One of my favorite classes at the University of Arkansas was called Coaching Football. It was taught by our Razorback football coaches and they all happened to dress like these fine fellas on the left. We met in the athletic center that happened to smell like Icy Hot and feet, in a classroom packed with dudes, old and young. I remember hearing the sound of the guys in class spitting their tobacco in Coke cans and watching old coaches spin their whistles around their fingers.

And what does this have to do with youth ministry? Let me explain.

Context: This class had one of the toughest finals I have ever taken. I remember the coach putting one piece of paper in front of me during the exam and this is what it said; Pretend you are a high school football coach and this is your team. Your QB is slow with a good arm, your kicker is weak, the running backs are lightning fast with bad hands, your D-line is quick and small and or O-line is slow and strong. What offense and defense do you run and why?
That was it! That was the entire final. And what did they want to know? They wanted to know if I understood context. Any good coach seeks to understand his or her players before they ever implement a plan. Many teams and youth ministries have struggled because they have either copied exactly what Mike Ditka and the Bears or Doug Fields and Saddleback did in their particular context. Coaches, like youth ministers and missionaries must survey the land before they take action.

A. Effective youth workers research history of the ministry, they meet parents, staff, students, local youth ministers and more. Surveying the land involves asking tons of questions in order to discern an effective game-plan.
B. We look to see what makes the group unique. We not only survey who is there, but seek to find out why others are not there. We must look for the movement of God’s Spirit and join Him. (Remember: God was at work before you and I arrived, long before!)

What I’ve learned: My current youth ministry is vastly different from the one I serve now. The paradigms for ministry are so unalike that I have been forced to focus great attention on contextualization. My former youth ministry consisted of 2 main schools and the group itself looked like one big cohesive blob to the outsider. The difficulty in this model was that it intimidated any student who wasn’t “in” the inner blob, although it did have great energy.
My current ministry is full of “onesies and twosies” . We have students in our High School ministry who come from 25 different schools and they drive from 30 minutes every direction. The blessing of this group is that there is diversity and one particular school doesn’t dominate. The struggle is that it is such diversity and it is  harder to build cohesiveness and community.
I have had to think differently about this ministry, where I apparently didn’t think too much when I started in my first ministry. The temptation is to do what has worked before without surveying the land. This can have a disastrous outcome.
While it may be a stretch, I think the Apostle Paul would have made a good coach. In 1 Corinthians 9 he shows us that he understands context. Paul also demonstrates that he has a game-plan, one that continues to win for the Kingdom today.