youth ministry 3.0, part 2

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 second bit, from chapter 1:

Our Efforts Aren’t Meeting Our Expectations

I think, for most of us who have been doing youth ministry for a while (and some who haven’t been doing youth ministry for a while), there’s a sense of [this]: the reality that is playing out is somewhat different than what we imagined, hoped or expected. While there’s wonderful stuff happening in youth ministry all over the place – in pretty much every youth ministry – our impact, the transformation of kids’ lives, seems to be less than we’d hoped. Study after study is bringing this harsh reality into focus. Kids are dropping out of church after youth group at staggering rates (as high as 80% in one reputable survey). And those who are IN our youth groups seem to be – according to researchers – subscribing to a faith that is neutered and unsustainable.

To be fair, we youth workers are doing what we’ve always done – trying to love teenagers to the best of our ability, and help them to experience the love of God. Problem is: how we DO this needs to evolve from time to time, as teenagers and youth culture and our culture in general mutate and morph and evolve.

Our hearts are right (for the most part), but – I believe – many of our assumptions and methods are a disconnect.

It’s like this: if you’re in a poor, rural country, and see a horse-drawn wagon, you think nothing of it. It fits. But if you’re driving through Amish country and see a horse-drawn buggy driving down a nice, paved road, holding up traffic, it seems like something doesn’t fit.

Some time ago, a consultant who was working with our leadership team at Youth Specialties, introduced us to a timeline exercise. He placed three pieces of paper on the ground, creating a physical timeline. One said “past”, one said “present”, and one said “future”. Each of us took turns, standing on the pieces of paper, moving between them, thinking about our lives and where we’re headed.

Recently, I was working with the board of a non-profit organization that was struggling with their identity. I used this timeline exercise, but had board members step into past, present, and future as an embodiment of the organization. This is where the thinking came from for this book.

I’d like to take a pass at that in this book: looking back, looking at our present, and attempting to describe a preferred future. I’m not looking into a crystal ball – and this isn’t an exercise in predicting the future. Instead, I’m hoping to describe what I’m seeing and experiencing and feeling about where we need to go, in order to continue being true to our calling.

Part of my contention is that so many of us are feeling, and have been feeling for some time, that we’re on the cusp of change in youth ministry; that, while there are wonderful things happening in the world of youth ministry today, there are also flaws in our assumptions. Some of these flaws exist because we wrongly adopted cultural priorities into our youth ministry thinking. More often, our flaws exist because our thinking was correct, for its time; but the world of teenagers has changed, and we’ve been slow in our response.

15 thoughts on “youth ministry 3.0, part 2”

  1. “To be fair, we youth workers are doing what we’ve always done – trying to love teenagers to the best of our ability, and help them to experience the love of God. Problem is: how we DO this needs to evolve from time to time, as teenagers and youth culture and our culture in general mutate and morph and evolve.”

    I wonder if it’s right to assume the problem is how we do it, without querying the part before hand, that a youth workers job is to love teenagers and help them to experience the love of God. If that’s all that youth work is, then it’s no wonder that youth work is failing, culturally sensitive youth work or not.

  2. I’ve thought about this for a while now and the problem is two fold for me.

    1. My expectations aren’t always realistic. I want to do new creative things that will draw the teens that are there deeper into a life with God and draw new people into what we are doing. Both of those deny John 15:5 (which I aught to have tattooed on my head).

    2. I usually try to approach ministry from an outcomes based measure. That is the measure for success right – outcomes. But the outcomes that are Biblical, a transformed life, people drawing to God, etc. are completely out of my control. Only God can do those things.

    So what I have been trying to do, sometimes successfully, is to approach ministry as process based rather than outcomes based. If the measure is a process (where in the process is it?) then youth ministry is a lot more like spiritual formation. Success is measured a lot differently. I ask myself if I am being faithful in my own spiritual growth, am I sharing what God is showing me, do I pray for each of my youth by name, do I bring them into God’s presence? Stuff like that.

  3. I think that I am of two minds about this…

    on the one hand, youth ministry needs to change and grow where it is no longer useful or where it is in error.

    On the other hand, I have seen a lot of people say they know what is wrong with youth ministry and then leverage their new philosophy to try to achieve it, only to find their “new” new to be no better than the old.

    For all the talk of change and “if only we…” I find that often the best answers are the same as in the past… not the extreme game aspect… or truth chair…

    But the idea of incarnational living amongst students… I cannot see that every changing.

  4. “Some of these flaws exist because we wrongly adopted cultural priorities into our youth ministry thinking.”

    Not only into our youth ministry, but into the church as a whole. Students have been pushed to the periphery of adult society, where there is no clear path toward integration into the world of adulthood. The church has often mimicked this separation.

    One of my biggest challenges as a youth pastor is to lead adults back into caring relationships with students that are healthy and necessary for the students’ survival.

  5. Marko – In some real way, I question the long term validity of the “drop-out” rate. It is a trend to be sure, but if we are to believe the 80% figure, that would mean that 80% of our churches should disappear in a single generation – that sort of drastic attrition just isn’t happening.

    I suspect that a great portion of those youth who are classified as “dropping-out” after high school are merely on hiatus – still a disturbing idea, but many of us needed a time away from church to gain a better understanding of church. If true, then our question becomes one not of “how do we keep them” but “how do we do a better job of getting them back?”

    Still, we need a better understanding of why there is a need for this hiatus on the parts of so many youth – both of why it starts and of why it stops. A clearer understanding of the “need” being met would probably help us diminish the impact of this hiatus, shorten the length for many of our youth/young adults, and help us re-integrate greater numbers of these people back into our churches.

    But it all comes back to “why did you leave” and “why did you come back”

  6. Maybe the reason a ‘hiatus’ happens, as Jeff suggests, is because we are presenting a watered-down spirituality that we all have bought into as westerners, or maybe more specifically as Americans. I’d first of all be curious to see what the ‘drop-out’ rate is around the world in youth ministry. Maybe the Christianity that we present to people is not big enough to sustain the faith of American teens beyond the years that they are at home and largely influenced by their childhood and how they were raised. Kenda Creasy-Dean, in ‘Practicing Passion,’ indicates that what teens are looking for is a faith worth dying for – something so important that it’s worth giving one’s life to completely. As far as I’ve seen it, our current models of ministry are largely failing to present faith in such a light. Instead, it’s a fun place to be with your friends – come for the food, stay for the Bible.

    Second, maybe this is a greater symptom not of youth ministry but the family as a whole. Several sources are coming to us saying that the greatest impact on a student’s faith comes from their parents or other mentors outside of youth ministry (ht to Hawkosky at Once a Youth Pastor). This makes me think that youth ministry is a project that’s just spinning it’s wheels, trying the wrong cure for the disease. Maybe what youth ministry 3.0 means is focusing on the family as a collection of interdependent people, not simply teens as individuals without regard to other influences in their lives. If nothing else, this means it is misguided to think that the ‘drop-out rate’ is solely the fault of the youth ministry. As Jesus said to Pilate, the one who handed me over to you is guilty of a greater sin. Maybe the lesser sin is on the youth ministry, the greater one being the failure to parent our children well.

  7. Marko:

    As you mentioned the horse buggy illustration, I was drawn to the Amish community and their “success” rate.

    Rumspinga is the point where the Amish youth “spread” their wings (16-19) and decide if they are going to choose to live the Amish ife or not.

    90% choose to live and accept the lifestyle. I think that is amazing and the percentage we can only hope and dream of.

    The Amish do not have special camps, retreats or youth centers that “attract” them. What they have is a tight-knit community. The tight knit community “pursuades” them to stay in the community.

    We, as churches, somehow, someway, need to find this authentic community and develop it so individuals hunger for it and realize that nothing else will feed that hunger.

  8. Could some of our “let downs” be a result of a God given vision for youth ministry clashing with an inadequate set of tools in the youth worker’s belt? If youth ministry needs to change, then the way we prepare youth leaders must change as well. Formal education through a college or university may be beneficial, but maybe it is time for the local church to take the place of the university. What would it look like for our churches to be the training grounds for the equipping of youth workers? The result would be youth workers who are familiar with the quirks and culture of the church and community and therefore they would be able to have healthy expectations based on what they’ve already become accustomed to. Surely this would avoid the calamity and frustration of many unmet expectations.

  9. *take two
    The difficulty with changing and evolving our methods is that it will often take 2-3 years before we’ll know for sure if our shift was a great new direction or a wrong turn. Mutations, morphs, and evolution take lots of little changes over time, and sadly, most youth workers don’t have the patience for that.

  10. Let’s not worry too much about whether or not we will look back on now in 20 years and think to ourselves “what the hell were we thinking?” (think “hot seat” from intro), for we will always look back on the past with eyes of the present, and it never looks like we remember it.

    Let us pour new wine into new wineskins, and when those become worn, allow ourselves to part with the old and continue to create the new.

  11. I think a large part of the problem is that most youth ministers don’t focus on “trying to love teenagers to the best of our ability, and help them to experience the love of God.” Instead the focus seems to be on trying to get teenagers to love the youth minister and love God because of their love for the youth minister.

  12. The more and more I read articles, post, blog, etc., I read about how we as youth workers just emphasize on fun first, then everything else. We do have to realize that we have to have a way to draw youth in, perish the thought it’s a fun thing. To keep them and when they graduate to really keep them, we proabably don’t need to have fun first but give the older youth a reason, relevance, ownership, application or what ever word fits inot your YM program. What I am getting at is we need to get them to be attached even if they are away from youth group (age, moved, etc). It’s not like a sport to try out for a season, but almost like we need to get them so “hooked” in their faith, that everything they do is tied to it. We have those youth who come to youth group/church so sporadically because they play soccer, swim or competitive basket weaving. Well what if we geared our youth program in such a way that we keep our post youth kids. How do we do that? Well that’s way Marko is writing this book, so we as a youth community can think in a different way. Cause I would like ot figure it out too. “Love teenagers to the best of our ability, and help them to experience the love of God” is great but there has to be a approach to do it correctly.
    Like Marko wrote, we need to look at how things worked, how they did not and how we can improve on it. Playing Bible baseball just does not cut it with most Youth Ministries now (IMO), but retreats, group building games still do.

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