Seven Trends to Watch in the Next Decade

October 2nd, 2009

No. 1 The Teenage Flood
The members of the first generation to capture America’s attention—the Baby Boomers—were born between 1943 and 1960, and this group grew to a formidable size of approximately 79 million (about 30 million more than the preceding generation, the Builders).

In the ’60s and ’70s, the Boomers became teens—and it’s no coincidence that church youth programs underwent face-lifts, too. There was a shift from entertainment and fellowship to more intentional ministry, with teens viewed as active participants—and even leaders—in youth ministry. National organizations committed to providing youth ministry training and resources burst onto the scene, and youth workers were added to countless church staffs for the first time.

As Boomers have aged, society has remained focused on this generation as it’s gained political and fiscal clout. What’s more, the attention given to teen problems in recent decades has largely been focused on how they’ve been abandoned by their self-absorbed Boomer parents. The church has continued its preoccupation with the Baby Boomers, preparing for ministry to those aging ones who’re returning to church after wandering in the wilderness. Untold hours and dollars have been spent on efforts to restructure worship and traditional church programs in order to create systems and experiences that’ll draw these adults into fellowship.

As the mainstream youth population has been overlooked, the flood waters of the largest boom ever have been slowly rising. In 1992, there was an increase of 70,000 teens and no one seemed to notice. The fact that school systems have been scrambling to find the funds to build more schools and hire hundreds of thousands of more teachers should’ve been a tip-off, but somehow we missed the signal.

The teen population is expected to grow at twice the rate of the rest of the population during the next decade, peaking in 2010 with approximately 30.8 million teenagers. This is 900,000 more teens than ever before. In fact, it’s 4.1 million more than in 1969—when Woodstock woke up mainstream America to youth culture’s existence.

If preparations aren’t made to accommodate this swelling youth population, the percentage of teens reached for Christ will decline. Even if the same number of youths are ministered to in the future as they are today, they’ll have less impact on their generation than in past decades. Their light will appear dimmer and their voices will sound softer as they’re hidden and drowned out by the masses. The implications of this future trend are even more alarming when one considers that this youth population will also, one day, reach adulthood—and be in charge.

If the Kingdom of God is to be advanced, youth ministry efforts must be multiplied in the next few years.

Evangelistic efforts should always be an intentional focus of the ministry, but the overwhelming numbers of emerging teens demand greatly expanded strategies and structures.

Here are some action points to consider:

  • Multiple youth ministers assigned to various age groups
  • Ongoing volunteer recruitment and training for all ministry areas
  • Mentoring opportunities for students who want to go into youth ministry
  • Increased financial support for expanding ministries
  • More building space for larger numbers of teens
  • Emphasis on reaching and teaching youths from many ethnic and social backgrounds
  • Mobilizing student leaders to multiply ministry efforts
  • School and community partnerships that provide access to student populations
  • Expanded youth ministry educational programs

Noah’s willingness to obey God and build an ark in the face of a flood resulted in salvation and life for generations to come. Without a doubt, the floods are coming. Our response to that flood may very well have greater implications for future generations than we can imagine today.
—Karen E. Jones is a youth ministry professor with the LINK Institute for Faithful and Effective Youth Ministry at Huntington (Indiana) College.

No. 2 The Narrative Gospel
You’ve no doubt noticed that teens are growing up influenced more and more by screens—computer screens, TV screens, movie screens. What do these contraptions do so well? They tell vivid stories.

The problem is that while some of the stories students experience through TV, film, or the Internet are life-building, a great many are life-destroying. But if vivid storytelling is expressed through the lens of Christianity, teens will be exposed to an incredible collection of trustworthy tales that amaze, transform, empower, and delight—especially if they’re told from the hearts of those who love kids.

The story is making a big comeback these days. In fact, I believe that narrative, biblical storytelling is the most effective ministry to teens today. After all, wasn’t that Jesus’ style?

If storytelling makes you nervous, you’re in good company! Most of us haven’t been exposed to much storytelling—much less done it ourselves. Yes, we’ve heard them read and analyzed, maybe heard a memorized verse or two, but rarely do we experience a whole story, told like a story—with action, dialogue, and narration.

I believe Jesus wants these stories communicated to our young people today—and he may be calling you to the adventure. As the crowd said to blind, boisterous Bartimaeus, “Take heart, get up, for he is calling you!”

What to do? Simple. Learn the story. Tell the story. Teach the story. But not necessarily in that order—there are lots of ways to start! Here’s one for brave beginners that’ll get you learning, telling, and teaching all at the same time.

1. Pick a story you like, one that’s big on action, light on dialogue, and not too long—like the Bartimaeus story from Mark 10:46-52. Print it in nonparagraph form, one sentence or phrase per line, with phrases indented. Divide the story into manageable chunks of two to three verses (“episodes”) and put extra space between them. Read your story out loud until your mouth and ears are used to it.

2. Gather your students into a semicircle, light a candle next to you, and turn out the lights. Give a brief intro: What if Jesus asked, “What do you want me to do for you?” How would you answer? Today we’ll hear a story about Jesus asking that very question of a person. Then, while you read the story out loud, instruct them to close their eyes and picture what’s happening. Pause between episodes. Let it sink in. Allow a moment of silence at the end, then blow out the candle and turn on the lights.

Other methods:

  • Read the story phrase by phrase and have your kids repeat each phrase after you.
  • Try the latter method, but get up and act it out while you speak. Try out different gestures; move through the story to different spaces in the room. Vary volume, tempo, and tone of voice.
  • Give your copy of the story to students and invite them to be storytelling leaders. Let them select one of the previously noted methods and lead with their own style.
  • For each episode, share background information about the Bible passage that puts it into the context of those persons who first heard it long ago.
  • Have each student pick a partner. Have the pairs take turns telling the story to each other—but let them know that the goal is to get from the beginning to the end without eliminating anything of major significance and without adding anything of major significance. Let the students help each other remember the story’s details as best they can.
  • Brainstorm connections to contemporary culture and life—things about the story that remind them of particular movies or TV shows, songs, current events, or experiences from their own lives.

If you hear a call to biblical storytelling and want some help, two great resources are Story Journey: The Art of Biblical Storytelling by Thomas E. Boomershine (Abingdon Press), the Network of Biblical Storytellers (800/355-NOBS or www.nobs.org), and “Telling the Living Story,” an article published by Leadership Network’s NetFax service (800/765-5323) on Oct. 25, 1999.
—Amelia Cooper is editor of The Biblical Storyteller, a periodical of the Network of Biblical Storytellers.

No. 3 The Return to Ancient Spiritual Practices
Heartbroken by our culture’s disregard for teens, hounded by the clatter of mail-gadgets, confused by the seductive sirens of the marketplace, discouraged by the worn-out bickering of church staffs and denominational leaders, frustrated with insular forms of worship—and above all, lonely in their longing to love God and love kids—youth workers in this new decade will become increasingly desperate to find ways to save their own souls.

Those who don’t leave ministry will seek out sabbath forms of living—simple, ordinary practices that integrate silence, meditation, and listening (contemplative) prayer.

More youth workers will seek to imitate Jesus’ rhythm of withdrawal and retreat into deserted and solitary places. As the majority of youth ministers become specialized with graduate degrees and certificates, a strong minority will hunger to become better disciples—casting off professional conferences for retreat centers that offer rest, spiritual practice, and attention to the everpresent Christ. Visits to monasteries, guidance through Ignatian exercises, and regular appointments with spiritual directors will be the survival strategies of long-term youth workers in all denominations.

As the culture spins into hyperactivity and churches (even as they’re declining) desperately imitate the consumer culture, I believe that only those youth workers who are mystics—who possess a lived-out experience of the indwelling Christ—will have anything to offer students.

It’s significant that as youth workers return to the source of faith, they will bring their students with them. Practices and experiences that focus on the presence of God will undergird confirmation classes and curriculum lessons. Youth workers will operate more holistically—concerned with transformation more than information. And the ancient disciplines of premodern Christianity—silence, prayer, and meditation—will be the necessary tools for forming souls in the twenty-first-century church.

Youth programs will slowly shift, too. Little spaces of silence and solitude will be scattered throughout classes and youth events. Singing will deepen from sentimental imitations of pop music to melodic chants that enhance prayer and worship. Expensive, resort like camps will be replaced by pilgrimages and periods of fasting in the wilderness as more churches seek to offer rites of passage.

Lectio divina, the Ignatian Awareness Examen, and the Jesus prayer will be familiar tools in any established youth program. In the immediate future, churches will exploit these prayers as the latest exotic ministry gimmick, but a good minority will incorporate biblical meditation and contemplative prayer as regular aspects of their discipleship programs.

Further, as youth workers and churches continue to engage in practices that attend to the presence of God, a significant portion will seek to disband their youth ministries. They’ll create churches that function as retreat centers, where children, youths, and adults can nurture their lives in Christ together.

I don’t believe ancient disciplines and contemplative practices of the church will ever be as widespread and popular as game nights, ski retreats, and those models of ministry that imitate the surrounding culture. But in the next 10 to 20 years, more youth workers will recognize that, in this period in the life of the church, it’s silence that proclaims the good news, stillness that brings justice, fasting that feeds the hungry, and prayer that trains the heart to hear the quiet beckoning of the living Christ.
—Mark Yaconelli is director of the Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project at San Francisco Theological Seminary.

No. 4 The Multicultural Church
We’ve been seeing a shift from the dominant culture to a diverse culture. That will be the case even more in the next decade. And the youth ministries that most effectively engage the world in the third millennium will be the ones that dare to usher in the Kingdom of God this side of eternity by reaching youths from “every tongue, tribe, and nation” (Revelation 7:9). That’s God’s way of building his kingdom. God wants to use you and your youth ministry to reach every teen in your community. Remember that “God our Savior wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4).

But you can’t build a multiculturally sensitive ministry alone—which is why you must build a diverse youth ministry leadership team! Reflect your multicultural intentions by decentralizing power, allowing others to lead up front—including announcements, teaching, drama, worship, et cetera. It’s a great way to promote interdependence.

Believe me, if you attempt multicultural youth ministry, you’ll get some heat for this “new wineskin.” But be courageous, humble, and remain biblical. Remember that teens of all colors and ethnic groups are more broken and wounded than ever—and therefore our ministries will have to be safe, sensitive, encouraging communities where students can be discipled over the long haul. Multicultural evangelism will be process oriented. But dare to engage the emerging generation through authentic relationships; dare to reach youths by translating the gospel in a relevant way to your demographically changing community.

Diversify your ministry portfolio, focus, and strategies. The emerging multicultural generation will be more open to people from other backgrounds and drawn more by ministries that value diversity. They’ll be seen as real and compelling if they understand and reflect our global community.

But the bottom line is love: You can’t build a ministry that crosses cultures unless you’ve allowed love to break down barriers. Now is the time to be a reconciled reconciler. Our God is a multicultural God.
—Larry Acosta is director of the Hispanic Ministry Center in Santa Ana, California, which trains youth workers to reach and disciple Hispanic teens.</em>

No. 5 The New Leadership Metaphor: Organic Gardener
Leadership. We’ve all been told to develop this skill. Some of us have taken graduate and postgraduate level classes dealing with it. Some consider themselves quite good leaders, while others pray daily for the skills and abilities.

I’d like to suggest that most of what we’ve learned about ministry leadership will be of very little worth in the next two decades. It simply will not produce the sort of outcomes we desire.

Over the last half century there’ve been many metaphors for leadership—and they’ve helped us understand and define our ideas and roles. Here are a few of the most prominent:

The War General. Many of us have difficulty connecting to this one, because for us war is conducted from the air and seen on TV like a spectator sport. But for those weaned into adulthood during the first and second world wars and the Korean and Vietnam conflicts, the idea of war, winning battles, and taking a hill makes great sense. For these men and women, the leader-as-warrior metaphor has worked quite well. You can see it in our Christian lexicon: Fights, battles, Christian soldiers.

The Coach. This approach has been popularized more recently. The people in our ministries are seen as the team, there is a game to be won, and our job is to train and utilize our team members to win that game. But for many kids, the idea that their youth workers are simply coaches who help them win games seems shallow in the light of real-life struggles.

The Chaplain. They’re important only because they fulfill religious-worker duties for organizations. Youth workers are often viewed in the same light—the idea that, as the leader, your sole role is performing certain religious duties for kids.

The CEO. Organizations we lead should be done so with clear principles, job descriptions, focused goals, plans, and strategies. Many churches believe similarly: Youth workers have expense accounts and budgets to crunch, quarterly evaluations to write, and bottom lines to meet. The “corporate ministry” model has found very fertile ears in recent years. It’s evident, however, that emerging generations desire more from leaders than simply accomplishing goals and executing strategies.

A New Metaphor. Our postmodern, pluralistic world is challenging Christianity with many other philosophies, religions, and spiritualities. In order for the people in our youth ministries—and Christianity itself—to thrive, we need to demonstrate that being a Christian is viable, and in fact, is an even better way of living in our world.

I believe, however, that this goal won’t be best served with past metaphors—by taking hills, winning games, fulfilling our predetermined roles, or treating ministry as a business. It will come through personal and communal growth—creating environments where people grow in faith, love, and service. I propose we begin viewing our leadership roles as if we’re Organic Gardeners. Some things to consider:

1. Soil is most important. Gardeners will tell you the way you get a beautiful garden above the surface is to have healthy soil below it. Healthy organic gardens aren’t created by what’s put on the plant—but by what the plant draws from the soil. Youth workers will need to spend time with their ministries’ soil, keeping it healthy by being sure that what’s in it will help produce the desirable plants.

2. Bugs and worms are good! To gardeners, ugly bugs and worms don’t look so bad—because they ultimately promote healthy plant growth. Youth workers in the next two decades will need to use the ugly parts of kids’ lives to promote their spiritual health. This doesn’t mean that everything is accepted—there are threats to the garden that you must keep at bay. But remember, too, that what may seem ugly now could be the agent of ultimate spiritual health.

3. Growth comes in cycles. There are annuals and perennials. There are times of the year when certain plants grow and times when they don’t. Organic gardeners know that the garden sets the schedule. Youth workers also will need to know their kids well enough to not force certain outcomes—but let blossoms emerge.

4. Beauty matters. For many gardeners, there’s more to their gardens than simply products to be consumed. Often beauty is the goal. In a world that tends to lack beauty, a beautiful Christian ministry garden may be just the thing the world around us needs to see, smell, and touch.

5. Pruning is crucial. Pruning means more than cutting. Pruning requires attention to what’s going on in the garden and removing that which is no longer needed. Pruning is what takes gardeners the most time and work. As such, youth workers will need to be in their gardens, checking the soil, pulling off leaves, and paying attention to every plant.

6. Don’t forget the basics. When it comes to plant growth, nothing beats simple water, sun, and air. Youth workers know there are basics to spiritual growth as well—prayer, Scripture, service, worship, to name a few. They’ll always need attention.

Certainly being a youth ministry gardener requires much work and patience. And perhaps it won’t produce as much bounty as commercial farming or an additive-based, synthetic “Miracle Gro” garden. But like the angel-gardeners speaking to Mary Magdalene at Jesus’ tomb (John 20:15), the toil and strain will be worth it—because your real reason for digging in the dirt is pointing your kids to the risen Christ.
—Doug Pagitt (formerly of Leadership Network) is pastor of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic, missional Christian community that officially began as a church in southwest Minneapolis on January 2.

No. 6 The Postdenominational Church
A few months ago I met a guy who attends a Lutheran seminary—that wasn’t shocking to me. What was shocking was his reaction when we got to talking about the Concordat (a statement acknowledging that the Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran Church of America will share clergy, recognize each other’s ordinations, and join together at the Lord’s Table).

What amazed me was the vehemence with which this 25-year-old guy attacked the accord—in fact, he’s organizing a student group to overturn his denomination’s decision.

It had been such a long time since I met anyone under 30 who really cares that much about denominations.

When I was in seminary—not that long ago!—I was envied by my classmates for being unencumbered by denominational affiliation. Most of them were jumping through hoops to get money and recognition from their sponsoring denominations, only to fear where they might be assigned upon graduation. Denominations—it seemed to them and to me—would forever be a necessary evil.

There’s good news, though: They’re becoming less and less necessary. Though some will fight valiantly to save them, denominations are a dying breed. We’re entering a postdenominational age.

For 30 years, my church ran a spring break ski trip to Colorado. It started with just our youth group. But by the time I was in high school, our Congregational church had been joined on the trip by two Catholic parishes and a Lutheran Church. I don’t know what the leaders’ meetings were like, but I doubt they argued over transubstantiation or theories of the atonement. All I know is that I saw my youth pastor model what it means to work with youth workers of other denominations. I learned tolerance of fellow Christians, no matter what their church affiliations. They were simply my brothers and sisters in Christ.

This is the wave of the future. We once rallied around denominations—those doctrinally similar to us—and more recently we’ve organized around large teaching churches. And now more than ever, Christians are connecting across denominational lines. This is a good thing—because we are the minority in today’s culture. We simply cannot afford to ostracize ourselves from fellow believers because we don’t agree on baptism or predestination or other doctrinal nuances.

And on this front of community, youth workers must lead the way. Let’s face it: Many of our senior pastors are beholden to their denominations. They went to denominational seminaries, and denominations offer them financial and job security. It’s going to be up to us—the youth workers—to take the courageous steps needed to reunify Christ’s church.

Here are three examples of what God’s doing in our town—perhaps he’s doing similar things in yours:

  • We’ve resurrected a once-strong network of youth workers in a town where the competitive spirit between churches runs high. We meet for lunch the second Thursday of the month at a restaurant for fellowship and prayer.
  • We’ve started a high school vespers service once a month that rotates between our church and two others. It’s entirely student led and consists of music, testimonies, and prayer. (Congregationalists, Catholics, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Covenanters have joined together at these services.)
  • Recently I was approached by an assistant to the Archbishop of the local Roman Catholic Archdiocese. He asked if I thought we could get all of the churches in our city to share a youth ministry program to teach the basic tenets of the faith! Now if that doesn’t convince you that times are changing, nothing will! (This also bolsters another theory of mine—that within 500 years, we’ll all be Catholic or Orthodox again.)

I say let’s meet the challenge. We can take risks our bosses cannot. We can rally all the Christian churches of our communities for the one cause we all have in common: Offering students the redemption that’s available in Jesus Christ. We need to recognize that postdenominationalism is already a reality among most of our students. In fact, it seems that the irrelevance of denominations increases as age decreases! That means, with each succeeding generation, we’ll see more and more teens who have no time for denominational squabbles. That means we’d better pay attention to what’s happening around us.

We always talk about “one church.” We even sing about it. Now is our time to do something about it.
—Tony Jones is minister to youth and young adults at Colonial Church of Edina (Minnesota).

No. 7 The Intergenerational Church
God has arranged the parts of the body—every one of them—just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, how could they be a body? The teens cannot say to the parents, “I don’t need you!” And the older adults cannot say to the children, “I don’t need you!” There should be no division in the body. Its parts should have equal concern for each other(Adapted from 1 Corinthians 12).

I confess that I never wanted to do intergenerational ministry. For many years I’ve taken great pride in developing great programs for teenagers, fighting for facilities, begging for budget increases, and being confident in the knowledge that youth ministry is the most important thing in the church. We would do our thing and let the other ministries do theirs. Then God began whispering to me that I was selfish and wrong.

In recent years, I’ve sensed God calling me to stop leading a ministry separate from the rest of the church body. All my years of steering clear of these other age groups left my students deprived—because these folks can make deep, lasting marks on my kids. (And my kids can make deep, lasting marks on them!)

I’ve slowly been transformed by taking seriously the call toward body unity—and getting to know the people behind the generalizations. With God’s help, I’ve been seeking creative ways to join more fully with the Boomers, the Builders, the Silents, the Xers, and the Millennials who gather around me each week. Here’s where sparks occur—good sparks—when the generations come together in meaningful ways.

I’ll never forget the 76-year-old guest teacher who—with plenty of wisdom and no crowd breakers—led my students in a study of the Psalms. After the lesson, he told me, “In fifty years of teaching, that was the best Sunday School class I’ve ever taught.” Later the students approached me and asked, “When is he coming back?”

Here’s some of what I’ve learned:

  1. Building bridges between generational groups will help build healthier, more vibrant congregations. When we share our faith journeys, we strengthen connections and weaken divisions. But it takes work to convince different age groups to stretch their preconceived ideas about other age groups, leave their corners, and come together for something new and different. Because in intergenerational ministry, no one gets everything they want. But when it’s done well, everyone gets what they need—a deepened respect and empathy for those who are ahead of them…and behind them.

  2. Intergenerational ministry can be done well only with intergenerational leadership and partnership. I may know teenagers, but I need others to help understand what it means to be 50 or 80. It’s a rich experience when the planning, promotion, and execution is intergenerational. Creativity, flexibility, and risk are essential to cultivating meaningful experiences.

At my church, the student and adult ministries started a monthly intergenerational worship service that connects all the represented age groups. Through music, faith stories, open-mic sharing, object lessons, video, creative communion, prayer, and focused themes and drama, everyone is catching a fresh new spirit of worship together.

We had to let go of some things. We gave up one Sunday a month. Some students say we don’t meet as much.

When we’re with the adults, we’ve had to lose the we-can-do-whatever-we-want-all-the-time attitude, too. I’m more cautious of driving, scheduling, planning, too—intergenerational ministry calls me to grow up!

I know we’re on the right track. Helping kids grow up into Christ; helping adults grow young by seeing faith in new ways; growing together. This is our vision of the future.

What are your dreams for your church?
—Mike Collison is pastor of student ministries at Orchard Hill Reformed Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. (For more reading on our generations, Mike says to check out The Fourth Turning: An American Prophecy andGenerations: The History of America’s Future, 1584-2069, both by William Strauss and Neil Howe—as well as Howe’s 13th Gen: Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail.


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.