Wednesday, January 18, 2012

    What is the Future of Youth Ministry?

    What issues will have the most impact on your youth ministry in the next five years? The next ten years?

    I was honored last week to participate in a Lily funded Youth Ministry Think Tank hosted by the excellent Center for Youth Ministry Training in Nashville.  The gathering included a pretty amazing group of youth ministry academics and practioners such as Mike King, Mark DeVries, Kenda Creasy Dean, Stephen Ingram, Dori Baker, and Mark Matlock, to name a few.

    Participants in the 4th annual Lilly Laboratory Think Tank
    Our challenge prior to arriving in Nashville was to consider the question: "What cultural or theological issues will youth ministry be facing and responding to in the next five to ten years?"  Each participant wrote three white papers on this subject and those papers formed the bulk of our conversation and discernment over the three-day event. You'll be hearing a great deal more from me on the think tank's work but at present my brain is still spinning with the sheer volume of information, ideas, questions, and challenges that came out of the group's efforts.  For now, I simply want to share with you in brief the three relevant cultural/theological issues that I identified as impacting the future of youth ministry, encourage your comments, and invite you to propose your own responses to the think tank's question. (Update: I also encourage you to check out this post by think tank participant Stephen Ingram on the issues he identified. They are definitely the ones that resonated the most with me of all those submitted).

    Issue 1: Increase in the influence of Post-modernity on Teens

    Summary: The challenge for many of us, throughout the theological spectrum from evangelicals to progressives, is that we increasingly will be encountering new generations of adolescents raised in a thoroughly post-modern culture. These young people are being shaped by values that include open-mindedness over certainty, tolerance and diversity over exclusivity, and a willingness to see Christianity as but one of a multitude of valid religious choices.


    Additionally, these youth will be seeking experiences, not dogma and will be more willing to believe that truth is relative. For me, the challenge here is that we can no longer assume that youth will simply accept the faith of their parents or of the church in which they were raised. They will no longer be willing to accept that Christianity is “the way” simply because we tell them that it is. I think we will see fewer and fewer youth who will be satisfied with our attempts to give them the “right answer” or our efforts to help them be on the “correct side” of a debate. They will want to be part of the messiness of figuring out what the world means for them.

    Issue 2: Greater Openness of Youth on Issues of Gender, Sexuality, and Sexual Orientation

    Summary: Attitudes in the United States continue to shift toward greater inclusion of those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered. Gallup polls in 2011 show that, for the first time, a majority of Americans favor legal gay marriage. Additionally, polls of persons under the age of 30 show that the majority support greater inclusion of LGBT persons. These findings echo those indicating that many young people (including those who identify as Christian) view the Church negatively because of its seemingly hostile attitude toward persons of minority sexual orientations. Relatedly, recent studies by The Barna Group indicate that youth who were once active in church but are no longer often site the Church’s overly simplistic or judgmental view of sexuality as a main reason for their disconnect. These changes suggest a cultural (if not theological) shift amongst youth that will represent a real and perhaps painful struggle for many in both mainline and conservative churches who do not believe that openness on the issue of sexuality is compatible with the Christian faith. However, it would seem clear that the Church risks irrelevance if it fails to engage in honest and open dialogue with youth on these issues.

    Issue 3: The Challenge of Extended Adolescence

    Summary: Often when we speak of youth ministry we are referring to ministry with teenagers. If we were to extend that definition to include “adolescents,” many sociologists would argue that this category now includes young persons up to their mid and late twenties. According to the latest statistics, almost 50 percent of youth ages 18-24 live at home and a majority of youth still receive financial support from their parents even after graduating college. A shift has occurred in our culture resulting in adolescents delaying adulthood. Youth in their late teens and early twenties take longer to develop financial independence from their parents, have trouble maintaining employment, postpone marriage, have difficulty sustaining relationships, and seem to lack direction. It seems to me that the Church is part of this problem. While the world around us struggles through war, poverty, and injustice, we challenge our youth with little more than participating in a youth group, attending Sunday school, hosting a youth Sunday once a year, or perhaps leading at youth-centric events or camps. At a time when teens are at the peak of their mental and physical abilities, we ask them to sit on the sidelines of the work of the Church. To be certain -- inviting youth into leadership often results in messiness, half-completed projects, and missed deadlines -- but if our intention is to raise up leaders of the faith, can we afford to wait until their extended adolescence is over?

    So, there are the three issues I named. Of course, there are many others.  What cultural or theological issues do you think youth ministry will be facing and responding to in the next decade?


    kolby said...

    Brian, Great post. Are teens already being raised in a post-post modern culture. In canada, we are a multi-cultural, post-modern society. Actually, I think we have actually be in a post modern culture for over 20 years! I wonder if we in the evangelical world are so far behind. Those are a few thoughts!

    Brian Kirk said...

    Kolby, I agree that we've likely been swimming in a post-modern culture a lot longer than we've been aware.

    Jack Schmitt said...

    Personally, I hope and pray that there will be a major shift within church youth ministries in which being program-oriented is replaced by being much more worship-oriented. I have been serving in the youth ministry since 1975, and it's time we youth leaders stop being activity directors and start being ministers.

    Q said...

    I agree Jack- I have been doing youth ministry since the late 80's and keep reminding my church and parents that I am not a "cruise director". Great post Brian! -Jay