My passion is to see a generation of students reclaim a biblical Christian faith and set forth to change to the world. A former colleague of mine used to say that we need to take over the world with Jesus. I often gave him a polite smile. You know the kind. It says in a nice Christian sort of way, “yes that would be nice, but let’s not get crazy.” But the older I get, the more I agree with him.
During my days as a teacher—in my little corner of the world, inside the four walls of my classroom, my students were good kids. They liked Jesus. They went to church and participated in youth group. They loved and respected their parents. And let’s be honest. They, of course, loved their Bible classes with me. I have no doubt—even today—that most of that is true. But what I neglected to realize was eventually they would have to leave the comfort of their homes, classrooms, and neighborhoods.
They would have to leave the protective shell they were raised in. The world was waiting. Hatred toward the church, Jesus, and the Christian faith was waiting. Persecution over what the Bible teaches about family, sexuality, morality, and even gender roles was waiting. I watched student after student walk across the stage at graduation—degree in hand—and I couldn’t help but wonder’ “are they ready?”
A Brief Origin of Youth Ministry
Youth ministry, in large part, birthed in the late ’60s, was an effort to provide students with an alternative place to “hang out.” Primarily, the thought was that if we could give students a fun place to spend their free time, so that they spend less time getting into trouble and more time at church exposed to the gospel, not only would the students be better behaved, but would potentially give the church the vibrant surge it was looking for—students passionate about the gospel. Soon after, student-led revivals began springing up all over the country. I seemed new life had been breathed into the church.
However, by the turn of century researchers began reporting on a growing and disturbing trend among teens. Students were walking away from church after high school with no signs of returning. Students no longer saw the church as relevant—failing to respond to the concerns of a rising generation. The stakes were higher, so churches up the ante. They invested in youth programs, including concert-like atmospheres, conferences, and better programming. All great improvement to say the least.
However, the western world’s rapidly advancing culture has left churches—despite their best efforts—lagging behind and even watching from the sidelines. We are teaching students to believe in Jesus so they might live forever, but never showing them what it means to truly live a life as a witness of Jesus. We can’t expect to step into the future and engage in tomorrow’s culture clinging to past methods and programs. Culture is different. Our students are different. Our ministries must begin to look different to get them ready for what’s waiting.
Doing Something New in Youth Ministry
Move from entertaining to training
Fog machines, concert lighting, and captivating motivational messages don’t really reach students the way it once did. In fact, more and more it is becoming a distraction. Students don’t need to come to youth group to be entertained. For most, their entertainment is already in their pocket. You can’t compete. I don’t know if giving them their own worship space, branded youth ministry, and logoed t-shirts may not be the answer. But I do know that small group communities which focus on growth and discipleship are.
Ask your students when they come home from youth group what they learned, what they discussed in small group, what they prayed about, what challenged them, or how God moved that evening? If they, on a regular basis have little say, and instead boast about how much fun dodgeball was, then you may be sending your students to a social gathering rather than into the presence of God.
What I have found over and over is that students would much rather engage in meaningful conversations about how culture and faith intersect. They would rather discuss how to reach and love their peers without compromising their convictions. They would rather kick around ideas about how to accept people without affirming sinful behavior.
Building community before students ever enter youth group
Josh McDowell once told me that if we don’t reach our kids with the gospel by middle school, we have already lost our chance. I think he is right. And I am starting to see some churches acting on that very idea. I recently visited a church that begins small groups and community building in their students in fifth grade. The reason: the earlier, the better. They understood that all students have some type of community and by the time they are in high school, many of them have already established and solidified their community. Church would be just an add on with little to no commitment. Meaning the people that would have the most influence in their lives would not be people at church.
Instead, they aim to help students establish an active church community before most get pulled away by the pressures of academics, sports, and other extra-curricular activities.
In nearly every arena of life, we recognize the power of learning by experience. The need for success, as well as failure, is essential for growth in anything worth doing. This is precisely why we practice. Whether its homework, athletics, the arts, even learning how to drive a car requires practice to be proficient. Why do we then treat our faith so differently?
Youth ministries are doing a tremendous job teaching our students a ton about what it means to know and love Christ. What if we intentionally immersed our students in real life-changing and challenging circumstances. By crafting experiences that give them the opportunity to live out the faith they declare, we can guide them through their successes and failures—encouraging them, correcting them, and shaping long-lasting spiritual habits in them.
I have never met a pastor, parent, teacher, or coach that wasn’t concerned with preparing our students for the world that awaits them. Every youth group is different. Every context is unique. But I do believe it is time to begin reimagining youth ministry.