That might seem like an extreme title but it’s true.
If we don’t change the fundamental goals of youth ministry, we should just pack up and quit... Because yesterday’s youth ministry isn’t just ineffective for this generation; it’s chasing them away.
In the 1990’s when I was a youth the universal goal of youth ministry seemed to be
“Get them saved, keep them pure.” - Youth Pastors for the last 30 years...
And I’m here to tell you, even back then, the goal was bad news.
The emphasis on salvation as a one-time emotional event most often led to students being subjected to an emotionally coercive and manipulative event that had effectively no bearing on the student’s life as soon as the event concluded except as a romanticized and subsequently unachievable “spiritual high”. Meanwhile the emphasis on “purity” caused massive confusion and shame in countless students who were taught to demonize their developing bodies. Unsurprisingly this “pity culture” has harmed more Christian (and former Christian) men and women from my generation than perhaps anything else.
So what is the alternative?
I present four cornerstones for every youth minister and youth ministry program in 2022... Click to expand each goal
1. Create positive associations with faith
This has always been a secondary goal in youth ministry (often called “Memory Making”) but it needs to be a cornerstone. Children, and specifically teenagers, are at a unique stage of neurological development. Their brains are creating and discarding more neural pathways than at any other point in human development. Churches have often tried to exploit this fact to indoctrinate them with dogma but what they should really be doing is creating as many positive associations with faith/church/God as possible. The goal here is not to scare or manipulate them into slavish obedience to a religious system, it is to permanently entrench faith as a positive rather than a neutral or negative feeling. That way, regardless of what life brings, they will always have, embedded in their neural anatomy, that faith is ultimately positive. This might mean finding a faith community (without your prompting) when they get to college or with their spouse or after their kids are born and they want them to have those same positive experiences. I want to be clear, if your youth ministry is shaming kids for their desires, judging their choices, rejecting them because of their gender identity or sexual orientation, coercing them with fear tactics, or emotionally manipulating them into “making a decision for Jesus,” you cannot do this. Like it or not, doctrine and theology take a back seat here. The goal is positive association with faith, not short term obedience or faith profession.
2. Foster deep conversations focused on questions not answers
You want to know a secret from a Pastor and wanna be Biblical Scholar? We don’t have the answers. Christians all over the world and for the last 2000 years have profoundly disagreed on matters of theology, faith, and life. You might THINK you or your pastor has THE magic answer, but in all likelihood, a biblical scholar could deconstruct that answer in a matter of minutes. And you want to know another secret, your kid has access to those sources too. To appropriate a parable, if you build your conversations on answers, you are building on sifting sand. So don’t. Build your conversations around questions. Jesus was asked over a hundred questions in the Gospels and yet he only responds directly to four of them. Why? Because growth is in the questions not the answers anyway. If youth directors and pastors and faith oriented parents want to have a firm foundation and lasting impact be like Jesus, ask questions.
3. Facilitate spritiual practices
Do you know why Yoga has become so popular in the last 10-15 years? Because as our world has become more and more fast paced, our minds more and more filled with information, and our lives more and more full of stuff, yoga slows us down. It reconnects us with our bodies and breath. It grounds us in the present moment and reality, freeing us from the ever increasing chaos of 21st century life. It is, in short, a spiritual practice. But there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to achieve these ends without a CorePower membership and a LuLu Lemon credit card. Don’t get me wrong, I have no issue with yoga, but it’s only the tip of the ice burg and you can’t exactly ground yourself in the four corners of your mat during the ACT. Christians have been doing similar contemplative spiritual practices for millennia. From Lectio Devina, to contemplative meditation, and breathe prayer, God has given us tons of practices at our fingertips that could literally reshape our lives and minds to be more at peace. And with teen anxiety, depression, and suicide at an all-time high, we need to be less focused on controlling teens urges and more focused on helping them achieve peace and connection to God. This is why every youth minister needs to be trained in spiritual practices and make it a priority to train the students in their care in the exercise of those practices. And remember even if your teen doesn’t identify as Christian... BLOG: Pray, whether you believe in God or not...
4. Unconditionally care for students
One thing we need to get our heads around is the idea that God loves us unconditionally [Romans 8]. WITHOUT CONDITION. That means, God’s love is not based on a condition of our obedience, or a condition of our purity, or EVEN a condition of our belief. God loves us, according to the Bible and Christian Theology because we are intrinsically valuable. One of the things I talk to parents about most is fostering their child’s belief in their own intrinsic worth; their self-esteem. There are a couple reasons why this is important. Our self-esteem is our primary defense against being deeply wounded by the world. Without that constant internal validation that comes from knowing one’s own intrinsic value, kids regularly become “people pleasers” and eventually find themselves in one-sided or abusive relationships. Self-Esteem is also a teens best defense against bullying and depression. The value cannot be overstated. The church has, for far too long, been a counteractive force to this very biblical principle. We have set up houses of faith focused on “sound doctrine” and “right action”. Given our stated goal to care for teens, we need to be the LAST place to put conditions on that care.
Those are the four cornerstones of youth ministry in 2022. Feel free to shoot me an email with questions about this or your teen and, if you're local to the South Western Suburbs of Chicago (where my church is), I would love to grab coffee.
Rooting for you and your teenagers,