“What do you do when what you used to do, doesn’t work anymore?” It’s a question I have been asked a few times by various church leaders, in reference to their diminishing youth work. The reality is that the way we used to conduct church youth ministry does not work any longer and we need to find a different model, and fast. This is not optional, it is essential.

“We must do something different, and urgently.”

Tim Alford, director of Limitless, the youth arm of Elim Churches, says, “we mustn’t just pick up the same model and think that we’re going to get different results.”

For too many people in churches, we have fixed stereotype ideas of what youth work must look like, and, perhaps with a certain amount of relief, they think that’s just not them. The problem is that the person they have in mind as to who it is for, doesn’t exist in their church!

Even in churches who think they are doing quite well at youth work, it is not at levels that it used to be, and the percentage of young people to adults is still pretty low.

We must do something different, and urgently.

“COVID has killed church youth ministry”

Before the COVID pandemic, we knew that youth work was struggling across Warwickshire and Coventry.  Out of almost 300 churches, fewer than 60 churches had any youth provision, and most of these were struggling and seeing an annual decline in numbers. That’s about 20% of churches, 1 in 5 investing in the next generation. Since the pandemic appeared, youth work has stopped in many of those churches, or have seen far fewer interactions with young people than before.

One youth worker described the situation by saying, ‘COVID has killed church youth ministry’.

I can’t accept this reality, I won’t accept it and we at Thrive intend to do all we can to help turn the situation around.

Writing in Christianity magazine, June’21, Emma Fowle said, ‘If we are going to staunch the flow of the thousands of teenagers leaving the Church each week, we are going to need to take drastic action. Now, more than ever, our children and young people need every member of the body of Christ.’

Less than 5% of children and young people are in our churches, so just focusing on plugging the holes in our churches is not sufficient. It is going to take a complete mind shift to adapt our youth work for the 21st century and to reach out to teenagers with the Good News of Jesus. We must be much more outward focused.

Most people make a decision to follow Christ between the ages of 12-20. It is well observed that after this age, fewer people come to Christ. I think this is because during these key, formative years, each person is asking the questions: Who am I? How do I fit in? What’s life all about? What’s my purpose?

We know that the answer to these questions best lies in Jesus.

Those who come to faith as an adult, frequently have faced a life-changing crisis: redundancy, poor health, loss of a loved one, the breakdown of marriage or even starting a family. All these moments cause people to ask the questions that the teenagers are asking: Is this all there is to life? How do I make the most of it? What difference can I make?

I believe they come to faith because something rekindles the questions of youth. Let’s not wait for those later-life moments of crisis, but let’s get alongside each and every young person in our communities now so we can introduce them to Jesus, as their lives are starting.

What Fowle reaches for in her article is that we can longer rely on just a few committed volunteers, or even an employed youth worker if we can afford the luxury, to ‘do’ our youth work. To ‘staunch the flow’ is going to take the whole fellowship. The problem is most of us simply don’t know what to do or where to start.

Thrive’s new youth work initiative

Thrive are launching a new initiative where we will roll up our sleeves and get alongside churches to guide them through this process. We won’t just advise and leave them to get on, we want to help start new youth initiatives with them.

We are expanding our team of experienced youth and children’s ministers so we can work with more churches, hands on. Over the next few years, we expect our team to grow considerably, as funding allows, so we can support more churches. We want to work with the 60 that have existing youth work and to help make them stronger, and, most importantly, work with as many of the churches who don’t do anything. Each new Youth Mission Enabler will be able to work with 8-10 churches at a time, so you can see how this will need to grow.

What this might look like in practice: If a church has a fledgling youth ministry, we will get involved and see how we can quickly strengthen this work. If they don’t currently do anything, we will look for what we can get started as soon as possible. The urgency is too great to wait too long before we get going.

Whilst we do this, we will start to lead the church through a process called Review, Recce, Receive, Respond.

Review, Recce, Receive, Respond

Review – we help the church to better understand the reality of its current situation with regard to children and young people. We help them to see what might need to change, in their attitudes and decision making to be more welcoming. We will help them to think through what makes them the church that they are and to help them realise that it is best to reach out in an authentic manner, in a way that best fits who they truly are as a local expression of the body of Christ.

Recce – we will help the church to explore what the opportunities might be for connecting with local young people. We will find where young people spend their free time, what amenities are on offer, what their needs might be. This will help the church in thinking through how they can make meaningful connection.

Receive – throughout the entire process we want each church to be looking to God for guidance and direction. So it will be important to have regular opportunities to pray, and to wait on God for his leading.

Respond – Once this process starts to conclude, we help the church develop a strategy for developing the ministry. From this strategy, we choose one thing to focus on – just one action – and we plan and do it. We then meet and review what we have tried, and decide what to do next. It is not about putting an entire action plan into place overnight, rather helping the church to move from the old model of youth work to establishing a brand new model, where the body are more involved and take greater responsibility for the young people in their community, not just the few inside the fellowship.

Thrive will walk with them every step of the journey, offering guidance, expertise and experience, and giving them the courage and confidence to try new approaches.

As this will be a new way of conducting our youth ministry, we realise this is going to take some time for churches to fully understand. We will help each church to create a co-ordinating group, who will oversee the whole project, and be responsible for communicating the process and plans with the wider church family, and to learn the ethos of this new way of ministry.

Training is going to be essential and so Thrive are developing a new training programme which will gather together all the co-ordinating groups for the churches we support twice a year to focus on key aspects of these new fundamentals: how we make youth outreach the priority in our church, how to communicate the Gospel clearly, how to create a warm, welcoming environment for teenagers etc.

The pandemic has hurt church youth ministry but enough is enough. I believe we are entering a unique time of opportunity, where young people who have been restricted for such a significant chunk of childhood will want to regroup and gather together. The Church needs to be at the centre of these gatherings, and this project of enabling youth work to happen must be key.

If your church would like to explore how Thrive can help you, please get in touch.

Photo by Luke Porter on Unsplash