youth ministry 3.0, part 15

youth ministry 3.0 is the working title of a book i’ve mostly written, which is expected to release this fall. it’s an attempt to name where and how we’re missing the mark in youth ministry, and what needs to change in order to more truly live into our calling as youth workers.

we’ve decided to open up the book a bit and solicit youth worker contributions as sidebar comments, and i’m going to use my blog for this purpose. until late april, i’ll be posting a series of snapshots from the rough draft of the manuscript. i invite lots of comments — questions, disagreements, ideas, very short stories or examples, reflections — which will be considered as additions to the book.

by posting a comment, you are giving permission for your comment, with your screen name, to be added to the print book.

so, here’s the fifteenth bit, from chapter 6:

Wrestle with three options

The splintering of youth culture has created a huge methodological quagmire for youth workers, especially those steeped in “the right program is the answer” thinking. You choose a band for a big youth event (or even put on a CD in your youth group room), and at least half of the teenagers there will think it’s lame. Some will love messy games and goofy crowdbreakers, because the actions and weirdness associated with them fit within the acceptable boundaries of their sub-cultural norms. Others will hate them, and forcing kids to participate is usually more about us than it is about them. Some kids would love a discipleship process that encourages them to dig into meaty study, using various online and printed resources, and have feisty discussion about what it means to follow Jesus. Others would find this approach a total disconnect. I could give 20 more examples.

Reading that previous paragraph, some will surely be thinking, “Well, that’s the way it’s always been. But all kids love games and crowdbreakers if you can get past their tough exteriors. And all real disciples, of any age, should learn to master Bible study techniques like those.” Says who? Says you? Well, that sure violates the very notion of contextualized discernment. Says a bunch of really smart youth workers from previous decades, or a bunch of really smart Bible study champs from previous centuries? Uh, do I really need to respond to that?

The point isn’t just that my small group of white, suburban, 8th grade boys need a different approach to youth ministry than the middle schoolers in my friend Christian Dashiell’s inner-city Kansas City group. That’s obvious, and has been so for a long time. The point is that my group of white, suburban, 8th grade boys need a different approach to youth ministry than your group of white, suburban, 8th grade boys! They need a different youth ministry than any other group of six kids, even if they look the same on the outside. Youth culture has splintered: so our approaches to youth ministry needs to likewise splinter.

So how do we consider going about this? I think there are three options, which – big surprise – your communional, missional group needs to discern together.

Multiple youth ministries to multiple sub-cultures. One youth ministry will likely only reach one kind of kid, one sub-culture. Multiple youth ministries in the same church have the opportunity to establish contextualized, present (not-driven) ministries of communion and mission in multiple youth culture contexts.

I’m not talking about merely having different small groups that are affinity based (thought that’s not necessarily a bad idea), but actual separate youth groups. There would still be one team, of sorts, with leaders and students from the various groups who meet together regularly for prayer and discernment. But the groups would function somewhat autonomously, with their own unique methods, approaches, meeting times, rules, styles, calendars, and shared leadership. Some might still love the lock-ins, ski trips and other youth ministry “technology” of lore; but others would likely develop a highly relational social network online with a swarm approach to meetings , no calendars on refrigerators, just the natural lines of connection that exist in teenagers’ lives. One group might best accomplish discipleship while meeting weekly to hand out sandwiches to homeless people, while another group might approach this in a closed room in the church, with leather-clad Bibles and minds of inquiry.

No great effort would be made to collate all the activities of all these youth ministries onto one centralized calendar (with the notion that kids need to see a “menu” from which to pick). Anything centralized is anathema to this approach, and picking from a menu is a consumeristic mindset that reeks of Youth Ministry 2.0. Instead, teenagers find their ways to these different groups just as they do in their real, everyday, underground lives: through social networking. Teenagers, by the way, may very well choose to participate actively or partially in more than one of these youth ministries. Those few adults and students who have a macro-level view of the whole thing could assist those few teenagers who don’t know how to engage, or where to engage.

This collection of youth ministries does not try to be all things to all teenagers. It might not even be limited to one church (wouldn’t that be cool?). Instead, those willing to participate in the process of discernment – and, really, all the students and leaders – will decide together which youth ministries to birth.

Remember, the church at Berea was different than the church at Corinth. In the “glocal” culture we live in today, simple geography matters less than affinity and social network.

One youth ministry with a dream of supra-culture, kingdom of God culture. There is something to be said for gathering together in a community that finds its common affinity in Christ alone. This might be too much to ask of teenagers wrestling with the difficult tasks of adolescence in a culture that has, for the most part, abandoned them . Us adults in the church haven’t done too well with this: most of our churches are dominantly homogeneous. But maybe – just maybe – teenagers are the ones who could model a new way for us.

My friend John Wilson, then the youth pastor at Lake Avenue Church in Pasadena, California, brought me in to consult with his youth ministry paid staff on a three-day retreat in the mountains. They felt they were at a turning point in their youth ministry, and needed to discern a fresh direction and approach. Lake Avenue is a unique church in that it sits at the center of Pasadena, in the San Gabriel Valley, just North-East of Los Angeles; and, in that location, they found more than 50 significant ethnic groups within a five-mile radius of the church. The 100 year-old church had always been predominantly white, with all the worship styles and suburban programming one would expect with that reality. But they were genuinely interested in seeing the congregation move toward reflecting the neighborhood. The youth ministry was passionate about leading the way in this effort.

When we met, they already had a variation on the “multiple youth groups” approach above. But it wasn’t really working, because one group (the white group, with Youth Ministry 2.0 trappings in every way) was the “real” youth group; and the other group (the black and Hispanic kids who had come into contact with the church through a tutoring program run completely outside the walls of the church) were expected to try to blend in.

John described to me one of the tangible problems they were having (which I cite here as an example that goes beyond the more obvious musical tastes and spending potential). The kids from the “neighborhood” youth group didn’t divide themselves naturally along middle school and high school lines. Their social networks transcended these school-age boundaries. But when they attended the church youth group, they were expected to go one way (high school group) or the other (middle school group), even if it meant separating from their friends.

We worked through a variety of exercises together, praying, dreaming, discerning, unearthing passion and vision. At one point, when the team (which was made up of three white guys – one with a strong passion for the “neighborhood kids” –, one white woman, and one Hispanic woman) was a little stuck, until John spoke up with what I can only describe as a vision. It felt a little like listening to MLK’s “I have a dream” speech. John said something like, “Wait a minute. I want to describe what I’m seeing in the future. I want our youth ministry to be safe for everyone, and acknowledge all these tribes’ uniquenesses and values and styles. I want them to move into and through a great place of multiculturalism, based on respect, humility, and valuing each other. But, ultimately, I dream of a day when we can move beyond a multicultural youth group to a Kingdom-culture youth group. I want our youth group to feel like heaven.”

It was a beautiful vision. Difficult to realize? Absolutely. Worth striving toward, knowing there would be failure and redirects and conflict along the way? Absolutely. The group quickly rallied around this vision, and chose to move forward on the two action points (out of a list of dozens) they thought would most leverage them toward this dream. They put a stake in the ground and said, “We have to hire a black co-pastor (alongside and equal to the existing high school pastor), no matter what it does to our budget.” Each area found significant areas where they would cut spending, including interns and other highly valued resources, to fund this new hire without asking the church for more money (which they knew would have been a long, hard uphill battle). Within months, they had an amazingly gifted African American high school pastor as an equal on their team.

Their second action was to build a Sunday morning youth worship service – open to all ages and welcoming of families – that was neither middle school nor high school, but both; and that represented aspects of all the cultural and socio-economic groups currently in their mix. This has proven to be a more difficult action point, and hasn’t been fully realized yet; but the dream is still there.

This example was one of youth sub-cultures from different racial and socio-economic groups coming together into one Kingdom-culture. But what might this look like to have a youth ministry of the various youth sub-cultures in your church and community, acknowledging the uniqueness and value of each, including the styles and preferences of each, but moving toward a supra-cultural taste of the Kingdom of God?

Many, many youth workers would respond with, “Well, that’s what we have already. Or, at least, that’s what we try to have.” In the vast majority of cases, this assumption is flat out false. What you have, I would suggest, is what Lake Avenue had before they got intentional about this change: a one-size-fits-all youth ministry built on either the lowest common denominator of all sub-cultures represented in your group, or on the norms (style, language, music, meeting time preference, meeting format, etc. – see list a couple pages back) of one sub-culture (usually the one representing the parents with money and power in the church), and expecting (maybe hoping?) that kids of other sub-cultures will “grow up” and fit in.

Some hybrid of the two. If the polarity of these first two options leaves you convinced that neither seem feasible (they’re both amazing, but would take a high level of courage and commitment to pull off!), there are some hybrid options that could be considered. I see two, primarily, at this point (but I’m sure some communional groups committed to Youth Ministry 3.0 could come up with more!):

One group for some stuff, smaller sub-culture specific groups for other things. Sub-cultures, at least we would like to think, can come together for some aspects of a youth ministry. Worship, I believe, could be one of those (assuming the worship isn’t anchored to only one sub-culture’s style preferences). Certain trips – like a missions trip – could be a wonderful place to get kids of different sub-cultures alongside each other. Different sub-cultures are more easily able to come together when they have a common goal, purpose or task that is outside the norm for both (or all) groups.

These “combined” activities could be surrounded by a galaxy of groups functioning more like the description of the multiple youth ministries approach.

One group most of the time, but with some specific contextualized efforts to create space for the sub-cultures your ministry is called to, or has a population of. This hybrid approach shoots for the supra-cultural reality of the second option, above, but realizes there are some kids who will not fully connect with those options. So various sub-culture specific gatherings and efforts are directed – usually by an adult who senses a calling to that sub-culture – to meet the communion and mission needs of that group in their context.

This might look like: a communional group that participates in most aspects of the youth ministry together, but has an intentional sidecar ministry to kids in the hardcore sub-culture, and another intentional sidecar ministry to social activist kids who want to dig in deep to national and international issues and find ways to engage them. To be fair, this is what the Lake Avenue youth ministry has been attempting to do, as they still have their specific ministries to “neighborhood” kids, like after school tutoring and events that are specific that affinity group.

A fair question: “Don’t all these approaches you’ve just described sound like they would only be possible to consider for a large youth group? What about our youth group of 8 kids?” I can understand this question (which is why I included it!). But, of course, you expect me to answer with, “No, this isn’t only for larger groups,” don’t you? For a small group, this mindset and these approaches might look like one youth leader being intentional about hanging out regularly with the two kids who are part of the emo sub-culture, entering into their world, getting to know their friends, and creating something together. Or the one leader who spends time with one kid who is part of the art sub-culture; again, getting to know her friends and creating something together – likely, offsite from the church and difficult to measure.

Caution, though: don’t allow one youth leader who has a Youth Ministry 3.0 mindset and a calling for a particular sub-culture to allow you to leave the rest of your group in a one-size-fits-all, Youth Ministry 2.0 context.

Another fair question: “Are you suggesting we only care about the students who are already in our ministry?” I can see why it would be easy to conclude this from what I’ve written (which is why I thought up the question!). But, of course, no, that’s not what I’m suggesting. Just the opposite, actually. I am suggesting you start with the teenagers that God has already placed in your midst. How can you do Youth Ministry 3.0 with them? Then, with them, discern a contextualized dream for how your youth ministry can look outward. A contextualized youth ministry that acknowledges different sub-cultures should lead your ministry, naturally, deep into the various social networks your students work hard to sustain outside of your otherwise cloistered group. Acknowledging that their lives are much bigger than youth group (this is part of the whole-life mindset I mentioned earlier) will naturally lead you, within youth culture, to connect with kids outside your church. This is very different than planning a big attractional outreach event and hoping all teenagers will attend: one humbly and relationally moves outward, the other attempts to create a large sucking vacuum inward .

8 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 15”

  1. When interacting with people from different backgrounds, I’ve found it helpful to emphasize unity instead of disunity. I think creating different youth ministries to reach every different type of student will only deepen the rivers of disunity that are already associated with denominations, race, and economic status. The Kingdom of God is made up of all colors, all languages, and all sub-cultures.

  2. YES YES YES YES! Thank you Marko! For my situation, this is the nail on the head (And I’m a little excited about it). I have about 15 kids in the group I serve. They are all in different groups and it is a bit awkward for them when we have a meeting for the whole group because it is a toss up each week. One week might be two Sr. guys and an 8th grade girl, then next might be four 8th buys and two Jr. girls. Then we have the random visitors to add to the group. It was making me look for rusty forks to stick in my eyes. We found something that works for us and it is definitely a hybrid of the two.

    We have eight, off the chart, adult leaders. Each of them have people who they connect with and who meet regularly outside of our normal meetings. When we meet all together, it is just for eating together and some form of inaugurating God’s presence (might be a prayer night, lectio divina, sermon, devotional, worship. We mix it up). When they meet in their groups, they do all sorts of stuff, some affinity, some spiritual. So far, that is working pretty well.

    I love the way you are describing the paradigm, though, that what works for one group sends the other groups running. I definitely see that at the churches I have been in. I can’t wait to read this book!

  3. …Wait a minute… this will require more work than the way we’ve always done it… More adult leaders, more time, more getting out of the “Christian ghetto” and the four walls of the church office, etc. We won’t even be able to use all our past saved resources. You mean we’re really gonna have to work at this? : )

  4. I love the creative thinking here. It gets me excited as I read it, even as my brain is full of questions. I wonder, of course, about the logistical side of things. Hard work is great, but everyone has a burnout point. And then also, I wonder about the end results of the fragmentation and what it looks like to ride the line between introducing too much division and embracing natural divides.

    In implementing some form of this idea, I see the importance of spending significant time developing the ministry capacity of the volunteer workers growing to be nearly equal with the importance of being the actual discipler of students. And that’s not a bad thing at all. That creates more developed disciplers who will be empowered to have a greater impact on the kingdom as a whole, beyond youth ministry.

    One other concern that comes to my mind is that youth are in a state of finding themselves, and in so doing, many find themselves changing subcultures over the course of a few years. Would then the youth ministry need to be constantly changing to keep up? Or would that kind of sub-culture ministry potentially even do harm to students by keeping them in a box, of sorts, that the person they have developed into doesn’t actually fit into very well.

    But all the same, I am really excited to chew on these ideas, see how these ideas morph and what might be on the horizon for ideas in youth ministry. Thanks for leading the way and cutting a bit of a new path.

  5. In the midst of your contextualization, don’t forget the text. In Christ, there is no difference, all are equal in Christ, that is true. But that which binds us together is the unchanging truth of God’s Word. Without it, a Youth Ministry, no matter how clever, fails to fulfill its purpose.

  6. In my context, the hybrid approach works best. My students seem to want to be all together for fun activities, but separate for the deep meaty parts of our youth ministry. Some like to gather with other adults in the church to read and discuss books. Some like to meet with either my wife or I at a coffee-shop or restaurant and just chat about life. Some others love having a youth leader (typically me) visit them at school during lunch.

    Christ came to unite us as His body, and at our core, we carry the same mark of God. Some of us, though, differ in how we connect with God and His people. I think it is important to give our students time to be all together, so that they grasp the fact that the church is not just made up of people like them. However, it is also important that we affirm the fact that God has created each one of them different from the rest, and provide opportunities for them to build affinity with others like them — regardless of age.

  7. Marko — Thank you so much for posting all of these great Youth Ministry 3.0 thoughts and for opening up the conversation. Sorry for jumping in so late here — you’ve given us so much to consider!

    Thank you for pointing out that “one-size-fits-all youth ministry built on … the norms of one sub-culture (usually the one representing the parents with money and power in the church), and expecting (maybe hoping?) that kids of other sub-cultures will “grow up” and fit in” is *not* the same thing as building a Kingdom culture.

    Too often, we do not recognize that every one of us comes from a cultural background. It is extremely difficult for those from the dominant culture to recognize this — it’s kind of like trying to explain water to a fish; it’s simply the world in which we live. However, as you rightly pointed out, the great danger is that we can easily assume that our culture is the normative standard for everyone else.

    Trinitarian theology can be helpful here (ah, theology does matter!). Just as God exists as three distinct persons yet in perfect unity, so too are we called as distinct persons — with unique cultures, ethnicities and backgrounds — into oneness in community. And, this Trinitarian emphasis leads us into the Missio Dei concept of being sent into the world, in all our diverse unity.

    While ministry can often feel a little bit like dying at times, youth ministry 3.0 calls for genuine sacrifice by youth leaders. It’s not just about youth leaders investing more time and energy into students (although that will probably be necessary), but being willing to recognize their own cultural preferences and upbringing along with those of their students. This step alone could be revolutionary. Then we can build Kingdom culture that recognizes the worth and validity of each unique cultural identity and points out our deep connectedness in Christ.

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