Where is Youth Ministry Headed?

Youth Ministry is a many-layered, living organism that is way more than just games and food and Bible study. From a very practical standpoint, there are a number of questions I work to keep on the front of my mind.

“What are our goals?”

“Are we achieving our core values?”

“What makes us different from the other options teenagers have?”

“Where is Youth Ministry (in general) headed?”

The last question is one I’ve been spending a lot of time with lately. The question “Where is Youth Ministry headed?” reminds me of losing my keys and then being asked, “Where did you last have your keys?” If I knew where they were last, I’d go get them. If we could know exactly where youth ministry was headed, we’d go there immediately.

That said, this is an important question. We need to learn from the past, and we need to look to the future. This year, I am working in my ninth year of student ministry. Basically, that means I have enough experience now to know I will never be able to predict the future with any real accuracy. So, while this post is far from a prescripted plan, there are a couple of things we can look to for a good idea of what might be down the road.

First, we need to look at what we already have that’s working. Our Youth Ministry leaders work hard to cultivate a welcoming and accepting environment that offers significant substance and depth to youth. We know all of our youth by name. We have the ability to see them play baseball, dance, or exhibit their art. We know what stresses them, what questions they’re asking, and what it takes to make them laugh. When we think about the future, we think about them first, not the backbone of a program or budget numbers. The youth are very much our present, but they’re also our foundation for the future.

As we move forward, we need to have an eye on the future so we can prepare, respond, and grow, rather than simply react. Recently, I found a resource that compiles some quotes from leaders in the academic side of youth ministry on where they think youth ministry is headed. I’ve pulled a few of the quotes (you can see all of them by following the link at the end of this post).

Kara Powell [Executive Director of the Fuller Youth Institute and a faculty member at Fuller Theological Seminary]

I think the future of youth ministry is one in which the age-segregation that has dominated the church ends and we move toward the type of intergenerational community and integration God intends. We‘re seeing in our research how important intergenerational community and relationships are to Sticky Faith.

Brad Griffin [Associate Director of the Fuller Youth Institute]

The future of youth ministry must move toward more intergenerational connectedness, more valuing of and partnering with parents, and less programming fluff.

Andy Root [Olson Baalson Associate Professor of Youth and Family Ministry at Luther Seminary]

In the next few decades youth ministry will need to face the following: a way to actually work with families in a very complicated familial cultural locale, a way of dealing with pluralism–being able to claim the particularity of Jesus without it sliding into rigidity, and to find a robust theological position that connects revelation (the way we understand God‘s revealing presence) with our practices and strategies of day to day ministry.

Kenda Creasy Dean [United Methodist pastor and the Mary D. Synnott Professor of Youth, Church and Culture at Princeton Theological Seminary]

So I think in the future, youth ministry will try to re-weird-ify Christianity, highlighting Jesus‘ radical actions and peculiar self-giving love, in an effort to resist the American church‘s habit of trying to tame the gospel into a middle class bedtime story. If Christianity is dangerous, then we need to act like it. Teenagers aren‘t afraid of risk, but they want to know that Jesus is worth it. Young people are going to demand that we, the church, be who we say we are–people who obviously follow Jesus, which makes us “weird” in a culture based on self-actualization and self-fulfillment–or they‘re just not going to bother with us at all.

These leaders in the academic side of youth ministry highlight two main ideas we need to consider when answering this question about the future.

First, the boundaries that used to define youth ministry are fading. More and more, we’re seeing an investment in the whole family. Ministering to, with, and alongside youth means doing the same with their parents, grandparents, siblings, and more.

This is one of the many reasons why we feel it’s beneficial for our youth to be present in worship each week. Taking them out of that youth ministry silo and giving them a role and a voice in the larger church impacts all of our faith journeys in a positive way—youth and adult alike, especially within a family structure. Intergenerational ministry creates relationships that last a lifetime and connect people of all ages to the life of the church in ways they would otherwise miss out on.

Second, the future of youth ministry is about embracing their natural ability to take risks. Here, adults can learn a lot from youth. Being a Christian is not about being comfortable. Jesus doesn’t say take up your TV remote and follow me when it’s convenient. As Christians, we’re called to be radical, to step out on faith, to stand up for others, and to love well. Youth know this. Our Youth Ministry strives to teach and embody this idea.

It’s natural to play it safe and take measured steps. But faith isn’t defined by “measured steps.” Faith is defined by believing in things not seen. Real faith, genuine faith, and life changing faith require risk taking. Who better to lead us in our risk taking than the best natural risk takers we have?

Youth ministry is no longer about having the biggest programs, the best trips, the coolest basement space, or the flashiest sales pitch. Youth ministry, and the church as a whole, is about disciples of Jesus finding ways to love God and to love each other in a way that connects each of our passions with God’s passions already at work in the world. This is risky work done by all generations together.

Here is the link to the resource with quotes about the future of youth ministry: