Yesterday my 16-year-old 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 tri-fold brochure as a companion piece, and created a stress ball with the words “Enough” printed on it as a “sellable item.” They put together 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?Click to tweet
In an extensive compilation of research on Millennial young people, the Barna Research Group learned a universal truth about them—they’re not interested in “future” leadership roles; they want to contribute in real ways, right now. The typical hierarchical leadership structure in most ministries just doesn’t make any sense to them. They have no conception of “earning your way up” or “paying your dues”—they expect to give what they have to give 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 relatively few churches that embrace this mindset—ministries that offer students 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. You can see the impact of this identity vs. activity dynamic in “church dropout stats.
Millennials who remain active in church are more than twice as likely as dropouts to say they served the poor through their church (33 percent versus 14 percent). They are also much more likely to say they “went on a trip that helped expand their thinking” (29 percent versus 16 percent) and much more likely to describe a cause or issue at church that motivates them (24 percent versus 10 percent).
To respond to this innate hunger to give in significant ways, it will require an intentional shift in thinking…
|Listening to someone teach||Being the teacher.|
|Participating in a retreat.||Planning the retreat.|
|Complaining about the worship music.||Planning the worship set list, or even leading worship.|
|Watching discussion-starting YouTube videos.||Creating discussion-starting YouTube videos.|
|Answering small-group discussion questions||Creating discussion questions for small group, then leading the conversation.|
|Receiving updates and communications from their youth ministry.||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, then find ways for your students to be “reverse mentors”—giving in significant ways.