Life After “Cool Church”? A New Vision for Youth Ministry, Part 1.

One of my assertions in the “cool church” post that went off last week is that the abandonment of the church by twenty-somethings is precisely the outcome that the youth ministry methods we have used the last twenty years should  have been expected to produce.

Many wrote to express the opinion that the problem lies with the “message” in youth ministry. It is too political or too weak or too strong. Since there are churches that have retained their youth whose message has been too strong, some that have had almost no message and some whose message was too off-topic, I do not think the message is the primary issue. I have a different take. As I see it, the issue, for the most part was not the message but the method. Many youth ministry’s had a clear, Christ-centered message and youth leaders that had great friendships with young people. The issue is that we had all of that in the youth room. We never bothered to connect the youth program with the parents and the larger body of Christ meeting in the main sanctuary. We created an affiliation bond with the youth program but not the church

Youth Leaders, pastors and parents, does that resonate with your experience at all?

It took me years to notice the results of what we were doing. I had to see the data to have the “aha!” It is a problem faced by both the parachurch and church youth programs: We created affiliation bonds with us, the church in mission, rather than the church local that would sustain their faith through life if they did not stay with us into leadership.

The data is undeniable: we can preach an uncompromising message, but if we do it ghettoized from the larger church we end up with students who never have a reason to cross the sidewalk into the sanctuary. As the Mormon bishop said in my “Mormon Bishop” post, “We make givers. You make takers.” He was so spot on it made me cringe.

What if instead of doing youth “services” at the same time the adults are meeting, evangelism based on getting students to come to our really cool thing rather than going to them and turning our youth program into Nickelodeon shows with a Jesus message attached – with far too much effort in the light shows and technology that no longer impress kids anyway. What if instead we gave our youth pastors a new job description:

1) Partner in ecumenical evangelism-taking teams of evangelists from our local church to the high school in partnership with the other churches in the community.

2) Train your people called to youth to make them phenomenal discipleship leaders-those ecumenical evangelism ministries are freed to stay in their sweet spot- evangelism, and the church goes back to what we used to be great at: Christ-centered disciple-making.  

3) Resource parents to help parents become the front line of spiritual formation in the home that Deuteronomy 6 and Psalm 78 say they should be.

4) Integrate students into the main service. …Students on the usher list, the music team, hospitality, greeting, reading scripture, leading congregational prayer, giving testimonies…for the right ones, even preaching. 

5) Organize multi-generational “soul friendships” where the older pray for, read the Bible with, and care for students.

6) Participate in multi-generational service projects with students and adults…not just youth leaders, the whole church.

Those things that foster students owning the church as their own. They happen by necessity in the tiny churches without youth programs…the ones who keep their kids at twice the rate of those of us with our expensive programs.

David Kinnaman is brilliant, but “You Lost Me” is about getting back the 20-somethings who left. As Kinnaman says, “We lost them.” They are gone. And we will keep losing more young people by perpetuating our errors on further generations of youth.

Now is the time to make important changes. The evangelical world has 35-50 year olds in church to connect with. In the mainline we have 70-90 year olds. That is a much harder gap to bridge. The evangelical church can start now…or you can wait twenty years until you are where the mainline is today.

Anybody up for a challenge?


11 thoughts on “Life After “Cool Church”? A New Vision for Youth Ministry, Part 1.

  1. Great post. Great points.

    I think one needs to make a conscious decision on whether to try and be successful…or whether to try and remain faithful. Staying faithful and focusing on God’s law and gospel and the sacraments, may not gain a large audience but what people do need to hear will be there when a stray wanders in, of any age.

    Hopefully the young ones who leave will come back when the gristmill of life has done it’s work on them. If at that point they are 50, or 60, or 70…so be it.

    Thank you, Matt.

    • Hi Steve,
      Thanks for your comments. You must have been reading my cellphone yesterday! Owen Anderson, a friend who is an ASU Phil of Religion professor, and I had been texting back and forth on that very topic. It really comes down to different visions of the purpose of the church. If the purpose of the church is to get people to have a salvation experience in order to get to heaven, then moving from attraction toward amusement in a system directed around and toward the most gifted evangelist’s gifts is perfectly appropriate. If the purpose of the church is to gather believers to worship and, to quote Paul, “equip the saints for the work of service,” so that ALL of those saints can do the evangelism, then that is another model altogether.

      I see the primary model in Scripture and as the unbroken witness of the church in history. I see the other having began in the Great Awakening as a parachurch movement. I have nothing at all against that model as a parachurch one. It seems conspicuously counterproductive as a model for the church.

    • Steve, I question whether this truly is an either-or choice between remaining faithfulness OR trying to be successful. I think Jesus asks of us to be both faithful and fruitful (I like this language of the Kingdom). I wonder if mainline churches (mine included) have often used the “faithful card” to discount what is happening around us in other churches who are growing and seem to be fruitful. May not be our kind of fruit but maybe we need to reconsider how we are also fruitful.

      • There is the question of the mainline being thoroughly irrelevant (and proud of it) and the relevant church being so confirmed to culture that they offer nothing more than a steady diet of myself. Any suggestions?

      • “seem to be fruitful”

        I think a church (message) that is not faithful (preach Christ crucified for sinners…and nothing else) will not be fruitful (Romans 1:16).

        Handing people back to themselves (giving them what they want to hear, or entertaining them) is not what they need, even though they may like it much better than the theology of the cross.

  2. Matt,

    I think you have a very good understanding of this problem/phenomenon, Matt.

    The main problem with a church bending all over the place to get people in door, is just that. The Word of law and gospel gets twisted all out of shape and becomes something else. Something that usually ends up looking more like we do, than what God has in mind.

  3. Matt has touched on some of the major issues , treating youth as seperate, and by the way second class citizens. One way to address this and increase involvement of youth, is to make leadership opportunities available- real leadership positions not tokenism with voice but no vote. Some Diocese mandate at least one youth position on Vestries, on delegations to diocesan convention, as Deputies to General Convention. Put youth on Outreach Committees, on Worship Committees, Altar Guilds and yes in men’s groups and the ECW. Youth need mentoring into positions of responsibility, but they are up to the task if we really want them to be involved.

    • I agree with the above, I was brought up in Evangelical church but the leaders did not delegate or train the youth, neither would they move over, so a lot just got bored.
      We had nothing to do, except sit there, listen to sermons how many youngsters want to do that? A lot of this age are “get up and go” and dont want to sit still. What would discipleship look like in 21st C? Is it filling in forms,reading books? Shouldn’t it be following a deacon/ elder around for 2 weeks or following an older christian to see what good works there doing (feeding poor) etc.?

      • Hi Jan2,

        Thanks for commenting.

        I went to one of those churches you are describing. They were trying to overcome the “no discipleship” thing. So they did these great two-year leadership development programs. Then they didn’t let anyone lead. They ended up blessing a lot of other churches in the area who were more than willing to let gifted, trained people do something for God.

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