the future of youth ministry, episode 3

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…

Kara Powell
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.

Brad Griffin
The future of youth ministry must move toward more intergenerational connectedness, more valuing of and partnering with parents, and less programming fluff.

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?

23 thoughts on “the future of youth ministry, episode 3”

  1. Thanks for sharing this. We did away with HS Sunday School for several reasons but the main reasons. But I think you really put into words what we all thought and felt about our youth.

    “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.”

    We found that when our kids went off to College they just stopped coming. They didn’t know what to do or how to act or fit in with the “adult” crowd that was in the service on Sunday mornings.


  2. One of the cool things we’re experiencing is that older senior teens are moving into the adult classes/studies that take place on other evenings than youth activities. They learn with adults, share life, testimonies and are treated as equals there. Also, them being able to do that is facilitated by not having a jam packed schedule of youth activities. Don’t segregate the adults, get the youth in there because they need each other!

  3. I fully agree with the need for adult interaction, but…

    How does one do this without boring the kids to death? If they’re bored, they aren’t listening…even when not bored that problem is there.

    I see our teens not getting much from the sermons/worship time in adult worship, (and this is their only option for worship time, no youth only stuff going on here). I don’t want to go to other adult Sunday Schools my self in our church, so why would I encourage them to do so every Sunday?

    For me, being multi-generational is not about having the kids sit in adult worship, or adult Sunday schools. It’s about having more adults involved in the kids’ lives, sharing their testimonies at youth events, (or even during reg. Sunday worship), more parental involvement in the ministry, and helping the kids be more involved during the adult worship services, (I have some help with A/V).

    I don’t go along with the attitude of, “put them in with the adults whether they like it or not.” Our goal is to help them build a relationship with Christ, not the rest of the “church”. The church relationship will come with active adults involved in the kids’ lives. Both groups can learn from each other, and benefit from correct interaction with one another.

  4. I completely agree with and am exited about this idea!

    We did what we called a “Summer Academy” where we disbanded the usual youth and adult Sunday School classes and had them “register” for a six week class on a Specific topic. The goal being to bring our youth and adults, all of which usually don’t get to know anyone outside of their class, together to build new inter-generational relationships. Yes, there were some issues with disbanding the normal classes, but overall it was a great success! Our teens have continued some of these new relationships even today.

    I have also been pondering doing something with the movie “UP” and a inter-generational teaching with a mentoring type program to follow.

    Once again, loving this series!

  5. I couldn’t be more excited to see you and others drawing attention to the failings of age-based segregation. I’m wondering if you (marko or anyone) is see this shift happening? and if so, what are the approaches being used with parents, congregations, and leaders to facilitate such a radical shift?

  6. My question is, do we resource families to provide the adult interaction that teens need, or do try to do it with the hour we have per/week? Or do we do both?

    I think teens need adult interaction. Without a doubt. But I also think that there’s tremendous value to teaching on their faith development issues in a room full of peers who are going through the same thing. So, I’d hate to assume age based learning should be discarded.

    I’m trying to find ways to lead parents into discipling their families outside of the church time. Something more than just teaching a class on how to do it, but providing them resources on actually doing it. Something like rites of passage events in a can to give them. Any ideas?

  7. I think youth and adults need to be together. However it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. When I mentioned some senior youth joining adult classes it wasn’t a mass move or a mandated thing. It was an option they chose and it has spread to others. There is nothing wrong with youth specific events/classes but there is also nothing wrong with getting the generations together for events either. It’s real world and real faith. It can be messy and cause discomfort and growth!
    The segregation of youth is a pretty recent phenomena and as many seem to pointing out has been a disaster in our culture.
    The concept that the youth will be bored or not interested in the sermon or class that the adults have says a lot about the sermon or class in many cases. If the 16 year olds are bored, so are the 50 year olds!
    The youth and the children are not the future of the church who will one day be big enough to join in but they are the church now! Let them in, let them affect what we do on Sunday mornings and every other time. Again, not to say you shouldn’t have age/stage specific things but let’s not live our lives as churches only this way.
    All kinds of people including young people are leaving churches en masse and it’s probably largely due to having no voice, no place and no involvement in what the Church does. If their role is seen only in youth group then they overwhelmingly leave when they graduate. Why stay if they’re not important and involved?
    And above all, in honouring Christ and seeking to draw us all nearer to Him what’s the harm of a little experimentation? Try something new. If the youth leaders won’t do it then who will?

  8. Good words there Jim. Really liked, “The concept that the youth will be bored or not interested in the sermon or class that the adults have says a lot about the sermon or class in many cases. If the 16 year olds are bored, so are the 50 year olds!”

    Next topic, Making Worship Exciting ; )

  9. Here’s the dealio (my dealio that is):

    Children/Youth/Student Ministers have to be more intentional and become more intentional about mixing with other generations in a church in order for the children/youth/student ministries to be doing this…however as we know…a church leadership has to buy into this and make allowances for this to happen.

    a youth ministry will never be intergenerational in a church until the youth pastor becomes intergenerational in a church.

    a church eldership has to accept the fact that the “youth guy/gal” cannot be stuck in the basement with the kids 50 weeks out of the year (2 for vacation). a church eldership has to accept the fact that a youth minister needs to attend an adult class or small group or adult worship every so often and actually be a part of that mix whether from the leadership community that teaches or the one that sits and learns.

    youth ministries will not change until a church eldership/leadership buys into this concepts and practices it with the paid youth guy/gal.

  10. I’m hopeful about the tearing down of arbitrary age divisions that Kara predicts. In general (not just in youth ministry), I hope to see more of this happen.

  11. Mark, I know you’ve touched on this in YM 3.0 and on this blog: adolescence, though a reality of our culture, is very much an invented stage in life. We need to look at this time frame that we call adolescence and discern from a biblical standpoint what ought to be happening spiritually during this time. Certainly teenagers learning from and having meaningful relationships with their elders and having meaningful roles within the Body seem to be the norm.

  12. To add just a smidgen to Kara’s thoughts, systematic age segregation is a modern, man-made invention that is not consistent with either the patterns of discipleship as expressed in Scripture, or with the testimony of church history. To answer Dan’s question, yes, there is a movement of churches who have done away with age segregated ministries, and instead operate as family integrated churches, and fuel their practices with the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture. I could ramble on for pages about this, but would point you to resources that are available that address this concern and/or desire. The National Center for Family Integrated Churches recently released a documentary and book that take a closer look into the history and results of age segregation, and I would highly commend them to you.

  13. i am having a great time reading all these thoughts and commentary on how to or what to do with intergenerational ministry. one thing i’ve not seen mentioned is just (physically) getting more adults to work with kids….in whatever shape that takes. our program (episcopal–journey to adulthood) “needs” 24 adults to work with 3 youth groups … but we’ve usually had more than that, because when you don’t ask folks to do ‘too much’ and just let them reexperience what being a teen (or a ten year old) is like, they get hooked.

    not saying we have it all right, but we’ve got lots of adult relationships forming, and that’s what carries over to the college years and beyond. well, that, and letting them eat a bunch of food on a regular basis.

    seriously, i love the idea of reimagining “youth ministry” as intergenerational and beyond. we are all the body of Christ.

  14. Yes, and again I say Yes! I feel the desperate need that we integrate our youth with the church as a whole. I just had a ministry head at our church come to me and request I start a service just for the youth on Sunday morning so they didn’t have to been in the adult service – it’s hard for the teens to sit through the service. No way! I’ve talked to these teens after service and they are telling me how the pastor’s sermons really motivate them. We need to believe in these kids – that they are intelligent and able to reach higher. I truly believe that the exodus of young adults from churches is because once a person it too old to be in youth group or a Sunday youth service they can’t comfortably integrate into the “Adult” service. It’s like everyone demands their special niche. But we are a Church that need to work as one body. If we don’t begin to work together as teens and adults we will not be effective in reaching out to the world around us. This year I’m challenging my kids to find ways to serve in the church. We have many ministries – and they can all participate somewhere. That way they will feel apart of our church community. They will mature emotionally and spiritually by being part of something bigger than themselves.

  15. One of the most difficult, yet worth while changes in my ministry career was when we integrated our High School students into our main services on Sunday mornings. That was over three years ago, and we’ve seen some great things happen in our church and in our students since then. We have more students serving in ministries at our church, and more graduating seniors sticking around than ever before.

    We still have a High School service on Sunday nights, so we didn’t go with an all or nothing approach. Not every parent or student at our church is on board, though most of them have come around to the idea. All these years later, I’ll still pick up on a negative comment or a pointed question, but I’m more confident than ever that my students need much more than just my youth ministry.

  16. The naturalist John Muir said it best, “When we try to pick out anything by itself we find it hitches to everything in the universe.” Strangely enough we managed to successfully divorce this truth and call it ministry for the past 10+ years.

    Great post, great responses. Three more resources for you:

    The new NSYR book, “A Faith of Their Own.”

    and this one:

  17. In the middle of re-shaping to intergenerational. Sounds easier than it is in truth. The question becomes ‘Who should bend-the youth or the adults?” Maybe we will just have to find a way to meet in the middle. As for me, I am willing to become someone a little foreign to myself in order to save some of the next generation.

    Lovin’ our kids!

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