This article is the first of a new feature at Wineskins called “Ministry Highlight“. These articles will highlight some of the freshest approaches to ministry that we believe will be helpful to many of you out there who are asking and attempting to answer the most relevant questions of our day.

This article is by Duncan Campbell and is the first of three outlining his approach to transitioning youth ministry toward a more intergenerational approach. In my opinion, this is one of the biggest questions facing churches today as we are beginning to see the connections between our traditional approaches to youth ministry and the disconnect from parents and other adults being a part of the faith development of our children, and the mass exodus from church by young adults.

The State of Things

The idea is simple enough: “If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” But this simple idea is profoundly discomforting when it comes to how we do church, and more directly, youth ministry. The simple truth is that all across Christianity, when teens graduate out of the youth group they are also graduating church at the same time. I know there are exceptions, and I’m painting in broad strokes, but you don’t have to be George Barna to notice that in most churches there is a gaping hole where the twenty-somethings should be. It’s as though there is an unwritten rule somewhere that says ‘Church begins at 30.’ There are several gales to this perfect storm, but let’s start with the youth group.

Youth groups are amazing at what they do. They have huge per capita budgets, the most forward-thinking practices, the coolest rooms, the trendiest tshirts, the most memorable trips, camps & retreats. They nearly always have the best tech/gear in the church. They have the most engaging worship sets, the catchiest worship songs, the most affable and dynamic speakers, and the most creative among us as their leaders. They are used to getting their hands dirty in service, feeding the homeless, and playing fùtbol with poverty-stricken kids in Africa. They are used to full-throttle, well-planned, and image-rich.

And the clock is ticking because, in the current climate, 92% of that is coming to an end as soon as they graduate. A time is coming when they are no longer part of the youth group. So then what?

They will always be welcome at the local congregation, of course, but the local congregation will be enigmatically foreign. Not ‘worse’ or ‘better.’ Just different. For in the Congregation, the language is different than that of Youth Group. The pace is different. The food is different. The worship is different. The messages are different. The ministry is different. And they often experience all this slower newness about the time they move away from home for the first time, a major life change in and of itself.

So they walk into a congregation away from home, and it’s filled with strangers, an immediate 8 on the intimidation scale. Then the worship starts and they know they are not in Youth Group anymore, as an ominous feeling sets in that ‘This is what I have to look forward to from here on out?’ Then they notice the teens of that church sitting in a clump off to the side, and suddenly an unexpected pang of envy hits. They tell themselves they are not here for friends but to worship. So they focus on the worship. Which is unlike the worship they’re used to. The songs are unfamiliar. The preaching is no where close to their life. They may go several weeks because it’s habit, but they are slowly starving spiritually. Eventually apathy sets in. So they leave. In droves. They venture out to find their main Christian community elsewhere because it’s just not happening at church. Their alternatives are:

  1. Become involved with college/young adult ministry or parachurch organization.
  2. Go to some other Big Church Sunday morning. Be a church consumer, hoping for the “best” one, whatever that means.
  3. Find a small group from church.
  4. Become a youth ministry volunteer, hoping to hang on to the glory.
  5. Go to another kind of church that ‘fits’ them, which likely entails a compromise in theology, even if they don’t know it.
  6. Quit going.

None of these sound that great, but we really want to stay away from options 4-6. Our vision for the college-aged and twenty-somethings is that they become a vibrant, connected, contributing element of our congregations, indeed of the global church body. The problem is that most of them haven’t been part of a congregation. They’ve been part of Youth Group. Think of Youth Group graphically as a one-eared Mickey Mouse, with the Congregation as the ‘head’ and the Youth Group as the ‘ear.’ They barely touch.[1]

For far too many of Christian teenagers, “youth group” and “church” are mutually exclusive. They think in terms of one or the other. And we leaders are squarely to blame for this, and for inflicting on them the ensuing culture shock.

I freely admit I could be wrong, but I believe we are now seeing the fruit of years of church compartmentalization and the philosophy of dropping off a 7th grader at the youth ministry and picking him up when he is a senior, expecting him to be a fully mature Christian by the Youth Minister’s hands. Alas, we have cast our seeds far too wide and watered them too little, and with the wrong kind of water. Something is missing from Contemporary Youth Ministry, and it’s been missing for a while.

That said, I’m not advocating a brand new youth ministry model or brand new programming. I’m not trying to change the What, but the Who. So actually the better statement is “Someone” is missing from Contemporary Youth Ministry. In the forthcoming two articles, I hope to offer some biblical anchors of a fresh approach to how we do youth ministry. Because I’m not content with doing what we’ve always done. The stakes are too high.

[1] Stuart Cummings-Bond, “The One-Eared Mickey Mouse,” Youthworker, Fall 1989, 76.

20 Responses

  1. Duncan,

    One of the lines that really hit me was this one, “They may go several weeks because it’s habit, but they are slowly starving spiritually.” It seems to me that an individual whether teen, young adult or even elderly that relies on an hour a week to make the spiritually strong is missing the point. It goes even deeper, I think they miss the point because we have inadvertently (through poor communication and lack of communication) painted the Sunday morning worship hour as the end all, be all of what makes you spiritual. You can do all sorts of evil things but miss that hour a couple weeks in a row and people will check up on you to make sure you are okay.

    We have to start communicating and equipping people for life outside the building. Until we do that we are in serious trouble.

    1. As youth ministry has become more professionalized over the past several decades, enough time has passed for serious assessment to take place. The problem this article deals with continues a conversation that Mark DeVries brought to the table 20 years ago with his Family-Based Youth Ministry. He was a relatively unknown Presbyterian pastor who touched on a significant issue and his book has become one of the most widely read youth ministry books ever. Your description of the problem above looks almost like a page from that book. His work inspired my master’s thesis at Lipscomb where I propose that youth ministry largely perpetuated the identity crisis that the Churches of Christ experienced (are still experiencing, I guess) over the past couple of decades. That disconnect troubled me then regarding how different the experiences of youth rallies and youth gatherings look from the church at large.

      I would propose that a deeper crisis has arisen as more “progressive” and “edgy” churches have emerged . . . and students still don’t maintain their church adherence. This is especially troubling for me since our church is so small. We only have about 100 members, so much of the Stuart-Bonds’ Mickey Mouse model of youth ministry doesn’t apply. I have gone to great strides to include all of our children in our services as much as possible. Most weeks we have children reading, passing communion, praying, participating in sermons, and just about any other possible way. I want them to feel like this is their church – not the grown up church. And yet . . . the percentage of my students who have maintained a regular church attendance (I’m saving the merits of this metric for another day) has been extremely low – I’m guessing around 20% at best.

      The complexities of this problem are immense, but I would propose – from my experience – the biggest obstacle to faith “sticking” (and I’m assuming you’ll broach Fuller’s Sticky Faith stuff in subsequent articles) has to do with the lack of spiritual vitality within the family unit. DeVries approach was all about the family being the base for youth ministry – but what do you do when the vast majority of your families have a tepid and inconsistent faith? What do you do when parents are more materialistic and caught up in the American rat race more than their children? In my experience discipling teenagers is a piece of cake compared to trying to make any headway with their parents (and I’m in a role where I talk to them all each Sunday!). And even my brightest most h0peful students always seem to default to the trajectory their parents have set before them (this not ALWAYS bad, of course). I’ll be interested to read your next posts. Thanks for the conversation starter.

  2. Very insightful comments, and well said. Thank you! Yes, the small church dynamic is bit different than the 200+ church dynamic. You have a tougher field to plow than most. And I love what you intimate about apples not falling far from trees. Absolutely true. But this is where (I believe) there is a hole in DeVries’ models I’ll try to fill in subsequent articles. Thanks for reading! It really means a lot!

  3. This is why equipping parents to disciple their kids is essential. Once you start gearing up to disciple your kids you have to start taking your own faith seriously first, and many will do it through the lens/purpose of discipling and not losing their kids…that is a huge motivator and leverage point we can use to disciple not just teens but whole families. That piece will be touched on in a future article here at Wineskins.

  4. As one of the kindergarteners in our children’s ministry likes to say: that makes my heart happy! We do seem to have have lost sight of the family model of the church. There’s a point at which maintaining age-and circumstance-appropriate ministries for every demographic not only isolates groups from each other, but also unintentionally marginalizes people who don’t exactly fit into the one they “should.” I don’t know exactly where that tipping point between supportive and divisive is, but I’m glad we are looking for it.

    1. Jennifer, I think there is a both/and here rather than an either or. It is important to spend time forming close relationships with your peers…whether you are a teen or a young adult who just had a baby who needs connections with other new moms…we all need connections with peers. But we cannot limit it to that and be exclusive to that. When we do that we miss out on a great opportunity to connect with those who have more life experience than we do. So I think it is a both/and rather than an either or. My experience with this has been with the 20s & 30s rather than teens but based on what Duncan is saying here I am sure it applies to teens as well.

      1. Right…sometimes in our best intentions to give everyone a place to fit, we just create more places where they don’t! Thanks again for the discussion on defining connections as lines that are horizontal and parallel, but also “every which way.”

  5. Adam, I recognize-and experience-the tension you address between the faith of a student and the faith of their parent! And I think Matt addresses a key need with equipping parents.

    Just a few questions as we continue the conversation. Family is certainly a key component, but are the lines our culture uses to define ‘family’ different than the way family was understood by the people in scripture-including Jesus himself? Has our definition of family become more exclusive than the way in which the people in the Bible understood it? Has culture shaped our definition of family more significantly than scripture? What did family mean to God’s people from Old Testament to the earliest Christians? I have an inkling that the circle we’ve drawn around family is much smaller than it should be. I’m looking forward to the rest of Duncan’s thoughts and continuing this conversation.

  6. Good thoughts so far, Duncan. I look forward to your next posts and to see the conversation that ensues. I wonder a few things.

    Is it possible that the pace of youth ministry has fed the culture? In many ways we have tried to be “relevant” to the youth culture so much that we have created a whole different culture. We have shown them that change is ok. That being expressive in worship is ok. That being different is ok. That we can do crazy things in the name of Jesus and that is ok…in youth ministry. When you become an adult, though, you better buckle down. That won’t fly. You have to live your life, and being “radical” or “too expressive” in the way you live your life for Jesus just isn’t practical.

    I’m not talking worship styles here.

    What I mean is that we have done a poor job in youth ministry of connecting them to people who ARE living their lives radically for Jesus in their own communities. We have done a great job at feeding the “successful” way of living the American life. This has pushed us to be individualistic in the way that we think about life with Christ, and with our family, which as Trey pointed out, is far too small of a definition). We have become back porch people with our privacy fences up that keeps everyone else and their way of living out of my life.

    I believe we are beginning to ask some great questions, but the problem is still that, for the most part this is only a youth ministry conversation. Until we get more of the church involved in this conversation and understanding the issue, we will never break through.

    I really do look forward to the conversation that takes place.

    1. Aaron perfectly identified a problem with finding the solution, “…for the most part this is only a youth ministry conversation. Until we get more of the church involved in this conversation and understanding the issue, we will never break through.”

      Here’s one essential part of the solution Aaron points out: Elders, Preachers and other Adult Ministers need to be actively invited into the conversation then they need to be actively involved in working toward a solution together with Youth Ministers. Soon there may be very few sitting in the pews to hear our sermons, bring their kids to our Children’s Ministry events or attend our adult Bible classes in 10-15 years. Within a few generations, we may have no ‘Senior Saint Ministry’. Let that sink in. Why wait until we start to feeling the effects in other ministries later when we are seeing it in Youth Ministry now? Many of us (Youth Ministers included!) don’t feel an urgency to solve problems unless we directly feel the effects in our own ministry. We should know better. We can do better. I’m blessed and grateful to work with a leadership and staff of ministers who understand that what is happening-or in this case, not happening-in one ministry affects the church (the whole tribe) and requires that we all work together toward making sure we are making disciples of all people which includes the teens among us, many of whom are our own children. Youth Ministry is the mission field inside our own church buildings and we need parents, grandparents, non-related adults, elders, ministers, etc. willing to be present in their lives to love them and let them see what the life of a disciple looks like.

      We still have a long way to go in our church family, as many others do as well, but I’m encouraged to continue working toward a solution through conversations like this one..

  7. For me, some of the best desegregation comes by getting as many demographics represented in the church to be in some leadership/volunteer role within the youth ministry. On the flip side, equally important is getting teens involved in “big church” ministries. Ideally, these two practices create and solidify relationship, which drives us to be a part of a community. Beyond the flash on youth ministries, bonds and relationship are often torn when they graduate. So, not only does church look drastically different, but they have very little to zero relationship to the body. Thus, it’s easy to choose to leave. When there is no relationship there is no accountability.

    1. Dan, I think you are exactly right. The problem is, if we are only involving “teens” or adolescents in big church ministries, we have missed the boat. It has to be something that even children see. Children need to be able to feel and speak as though they are part of the church as well. We must find ways to engage and empower the little ones. The little ones who although we talk a good game about their importance in life and the church, we as a “tribe” do very little beyond separating them too, just as we do teens. It is out of ease and as a way to keep them out of the hair of the “older folk” far too often. Creating space for them is important, but if they are disconnected in their ministry as well, then haven’t we started them down the very path we are discussing?

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