, here are a few suggestions to consider.

Top tips when discipling young people:

Ask them what they want

  • I cannot stress enough how important it is to listen to your young people, not just plan for them. Too many good ideas have fallen flat because they didn’t quench our young people’s particular thirsts. Don’t assume you have to use the latest video craze, hashtag challenge or social media platform to be able to peak your kids’ interest.
  • If you have come across something that works, keep doing it, but the answer is not to look over your shoulder at what X or Y are doing with their youth. Have you tried simply asking your young people what they would like to do? Meeting their felt needs gives you a far greater platform to speak into other areas of their lives, so have an honest conversation with them.
  • Your job as their youth worker is to find ways to draw out biblical truths in the midst of these activities. This becomes powerful, practical, truth-centred ministry – a chance to engage with your young people in a much more heartfelt and attuned way.

    Measure growth, not stats
  • More content is being produced online for young people to watch, like, follow and Livestream, and it would be easy to get caught up in the numbers game. Counting the number of likes, watches, comments and shares can be a good indicator of how many people are clicking on our online content, but unless we know how to accurately read the analytics from such data, we are in very real danger of doing what we have been telling our young people not to do for years, placing our value in the numbers.
  • What is of far greater value is the young people themselves. Perhaps your time would be better spent having a personal phone call with each individual than spending a full day each week creating a single video. Of course, your video may go viral, but how does that help the young people in your youth group? Invest a little time in each young person and set personal goals or challenges to help them grow. Then celebrate the growth of an individual and not the success of your media output.

    Pray with them
  • Jesus journeyed with His disciples, modelling what it means to rely on God Like Jesus, we should start by modelling prayer not just to our young people, but with them. Whether you start a prayer board, ask your young people to send in prayer requests or send out things for them to pray for, follow it up by praying with them. Prayer is not just between you and them, but invites God into the very heart of the matter.

I have found that one of the easiest ways to show someone God’s love and that you care about them is through offering to pray, and that is true with Christians and those who aren’t Christians. To those you are discipling who haven’t made that commitment yet, your prayers speak tremendous value and worth to that person, as well as meaning something in the heavenlies too. To those who are Christian, praying for them equally shows how valuable they are to Him, but it also demonstrates that prayer is necessary, normal and can be done anywhere at any time. 

Point them to God

  • How we engage and interact with our young people will forever be changed by these months in lockdown, and our young people have been forever changed by it as well. Already as schools and other youth engagement have recommenced, we are beginning to see content that focuses our youth on their own efforts to improve their mental wellbeing, finding happiness and self-worth in the things around them.
  • Whilst this might not sound alarming at first glance, it is a very different message to what the Bible teaches. Paul goes to great lengths in Colossians to emphasise that Christ alone is enough. We don’t need any add-ons, and we certainly don’t need to find our value in what the world says should make us happy. Now more than ever we need to be pointing our young people to God as their source of all strength and security. Help them see their value and worth is found in who they are in Christ and what God says about them.
  • For every young person who has thrown themselves into reading the Bible during lockdown, there are probably many who have found it a struggle to read scripture, pray regularly or find other places to be inspired and encouraged by good Christian content. Anything we can do to help to build good daily practices and to practically encourage perseverance in the light of the gospel is time well spent.

This might mean pointing young people to Christian podcasts and Bible studies, working through online resources like The Bible Project with them and, above all things, consistently returning to God’s word to remind them that their identity is wrapped up in Christ. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to running successful youth ministry online, in part because all our churches and all our young people are different. It is important that what we do engages with those specific needs. But if we strive to love our young people the way God does, keeping them involved, caring for them as individuals, praying with them and for them and pointing them to the author and perfecter of our faith, I’m confident we stand a good chance of being able to see our young people grow and maybe even come out of all this with a stronger, more rooted and personal faith in Jesus. 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to running successful youth ministry online, in part because all our churches and all our young people are different.