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?

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