I had the privilege of spending three days in the beautiful Colorado mountains with leaders from the world’s top youth ministry organizations. It was such an honor to laugh, cry, pray, and dream with the people who’ve been shaping youth ministry for decades. Their legacy will be felt in young hearts for generations, and their attachment to Jesus will shape youth ministry’s future.
I got a top-down view of youth ministry, and from that perspective I noticed some common themes and challenges that seem important for all of us to pay attention to…
1. Teenagers are in crisis. Everyone agrees that heightened levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide among this generation of young people is unprecedented. Regardless of our interpretation of the contributing factors (technology, parental roles, shifts in culture, etc.), teenagers are at a critical point right now. They’re craving adults who understand that a typical teenager’s greatest need is intervention, not cheering from the sidelines. Our job is to get into the mess of their lives and bring hope and redemption with our presence. Our presence, because we have Jesus at home in the neighborhood of our heart, brings the presence of Jesus into the mess.
2. Youth workers are fighting to stay relevant in the culture. The youth worker’s role has never been more critical, yet it’s under attack in a culture that is quickly re-labeling the church community as an irrelevant connecting point. Parents are shifting priorities for themselves and their teenagers away from spiritual communities and pursuits and toward academics, service, and sports. This reprioritization is leaving youth workers perplexed, abandoned, and wondering what’s next for youth ministry. It’s crucial that we re-connect our identity to our calling—the “name” Jesus gives us that also expresses our role in His Kingdom—rather than our respect and esteem within the culture.
3. Local networks are key. These days, the emphasis is on local networks. Rather than relying on national conferences and organizations, youth pastors are discovering more value in developing local support networks for training, mentoring, and relationships. This is exciting because there’s potential for connected youth programs to share funding and combine resources to serve neighborhood teenagers.
4. Young people need safe spaces and supportive, trusting relationships. Youth workers must nurture friendships that allow teenagers to be who they are, break down when necessary, and not be judged. Kids yearn for peers and adults who actively support them through prayer and give them space to rest.
For decades, youth ministry has focused on a read, study, and apply method. The hope was that if clever, entertaining youth pastors taught teenagers the Bible, it would stick in their lives. The result? We’ve created a generation of teenagers that isn’t reading the Bible and is abandoning their faith. Because parents aren’t seeing changes in their kids, they’re reprioritizing team sports and school activities.
For youth groups to thrive in these circumstances, they must change direction and focus on a deepening attachment to Jesus, relationship-building, and interactive teaching strategies that get kids talking and owning their discoveries. This requires authentic spaces that are safe for teenagers to share, doubt, and play with Jesus.