It was two years ago—a typical student service on a typical Sunday night. We served the typical food and played the typical music and games right before I made our typical announcements and launched into one of my typical teaching times. But about five minutes in, I noticed something that really bothered me—staring back at me were the glassed-over eyes and blank faces of the middle-school students I was trying to reach with the so-called “good news” of Jesus Christ. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced this dynamic, but something about this time barreled into me.
It was soul-crushing.
If you’ve spent more than a few months in youth ministry, maybe you can relate. You toil all week studying scripture, crafting your delivery, plotting cleverly timed jokes, and creating illustrations. Then you serve it all up to a disengaged group of kids who are visibly bored—the dull glow of their cell phones is far more captivating than your brilliant exegesis.
I somehow dragged myself through the end of my teaching, then dismissed 200 antsy middle schoolers to their small groups for 20 minutes of discussion about whatever it was I’d just said. Driving home that night I couldn’t get that sea of unresponsive faces out of my mind. I was trying to convince myself that it wasn’t a big deal, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of discouragement…
Jesus was about to challenge everything I’ve taken for granted about youth ministry.
Learning to Speak In Digital
Here’s something truly strange about youth ministry: We serve in vastly different environments, but we use nearly identical methods to engage our students. We have some fun, do a little worship, then spend the rest of our time talking at our kids. It’s been the standard approach to student ministry for at least the last two decades, even though this methodology ran its course years ago.
The fruit of this tired formula is a mass exodus of young people from the church. Previously, college ministry was the “black hole” of the church, but now high school ministry is punching that ticket. Researchers with the 4/14 Window, the global missions movement, report that four out of five (80 percent) of Christ-followers began their journey when they were between the ages of 4 and 14. Essentially, if kids don’t experience and commit to Jesus by the time they reach high school, it’s unlikely they’ll ever do so. But instead of heeding the alarms going off, we’ve chosen to maintain models of ministry that haven’t worked for years.
We have a problem in our approach to youth ministry, the same that missionaries have faced from the pages of Acts up until today—it’s called a language barrier.Click to tweet
Soon after My “night of desolation” teaching experience, I read an article by Marc Prensky titled “Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants” (for a short YouTube overview, go here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jRR76Mz9NII). In it, he nails the underlying disconnect between what I was trying to give and what my students were capable of receiving—I wasn’t speaking their “native” digital language. They’re not bored by Jesus; they’re bored by the way we communicate Jesus. They use digital platforms to share their hopes, values, humor, vulnerabilities, creativity, spiritual hungers, and so much more. If we find ways to use those same digital platforms, they’ll start listening again.
Experimenting With Their ‘Native’ Tongue
What would happen if we stopped “live” teaching in our youth ministries and replaced it with a digital strategy that’s driven by missionary zeal? In the fall of 2012, we decided to try that experiment with Switch, our middle-school ministry. We called it SwitchTV—a DVD-based small-group strategy that allows teaching to go viral. I know many of us have used DVD curriculums as a supplement to our live teaching, but what would happen if digitally-based teaching was our foundation, not our “spice”?
And so, we chose to simply stop teaching our students in live settings altogether. That just sounds wrong, doesn’t it? But our weekly seven-minute videos, tied to a flexible, discussion-focused small group strategy, have revolutionized the way we engage our students.
Most youth workers who’ve heard about our SwitchTV experiment ask two legitimate questions…
1. “How do your students learn about the Bible?” After two years, we’ve seen two direct “fruits” springing from our movement away from live teaching—our kids are retaining more from each lesson, and they’re growing more in their biblical literacy. When you speak in your “target’s” native language, they tend to remember more. And if your teachings are mobile, shorter, and more succinct, they’ll watch multiple times, increasing their retention. These are kids who’ve grown up with YouTube, Vine, and Facebook—they’re conditioned to retain what they consume in digital bites.
2. “Aren’t parents skeptical about this approach?” Parent expectations are, clearly, a hurdle when you decide to stop teaching in a face-to-face way. That’s why we’ve spent a lot of time communicating a clear vision for what we’re doing. Besides that, we’ve discovered that this digital approach has paid big dividends at home, because it’s easy for parents to use it as a faith-shaping tool. SwitchTV allows parents to hear an answer more substantial than “nothing” when they ask their kids what they learned at youth group. They can experience the same teaching their students are getting, when and where it’s convenient for them.
In our ministry, parents can watch the newest episode of SwitchTV before our kids experience it on Sunday night, or they can sign up for our TextMarks service to automatically receive a link to the episode 15 minutes before they pick-up their kids from church that night. Here’s what one of our parents, Brian Sullivan, says: “Not only do we use SwitchTV as a teaching tool for our youth at church, I use it at home with my younger son. They are quick 7 to 10-minute videos that we watch at bedtime. They help him understand what he reads in his Action Bible.”
As youth workers, it’s easy to tacitly believe we’re “Plan A” for catalyzing spiritual growth in our young people. But if that’s true, the outlook for this generation is bleak. Parents have far more power to influence their children toward a deeper relationship with Jesus than we do. So it makes sense to use a strategy that naturally equips them to have a more profound influence on them at home. Our parents love SwitchTV, because it helps them do what they long to do, but have always felt ill-prepared to do.
Giving Volunteer Leaders Real Ownership
Over the years we’ve poorly (yet unintentionally) defined volunteer ownership in our student ministries as handing over the responsibilities we don’t like to do. That’s not ownership—that’s doling out chores. SwitchTV has opened up opportunities for our volunteers to mold their small groups into unique identities. Every group looks different because they’re all tailored to their participants. We’re giving our leaders a “rubber frame.” They’re free to be creative inside this frame, and they’re free to stretch the frame a little. Our large weekly gathering has evolved from a big crowd that allows our students to stay invisible into a loose constellation of small student ministries where they’re known and have a voice.
Here’s how one of our volunteer leaders, Jon Plechas, has experienced this new structure: “SwitchTV has really helped promote discussion in my group. Instead of listening to me teach and asking them questions, only to get blank stares in return, SwitchTV engages students. Now when we start our discussion the students are ready to engage. They’re excited, anticipating who will be presenting on screen, where that presenter will be located (a warehouse, movie theater, down by the train tracks), what the background music will be, and more. It’s wildly effective for gaining their attention, and once their attention is captured they have very real things to say.”
Our volunteers aren’t just partners in a staff-directed ministry—they’re now the primary shepherds of our young people. On the night of our large gathering, my biggest win is when students walk right past me to find their small group leaders. Giving away leadership has become one of the greatest joys in ministry for me.
Releasing Student Leaders to Reach Their Schools
Imagine if the best youth workers in your ministry weren’t paid staffers or even adult volunteers—what if your most effective leaders where the students you’re serving? SwitchTV has given us a way to release our kids to serve as missionaries in their schools. Using our weekly DVDs they host their own ministry experience during their lunch break at school—first they recruit a teacher as a sponsor, then inform their principal about the group. This is obviously a big challenge, but our kids are thriving under it.
Currently, they’ve launched 11 groups in eight schools, with more than 150 students attending these groups every week. Some schools have more than one group because our kids know they’re limited to no more than four Switch students on their launch team, so they’ve formed multiple teams. That means that our student-led, school-based groups are dominated by kids who’ve never had a connection to our ministry before.
Meanwhile, our student leaders have used the flexibility of the SwitchTV model to simply hand out DVDs to their peers at school, using them as an easy tool for inviting them to explore a relationship with Jesus. We’ve seen dozens of new students show up to Switch because someone put a DVD in their hands at school.
Forgetting About the Box
We’re often told to “think outside the box,” but the inherent problem with that challenge is that our imagination is still chained to “the box.” Let’s see what could happen if we forget about “the box” altogether. Imagine that no such thing as a “student ministry” ever existed, and you could build it from the ground up.
There’s an unexplored reservoir of creativity and innovation within every youth worker—God calls men and women to student ministry who have an artist in them, waiting to be released. What we do with SwitchTV works for us, but who knows what incredible gifts God is longing to unearth from your soul? If you’re curious about SwitchTV check us out at SwitchTV.me. And if you’d like to start re-imagining what your own student ministry could be if you forgot about the box, we’d love to help! Feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org and the Switch team will join you to begin your process.
Jason is middle-school director at Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs, Colorado.