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Dreaming of a better way at doing youth ministry.

Where is youth ministry going?

Say you were a youth ministry meteorologist and your job was to provide an accurate forecast to where youth ministry was going. What would that forecast entail? A meteorologist has different tools at his or her disposal to provide the most up-to-date weather information for people to prepare their lives around. Yet, it seems that the best way to predict weather is to see what it has done in the past and use that to estimate how that will interact with the current climate. Many times the meteorologists get it right but a few times they don’t.

Using meteorology as an analogy I wonder what youth ministry is going to look like in the next ten years. When I first started in 2004 we were on the coattails of riding the intergenerational model. It was new in its beginning but the whispers of this movement were fresh. When Kenda Creasy Dean and Christian Smith released their data from the National Study on Youth and Religion it became quite clear that a huge shift in theology needed to occur. Kids, according to Kenda Dean, will mimic the kind of faith their parents model. A synopsis of her book summarized two conclusions based on her findings (source):

  • First, too many parents have thrust the role of faith development upon church youth ministries and Christian education programs, and youth pastors and Christian education directors have been too happy to oblige by providing a syrupy-sweet version of Christian faith to the young people under their care.
  • Second, for those looking for a quick fix to “benign whateverism” in teenagers, whether in new curriculum, a new youth program, or a new youth pastor, the thrust of Dean’s book will be difficult to hear. Namely, there is no quick fix but only radical revision of the life and faith of the whole Christian community (emphasis mine).

She wrote those sobering thoughts in 2009 and I am afraid many (at least in the wing of Christianity where I serve) have not let that sink in fully. Youth ministers are fired, let go, burned out or they did not simply “fit-in” and the problem may not be so much as the youth minister him/herself but it might be the faith community that surrounded them. How many times has your church youth search committee, or parents, or elders said, “If we just find a dynamic person to full the role then our youth ministry will be amazing”? Yet what do they mean by amazing? Are they going to have fun? What exactly do they mean?

I am not a big fan of the Messiah-complex churches place on the youth minister. After all, if the youth ministry does not work out you have someone to blame for the failure right? Call it what you want but I think it is eschewing responsibility and shifting ownership that should be mutual instead of unshared. Yet, in all of this I still believe in youth ministry and think it is important to have one in a church’s communal life. I have seen a few churches attempt the parental/committee/team leader aspect and I have not seen it run well at all. If you can afford it, you need someone on point making the tough decisions.

So where is youth ministry going?

First, I foresee churches will need youth ministers who are empowered theologically to come alongside of families and speak kingdom truth to them. When I first started in youth ministry I would buy all kinds of curriculum so that I would have the latest and greatest to help teach kids. What I found (specifically in our own church wing) is that most of the stuff was surface level and really, well, sucked. So I started writing my own when and where I could and it changed the dynamic of our group. There is some great stuff out there for sure (Youth Ministry 360 for starters) yet, we need someone to advocate for teens and speak to larger issues more than surface level issues. I have two graduate degrees and many times when I would walk around youth ministry circles they would almost balk at the fact that I had these degrees. Sometimes I would hear snide remarks about “making bible class like a seminary” and I really wondered what motives these guys had. We don’t need to be on ivory towers and you certainly do not need a master’s to come alongside of kids but that does not mean you sell out and teach students to be nice church kids so that when they grow up they won’t leave the true church or miss services in the morning.

Second, I foresee youth ministry collaborating with the larger narrative of the church rather than combating it. If a youth ministry is going to thrive it must do so by bringing the young with the old, the poor with the rich, the black with the white. I alluded to this earlier but many churches are still trying to figure out the whole intergenerational ministry thing. The Fuller Youth Institute’s Sticky Faith initiative was (and still is) monumental for the church. Even then, it is more than having a couple of token old farts at an activity but bringing them together organically (I’m using all kinds of Christian buzz words) so that the young folks hear the testimonies (don’t think Baptist youth rally type) of faith from the older folks.

Third, I foresee youth ministry scattering unique disciples instead of warehousing homogeneous pew packers. Church, we need to suck up our pride a bit and empower our students to disciple others who are not in our local church. Perhaps God may call them to stay but we need to send them away for a while. Students who have graduated from our youth group are all over the map when it comes to Christianity. I love it. Some of you just shifted in your seat uncomfortably muttering, “He’ll have to answer for that” but I think that many times we are more concerned about our pride than we are about our people. If we are going to survive we need to empower students to lead others to Christ wherever they might land. If our local church closes its doors because we do not have members but we have empowered thousands still active in churches across the world then we are closing our doors for good reasons.

Fourth, I foresee youth ministry ditching the antics. I never was good at the antics. You know the ra-ra-ra type of youth ministry where it is more about a personality than it is about the personhood of Jesus. I always advocated a more contemplative approach and so any of the antics really left a bad taste in my mouth. The bait-and-switch, big budget, cirque du soleil type of programming that some youth ministries tout. They can get teenagers in the door but that is about it. After teens graduate high-school when asked about their youth ministry journey they say, “Dude, we had a lot of killer games and the youth group band was hype.” Really? I always appreciated what Doug Fields. Josh Griffin and Kurt Johnson did at Saddleback. They had a massive budget and programming yet they still implemented principles for teenagers to practice their faith long after they left the youth ministry.

So those are my fallible thoughts and I am curious as to your experience. Leave your thoughts in the comment section below.