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 posting 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.
kara powell and brad griffin’s responses are a nice pair. and as it should be — kara and brad are two halves of the team at the fuller youth institute. and much of their “sticky faith” research and writing these days has been focused extensively on the content of both of their responses…
I think the future of youth ministry is one in which the age-segregation that has dominated the church ends and we move toward the type of intergenerational community and integration God intends. We’re seeing in our research how important intergenerational community and relationships are to Sticky Faith.
i really resonate with what kara and brad say. it’s hard to argue with, since it’s coming straight out of their research. it’s also representative of the research of the national study of youth and religion, conducted by christian smith and others. kenda dean reports on this latter research most directly (for christian youth ministries, at least) in her book almost christian. and, as i’ve posted about here multiple times, i’ve found a good deal of resonance with robert epstein‘s teen 2.0 (and conversations with him).
all of this research and writing, blended with my own observations, leads me to this conclusion: most of our approaches to youth ministry, developed in an era when autonomy was a primary need of teenagers, and when the american church was particularly gung-ho about creating age-based autonomous ministries, has resulted in a church experience, for most teenagers in churches with active youth groups, that isolates teenagers from the adults in the church. one of the many results of this (certainly there have been positives, as well as negatives), is that we don’t provide teenagers with meaningful adult relationships outside of those adults who are either paid to be with them (youth pastors) and those who volunteer to spend time in the age-based ghetto (youth ministry volunteers). in other words, most teenagers in our churches with youth ministries don’t rub shoulders with adults being adults.
teenagers don’t get to watch adults doing adult things.
teenagers don’t get to practice being “apprentice adults” in the adult bits of the church.
by the way, this is true for teenagers in most areas of their lives, not only in our churches — we’ve just bought into the way culture at large addresses teenagers, either with good motives or not-so-good motives: put them over there.
this isolation from the adult world that most teenagers experience lacks on-ramps to the world of adults. no wonder extended adolescence has become our new cultural reality.
i’m not suggesting we throw the baby out with the bathwater and completely do away with youth ministry. there’s a small, hipster movement of churches doing just that (“we don’t have a youth ministry, and we’re proud of it!”). i find that most of those churches are really just saying that they have other priorities that are much more important to them. but i do wonder if it might be wise for lead youth workers to intentionally choose a new job description (yes, easier said than done), from “lead programmer for teenagers” to “champion or lead banner bearer for teenagers”. the former is all about creating the ultimate space of isolation (stating t it negatively, to be sure); and the latter could be about being the voice — the gadfly — in the congregation, charged with the role of finding ways for teenagers to connect with adults, of not letting the congregation forget the teenagers in their midst.
what are your thoughts?