If you look back to the prototypical youth ministry model of the 80’s and 90’s, the model I and many of my ministry friends grew up in, we saw churches pulling the teenagers out from the church as a whole and segregating them.
There was the church and there was the youth ministry. Unintentionally conveying to parents, it is the “professional” youth ministers job to disciple your children. Teaching students this ministry is here to serve you and meet your needs. Over the past decade we have seen the overarching problems with this model. Ministers are trying to frantically reverse the direction of youth ministry that became so ingrained in the DNA of churches through the 1980’s & 1990’s.
The goal has become connecting students back to the church, trying to convince parents it is their responsibility to disciple their children, and trying to move students back into the role of leaders and planners. Now don’t get me wrong, I loved the youth ministry model I grew up in. I had a blast but, with all we are learning about what youth ministry has been producing, I think we have some serious questions we must answer moving forward. According to Barna Group research, 59 percent of teenagers who are active in their youth groups today will stop attending church at some point between the ages of 18 and 29. Show how do we begin reconnecting?
Connecting to the church – The problem comes for most teenagers in the transition from High School to College/ Work. Chuck Bomar & Reggie Joiner address this issue specifically in “The Show Fade,” and is well worth picking up a copy to better understand the problem. Part of the job of a successful student ministry must become connecting students with older mentors in the church who will commit to a relationship with a student. It is key that the relationship must be built to continue after high school, regardless of whether the student goes off to college or stays home. This year we are allowing incoming 6th graders to choose 3 to 4 significant adults in their life. These adults are going have the opportunity at a special ceremony to give a charge to the 6th grader. Then each of the adults will be given a charge to commit to walking with this 6th grader and building a relationship with him through Jr. High, High School and into college. These students need significant relationships with other adults who believe in them and who they look up to, to challenge and encourage them. Connecting students to the overall church body is not simply throwing together a few all together events; this is about building meaningful relationships.
Partnering with parents – The goal is not for the minister to disciple the students, rather the new goal becomes equipping and encouraging the parents to take ownership of their children’s faith. The idea scares so many younger parents because they were not discipled by their parents. They grew up in the same model of youth ministry that we did and so it was not modeled for them. Our job is to help parents connect with their kids. With so many other obstacles including overcrowded schedules, not knowing how becomes the final reason not to. So we walk along with parents simply pointing out some ways to disciple their children in the time they have. Parents are great about praying with their children when they are younger or reading them a Bible story but as they get into their Jr. High and High School years they freak out at the idea? In reality, nothing has to change. Read and pray together, grow together and I promise it will strengthen the relationship. Don’t make things more complex than they are.
Plugging students into ministry – We live in a narcissistic world and we have drug our churches into the same mindset. If you are looking for a place to point the finger, look no further than the church leaders. People show up with an expectation to be fed, after all it is the “mission of the church” we have unknowingly conveyed. It is the expectation of adults and it’s no wonder why it has become the expectation of the students as well. We must teach students, especially the leaders, to come not with the expectation of being fed but with the expectation of feeding and serving others. Students will grow more in their faith through self sacrificial service than they will ever learn showing up week after week, holding a sign that says “feed me!” My goal is for our students to be serving in the safety of our youth ministry, for it to be a safe place to learn and even make mistakes. Our ministries are set up to reflect the ministry structure in our church. My hope is during their junior and senior year they would be serving in that ministry in the larger church context.
I believe these connections are vital to building more effective student ministries. What are some other ways we need to be working to connect students back to the church? What are some ways we need to be working hard to partner with parents? What are some ways we can be working to plug students into ministries?