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.
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?