If you have been following this conversation feel free to scroll down and begin reading at “What we could do instead?” In case you are just joining the conversation, this post begins with an introduction to the problem: The current “relevant” youth ministry model has led to the abandonment of the church by 20-somethings.
Twenty Five years ago Stuart Cummings-Bond predicted in a Youthworker Journal article (1989) that ghettoizing youth away from the rest of the church would have disastrous results. He called it “the one-eared Mickey Mouse.” Today we see the fruit of this model in the abandonment of the church by twenty-somethings. Will we do things differently for the next generation arriving to our programs? Or is it ok with us that young people leave the church when they leave our student ministries?
Churches continue to invest heavily in youth ministries that are parallel to and “cooler” than the adult church – The youth pastor’s vision of what the big church could become. This model gave us the youth service as a place of evangelism for the young and learning lab for the larger church. In this model, the larger church first opposes then ignores the “radical” things happening in the youth room. At least for a time. That time typically ends when we call a new pastor. Then the new pastor, invariably a former youth pastor who learned attractional ministry in the youth room, redesigns the main sanctuary and re-packages the worship model to resemble what he was doing in the youth group a decade earlier…only with a larger budget and fully-functioning coffee house. Has it occurred to you how remarkably similar your new sanctuary looks to your old youth room? Similar decor, similar music, similar technology, similar dress, identical message.
And we wonder why youth grow bored with the adult church, or perhaps worse, remain in church but as shallow and self-absorbed as they were when they arrived in youth group as 15-year-olds 15 years ago. As the Mormon bishop referenced in a previous post “We make givers. You make takers.” (https://thegospelside.wordpress.com/2012/09/30/mormon-bishop-to-the-mega-church-thank-you/)
Why did we do this? Because it built fast numbers. Segregationist youth ministry is pragmatism at its worst. We used to be able to say, “Well it is working. God is using it, so who are you to judge?” However, the data has piled up: Cummings-Bond was right. Segregationist student ministry is a short-term, non-solution that threatens the very future of the evangelical church movement.
What could we do instead?
Research tells us that by segregating students into homogenous age groupings we are emptying our churches. What if instead of giving students what we think they want, we gave them what they need: A praying, confessing, Scripturally faithful, Father trusting, Jesus following, Spirit surrendered, faith-practicing community that wants to help them get their hands dirty for God?
As Youth Ministers we are first and foremost practitioners. We usually want to start with “How-to.” However, it is important that we start with the philosophical change of directional we need to make. Here are four research-supported places we could start…
1. Change Our Questions: Move from “Is this effective?” and “What are the people at ____ Church doing?” to “Is this biblical?” and “Does this produce disciples who love God enough to make other disciples?”
2. Change Our Priorities (Steve Wright, Rethink, 2008) Do we want to build a youth ministry or youth ministers? As Detroit pastor Harvey Carey says, “Youth ministry should be youth who do ministry!” What would we have to change to have Kingdom priorities? Here are four priority shifts I think most of us need to make…
A. God: Shift from self-centered (God for you) to God-centered (“God. I. We. They”). God is our starting point. It is God who is Glorious and worthy of all praise. Salvation is at God’s initiation and at God’s Expense. We are welcomed into God’s family…the community through which God’s realm will be revealed. Our welcome of others comes from God’s welcome of us and should always result in a passion to serve a lost and hurting world. We start with God and move toward the world. Our calling from God drives us in mission rather than the world’s need.
B. Family: Shift from separation from parents -to- a partnership that equips parents. View parents as the primary spiritual influence on kids- because God does. (Deut. 6:6-9)
C. Church: Shift from…
- Segregated ministries–to-championing the church. Youth participate in every aspect of the church. When “big church” meets, the youth are there.
- Cultural relevance-to-Scriptural faithfulness.Why do we do what we do? If it is “because it works” rather than because it is Scripturally faithful, let it go.
- Student ministry-to-student development. This is about relationships: A life on a life, 7 day a week program.
- Excitement as dominant emotion-to-Wonder.
D. World: Shift from mission is something I do “for me” -to- “I am an unashamed proclaimer of God’s Kingdom in word and deed.”
3. Change the outcomes we work toward in our ministry: disciples that make disciples. “That we may present everyone complete in Christ.” (Col. 1:28)
Is our first motivation to create high numbers or highly committed disciples? A group must be large enough to be a group, but what would happen if we grew by being the deepest thing rather than the widest thing?
What does discipleship look like? Kenda Creasy-Dean, in Almost Christian, describes the characteristics of committed disciples. Highly committed students have:
- A Creed they know and believe
- A Testimony of God’s action in their lives
- A Community they are supported by
- A Mission t0 give their life to
- A Hope for the future
Does your youth ministry program toward developing those characteristics in students?
4. Change our programs so that they build students toward our goals
- Equip families.
- Teach (parents, leaders, kids) the excitement of historic, life-changing faith in Christ.
- Use games & humor purposefully. *By all means, enjoy yourself in church. I am not saying faith is not enjoyable, just that it isn’t entertainment.
- Use the youth group experience to create environments where the energy is in the students experiencing God (vertical) and loving and challenging one-another (circularly) rather than toward the leadership on the platform (horizontally). After all, Even their teachers don’t spend the hour lecturing any more!
Next up: Principles & Core Values for the Ancient-Future Youth Ministry