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Best Youth Ministry Ever!

Your ministry can thrive if you remember you’re ministering with nomads, not settlers.

I honestly think that this past year in youth ministry has been the best ever. My wife, Aileen, laughed when she heard me say that. She told me I said the same thing last year—and that I often make that comment.

In youth ministry we aim to make authentic connections. We were created in the image of God to proclaim the love of God to the world by loving God and loving our neighbors. We are hard-wired for healthy and wholesome relationships—but the precise shape of those relationships morphs all the time.

Our dear friend Sophie uses an expression that summarizes the ever-reforming nature of youth ministry: “Nothing never changes.” That is the common ground and grammar of youth ministry today. In more than two decades of practicing youth ministry, I have seen many changes, both subtle and downright staggering. The changing nature of my work is one reason I love youth ministry.

One of the most staggering changes I have witnessed has to do with young people themselves.

Over the past 20 years I have worked with mostly third-generation junior and senior high school children of Dutch immigrants who have generally been white, Reformed/Protestant, and middle- to upper-middle-class. Most have had an education exclusively within a parochial Christian school.

Almost without exception, once they finish their high school education they absent the church of their parents and grandparents—some for a short time and others for a long time, even a lifetime. It seems that some force convinces them to wander away from the flock that nurtured them and offered them identity.

It was not always like this. In the past, young people used to be nurtured within a community, and then as adults were counted on to live in and contribute to that community. They could be thought of as settlers, and their ancestors as pilgrims. The community offered stability, security, and identity, and the young person who was fostered in those traditions accepted those communal benefits.

Today it might be more accurate to think of young people as nomads.

Here are four changes that demonstrate the nomadic paradigm of young people today.

New Worlds

The young people I have worked with are keenly interested in and drawn to worlds outside their own: the world of movies and TV serial dramas, the worlds opened via the Internet, the generated worlds of video games and connections to online gamers. These foreign kingdoms and distant shores make huge demands on their time and beckon to them like the Sirens in the nomadic tale of Homer’s Odyssey.

They learn to live politely and quietly within the rules of their immediate environment and to develop two or three languages (that is, how to speak in church and school, how to speak around adults, and how to converse with peers). They watch all that goes on around them like hawks and boldly inquire about formerly out-of-bounds, private areas of adults’ lives for ever more information. They master living within these often-differing worlds, all the while searching for authenticity.

A ministry that acknowledges new worlds must include

  • rooting itself in authentic worship—an exercise in re-forming life with God as the center of it all, establishing “home” by praising God, giving thanks for God’s creative and redemptive work in our diverse world, hearing God’s Word preached, and receiving the sacraments given to us in Christ.
  • interpreting the Scriptures together, particularly in relation to their meaning for our own lives in a changing world, so that our youths live with a clear sense of purpose.
  • providing and accepting hospitality and care graciously, not only to and from those we know and love , but also out-of-our-comfort-zone strangers and even enemies.

Extensive Travel

Today’s young people also wander about the world like never before. I marvel at how quickly they feel at home in different countries. Twenty years ago our youth groups were more than content to travel a few hours from home to camp or take part in an overnight canoe trip. Now, soon after graduation, groups of friends begin traveling the world together—again, more like nomads than settlers.

Here are two examples of how our church ministry seeks to equip our young members before they roam around the world:

  • Our congregation supports a trip to Iona, Scotland, where we live within an isolated and ancient Christian community for one week. The periodically grueling trip functions as a pilgrimage, presenting an opportunity for profound spiritual development and also an opportunity to experience sojourning as Christians.
  • When our high school seniors indicate that they will be leaving home after high school, we arrange three visits to other church worship services—churches in which they will not be known—to safely experience venturing into a new and unknown Christian community. We do this because the results of a study suggest that if young people do not attend church within four weeks of leaving home for school or work in another city, there is a high probability that church attendance will not be a part of their away-from-home experience. We hope to make the idea of venturing into a new church community less intimidating and more likely.

Innumerable Choices

It would be an oversimplification to say that when I was a teen all of my choices were limited. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the choices confronting a young person today are staggering. Young people face innumerable choices about every aspect of their lives: fashion, music, movies, sports, school trips and missions, extracurricular activities, and humanitarian or religious experiences.

I hear some adults claim that the world they grew up in is not really all that different from the world of today’s young people. But I suggest that today’s world is dramatically more complex and still rapidly changing.

Churches can equip their youths for the vast array of choices by

  • struggling together to become conscious of and to understand the nature of the context in which we live.
  • criticizing and resisting powers and patterns (both within the church and in the world as a whole) that destroy human beings, corrode human community, and injure God’s creation.

Expanded Communication

Not long ago the telephone provided the primary means of communication between young people, other than face time. As we all know, there are now myriad ways to stay in touch. News—good or bad, uplifting or dignity-robbing—now travels the world at light speed, including up-to-the-minute images. The hunger to get “the latest” on one’s contemporaries or strangers overseas can be hard to resist and represents a time-consuming call for attention at all hours. As a consequence, young minds are restless and vigilant, wanting to keep up with the latest in this ever-widening scope.

We can engage young minds into redemptive action by

  • telling the Christian story to one another face to face—fostering the divine/human dialogue, reading and hearing the Scriptures together and telling the stories of the church’s experience throughout its history.
  • praying together and by ourselves, not only in formal services of worship but in all times and places.
  • suffering with and for one another and all whom Jesus shows us to be our neighbors.
  • working together to create and maintain social structures and institutions that sustain life in the world in ways that are in accord with God’s will.

The examples listed above for equipping contemporary youths are ancient practices that appear consistently throughout the Christian tradition. But these ancient practices are particularly significant for youth ministry today.

The younger demographic has become a moving target for intentional church ministry. It used to be that the “lost sheep” wandered away from the 99; now it seems that the 99 leave—not as lost, but as nomads wandering about the world. This is our new reality in youth ministry.

I have seen a giant shift away from a one-size-fits-all programming model, which is not faith-sustaining, toward a far more relational emphasis in youth ministry. A ministry striving toward healthy relationships will remain dynamic and vibrant for the participants in the long term. We have found salvation in that kind of connecting.

I have also witnessed a move away from the youth ministry model in which young people gather around one attractive personality and many activities. Instead, youth ministry is moving toward the creation of multiple enduring connections within faith communities that are immersed in Scripture and in the person of Jesus Christ.

This new direction of youth ministry no longer takes for granted that young people will settle and stay. Instead what’s emerging is ministry that equips those who are on their way to being salt and light throughout the world.    

Authentic youth ministry must be shaped not by an antiquated settler’s paradigm, but by a nomadic one. Striving to recreate the youth ministry of yesteryear is futile. The world has changed.

Interestingly, I find myself more engaged and challenged by nomads than by settlers. It has been exciting to transition from a settler ministry model to a more nomadic one. And that’s partly why I told Aileen that the past year in youth ministry was the best ever!

10 Things Young People Want

Here’s what young adults said when they were asked what they want from older leaders:

  1. Authenticity, not just putting a good side forward. Honesty and vulnerability about what really goes on in your life.
  2. Mutuality, not top-down governance—mentors who respect us in return, allowing us to add value in their lives too.
  3. Inspiration rather than control. Give us encouragement and room to dream our dreams outside of the boxes you might be used to.
  4. Valid as opposed to trivial involvement in the full body of the church—don’t allocate us to “youth stuff” alone.
  5. Invitations to see, not just be told. Invite us along to places where we can watch you model ministry skills and character.
  6. Stop praying for us and start praying with us.
  7. Courage, instead of fearing to evaluate traditional structures. Let’s ask why we do what we do; let’s be learners, not protectors.
  8. Walk with us, instead of toeing the party line, through the truth of Scripture. Invite us to struggle with what is not clear.
  9. Instead of status quo, a desire to grow. We need you to be moving with us—committing the church’s ministry to God.
  10. Resist being patronizing and instead offer genuine support, laughter, and hugs—a sense that you trust us and actually like us.

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