Jennifer and I started serving in Youth Ministry way back in 1996. We’ve talked about the many changes in society and in ministry over the last seventeen years, and I wanted to share some of the lessons we have learned. Quite frankly, the way we do ministry must change if we want to be effective. The methods can and should be adapted to the youth we are trying to reach, while the message must stay the same. I see many churches that are still trying to use methods that were effective in the 80’s and the 90’s (and some even from the 50’s) and they don’t understand why they are struggling reaching the youth of today.
Many of the changes can be traced to the shift in the millennial generation towards postmodernism. We have witnessed the changing attitudes of teenagers, and there is a difference in how they think. The internet has given today’s youth a gateway to the rest of the world. No longer are teens in rural areas sheltered from the influence of society and culture. Some of the changes are good, and some concern me. Teens are no longer content to be entertained. They want to make a difference. But they are also not as concerned with truth as found in the Bible. What I want to see is a return to a youth ministry model that teaches, equips, and empowers students to have a solid Gospel-centered worldview. We have been blessed at Cornerstone to see a majority of our youth stand firm in their faith after high school. Here are some of the reasons why.
Here are Five Shifts That Need to Take Place in Youth Ministry
Shift from an Event to a Movement
We used to have the mentality that if you plan it, they will come. We had great evangelistic events with free prizes, crazy games, and fun activities, and the youth would show up and bring their friends. Over the years, the youth were not as excited when we planned events. What we quickly learned is that youth want to be empowered, not entertained. When you give them permission to do great things for God, they do it! Today’s youth want to make a difference, but it is our job to point them in the right direction, help them discover their gifts, and model for them how to serve, teach, and reach their friends. When a movement starts, youth will be drawn to your ministry and the events become secondary. You can still have events, but they aren’t your primary source of outreach and evangelism. I think one of the reasons so many youth leave the church after graduation is they were simply attending a youth group, instead of being part of a movement of teenagers serving Christ.
Shift from Inviting to Sending
The goal of youth ministry is not how many people you can get to attend your meeting. This is a difficult truth for many churches to understand. Your success is simply not based on the number in attendance. We must learn to change the scorecard of success. What if our success as a youth ministry was based on how many students we send out as missionaries to their schools and community? What if our success was based on the number of students who learn how to reach their friends and then disciple them? Instead of a ministry built around the personality of the youth pastor, we need a ministry based around the power of Christ.
Shift from Separate to Integrated
I’m tired of seeing a church within a church. For many churches, it is easier to create a separate church within their church just for youth. They have separate Sunday morning services, they have separate opportunities to serve, and even separate mission trips. In essence, the youth are told they can only be part of the larger church when they grow up. I see this as a huge problem with why youth leave the church. Don’t create a consumer mentality within youth ministry where everything is centered around catering to their comfort. I believe that the youth are not the church of tomorrow, they are the church of today! Let’s give them opportunity to serve and make a difference now. At Cornerstone, we don’t have a separate service because our teens are serving with the adults. They are teaching in children’s ministry, they are playing in the worship band, and they are helping with technology.They are part of a larger church, so that when they graduate, nothing really changes. They are already integrated within the church.
Shift from Reaching to Making
We all want to see students saved, so the importance of evangelism cannot be diminished. But our goal should be far more than just to get a student to repeat a prayer and join the church. If that is the end goal, you will just move on to the next student as soon as they accept Christ. It is great to see a renewed focus on making disciples within the church in America. Discipleship is investing, mentoring, and spending time with them, helping them learn and grow, so the focus is not just on the activity, it’s on the relationship. Our students will be challenged by a culture that is becoming more hostile to Christianity, and the only way they will stand firm, is if they have been given a solid foundation. The Great Commission calls us to make disciples, not converts, so let’s emphasize the importance of discipleship, and not just evangelism. This is the hardest step, but it’s also where leaders are formed.
Shift from Informing to Equipping
As a teacher, I like to share information. I like to read and I like to pass on lessons that I learn. While that can be a good thing, the goal in youth ministry is not just the transfer of information. Gaining knowledge is important, but what are your students going to do with what they learn. We want to give students the tools and opportunities they need to change the world. So in addition to teaching, we give them opportunities to serve. We provide real life opportunities to engage their community and share the Gospel and the love of Christ. Currently, our youth meet for four to six weeks working through a teaching series. After that, they spend a week doing some type of service within our community or church. And they finish with a night of worship to process what they are learning. It’s not a perfect system, but we are seeing our youth grow and continue to serve after they graduate high school.