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Innovative Youth Ministry: Why Your Program Must Adapt to Survive

An intriguing example from outside Christianity was shared with us by Asha Shipman, Hindu chaplain at Yale University:

Among Hindu and non-Hindu students I’ve interacted with who self-ascribe as nonreligious, they often cultivate a form of spirituality that is deliberately unbounded; larger than a single institution, not confined to one day a week, and manifested as a mosaic of practices and beliefs. For example, they may express their spirituality through dance, through music or through volunteer work. Those who come to our Hindu worship services may also pray to aspects of the Divine from other religious traditions.

The programs I offer and co-sponsor at Yale that emphasize these aspects of Hinduism do draw many non-Hindus as well as Hindus who consider themselves as nonreligious — and perhaps people who might check off that “none” category. This includes programs on yoga, meditation, and community art.

Another example outside Christianity was shared with us by Adam Lehman, president of Hillel International, a Jewish organization that engages college students at more than 550 universities across the globe:

The current generation of students is the most diverse ever, including in how they define themselves spiritually and religiously. Beyond the many traditional religious services and experiences Hillels typically offer, we also provide students a mix of informal learning programs, civic engagement, community outreach and service opportunities, Israel engagement experiences, leadership and career development programs, cultural experiences and social events.

While these experiences are typically grounded in some way in Jewish wisdom, tradition and community, they don’t assume or require of participants any particular religious or spiritual beliefs. Beyond honoring the substantial diversity of the students we serve, our approach also reflects the fact that, while Judaism is a religion, it is also more than just a religion.

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These are just three of the many examples of faith groups across the country who are innovating their approach to reach young people and promote spiritual flourishing. What distinguishes these efforts is that they don’t rely on bowling alleys and movie theaters to get young people in the door, nor do they surrender to the decline narrative that deems young people “the disengaged.”

They understand that even young religious nones (“nothing in particular”) have spiritual curiosities and impulses that defy the category they are assigned in surveys and polls. Around half of young nones told Springtide in 2021 that they are at least slightly spiritual (57%), are at least somewhat flourishing in their faith lives (47%) or feel at least slightly connected to a higher power (48%).

How can we reframe the conversation about young people and religion to appreciate the efforts of these groups and highlight Gen Z’s dynamic spirituality? We need to focus more on the possibilities instead of the problems — more on what’s happening than what’s not happening.

Right now, the dominant and misleading narrative is one of decline. But we are working to change that, and we hope you would be encouraged to do the same.

(Josh Packard (@drjoshpackard) is executive director of Springtide Research Institute. The Rev. Abigail Rusert is director of the Institute for Youth Ministry at Princeton Theological Seminary. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.

This article about innovative youth ministry originally appeared here.

What innovative youth ministry techniques have you attempted or adopted? Please share in the comments below!