The State of Youth Ministry

In December, I asked Jacob Henry, a friend of mine and a serious thinker, to contribute a guest post about what he perceives to be the future of youth ministry. Here are the questions I asked him to contemplate:

  • What is the current state of youth ministry?
  • What is in store for the future of youth ministry?
  • Does youth ministry need to adapt? Or does it need to go away?
  • What is necessary for the evolution of youth ministers?

Big questions, for sure.

Jacob grew up in the church which is where he caught the ministry bug. He attended Harding University where he graduated with a Youth and Family Ministry degree. He is married to his lovely bride Janet and has been serving full-time as a Youth Minister in the local church for the past 3 years. He is also currently the Director of Soullift, a student conference, and working on his Master’s in Counseling.

Here is his response:

As we begin a new year, it is a time to reflect on where we have been, where we are and where we are going. Each year we evaluate our lives and we resolve to do better than in the past. As the Church, though, we rarely put our programs and ministries through this litmus test. We are scared to evaluate what we are doing because we could be doing it wrong and we can’t comprehend a leader in the Church not being perfect (I hope the HEAVY sarcasm came through in that last sentence).

So we don’t ask questions or suggest new ideas and directions, because we can hear the replies before they’re spoken: “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” “It’s easier to do it this way,” and “These young guys. [Chuckle] They have a lot to learn about how Church works.”

One area we don’t evaluate enough is Youth Ministry, mainly because in most eyes there can’t be a wrong way to do it. All one needs to do to have an effective Youth Ministry is to contain and entertain students for 6-7 years. No one (in my experience) would actually say this but actions speak volumes on individual’s attitude toward Youth Ministry.

Where We Been

Youth ministry came onto the scene a little late as the church discovered the evolution of this new life stage deemed adolescence. It was Granville Stanley Hall who popularized this new life phase and described it as a time of “storm and stress.” In response to this new life phase between childhood and adulthood, we created a new ministry to deal with this problem and termed it “Youth Ministry.” And it helped. We wanted to create activities for this age group to attend and pass time until they could accept the mantel of adulthood. So we created pizza parties, poolside devotionals, lock-ins (I want to find that guy!!!), crazy object lessons, and by default a Christian teenage dating service.

Where We Are

But now it’s not working. The free food and the messy games aren’t making the lasting impact we are hoping for. We have all heard the depressing (sometimes exaggerated) statistics of the number of students leaving the Church upon graduation, and contrary to popular belief they are not coming back when they have children. They are leaving period.

We have tried to come up with explanations for this phenomenon so we can get busy “fixing” the problem. You’ve heard the saying, “What you win them with is what you win them to.” So we postulate that all these separate youth events and services we hold for our students are the culprits.  We conclude we have won teenagers to games, goofiness and high-energy emotive worship. Therefore, when they graduate to the adult service they don’t know how to act or relate to adults and fit in with the Church. This is a logical conclusion and has statistics to support it. And it’s a conclusion we can do something about as an organization.  In reality it’s just a symptom of a bigger problem.

In actuality we have won students to transformation and authenticity only then they graduate and encounter a church that is neither authentic nor transformed. They encounter a church that doesn’t put God first, but puts themselves first in their lives and God is an after thought. They see safe Christianity (what an oxyMORON) that costs its followers nothing and does not seek the lost in an authentic, caring way.

Our students leave because they come to the realization they have experienced the ultimate bait and switch. They were won by Jesus and Spirituality but given Religion. So we haven’t failed them as a Ministry or Minister, but as a Church family and Christians.

Where We’re Going

So where do we go from here? How do we move forward?

We must kill the old form of Youth Ministry. It is time for parents to disciple their children. As Reggie Joiner has promoted through his Orange philosophy, we as a church should partner with parents to help increase THEIR influence.  Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says:

4 Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. 5 Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. 6 These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. 7 Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. 8 Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads. 9 Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

What about individuals whose families aren’t going to disciple them? I agree this is a valid question because there will always be students that need a Christian adult to speak love and support into their life. There will always be students who get no spiritual guidance from home.  In fact, there will be students who get ridiculed because they are seeking God. Therefore, we cannot neglect this increasing populace.

But in 2012 what does that look like? In a profession that has been riddled with sexual abuse charges, how can we be involved with students at level to facilitate transformation? I think the answer is WE can’t. Our STUDENTS can. It is time for us to quit playing messiah and take on the role of guide and teacher. We need to stop SAYING our students are the Church of today and let them BE the Church of today. We should help students to reach their friends with the gospel so when they make pass into adulthood; they already know how to be evangelistic.

Both these changes are mute, however, if we don’t solve the bigger problem. We MUST let GOD change US! We must be open about our failings and the grace our great God has given us. We must live as the teachings of Jesus and Bible call us. In other words we as individuals and the Church must end our idolatry with religion. Let us in this new year resolve for our lives to reflect the life of our Savior.

Find Jacob Henry at jacobhenry.org.

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