Where is youth ministry going in the 21st century? Youth ministry itself is a relatively modern invention for churches. It wasn’t too long ago that youth came to church with their parents because they were supposed to. They’d gather in a room, sit around a table or in rows, and listen as a lesson was explained to them by an elder or parent who was willing to do it. It didn’t look a whole lot different from school other than you might start off by singing a few songs. Today it’s a different world. Full-time paid youth pastors run programs using a variety of curriculum intended to make faith exciting for teens. But as I’ve visited churches large and small, I’ve found that decades later there really isn’t much different. Despite the recently devoted resources students are actually leaving the church faster than at any other point in the church’s history. Why is that?
I used to blame parents for the lack of student interest in faith and youth ministry. After all, it’s the parents responsibility to get their kids to church. I still put part of the ownership on parents, but also look at it as a partnership where all the individuals involved must be engaged: parents, pastors, and students. In doing so I found a glaring flaw common in youth ministries that wind up disconnecting them from their students. They were not speaking the language of their students.
Today’s teens speak an electronic language. They engage each other and the world through Google Goggles with the help of their trusted guide Siri. Twitter lets them talk to celebrities, Instagram lets them show the world what they’re doing, and Tumblr lets them share their thoughts uninterrupted. Those aren’t even half the apps used by youth today and do you see a trend? It’s about them expressing themselves to their friends and the world around them. It’s about them contributing and engaging. Engagement is this buzzword that people like to throw around. Pastors talk about engaging their youth when what they really mean is “we need to do something that makes them come and then not fall asleep when they get here”. But engagement for youth in the 21st century is more than being interested in what the pastor is saying. Engagement must be about their ability to interact and possibly change the conversation as it’s happening.
Gone are the stale lesson plans with daily reading assignments. Gone are the days when a pastor could talk at them for 30 minutes while students listened. Students today crave a conversation. An organic youth program that allows them to engage in expressing their thoughts and ideas with others. And that includes others beyond the walls of the church. Youth ministry in the 21st century needs youth leaders who can effectively use the language of students and guides students as they engage each other in expressing the thoughts that are on their mind about faith and the world. It means youth leaders must become the shepherding guide of the original meaning of the word “Pastor”. They must spend more time facilitating the thoughts and conversations of teens then they do in preparing their own thoughts to teach. They must learn to allow the students to wander where their hearts take them, but always be present to guide when needed.
This is where I believe youth ministry must go for our churches in the 21st century. It’s a scary place for many youth pastors who like myself volunteer to work with teens. We didn’t get the training of pastors and often dread being exposed as ignorant by the questions of our students. As I’ve been blessed with countless people who have shepherded me in my spiritual path, I’ve come to believe that God is calling me to do the same. To help other youth ministries and youth leaders as they engage students, using their language, to discuss topics relevant to their faith journey. It’s led me to take a big leap of faith in creating a ministry resource for youth ministry. One that would connect youth using electronic mediums so they can share their thoughts about life and faith. Youth leaders can help each other and in so doing help more students. The links below will share my vision for a 21st century youth ministry unlike any that has been created. Take a few minutes to check it out and see if you are inspired to help students have a place where they can have conversations with each other about faith.