Engaging a Generation of Millennials
“God has no grandkids,” my mentor used to say.
What he meant was simply that no one enters the kingdom merely because their parents were Christians. They must encounter the gospel themselves and respond to it. In youth ministry, we are driven by a passion that every generation needs the gospel. We know that youth ministry is a vital part of the ministry of a healthy church. We’ve also read criticisms of modern youth ministry, including those who don’t believe it should exist. Yet the truth is that the percentage of youth being reached for the gospel is dwindling. Studies by Lifeway and Barna give us alarming statistics. I think it is reasonable to conclude that youth ministry is at a crossroads. Has it been a failed experiment, as some would suggest? Should it never have existed in the first place? Is there a healthy way forward? Which way we turn will impact whether the next generation is in the kingdom or not.
In recent years, I’ve turned my sights towards helping churches minister to teens in non-traditional ways. For more than a decade I’ve been helping small churches do youth ministry, and now I’ve totally changed direction on how I do that. I used to meet with leaders in a small (often rural) church to help them create a scaled down version of what larger churches do. I no longer advocate that. In fact, I specifically tell small churches not to start a youth group, nor to aspire to do what the big church down the road is doing.
I have found that these churches simply cannot sustain a typical youth program. They start out with excitement and vigor and maybe get a year down the road before things start to fall apart. Leaders step away with no one to replace them. Students lose interest or get swept up by a big church youth group because it’s cooler. Imagine for a moment that you’re a volunteer with limited time and I gave you a book of youth group meeting guides. The plans will work well as long as you have a bunch of students show up. Maybe you see a dozen at first, but then one night only a few students arrive. You can’t run the program because it won’t work with only a few. So instead you go get ice cream together and chalk up the night to “relationship building.” After a few experiences like that, students lose interest because they are not being fed spiritually. The youth group crashes, leaving years before anyone has the guts to try again.
Here is what I now teach smaller churches.
Rather than start a youth group, meet with a few students at a time and study the Bible with them. Build relationships, study scripture, pray it through, and live it out. It’s simple, sustainable, and most anyone can do it.
Really, these should be the tenants of every youth group, large or small.
In this way, the church has a ministry to teens that also teaches them how to disciple others. We can start by exploring the gospels and then move according to the needs of the students. When they are ready to reach out to friends, the strategy remains the same. Additionally, we need to involve students in the life of the congregation. Teens who grow up involved in the life of the church, not just a youth group, are far more likely to remain in the church as adults. When a congregation understands the need to engage every generation, there is no shortage of people willing to invest in the lives of youth.
For larger churches that employ youth pastors, my advice is also to keep it simple.
So often youth ministries succumb to the temptation of creating programs that seek to attract and entertain. The program becomes an end in itself. But if Thom Rainer is correct in his book, The Millenials, what the current generation of teens wants is relationships and authentic faith. So, in youth groups we need to concentrate on two things: the content and the context. Our content is the Bible, the gospel as seen from Genesis to Revelation. We must teach it engagingly in large groups, small groups, and one on one. What is vital in the larger church context is teaching students to study the Bible with one or a few others. This should be taught and practiced so that they are not dependent on a program to feed them. Learning to disciple others, they will be ready to take on their spiritual role as parents one day. Our context is community. We foster relationships so that the group grows together and learns what it means to be the body of Christ.
When we keep youth ministry simple it becomes something more people are able to do, thereby helping to engage every generation. God has no grandkids. Every generation needs to hear the good news!
Dave Wright is the Coordinator of Youth Ministries for the Anglican Diocese of South Carolina. He blogs regularly about life and ministry at Fusion Musing, and on occasion at RootedMinistry.com, and The Gospel Coalition.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.