Recently my teenage daughter Lucy and three of her friends completed a six-minute documentary exploring the worldwide human-trafficking problem, then submitted it for a school assignment. They designed a full-color trifold brochure as a companion piece and created a stress ball with the word “Enough” printed on it as a “sellable item.” They created the documentary—which included narration, animations, and an embedded “infomercial”—on a Mac laptop. It’s not HBO-ready, but it’s a moving and powerful documentary experience.
This is what teenagers are capable of doing in their everyday, normal life. It’s epic stuff, as far as I’m concerned. And here’s the elephant-in-the-living-room question:
In youth ministry, do we offer kids epic opportunities to contribute—to make a real and profound difference—or do we subtly, accidentally treat them like “needy patients” who have nothing to give?
In an extensive compilation of research on young adults, the Barna Research Group learned a universal truth: These young people aren’t interested in future leadership roles; they want to contribute in real ways, right now. The typical hierarchical leadership structure of most ministries just doesn’t make sense to them. They have no conception of “earning your way up” or “paying your dues.” Instead, they expect to give what they have to give right now, without a probationary waiting period.
Barna’s Dave Kinnaman calls this Reverse Mentoring. Instead of older, more established leaders giving to younger leaders in a one-way relationship, the younger leader is invited to give “up.” He says: “Effective ministry to Millennials means helping these young believers discover their own mission in the world, not merely asking them to wait their turn. One way to think about this generation is that they are exiles in something like a ‘digital Babylon’—an immersive, interactive, image-rich environment in which many older believers feel foreign and lost. The truth is, the Church needs the next generation’s help to navigate these digital terrains.”
Even so, Barna researchers discovered that relatively few churches embrace this mindset. Ministries must offer young people an environment that naturally helps them discover a sense of mission. “Mission” is what embeds their commitment to Jesus as part of their identity, not merely something they do.
Church-dropout stats reveal the impact of this “identity vs. activity” dynamic. Millennials who remain active in church are more than twice as likely as dropouts to say they served the poor through their church. They’re also much more likely to say they “went on a trip that helped expand their thinking.” And they’re much more likely to describe a cause or issue at church that motivates them.
Responding to this innate hunger to give in significant ways requires ministries to intentionally shift the way they think about young people…
- FROM listening to someone teach TO being the teacher
- FROM participating in a retreat TO planning the retreat
- FROM complaining about the worship music TO planning the worship set list, or even leading worship
- FROM watching discussion-starting YouTube videos TO creating discussion-starting YouTube videos
- FROM receiving updates and communications from the youth ministry TO creating new systems and ways to build community through digital technologies and social media
You get the idea. The basic strategy is to take an inventory of roles, responsibilities, activities, and events in your ministry and then find ways for young people to be “reverse mentors”—giving in significant ways. Read more about strategies for your youth ministry.