26 Issues Facing Youth Ministry in the Coming Decade

Posted: April 4, 2012 in Youth Culture & Trends
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As someone who has been involved in youth ministry for the past 17+ years as a volunteer, intern, bible college student, and pastor, I’ve seen my fair share of the good, bad & not-so-cute in youth ministry.  There have been many conversations about the state and future of youth ministry over the years…some helpful and encouraging, and others candidly bleak and cynical.  But the fact that the conversations continue, lends credence to the importance and role of youth ministry in today’s post-modern culture.  The very topic of youth ministry/culture is part of the vision and mission of this blog site, and along with the areas of parenting, theology and some good ‘ol fun, I want to offer resources, insight and information on a calling I deem essential and (when done right) holistic.

The Center for Youth Ministry Training held a ‘think tank’ back in January as youth ministry practitioners and academics from across North America came together to discuss the future of youth ministry. Before they showed up in Nashville, attendees were asked the following: Briefly name and discuss three cultural and/or theological trends, issues, or changes that you believe youth ministry will face over the next decade which will require further research, thought and response by practical theologians and practitioners in the youth ministry community.

After attempting to respond to one of the lengthier questions you’ll ever find, attendees submitted three ‘white papers’ discussing the issues they believe were most pressing.  After debating, discussing (and probably eating pizza and playing a few video games!), the group collectively identified 26 issues they believe will affect youth ministry in the next decade.  What’s extremely encouraging is the level of strategic and critical thinking that is being invested in the area of youth ministry, and the depth of evaluation from today’s leaders as opposed to 5-10 years ago.  It further reinforces the notion that today’s youth are not just the church of tomorrow, but are indeed the part of the hope, inspiration and influence of the church of now!

You can view the full summary here.

ADDED APRIL 21, 2012– I thought I’d add these two resources I came across since the original posting.  The first is from Kolby Milton, who asks the question- Is there a problem in Youth Ministry?  The second is A Brief History of Youth Ministry from the Gospel Coalition, and they are devoting 1 blog post per week in the month of April to focus on the issues, challenges and opportunities facing youth ministry (at least from their perspective).  You can view the other 2 blog posts they have on this month-long series here, and here.

My 2 Cents
I figure that if I’m blogging about the state of youth ministry, I may as well lend my 2 cents on the subject!  There’s a lot I could focus on, but the above articles do well to point out some of my observations and projections.  So here’s a few of my thoughts on the future of Youth Ministry in the 21st century.

A Re-defined Job Description– I’m thinking that more churches are going to adjust their traditional youth ministry job description to fit a more broader role.  I still think there’ll be room for the ‘traditional’ youth pastor, but just not as much room!  I’d like to see more churches hire family ministry pastors…someone who has youth/children’s ministry experience, but also has some strong leadership, mentoring and discipleship gifts.  They would oversee the overall vision of youth/children’s ministry, but they would take a step back in the ‘limelight.’  Their main role would be to empower and equip leadership, provide structure and systems, and be a cheerleaders and sounding board for the youth staff.  You can still have younger youth pastors, but you just don’t have to give them the keys to the car until they get a little more experience.  They would be the ‘faces’ of the youth ministry and have the majority of direct contact with youth and the ‘program’, but would share the load of ministry to volunteer leadership and parents/families.  Think of a Paul and Timothy style of relationship!  In addition to youth/family ministry, the Family pastor would also share in some of the preaching, discipleship and care to the church and community.

Less=More– Instead of jam-packing the youth calendar with mid-week and weekend programming and creating a ‘bigger is better’ philosophy of ministry, I’d love to see youth ministries scale back their aggressive schedules.  Some sr. pastors seem to think that a full schedule means God is moving, but what ends up moving is people…out of the ministry due to over-exertion.  This doesn’t mean we take away retreat, outreaches, chill nights, missions trip, discipleship, etc…but what it does mean is that we need to be more selective in how we schedule these.  Doing activities for the sake of doing them isn’t cutting it.  We need to be strategic in how we program, and make sure whatever we’re doing is fulfilling and enhancing our missions, vision and values…if not…cut ’em out!  Stick with a few things and do them very well as opposed to firing in the dark by trying to pack the calendar full, and hoping to hit a few targets.

Family Matters!– If churches really believe that families are the #1 priority (outside of their relationship with God), then they need to show it by limiting the amount of time we expect youth to be out of the house.  This means sticking with the above plan of ‘less=more’ philosophy, as well as involving families more in our strategic planning.  I know many youth pastors try, unsuccessfully, to get more parents involved in leadership, but there are other ways to include parents.  House calls, coffee appointments, parent nights with youth, bi-yearly church connections, emails, newsletters, workshops….yeah I know it’s a lot of work, but so is parenting!  Parents need to know they matter, and if we can find ways to include them without an agenda, it will go a long way in building credibility and lasting partnership.  Developing a way that parents can fill the role of mentors, not just with their own kids, but with other kids in the church, is a goldmine waiting to be dug into.

A New Paradigm of Program Thinking– This might be a tougher one to digest, but I think what used to be the ‘meat and potatoes’ of youth ministry (the weekly large group night) needs to be replaced with what used to be the ‘side orders’ (small groups).  What I mean is that just like side orders serve as an additive to the main course, I think youth ministry needs to offer a new main course.  The large group nights still need to be an active part of the ministry, but the small groups, IMHO, need to be the main course…with everything else structured in such a way as pointing to the main focus.  Large group nights are great for collective energy, worship in song, crisp and clear gospel messages, but real growth, discipleship, accountability and community is formed in smaller, manageable groups.  There’s still a huge need for missions trips, retreats, camp, larger group events, etc…but the small group should be the bulls-eye we aim for in our attempts to get students plugged in, with everything else in a support (appetizer) role.  Building community small groups is the surest way for growth, relationally, socially, internally, and spiritually.  Your adult leadership wins…students win…parents win…and the ministry and church both win because the youth ministry no longer builds its identity on doing ‘church’ just for youth, but prepares youth to engage in the pulse and heartbeat of the wider church community.

It’s About ‘Us’, Not ‘Me’– picking up where I left off above, I’d love to see more youth ministries and church leadership work together more in plugging youth into key roles within the wider-church.  Having youth serve on the greeting team, ushering, communion, scripture reading, nursery/children’s ministry, missions & building committee, and other key areas of leadership will pave the way for youth to continue serving and leading in the church post-grad, instead of graduating from their church…and sometimes their faith.  But serving together, inter-generationally, instills an ‘us’ mind-set, as opposed to a ‘me’ attitude.

Still Serve ‘Over There’, But Serve Even More ‘Over Here’– Global missions trips are truly awesome…the opportunity to serve those in need, and see the world.  But too often we can get our hearts too fixed on what’s going on somewhere else, and lose the pulse of the needs are right in our own backyard.  Youth ministries are huge proponents of oversees missions, and are increasingly getting more involved in their own cities.  But we can do better.  The epitome of this scenario is a story I heard of two youth pastors, both returning with their group from a cross-state missions trip, bump into each other at a gas station.  After exchanging brief stories of the week’s endeavors, they find that they each got back from serving in the other’s home area, and neither were aware of the present needs.  It’s much easier to ‘sell’ a missions trip to Guatemala or Thailand, and less thrilling or adventurous to present an opportunity in a small native village in the northern parts of the province/state…or the clean up project in the run-down part of your city…or the youth drop-in that needs help on a weekly basis.

There’s a few more ideas/observations I have, but just don’t have the time to dive into them all (deeper and wider with theology and evangelism, the need to improve relationship with sr. leadership, getting rid of the gimmicks as the main ‘hook’ for your youth ministry, strategic conferences with colleagues, more partnerships with other local youth ministries).  I expect great things for youth ministries moving ahead in this 21st century, and many are doing most or all of the things mentioned above, and others are doing way better things.

What are your thoughts?

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