The increasingly complex intricacies of doing ministry in a post-modern, post-Christian reality have completely changed the context in which we minister to children and youth today. Consider some of these challenges:
- Non-traditional family structures
- Family fragmentation
- Lower rates of Christian affiliation
- Plummeting church attendance
- Decreasing Scripture engagement
- Increasing pace of cultural change
- Decreased biblical literacy among both parents and youth
- New technology (especially mobile platforms)
- A Pandora’s box of doctrinal and apologetic confusion on issues including Scripture, human sexuality, evangelism, salvation, pluralism, and secularism
This list can seem daunting, but we are taking it as a challenge to design better youth ministry that meets teens where they are in the confusion of these intersecting realities.
The good news is that the majority of churches recognize and value the potential of the next generation. Six in 10 (61%) senior pastors say youth ministry is “one of the top priorities” of their church’s ministry.
But just because youth ministry is a priority doesn’t necessarily mean we’re doing it well.
There are lots of components of youth ministry that aren’t working, or that are leading the Church by the hand down dangerous trajectories. Alongside some of the largest mega-churches in the nation, our team has been examining the global trends in youth ministry, and have identified several of what we believe to be the key critical factors of the next decade’s worth of youth ministry:
- Students today have instant access to information, which is changing how young people understand truth. Their understanding of relationship is also skewed…God is more than an abstract concept. Our approach to Scripture engagement needs to keep pace.
- When it comes to the purpose of youth ministry, the twin priorities among youth pastors of large churches are “discipleship and spiritual instruction” (75%), and “building relationships” (48%).  These are great, when paired with a model and structure that enables them to happen.
- More than half (55%) of American Christians are concerned with modern youth ministry, viewing it as too shallow and too entertainment-focused, resulting in an inability to train mature believers. Unfortunately, not all of this perception is unfounded.
- Most youth ministries today are putting emphasis on an emotive worship environment, peer-relationship building via small group experiences, and serving social justice causes or going on missions trips A pivot is needed to placing priority on stimulating spiritual growth and focusing on a growing and deepening relationship with Christ.
- For youth ministries to become truly Christ-centered, conversations about Jesus Christ as described in God’s Word cannot be limited to mission trips or “spiritual high” experiences. Instead, cracking open a Bible and wrestling with its content must become part of a youth ministry’s DNA.
“Youth Ministry today (as we know it) may help build a faith that works well while students are IN youth group but it doesn’t create a sustainable faith for when students leave youth group.” ~ Mark Oestreicher, The Youth Cartel
— Mark Pettus (@markpettus) August 22, 2016
Youth leaders face great challenges as they seek to engage today’s teens in today’s culture. But it’s precisely because of these challenges that youth ministry is so critical to the church today.
These lists of challenges and current realities are important to make us stop and think, perhaps even grieve a little for how we may have unwittingly contributed to the declining situation. But then we need to dig in and courageously take action.
Youth workers need not fear change, because the Scriptures are alive and interesting, and students are curious to learn when they’re taught effectively.”
So how can the Church successfully make the changes necessary to instill a deep faith in the 21st century young person?
We did our own research on the top factors that create spiritual vibrancy in the life of teens. Our Spiritual State of the World’s Children research study revealed that religious texts, family, and a faith community are the top three. And our findings are being corroborated by others.
A study from Fuller Theological Seminary formed the basis of the book “Sticky Faith: Everyday Ideas to Build Lasting Faith in Your Kids.” Authors Kara Powell and Chap Clark followed hundreds of committed Christ followers from high school all the way through their college journey. Sadly, 60% of students walked away from their faith during this time. But the ones who didn’t had what the authors term a “sticky faith.”
Pastors and churches looking to raise kids so grounded in their faith that real-life hardships, temptations and questions will not rock them would do well to pay attention to the book’s main findings:
- Students with sticky faith are raised in a faith culture that emphasizes a relationship with Christ as opposed to adherence to a set of rules.
- Students with sticky faith are surrounded by an intergenerational faith community.
- The most important factor by far in the lives of teens who developed sticky faith is a parent who is willing to walk them through their faith journey.
While the landscape has changed, the destination has not. Are we doing enough to adjust our trajectory and ensure the next generation doesn’t end up wandering off the map?