Tribal Youth Ministry (Part 1): The Necessity of Age Desegregation in Our Churches

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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.

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