It was over 15 years ago when I was handed the keys to an old van, a list of 15 kids from one of Miami’s most crime-ridden communities, and given the assignment: “Your mission —should you choose to accept it —is to rehabilitate those troubled kids on the list.” I had just accepted the position as an Area Director for Miami Youth for Christ, and at that moment I began to doubt my calling to inner-city youth ministry.

With Bible-in-hand, one volunteer, and few resources, I set out to reach these kids for Christ. I felt alone, unprepared, and isolated from the rest of the Christian world. Surely there was no one else on the earth doing this type of ministry … no one brain-damaged enough. What do I do? Where do I start? How do I get them to listen to me? Suppose these kids gang up on me? I was scared to death, but felt a deep calling to this ministry.

Many lonely years later, numerous frustrating nights, and many less hairs on my head, I was able to start with that core group, and eventually develop six small groups, eventually reaching over 100 kids per week. This was only possible with a massive dose of God’s Grace, and with the help of dedicated volunteers.

So how do you begin a youth group with kids in the inner-city . . . with virtually nothing? It is important to note that there is no “magical formula.” There really isn’t a “how-to” manual for urban ministry. The needs of kids are as diverse as the cultures, ethnic groups and personalities of those who make up the inner-city.

Although there are no set formulas, there are a few essential ingredients, which, if implemented, make it more likely for kids to want to keep coming back. Here are some things I learned along the way.

1. Identify Your Resources.

You might say: “I don’t have any resources.” But if you look around, you will begin to see that you do indeed have something. You have at least three basic resources you can begin with.

  1. Spiritual resources: You are able to equip yourself with Bible aids, books, Christian music, videos, etc. Start with a few resources, and as you grow, you can add more to your resource library,
  2. Facility resources: You have access to a church building, homes, schools, gyms, parks and recreational facilities where you could possibly meet and host activities for kids. Check around to see what is available and what would work best for you. You can even rotate your meeting places.
  3. People resources: There are adults from your church who can help you, special speakers you can invite, and local music groups who might be willing to come for free.

The key is to look around and identify the resources that might already be around you and available to you for little or no cost.

2. Start Small

You don’t have to feel pressured that you need to have a large group of kids in order to have an effective ministry. It is perfectly acceptable to start with a small core group of students (5-7 is ideal). As you meet and build relationships, let the kids know what you plan to do. They will need to see your level of commitment, and know that you are not going to start something and leave in a few months. Once you have gained their trust, and an effective program is in place, you have laid the foundation for your ministry to grow. They will then feel more comfortable to invite their friends.

3. Be Creative and Flexible

There is often a basic and traditional format for a youth group meeting, which is really a reproduction of the Sunday morning service:

  • Opening prayer / Devotions
  • Announcements
  • Worship
  • Message
  • Dismissal – Everybody goes home

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that format in a service, but there is so much more you could do that would make your group exciting and would inspire kids to keep coming back and invite their friends. Jim Rayburn, the founder of Young Life has said:

“it is a sin to bore kids with the Bible.”

Early on in my ministry I adopted a philosophy which said:

“I am willing to do whatever it takes to reach kids … as long it never compromises the message of Gospel.”

I believe that was the overriding principle in Paul’s letter to the Corinthian Church in 1 Corinthians 9, where he states in verse 22:

“… I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some.”

Referring to the establishment of the New Testament Church in Scripture, Dr. Robert Coleman says:

“The Church’s policy of pragmatism encouraged creativity. The rule seemed to be: Within the guidelines of the apostles’ teaching, whatever facilitates the ministry, do it —what was important is that the most helpful means be found in every setting to accomplish the task at hand.”

I believe one key to effective youth ministry, is: variety. Do things different each week. Maintain the element of surprise, so the kids don’t know what to expect. Incorporate as many creative ideas as possible and rotate their use. Examples could be things like:

  • Crowd Breakers – opportunities for kids to burn energy and have fun
  • Drama / skits
  • Special music – we are not afraid to use contemporary Christian music, hip hop, rap, etc.
  • Dance
  • Videos
  • Creative messages on relevant topics
  • Lively discussions

It is important to keep experimenting with new ministry ideas. You might find that there are things that might work with one group of kids during a particular time, and not work with another set of kids at another time. It is important to have a “flexible methodology” approach to ministry. Be sensitive to the needs of your group in order to reach them where they are, and adjust your program to meet those needs.