5 Ways Youth Ministry Has Changed Since 1995

Jason Matthews
December 10th, 2020

I started in youth ministry in 1995…

Back when Lebron was in middle school, Bieber was in diapers, and the Stranger Things’ boys hadn’t even been born yet.

Back when cell phones were only used for calling people, the “Macarena” went viral, Match.com was the only online dating site, Amazon sold its first book, eBay debuted, the Starbucks Frappuccino was released, and pogs were all the rage with the kids.

Needless to say, a lot has changed in the last 23 years.

We have witnessed huge changes in culture, technology, marriage & family, gender identity, and more.  And, these changes have not come without great cost to Generation Z.

The generation of the students in our youth ministries has grown up in a world where they are legitimately afraid that a shooting could happen at their school.

They’ve grown up in a world where they are not surprised to find more than two gender categories to choose from.

And, in a world where they can easily get access to a pill (RU-486) that will abort their unborn child.

These are just a few examples of the cost of change to students today.

For those of us on the “front-lines” of working with the youth of today, we see the effects of change in lots of ways.  Kids today are busy, distracted, confused, wounded, vulnerable, self-absorbed, entitled, manipulated, and bullied.  And, they struggle with things like trust and truth.

As youth workers, we have had to adapt (change) to these changes in order to effectively lead the next generation.  And, though our ministry contexts might be different, there are some major changes in youth ministry that have impacted all of us.

Here are 5 ways that youth ministry has changed since I started:

The Center Of Youth Ministry

In the last twenty years, the center of the communities we serve in has shifted entirely to the schools.  Virtually every night of the work week is filled with extracurricular activities and events that compete with our students’ schedules.

Families plan vacations and make commitments based on the school calendar, and often church (and youth group) is left with whatever scraps of time students have left (which isn’t much).  Because of this shift, the center of youth ministry has changed from primarily being program-driven and event-based to one that focuses more on building relationships with students on their turf.

The Window Of Youth Ministry

Over the last twenty years, students have started checking out of youth group at an earlier age; which means that the window of influence we have in a student’s life is getting smaller.

And, it isn’t just the seniors; 8th grade students are checking out too.  Lots of factors contribute to this (busyness, lack of interest, etc.), but one of the biggest factors is that our culture is conditioning our students to believe that they are older than they really are.  Students today simply have a false sense of maturity. 

And, in a youth ministry context, we see (and hear) that from students who think they are too “old” for youth group.  Because of this shift, the window of youth ministry has shrunk to the point that we often only have a couple of years of influence in a student’s life before they check out.

The Target Of Youth Ministry

Over the last twenty years, it has become increasingly important for us as youth workers to focus at least some of our ministry attention on working with parents.  This shift in youth ministry gained momentum with the findings of Christian Smith’s national study of youth and religion.

Among his conclusions from that study was that parents are the greatest influence on teenage faith.  Basically, Smith concluded that students tend to mimic their parents when it comes to what they believe and how often they go to church (among other things).

This doesn’t mean that our job with students isn’t important, but it does mean that it will be increasingly important for us to work with and train parents in our youth ministries.

The Space Of Youth Ministry

Over the last twenty years, changes in technology have had a huge impact on culture, especially youth culture.  But, rather than focus on the cons of kids with smartphones and social media, let’s consider how it’s changed the space of youth ministry.  Think of your youth ministry space as the places you personally disciple and minister to students through things like small groups and Bible studies.

That space used to be primarily physical spaces like your youth room, office, or a coffee shop.  But, with apps like Facetime, the space that we have to communicate with multiple students at once isn’t confined to one physical place anymore. 

Changes in technology give us opportunities to ministry to students through virtual Bible studies and small group discussions even if we all aren’t in the same place.

The Method Of Youth Ministry

Over the last twenty years, we have seen different methods of youth ministry come and go.  In youth ministry, we are constantly adapting to the changes already mentioned, while also making changes to our ministries so that we can continue to effectively minister to students.  As students graduate out of youth group every year and a new wave of students arrive, the changing demographics and needs that the new students bring often impact the methods we use to reach them.  For example, sometimes, the best method is focusing on small groups.  Other times, it might be focusing more on the main program night. 

Though a lot has changed over my last twenty years of youth ministry, the one thing that has not changed is the Gospel.  As youth workers, we have opportunities every week to bring hope into students’ lives by keeping the Gospel at the center of all that we do. 

So, in the midst of the changes that are sure to come in the next twenty years, let’s continue to think of ways to effectively point students to the unchanging anchor of their lives, Jesus Christ.

Jason Matthews

I'm a 40+ year-old Jesus-Follower, Husband, Dad, Friend, and Sports Junkie. I love the outdoors and am on a life-long quest to visit all 63 National Parks. For the past twenty years, I've been serving as the youth pastor at a church in Washington state, where I live with my wife and three kids.

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