Jesus calls his followers to live in community with one another—a community called the church. Although young groups are their own type of Christian community, they exist within and are part of the wider body of Christ.
Youth ministers work within this duality, striving to build both their own group as well as the church as a whole. They also work to integrate students into the larger congregation, help them get connected so they stay involved after graduation, and remind them they are the church now—not just the church of the future.
GROUP Magazine asked more than 10,000 Christian teenagers what makes them commit, or stay committed, to their church. We asked, “If you were choosing a church, how important would the following things be?” The factors, and the percentage of kids who rated them “very important,” included:
- A welcoming atmosphere where you can be yourself—73%
- Quality relationships with teenagers—70%
- A senior pastor who understands and loves teenagers—59%
- Interesting preaching that tackles key questions—53%
- Spiritual growth experiences that actively involve you—51%
- Fun activities—51%
- Engaging music and worship—50%
- Quality relationships with adults—36%
- Multiple opportunities to lead, teach, and serve—35%
- A fast-paced, high-tech, entertaining ministry approach—21%
It’s telling—and profound—to compare the first and last factors on this list—“A welcoming environment” versus “An entertaining ministry approach.” To cut to the chase: Belonging is foundational to every aspect of youth ministry. If we create environments of belonging in our groups, kids will come even if we meet in a windowless basement room. And if we don’t create an environment of belonging in our groups, we can have Xbox stations, a pizza franchise, a bumper-car course in the parking lot, and adult volunteers who are all former stand-up comics and kids won’t stay for long.
The Church is Christ’s bride, to be loved and cherished. We should do our best to ensure she’s healthy, vibrant, and truly impacting our people and our community for Christ. No church is perfect, of course, but these 10 indicators will help you assess your congregation’s missional health:
- Godly leaders serve together. Healthy churches have a leadership team rather than a Lone Ranger pastor who urges Tonto-type leaders to say, “Yes, Kemo Sabe!” to every idea (Titus 1:5-9).
- Prayer fuels everything. Intercessory prayer is the engine, not the caboose, of how the church rolls, from top to bottom (1 Timothy 2:1-8).
- Jesus is the focus. He is central to every sermon, program, and meeting (1 Corinthians 15:3-4), and the advancement of his gospel, both locally and globally, drives strategic initiatives (Acts 1:8).
- Spiritual gifts propel every ministry. People actually use their spiritual gifts rather than just watch the “stage team” exercise theirs (1 Corinthians 12:12-31). As a result, disciples are made and multiplied (2 Timothy 2:2).
- Love overflows. It’s demonstrated through friendliness, generosity, internal and external care programs, and community involvement (1 Corinthians 13:1-8).
- Community is spiritually nourishing. True spiritual connection looks radically different from the “community” experienced down the road at the local country club. Most likely, a thriving small-group program encourages great biblical conversations, the sharing of struggles, and prayer with and for one another (James 5:16).
- Faith-sharing is a lifestyle. People are being motivated and equipped to share their faith relationally, resulting in more new believers (Acts 2:47).
- Biblical truth meets daily life. The teaching and preaching are biblical, theological, and immensely practical (2 Timothy 3:16-17; 4:1-4).
- Children and youth are core priorities. Four out of five Christians (83%) make a commitment to Christ between the ages of 4 and 14, studies show. So ministry to children and teenagers—including regular opportunities for them to trust Jesus—should be priorities, not afterthoughts (Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Titus 2:1-8).
- Diversity is fostered. Like the early church, a healthy congregation is integrated, fully representing its community’s ethnic and socioeconomic demographics (Ephesians 2:11-21).
All of us youth ministry types who’ve been watching the “big church” action unfold from the bullpen shouldn’t be surprised if Jesus exercises his managerial prerogative to call us into the game to pitch. It doesn’t matter if others don’t recognize how ready we are for this moment. This is Jesus’ call to make, and it sure seems like churches need a game-saving contribution. When the Church wins, it will be Jesus who gets the headline for making the moves that secured the victory.
What, exactly, does Jesus want youth ministry to do to invigorate his Church? In a sentence: We must find and form young people to follow Jesus faithfully and contribute to the mission of God with the people of God. As we do this well, we show churches how to escape unfruitful energy-sapping activity and shift our hope to Jesus alone. There are two specific areas where youth ministry must step up for the sake of the Church. Both come our way at the direction of Jesus, the Head of the Church.
- Our Missional Identity—Imagine a community with 2,000 high school kids, 20 local churches, and a few parachurch organizations. Do a generous audit of how many kids are involved in all of the collective youth ministries. Each youth ministry has a “roster” so, theoretically, all could merge their spreadsheets together. Let’s assume the total number from this aggregation is 850 high schoolers. And, for purposes of planning, we assume that none of those 850 are double-counted.
Today, a widely practiced version of youth ministry would calculate the scope of what they were responsible to do based on their own roster. Roster-concentrated youth ministry concerns itself with 850 kids. By contrast, missional identity means that God’s people are, first and foremost, following Jesus’ leadership. And he is at least as concerned about the 1,150 kids on nobody’s roster as he is with those who already receive the church’s many assets. In fact, a missional identity would lead the local Body of Christ to re-think how they allocate their time so that outreach and service in their communities are elevated priorities. It would also mean that we generously give our resources to those beyond our immediate neighborhoods.
The seed at the center of roster-concentrated youth ministry is seldom missional. Missional identity ignores self-interests. As its seed falls to the ground, it dies to all things personal to make room for all things Jesus. By so doing, it produces an exponential harvest that glorifies God. And, in a lovely judo flip of the world’s values, the Lord gives us a richer life because we surrender what we once tried to hoard.
When we focus on our kids, our families, and our rosters, we gather and spend a lot of money on ourselves. As it turns out, we can build some really cool spaces that get used a few hours a week. We can hire the best professionals to run programs for our kids and pander to the consumer demands of congregations. And we will most certainly grow church members who are socialized to vote in their own best interests rather than meet the unwavering demands of Jesus to take up our cross daily and follow him.
- Removing the Millstones—Jesus offered a significant warning while teaching about the importance of simple, childlike faith: “But if you cause one of these little ones who trusts in me to fall into sin, it would be better for you to have a large millstone tied around your neck and be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:6).
Children raised by Christ-following parents have the benefit of seeing how Jesus operates as Lord inside of every family choice and each hour spent. Unless, of course, they are misled along the way by parents who think that “Jesus is Lord” is only a confessional membership creed and not a first filter for life.
Parents and youth ministries share a high-risk alliance. Each are extremely millstone-vulnerable. It is in their best interests to be on the same page and for them to be right about how to form Christ-trusting children into lifetime followers of Jesus. There is a nexus between those who champion missional youth ministry and those whose chief concern is to empower parents to faithfully discharge their role in passing on the faith. It is this: There is no version of following Jesus that is not missional.
Parents must be equipped to show their children how to live in faithful, missional obedience to Jesus. And youth ministers must form teenagers for faithful, missional obedience to Jesus. The good news is that all we youth ministers must focus on is our own faithful, missional obedience to Jesus. The Head of the Body has everything under control.
Because the church is Christ’s body, he lives out his mission—his essence—through his church. That’s why he calls himself the “Vine” and us the “branches” (John 15). When we follow him we become extensions of him. Sure it’s easy to point out the problems, sins, and hypocrisies of the church—it’s just as easy to point out our personal problems, sins, and hypocrisies. The persons of the Trinity have humbled themselves by choosing to live through the family of flawed “earthen vessels.” When kids (unwittingly) believe that you can love Jesus but reject the church, they’re fundamentally disagreeing with Jesus.
To overcome this divide between the personal and community expressions of worship, invite passionate Christ-followers of all ages to tell their story, in five minutes, at every weekly gathering. One reason kids are so quick to discount the church is that they experience it as an institution instead of a people. So recruit a different person in your congregation every week to share a short slice of his or her life with Christ. Over time, students will experience church as the body of Christ, not an institution.
Or find places in the wider body where your teenagers can offer real service, so they can find their place in the church. What if your church’s governing body invited a different teenager every quarter to sit in on its meetings as a nonvoting member? What if one of your techie kids served as the AV person for your worship service? What if teenagers could offer their gifts in the regular choir? The possibilities are endless.
When you look around today, in terms of godly character and practical competence, our culture does not expect much of us young people. We are not only expected to do very little that is wise or good, but we’re expected to do the opposite. Our media-saturated youth culture is constantly reinforcing lower and lower standards and expectations.”
The way to develop a love for the church in students is, simply, to expect more of them by honoring their role in the Body!
We all have a powerful and innate longing to belong. We’re hard-wired to find our identity in close relationships, because we’re made in God’s image (Genesis 1:27). Because of this, it’s natural that our students have a longing to belong in every aspect of their life. And that means that their “belong-hunger” is an open door to life-altering experiences—some incredibly good, and some profoundly bad. For example, when their belong-hunger is not met, they’ll likely wrestle with these problems:
- Loneliness—When students feel like they don’t belong in a certain area of their life, even if they have friends in other arenas, they can experience persistent loneliness.
- Insecurity—”Outsider” students have to make sense of that dissonant feeling, and it’s easy for them to point to their own brokenness.
- Isolation—Past the occasional feeling of loneliness, some kids move into the more hopeless territory of isolation—they suspect they’ll be alone the rest of their lives.
- Rejection—For those who feel forgotten or “un-belonged,” life feels thick with rejection. And that feeling extends to their relationship with God, who (they’ve been told) is supposed to love them, but seems to have rejected them.
This vacuum of belonging-ness is a powerful motivator—some students try to fill the void by joining a gang or feeding off the “’hood” mentality or shoehorning themselves into a club or sport just so they can fit somewhere. So, once we recognize the strength of this current, we can help direct their longing toward life-giving and God-honoring directions.
If we’re intentional about it, youth ministry can offer students an unmatched opportunity to belong to something bigger and better. Jesus has charged us to reflect the “radical hospitality” (one of the “four acts of love in Thom and Joani Schultz’s Why Nobody Wants to Go to Church Anymore) of his family—to welcome the “harassed and helpless” (Matthew 9:36) into a community that sees and enjoys them well. But a culture of belonging doesn’t just happen. These seven “acts of belonging” can transforming your environment into a magnet for students:
1. Pray. Most of us are tempted to sink into a results-driven mentality, and so we forget that prayer is the most powerful tactical tool we have. Jesus said it with characteristic bluntness: “…Apart from me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5). When we lean into prayer first, we’re acknowledging that God cares more about our students belonging and being known than any of us. He longs for them to feel the comfort of belonging in his family. And he holds the wisdom you need to create a ministry that enters into students’ lonely, disconnected reality. Let prayer be the first thing we do to help students belong and be known.
2. Assess your program with a critical eye. Sometimes a youth ministry feels just as inviting as a distant, distracted greeter who’s going through the motions. When we say we want a ministry that reaches every student, we must embrace the truth that our ministry will reach only the students it’s set up to reach. That means we must think critically about what we’re doing and ask ourselves these questions:
- Who are we targeting with our program?
- Are we helping students connect with God, other leaders, and other students—or are we fundamentally offering a (often forgettable) 20-minute TED talk sandwiched between a concert and a game show? For a riveting conversation about teaching that actually leads to transformation, check out the GROUP Magazine interview with experiential learning expert Michael Novelli here.
- Are we seeking and getting feedback from students about our program?
By the way, the only companies that don’t care about what their consumers have to say are the ones that don’t have to care. Most of us dread going to these places. (Does your last trip to the DMV come to mind?) Just because some of our students have to go, doesn’t mean they want to go. Have the courage, and the humility, to get honest feedback.
3. Meet and greet. We generally have no clue what our students are dealing with day-to-day, so a heartfelt greeting that communicates “I see you and am glad you’ve come” could be life-changing for them. More kids than we would suspect never get the message that they are enjoyed and known. Meeting and greeting every student that walks through our door is an intentional habit that reflects the unconditional love of Jesus. Don’t underestimate the gift of “paying attention.” For more on creating a welcoming atmosphere in your youth ministry, check out Theresa Mazza’s article “Please Offend Me.”
4. Strategically use your leaders. Our capacity to care for and love on students expands exponentially when we use our leaders strategically. All of us could use more leaders, but this is not a numbers issue. It’s about how we’re using the leaders we have to create a “radically hospitable” environment. Connections with other students are powerful magnets, of course, but adult leaders who show genuine care and concern are priceless. So think strategically about how you’re using your leaders. Ask:
- What opportunities do our leaders have to connect directly with students?
- Do we have a plan for our leaders to follow up with new students?
- Are we equipping our leaders to help students feel a sense of belonging, a sense that they’re known?
5. Create an inviting environment. Every single student should feel connected to someone who knows them well enough to enjoy something about them. The tenor of your ministry environment reflects the core of your motivation. Inviting environments happen because we plant and tend them—only weeds grow naturally.
6. Think culturally. Cultural shifts take a long time, and require the sort of conviction that fuels perseverance. Cultures are shaped, not “switched on,” and that means maintaining what Eugene Peterson calls “a long obedience in the same direction.” We want to make changes that will bring about long-term culture-shifting results, not short-term “growth gimmicks.” The culture-shift we’re aiming for is simple—an environment that naturally causes students to feel like they belong, and where they can be known.
7. Get core students involved. Do your core students, or the kids on your student leadership team, understand your environmental priorities? Do they see themselves as ministry “owners” or ministry “consumers”? Do they see their peers who walk through the door as their focal point for unconditional love? What if you challenged your core students to come up with ideas that would help everyone in the ministry—from first-time attenders to long-timers—feel a greater sense of belonging? It’s incongruous to tell students that they’re the “church of today” if they have few functional opportunities to live that out in our ministry.
We make too many assumptions about our teenagers:
- Just because both parents are in the home doesn’t automatically make for a “belonging” environment.
- Just because the family has money doesn’t automatically mean the kids are happy.
- Just because the student has a close family and a constellation of acquaintances doesn’t mean they feel known and cared for.
Look at every student who walks into your ministry as someone who needs a smile, a high-five, and a hug. And learn to view every student as one who desperately needs to belong and be known by God’s family, the church.
Jesus’ first followers created a brand-new community that went on to change the world. Acts 2:41-47 reveals what made their community so attractive to people from every part of the world:
Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all.
All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.
A deep sense of awe came over them all, and the apostles performed many miraculous signs and wonders. And all the believers met together in one place and shared everything they had. They sold their property and possessions and shared the money with those in need. They worshiped together at the Temple each day, met in homes for the Lord’s Supper, and shared their meals with great joy and generosity—all the while praising God and enjoying the goodwill of all the people. And each day the Lord added to their fellowship those who were being saved.
According to verse 42, three things mark the people of this Jesus-centered community:
- Sharing in the Lord’s Supper
As a result of being in this new community, the first Christians displayed joy, generosity, and love—and their numbers continued to grow. That’s a great model for churches and youth groups today. Consider how your faith community compares to the one in Acts 2. What are its strengths and weaknesses? How can you harness those strengths—and overcome those weaknesses—to grow your ministry in both depth and numbers?
At one point, rumors swirled that nine out of 10 Christian teenagers left the church after graduating from high school. It never was true, and it still isn’t true—yet many church leaders still believe it. Far from helping us solve the real challenges facing us in the church, this false stat has served only to force our eye off the ball.
Throughout the early 21st century, news of dismal retention and evangelism rates among young adults continued to spread until nearly every youth and children’s minister heard how his or her ministry was destined to fail. Only a few of these claims were true. And the handful of stats that were true were often misconstrued by the time they reached the pews. Nevertheless, these claims became the foundations for all sorts of panic-driven decisions. The news that youth ministry had failed to keep students connected to the church resonated with these young leaders’ existing feelings of frustration.
So, the nine-out-of-10 dropout rate soon became a focal point for nearly every discussion about youth ministry. In the end, this widespread frustration among this new crop of youth workers did yield a few positive results. It fueled the development of ministry strategies that were healthier than the fun-and-games approaches, including family ministry models and an emphasis on discipleship, community, and the cultivation of intergenerational relationships.
Still, these constructive outcomes are more about God’s redemptive creativity—his artistic ability to surface beauty out of ugly—than the efficacy of treating guesses as facts. A twisted statistic is still twisted, regardless of the rationale.
The question remains: What are the real dropout numbers? How many names on your children’s ministry roll are likely to remain there two decades from today? Answers vary, partly because there have been so many different definitions of what it means to be involved in church. Here are just a handful of the ways that researchers have separated the churched from the unchurched:
- Since 1978, a yearly Gallup Poll has identified respondents as “unchurched” if they answered either of these questions negatively: “Do you happen to be a member of a church or synagogue?” and “Apart from weddings, funerals, or special holidays, have you attended the church or synagogue of your choice in the past six months, or not?”
- Another survey from Gallup, released in 2002, asked teenagers and young adults whether they had attended “church or synagogue in the past seven days.”
- In 2006, the Barna Group defined young adults as “churched” if they had attended church regularly for at least two months at any time during their teenage years (by the way, that definition is shaky, if you consider how low the two-month “bar” really is).
- In 2007, LifeWay researchers identified young adults as “regular church attenders” if they’d attended church twice-a-month or more for at least a year during high school.
With such disparate definitions of church involvement, even the best research designs are bound to produce a variety of results. (For more on church attendance figures in the U.S., check out “7 Startling Facts: An Up-Close Look at Church Attendance In America”). Nevertheless, it’s possible to draw a few valid inferences from the data.
- Young adults do drop out of church—and they have been for a long time. Young adult dropouts do not represent a recent trend. At least since the 1930s, involvement in religious services has followed a similar pattern: Frequency of attendance declines among young adults in their late teens and early 20s, then rebounds by the time they turn 30.
So how many students do “drop out” of church after their high school years? The LifeWay Research Teenage Dropout Study offers one of the best available snapshots. According to this study, 70 percent of young adults who had attended church twice a month or more for at least a year during high school dropped out after high school.
That means the dropout rate is 20 percent lower than the much-touted “nine out of 10” number. Among young adults who attended church three or four times per month as teenagers, the dropout rate is even lower.
- Many young adults come back to church a bit later. Sometime between their mid-20s and their early 30s, a significant number of dropouts return. According to LifeWay Research, more than a third (35 percent) of young-adult dropouts return to attending at least twice a month by the time they turn 30. Why are these thirty-somethings coming back to church? Influence from parents or other family members was a deciding factor for 39 percent of returners, and friends at church were influential 21 percent of the time. One out of five dropouts (20 percent) came back after they married, and one-fourth (25 percent) returned after they had children. Other factors in these comebacks included a personal desire to attend church again or an inner sense that God was calling them to return.
- Young adults aren’t just dropping out; they’re also dropping in. Here’s one aspect of the big picture that rarely shows up in a headline: According to the biannual General Social Survey, the percentage of young adults who say “religion is an important part of [my] daily life” has risen to 67 percent. And the number attending weekly worship services has risen steadily since 2000. By 2008, church attendance among evangelical twenty-somethings had returned to 1972 levels. Today, among registered voters who cast a ballot in the 2012 elections, about half (51 percent) say they attend church weekly or more often—that’s up from 38 percent in 2004. What’s more, a Pew Forum study finds that 39 percent of adults who’ve been raised disconnected from any church have ended up as Protestants.
The 90 percent lie isn’t the only one church workers have swallowed. The bigger lie is that the effectiveness of your ministry depends on how many people you attract and retain. Whenever anyone drops out of involvement in Christian community, we should be concerned. Jesus loves the church, and he gave his life to “present the church to himself in splendor” (Ephesians 5:25–27). Yet number-retention is never a reliable standard for assessing your ministry’s effectiveness.
If retention rates decide ministry effectiveness, Jesus of Nazareth was an abysmal failure. At one point, a large crowd of well over 5,000 was so wild about Jesus that they pursued him all around the Sea of Galilee (John 6). Then, after a particular teaching session, the paparazzi took a nosedive from several thousand to a single dozen—an attrition rate of well over 99 percent!
A couple of years later, on a Passover eve amid the olive trees, even the dodgy dozen deserted their Lord, and his dropout rate veered close to 100 percent (Mark 14:50–52; John 16:32). Yet, in all of this, Jesus remained the beloved one in whom his Father delighted (Mark 1:11; John 10:17)—and, inasmuch as you trust Jesus, so do you. So be faithful in proclaiming the good news. Seek out those who are lost without Jesus. Create a context where those who stray can freely repent and return. Most of all, rest in the goodness of God, not in the strength of your retention rates.
According to a LifeWay Research study, the key factors that characterize students who stay connected to church include:
- They see the church as vital to their relationship with God.
- They think the church has helped guide their decisions about life.
- They believe the church helps them to become better people.
- They’re committed to the purpose and work of the church.”
The Exemplary Youth Ministries study, spearheaded by longtime student ministry professor Dr. Wesley Black, among others, reveals six factors that help students remain connected to churches after high school:
- Relationship Skills—They learn how to manage their transitions into new contexts and into new communities of faith.
- Depth—They learn how to dig deeper into their faith.
- Meaningful Involvement—They serve in their church in meaningful ways.
- Family Leadership—They have parents who are spiritual leaders and who intentionally guide them toward maturity and independence.
- Intergenerational Mentoring—They develop connections with adults in the church other than their parents.
- Nurturing in the Gap—Others show them how to navigate the gap between high school and young adulthood.
Reasons Kids Stay Involved
When GROUP Magazine asked Christian teenagers their top three reasons they’ve decided to stay involved in church and/or youth group, here’s what they said:
- The friendships I have at church. 57.0%
- Opportunities to grow deeper in my relationship with God. 42.6%
- Opportunities for service and missions. 39.1%
- My youth pastor or the “lead” youth worker. 22.3%
- Help for living my Christian life outside the church—at school, home, and work. 21.4%
- Fun activities and games, or trips to fun places (like amusement parks). 19.5%
- Opportunities to learn more about my faith. 19.1%
- Camps and retreats. 18.8%
- My parents want me to stay involved. 11.7%
- Support and encouragement for the challenges I face in life. 11.6%
- I’m committed because it’s the right thing to do. 9.9%
- My small group. 8.9%
- Opportunities to serve as a leader. 8.6%
- I feel loved and “seen” for who I am at church. 8.4%
- An adult ministry leader who’s not the “lead” youth pastor. 5.9%
- I feel challenged to grow as a person at church. 4.6%
- I’m afraid that if I stopped going to church my life would go downhill. 2.7%
Reasons Kids Would Leave
GROUP Magazine also asked these kids about possible reasons why they’d decide to leave their church and/or youth group. We told them to choose their top three possibilities:
- Not growing deeper in my relationship with God. 45.2%
- No opportunities for service and missions. 29.7%
- Little support and encouragement for the challenges I face in life. 24.9%
- My friends stop coming. 22.0%
- Few opportunities to learn more about my faith. 21.9%
- I don’t feel loved and “seen” for who I am at church. 20.3%
- The “lead” youth pastor leaves. 18.0%
- It’s boring to me. 17.5%
- I don’t feel challenged to grow as a person at church. 12.3%
- My small group disbands or key people leave it. 12.0%
- I decide I can follow Christ without necessarily going to church. 11.9%
- What I’m learning at church/youth group has little impact on my everyday life. 11.6%
- Few opportunities to go to camps and retreats. 11.6%
- Few fun activities and games, or trips to fun places (like amusement parks). 8.9%
- I’m pretty sure that if I stopped going to church nothing in my life would suffer. 5.8%
- Few opportunities to serve as a leader. 5.3%
- An adult ministry leader other than the “lead” youth pastor leaves. 4.8%
- My parents tell me it’s my choice whether or not to stay involved. 4.5%
Connecting is the primary currency of our technological society. Many students own and use five electronic devices, all of which facilitate social connections. Sure, our technology keeps us connected faster than ever, but what’s the nature of those connections? Do they exemplify the scriptural description of community? Jesus calls his followers to:
- Accept (Romans 15:7)
- Build up (Ephesians 4:29)
- Comfort (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
- Be devoted to (Romans 12:10)
- Fellowship with (1 John 1:7)
- Greet (Romans 16:16)
- Accept (Romans 15:7)
- Love (Romans 13:8)
- Admonish (Colossians 3:16)
- Care for (1 Corinthians 12:25)
- Confess to (James 5:16)
- Encourage (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
- Forgive (Ephesians 4:32)
- Honor (Romans 12:10)
- Pray for (James 5:16)
- Submit (Ephesians 5:21)
Today, living in community is challenged by hurdles not faced in the early church. Life is demanding and fast-paced, and our technology can both strengthen and undermine our connections. The deciding factor for churches that create environments of connection is this: Do people relate to one another in authentic and meaningful ways? For students to feel integrated into the whole church, the congregation must highly value and model invitational community.
A youth ministry can be a petri-dish for adult/teenager relationships, as faithful adult leaders connect with students. But these connections must happen not only during “program time,” but also between programs. Adults who are actively curious about teenagers and their interests fuel an environment of connection.
These five transformative themes emerged during a Group Publishing’s 2012 “Future of the Church” summit:
- An emphasis on relationships. Today a dwindling church’s primary gathering strategy is largely spectator-oriented, but emerging churches that find traction will prioritize spiritual growth through personal relationships.
- A return to Jesus. The current church is preoccupied with the “ABCs”—attendance, buildings, and cash. One summit pastoral leader referenced that misplaced focus by challenging the group with this: “We need to deal with the idols of the church.” In that light, the coming church will highly focus its mission, goals, measurements, and message on Jesus.
- A focus on community. The church of tomorrow will be much more engaged in addressing needs in the community. The church will be known more for its members’ relational acts of compassion outside of church walls, taking ministry out into the world rather than waiting for outsiders to wander in and sit for an hour.
- An atmosphere that’s infused with conversation. The current church relies primarily on one-way messaging—from the preacher/teacher at the microphone. The new church will rely more on person-to-person conversation—wrangling with real-life issues in a biblical context, and sharing their first-hand experiences of God’s love and hope with one another. Churches will begin to trade in their pews for conversation tables…literally.
- Lay leadership will replace the professionals. Shrinking resources will trigger fewer paid ministry positions—and more reliance on unpaid ministry work. The concept of “the priesthood of all believers” will re-emerge as a driving force in the church.
Takeaways for Youth Ministers
- The dialects of eternal love. The Chinese Language has seven major dialects, with scores of sub-dialects. Similarly, there are many forms of “church.” No one expression of church is more sacred or less sacred. The many expressions and forms of church are not cause for worry or division—it’s an expansive and diverse church that is more dynamic and beautiful than ever.
- The omnipresent church. Church is happening everywhere—schools, coffee shops, homes, parks, theaters, and even bars! There are traditional, home, conversation-based, and social-service-based churches. This diversity is a home run—it makes us more like God, who is omnipresent. If we’re going to introduce people to Jesus, we must be everywhere at once. We can’t be bound to one place or one way—we’re bound only to one God.
- The transcending of time and space. Church is not something we do every Sunday morning—we don’t go to church, we are the Church. Being rather than going means we transcend time and space. Wherever believers glorify God in their workplace, we are being the church. Wherever believers have conversations about life and faith without judging or condemning, we are being the church. Wherever believers serve their neighbors and love them well, we are being the church. Church is not a tradition, a place, a time, a denomination, or a gathering. Church is the body of believers inviting God’s children into a loving relationship with God.
- The primacy of the Bride of Christ. The Church is the Bride of Christ, and this symbolism means we’re closest to him. Therefore, we are to love his children, especially the children who do not yet trust in him. We love them as our own children—caring for them and meeting their needs. My friends parent differently than I do, but they are loving and caring for their children as much as I care for mine. The church is expressing God’s love in beautiful, extravagant, new ways.