I had the privilege of eating lunch with some great friends this week, both of whom are in ministry. One is a college pastor and the other a youth pastor. I respect these guys a lot, in part because they are really good at what they do. They are great thinkers and practitioners. They are both extremely proficient at the craft of ministring to young people.
And yet, the three of us spent a good portion of our time asking the same questions youth pastors across the country are asking.
Is our programming in a rut?
What do we do about declining numbers?
How do we reach more students in our community?
I get the privilege of interacting face-to-face with hundreds of youth workers each year, all across the country. And I can say that these questions are being asked in every corner of the church world. And maybe these questions have always been asked. It’s not like we’re the first generation of youth workers to look for the answers to these questions.
But, as someone who is a student of culture, we find ourselves in a unique cultural place. A place that makes asking and answering these questions more important than ever. Here’s what I mean …
Mainstream U.S. culture is as unreligious as it has ever been.
I lead workshops all over the country where we look at how key cultural trends impact discipleship. Study after study after study confirms that U.S. teenagers are coming of age in a culture that is less aligned with what might be considered a “Christian worldview” than in any time in our country’s history. This dramatically affects how teenagers view the institution of church and faith in general.
The front door of the church is no longer the front door to faith.
I think the boat has sailed on the “seeker” mentality that drove the church-growth movement of the ’80s and ’90s. I do not believe there are large numbers of young people who are undecided about church. In other words, most people have formed their opinion. And if they aren’t in church, for most it’s because they’ve consciously said it’s not for them. If we want to draw people in to our faith communities, we can’t open the doors, have some pizza and expect them to flock to us. We have to go to them.
Youth group (and maybe church attendance in general) is seen as just another extracurricular activity, not an essential part of the identity of a Christ-follower.
My friend Ben Kerns, a great youth minister who blogs at Average Youth Ministry.com, refers to this phenomenon as seeing youth group involvement as just another “elective.” This is such an accurate description. More than ever, parents are putting church involvement on the same level with football, AAU basketball, cheer, band, dance and so on. When students are allowed to choose, guess what loses out? (You don’t have to guess, you’ve seen it in your attendance.)
If we are going to be relevant, if we are going to successfully lead teenagers closer to Christ against a cultural backdrop where a monotheistic belief system is increasingly seen as a sign of low IQ, we have to ask the tough questions about our ministry philosophy and practices. And we have to search hard for the right answers.
The beautiful thing? The church is the Bride. She is God’s plan to reach the world. She isn’t going anywhere. She isn’t going to die.
We are, however, in the midst of a dynamic, maybe even unprecedented, cultural shift that forces us to adjust.
Are you asking the right questions?