The way most churches do youth ministry is no longer working. It is apparent to most of us. We are seeing the numbers of young people in churches decreasing year after year. We can watch them leave. We can get frustrated or disappointed. What about if we do something about it?
I want to suggest five ways the Church needs to change to see this trend reversed:
1.Build a church family not a community
We are called to be God’s family yet most of us see our church as a community rather than a family. It’s a place where believers gather together, but with the individuality of a community rather than the vulnerability of a family. In our individualistic culture, community is easier than family, but community means that we don’t have anything at stake if someone walks away; it’s up to them. If a member of your family stops talking to you or doesn’t visit anymore, you will most likely try and do something about it. We need to reclaim this heart for God’s church, his family, and realise that each person in your fellowship is a brother or sister in Christ. We are to spend eternity together, let’s invest in each other now.
Why does this matter to youth ministry? A family honours all generations. They celebrate significant life moments together. It creates a sense of connection, of unity, of love. When we act as a community we don’t care about anyone other than those in our immediate vicinity. We don’t worry about what goes on with those not of our age or need. We presume others will be doing this.
Young people more than ever need a place to belong. Yes community is a start but if it just this, they soon realise that most people are not bothered whether they are they or not. We need to be family – sacrificially invested in each other’s lives, whatever our age.
2. Purposefully be youth-focused in all the church does
A book written recently was titled ‘Growing Young’ by Kara Powell. This is an excellent book based on some research carried out within the USA on churches that are seeing the number of young people in their churches grow. I find the title helpful as it assumes that most churches are ‘growing old’ ie. the average age of the church, year upon year, is getting older. The premise of the book is how can we help the church to ‘grow young’, where the average age decreases rather than increases.
It suggest many ways that churches can do this but one that stands out particularly is that churches that are growing young have a purposeful focus on young people in all that they do. This means that when they are talking about community outreach, they think about how young people can be involved, both in the serving and in being reached. When they consider the Sunday services, they think how young people can participate and connect with the worship. When they think about their finances, they consider how the decisions affect young people. They involved young people in the decision process as much as possible.
This has the benefit of not just giving more value to the young people but it also helps the adults to stay mindful of the younger generation, and enables each person in the church family to be actively considering the needs of young people.
3. Employ a youth mission enabler
I believe the role of youth worker in the church needs a big overhaul. We have exhausted too many good leaders. But that is perhaps the subject for another post! I do want to say, however, that we need to stop employing people to be people who ‘own’ the youth ministry, as if it is theirs to possess. It is convenient for the Church to pay someone to do the youth work for us, but it doesn’t have the feeling of family. God has given the church every body part needed to be the church he wants us to be. We don’t need to hire an extra limb.
What might be helpful, however, is recruiting someone who can oil the joints of the body, someone who can help us be the church we are called to be. Rather than employing a youth worker, recruit a youth mission enabler, someone who has expertise in reaching out and discipling young people and who can train, equip and enable the whole church to reach out. This way, young people are attracted to Jesus and his body, and not one (usually charismatic) personality.
4. Offer every young person a mentor
Train up as many adults as possible to be mentors for the young people. These people don’t have to be good youth leaders, they just need to be someone who loves Jesus and wants young people to know Jesus. They need to be able to give time and space to walk with a young person. Once you have enough adults trained, make sure that every young person has the option of being mentored. This means that there is a safe adult (they’ve been checked in line with the church’s safeguarding policy) who is willing to meet with them from time to time, to encourage them, to help them understand more about God and to celebrate with them as they journey in faith. This doesn’t replace the need for youth groups or what the church family can offer, but it does enable the young person to have someone older who they know they can talk to about anything going on in their life.
5. Give leadership opportunities to young people
The old youth club model of putting on events for young people to consume is no longer an effective method of youth ministry. Young people have so many offers to consume that they don’t know what to digest! Instead, we need to look at how we can get them to be contributors to the life of the church as quickly as possible. Again, thinking of the church as a body, the young people are parts of that body, so let’s allow them to flex their muscles as soon as we can. They need to be given permission to do things which carry responsibility, not just acting as bigger brothers or sisters to the creche. What would it look like if a young person was given permission to unlock the building on a Sunday morning? If they were asked to go with someone to bank the collection? If they were asked to redesign the newsheet? Genuine leadership responsibility nurtures the sense of belonging, of contributing and of being part of the family of God.
There are many ways ways we need to rethink our model of youth ministry and these are just five. What is clear to me is that we need to be bold as God’s people, to be brave in making some important changes and to grasp what it really means to be the family of God.