the future of youth ministry, episode 1

i led a late night discussion at the national youth workers convention this past fall on “the future of youth ministry”. in preparation for that discussion, i emailed a few dozen friends with better youth ministry minds than my own, and asked them to complete the sentence, “the future of youth ministry….” about 15 of them responded (often with more than a sentence!). i’m going to post them here as a series, sometimes with a bit of commentary from myself, and sometimes merely as a reflection-prod. would love to hear your responses.

Chris Folmsbee (chris is a vet youth worker, former head of sonlife, in some kind of leadership role at youthfront for a while, and these days leads barefoot ministries. he’s written a few great books, including “a new kind of youth ministry” and “stories, signs, and sacred rhythms: a narrative approach to youth ministry“. he blogs at a new kind of youth ministry.)

The future of youth ministry looks a lot like the past — an enduring search for what we’ll never find — the “right” way to do youth ministry

my thoughts: i can’t disagree with chris, but it’s pretty bleak. i do think the 80% middle of the normal distribution of youth workers has a misguided idea that there’s one ‘right’ way to do youth ministry, and if they just find it and apply it, everything (success, transformation, growth, job security) will be assured. of course, that’s not reality. and, i would suggest, it’s less reality than ever before.

with a splintered youth culture, every youth ministry is multi-cultural. and with a splintered youth culture (and frankly, i think this is also biblical), we need to be discerning the localized, contextualized, unique ministry (approach, values, methods, models, assumptions) that god is calling us to.

and, what if we shift from the scientific language and mindset of “rightness” in our ministry approach to the language and mindset of discernment and experimentation? searching is good, btw. the enduring search, somehow still connected to presence, rather than living in the future, is a good thing. just not the search for a binary rightness.

38 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, episode 1”

  1. This is a pretty bleak quote, but I have to agree with you that 80% of us still labor under the idea that there is a “right” way. There’s a false assumption in that idea though, that once found, the job gets easier, people like you more, kids make lasting decisions, etc. The false hope is also that you will never have to change anything ever again, which sets your ministry into traditions and ruts instead of freedom and new directions.

  2. It is a bleak comment, but the heart is certainly in the right place. I know have searched for that, perhaps out of fear or laziness (it’s hard work to contextualize and our immediate gratification culture from parents and students is that they want answers and they want something to be happening). It’s a tough slog to fight for journey, wonder, and amazement in youth ministry these days. I struggle with it in my own soul too.

  3. My initial reaction is much like yours (and others), though having thought about this for a while, I wonder about a couple of things:

    1. Talking about ways of doing things implies right/wrong or good/bad. Sure there isn’t one way of doing anything, but there are better/best ways. The common problem in youth ministry is in co-laborizing and stealing. When we expect others to be able to do what we do, they way we do it, we can undermine their own unique gifting and talents. Also, local youth ministries can try to “steal” a method that works in one place, but doesn’t in another.

    2. God cares more about youth than we ever will. I think Chris is right in reminding us (even if unintentionally) that youth ministry will always limp along and do the best it can. God won’t let his work fail. He will always be more faithful in ministering to youth than we will.

  4. look forward to reading ths series, Mark. I’m a volunteer youth leader at a small community in Austin, TX. I’m a long time friend of David Gentiles; don’t know if you kenw him. Bob Carlton is also a very good friend of mine. Youth ministry is pretty challenging n this congregation. If I had to use a label, I would say this community leans toward “emmergent.” We attract an ecletic group of people, including teeangers. Few of them have much knowledge of God, or faith, or the Bible. Or some of them are out-spoken atheists. All of that is fine with me and I encourage doubt/questions/uncertainty…but it does create a challenge for creating community within a faith community. Practices of old, in my case, good old’ Southern Baptists traditons/ways of doing things, just don’t really work. Thanks for your contnued commitment to youth ministry. I’ve followed you for years through YS. what you do makes a difference and helps people like me, too!

  5. Perhaps many of us are searching for a better way to do ministry, because we are unhappy with the results we seem to be getting. I’m not all into “results,” but perhaps that sentiment can sometimes be a healthy thing. I want everyone to truly know Christ, but it seems so few last. I hope I never feel like I’ve got it all figured out, and I hope there’s always a healthy level of discontent over the way things are currently panning out in the ministry I have responsibility over. Personally, there’s something inside of me that says that there’s gotta be a better way than what I all-too-often see modeled for me, and what I’m currently doing myself. Lately, that search has been taking me back to Scripture, and considering what the persecuted church today around the world might teach us.

  6. What is ministry if it is not always asking the question of how are we best serving our context? Otherwise, it becomes stagnant and will assume the model that worked for a season is universal. The fact is, the body of Christ has the fundamental elements that categorize it as Christ’s body (e.g. the Lordship and headship of Christ), but the form itself is ever changing (I know my body has over the years). Our model of ministry must change because the way people interact with Scripture changes. There is a right way: Jesus’ directives. But our false assumption is that it must fit a structure that is not to be universal; only the teachings and principles of Christ of universal.

  7. Alvin, I like what you have to say.

    Our ministries must first be founded in God: Creator, Redeemer, Counselor.

    Second, we must seek God’s guidance on how to contextualize the gospel in our context.

    The beautiful and amazing thing about the Gospel is that it shapes itself perfectly in all contexts, we just have to do the work to find out how.

    I actually just wrote a childrens book of sorts on this. But not sure how to share it on here.

  8. i really resonate with what Chris says about our search for THE right way to do ministry. There’s isn’t a right way. But in a consumer culture, happiness is always found outside our neighborhood. We live with a trajectory of dependence on those outside our community for our happiness. It’s a bad habit and a lie. God has given your community what it needs to meet the demands it faces. Your community is up to the task. So is God. Looking for THE right way is an abdication of responsibility, an inadvertent way of playing the victim and displacing blame when it doesn’t work. We’re the Israelites in the desert looking for Moses, and in our anxiety we keep building golden cows. the right missions trip, the right worship songs, the right background image, the right curriculum, the right model, the right youth pastor, the right parents, the right youth workers, the right kids.

    What challenge to you feel you are facing as a church that God can’t meet with you as a community?
    You are the people that you’ve been looking for.
    Whoever shows up are the right people.
    Whatever they care about after prayer together, is what your youth ministry might look like.
    It might mean you stop some things. It might mean you start others. But it’s yours. That will be your way and it’s enough.

  9. Pingback: THE Right Way
  10. I appreciate this conversation, as I spent many years searching for the right way to do youth ministry. We usually first mimic our past (seeker-sensitive?), reject it all (emergent village?), become smarter than others – in our own head (postmodern?), and then realize it all comes back to Jesus (childlike?).

    Perhaps it’s worth exploring the thought behind Chris’ thought – namely, WHY do we seek the “right way” to do youth ministry?

    1) For job security?
    2) For something to speak on at a conference?
    3) For self-esteem?

    or

    1) For God’s pleasure?
    2) For ministering to students in our specific context?
    3) For adding to the overall life of our church for the long haul?

    I’ll fess up – for me, it was the first three during my first few seasons of ministry. Then one day God broke me… and it’s been the second three ever since.

  11. The future can be looked at with bleakness but we have the Word that works for all people all times all places. So the hard part for me is working to help youth leaders see the need to connect the living truth to real life…that is the real challenge of youth ministry that happens as we teach, lead small groups and hang out with students. My challenge is keeping a finger on the pulse of youth ministry that is constantly changing…daily challenge.

  12. I have never led a youth ministry, but I remember the days of being in one. In my experience in a variety of different churches and denominations that I attended there was one common thread that I didn’t know about then as a youth but have come to learn through more Bible study. There was no accountibility. For example, “no sex before marriage” was preached, but none of the ministers or youth workers were actually holding the youth to the Biblical standards of “not even a hint of impurity” Ephesians 5:3. Dating relationships were way to close to “the line” and in many cases, including my own, it was too easy to cross that line. There is too much “religiousity” and not enough Godly relationships. If we focus on a true relationship with God with solid convictions on his Word, many of the youth problems will be non-existant. James 4 says if we resist (and teach our youth to resist) the devil, then he will flee from us.

  13. Alvin, I like what you have to say. Our ministries must first be founded in God: Creator, Redeemer, Counselor. Second, we must seek God’s guidance on how to contextualize the gospel in our context. The beautiful and amazing thing about the Gospel is that it shapes itself perfectly in all contexts, we just have to do the work to find out how. I actually just wrote a childrens book of sorts on this. But not sure how to share it on here.

  14. What is ministry if it is not always asking the question of how are we best serving our context? Otherwise, it becomes stagnant and will assume the model that worked for a season is universal. The fact is, the body of Christ has the fundamental elements that categorize it as Christ’s body (e.g. the Lordship and headship of Christ), but the form itself is ever changing (I know my body has over the years). Our model of ministry must change because the way people interact with Scripture changes. There is a right way: Jesus’ directives. But our false assumption is that it must fit a structure that is not to be universal; only the teachings and principles of Christ of universal.

  15. I apologize for joining this discussion a bit late…but I was able to be at this late-night discussion at the YS conference. My response was this…and continues to be this:

    I don’t think there is a “right way” to youth ministry either…I think there’s a “working” way. No matter what approach/model you follow, it will never be right for, or the same for, every church. Like Marko talks about, there are different cultures in every church. And there isn’t one ministry model that will work for everyone. Any model we have, or try to follow, or create, we have to tweak it for our own situation. But in all cases, we have to be willing to try things, and expect failure…until we tweak it enough for our own church culture. And most likely, when we find it, the kids will have grown and rotated through, and we will have to start all over again…with a new church culture.

  16. I kinda like the idea that there is an ideal we will never reach. Surely that reflects the theology of our growth in holiness during this life. the idea of having an unreachable ‘perfect’ gives us constant movement. It constantly draws us forward and constantly tells us there is yet more to come. What a rush.

    I also think that there is no one ‘right’ in Christ or in the Church. There is objective truth, of course. I’m not talking about dogma here, but there is no one-size-fits-all way to minister, just as there is no generic young person or youth minister. The beauty of individuality is what keeps us interested. It’s also a very incarnational way to work.

  17. Have we lost our sense of humor? I am cracking up at one of the most ironic statements, while completely agree with the meaning.

    You said [what if we shift from the scientific language and mindset of “rightness” in our ministry approach to the language and mindset of discernment and experimentation?]

    “Rightness” is not traditionally a scientific word. It is a word that implies some kind of moral or ethic that demands discernment and the weighing of values.
    “Experiment” is inherently a scientific word. It is used when one is looking for a specific result.

    My wife is teaching me how to hear what she means and not what she says. In this case, I completely agree with what you meant, while laughing at the words themselves. I am a bit curious if you did it intentionally.

    By the way, this is a great blog series. You are a master emcee of youth ministry thinking.

  18. @brandon — agreed that “rightness” is traditionally more a word of morality or ethics; but i do see “rightness” and a scientific approach connected in this sense: the enlightenment ushered in an era of empiricism, where we (humans) came to believe that there was a findable answer for everything, and a binary correct/incorrect for everything. that doesn’t hold water so much a postmodern world. however, while much of the world (for good or for bad, and i’m sure it’s some of both) have moved off an obsession with “rightness”, the church, dominantly, has not. it’s tricky, of course, because there are particular areas for us where right and wrong carry some pretty major freight. the problem is when it becomes our lens for viewing everything else — in this case, a binary right/wrong model or approach to youth ministry.

  19. Yes. I knew what you meant. This is what I took away from the original: Youth ministers should stop searching ‘out there’ for a ‘right’ or perfect formula for doing ministry they can impose in their congregations that will get all the results we associate with success. We should instead, ground ourselves in who Jesus is and move forward with discernment embracing our own unique context for ministry.

    Those aren’t the exact words you used, but that is the meaning I took away, with which I agree.

    I take it that you believe the church makes a misstep mirroring the enlightenment, applying a scientific mind to our theology and practices. Is that because it was never good to do so or because the church failed to move with culture into postmodern thought and fell out of sinc? What, if any, do you believe are the dangers to mirroring a postmodern culture in these areas?

  20. Wow, who would have thought this post would revive after so long. With great questions as well.

    I think Marko can answer for himself, but I had a couple of thoughts.

    Brandon, you ask if the scientific mind should be applied. I don’t think we can do anything other than that. From Adam’s first story, he was analyzing and categorizing everything he saw. I think it is in our created nature to do so.

    About postmodernism and the enlightenment, those are just ways that we approach our natural curiosity and desire to impose order on things we see. Each perspective has benefits and problems. The enlightenment sought to explain everything without the acknowledgement that some things are beyond explanation. Postmodernism is comfortable with mystery, but often excludes the need for understanding (these are huge generalizations, but they speak to the point of limitations). I think that every approach is limited and flawed to some degree, but that doesn’t make any approach useless.

    In this scenario, I think (knowing Chris a little from his writings) that what was intended is the need for “one” right way. Reading some of his books, Chris seems to hold the idea that there are many ways to do you ministry and all of them can be right.

    I love this conversation!

  21. I see mystery every time a youth comes who has no reason to be at church. They have no pressures from home because the parents aren’t believers, no reasons from friends, no reason at all and yet something (or someone) draws them into a youth ministry. They don’t understand why they came, but they did.

    Many of the youth in my program don’t care to understand some of the deeper things I group wanting to. They ignore the mystery of the Trinity, the incarnation, etc. Then we start talking about addictions and idols and how God created them in his image and they are willing to discuss that for hours at a time. My point is that there are mysteries that we will never fully understand but that guide our lives (like gravity). These are necessary things in our lives, but they don’t have to be understood to live by them.

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