Youth Group No Longer Fills a Social Need—Now What?
I remember when I was in jr. high I lived for our youth group’s weekend events. I would go to every possible one. Roller skating? I was in. Camping? I was in. Lock Ins? I was in. Every Wednesday night I would go to youth group. I did this all the way through my high school years until I graduated. I loved the fun that youth group brought. I loved just hanging out with my friends and youth group brought that social opportunity for me. I didn’t go for the great teaching I was receiving from some awesome youth pastors. I was going so I could be socially active with my peers and friends. I never asked myself, “Should I go?” Now granted my parents played a big role in that as well because church was not optional.
Twenty-five years or so ago when I started on this student ministry journey students were just like me. They loved coming to youth group and going on activities because it connected them socially. The only way to connect back then was by the phone on the kitchen wall. Cell phones had not arrived on scene. Then came the cell phone but then students still loved youth group and activities because cell phones could do one thing and that was make a call. Students wanted to connect face to face.
Fast forward to 2013. I began to wonder in student ministry, “What are we doing wrong?” For the past several years we have been constantly changing things up because we could see the noticeable drop in students’ participation in youth group and church. We were doing things that kids would have lined up for 11 or 12 years ago, even five years ago. Last year we had our lowest number sign up for camp. Last year we had two events that we had to cancel because two, only two, students signed up. They weren’t lame events either, archery tag was one of the events. I have even noticed this at Friday night football games. Where are the students?
In my frustration I started praying and seeking and reading and trying to figure out what is going on with our youth group. As I talked to other student ministers they were experiencing the same things we were experiencing. One friend’s youth group went from running 80 students to running only 25 the next year and they were doing the same things that made youth group exciting and relevant for the 80.
Over the past few weeks I stumbled across articles about the iGeneration (Generation Z). Students who have known smartphones for the majority of their lives. I started reading the articles and studies. The impact that smart phones has had on our teens is incredible, both for the good and bad. Sexual activity is down. Why? Because they aren’t dating like students did years ago because their faces are constantly looking at a screen. Suicides are up about 200 percent!! Why? The abuse and loneliness that has set in from a constant attachment to what everyone thinks about you and it’s being snapchatted and instagrammed constantly.
I finally made the connection. None of these articles have had anything to do with God, the church or youth group. The articles have all been about the mental state of our teens. They have looked at the huge changes in our teen’s social lives as a result of the smart phone.
I went to youth group growing up mainly to fill a social need in my life. I wanted to hang with friends and youth group and youth group activities gave me that opportunity. Students today are having that social need filled by looking at a screen, texting, snapchat, etc.
Why come to youth group, especially if their social need is being met elsewhere?
I have been saying for a few years now that youth group has changed. What will youth group look like over the next 10 years? Remember we used to lose sophomores and juniors when they got their drivers license? Now we lose them when they get their iPhone…fifth grade. Let me just say to all of us in student ministry that they days of doing youth group the way we have always done student ministry is gone. It is time to figure out student ministry for the future, for youth group in 2017/2018.
What will have to change in your church’s approach to student ministry to keep student ministry alive and viable?
I’m not saying these things to be Negative Ned. I’m saying these things because we have to get ahead of where student ministry is heading or student ministry will die off like a dinosaur.
Many of my fellow youth ministry friends will face a huge uphill battle because their church is so steeped in tradition that leadership and many adults in the church won’t be able to grasp that something has to change. They don’t like change. “Youth Group is always on Wednesday night. Sunday School is always on Sunday morning and Sunday night is Discipleship Training Union class.” If your church and church leadership aren’t willing to make needed changes then you need to pray, pray hard for your church and church leadership.
So what do we do?
Evaluate. What differences do you see in your youth group comparing today to several years ago? What have been the negative changes? What have been the positive changes? What would you say is your student ministry’s strengths? Weaknesses?
Plan. Study your students’ culture. Study your evaluation. Work together with your volunteers to come up with a strategy to do student ministry in an effective way. Plan it out and then tweak the plan along the way. Your volunteer team needs to be on board and their input is valuable to the success of your journey.
Cast the Vision. Take your evaluation and your plan along with your volunteers and sit down with church leadership and explain and talk through the changes in students today and let them know how they, as leadership, can be of assistance to you in making whatever necessary changes you need to make. Then cast the vision to the parents, then to the students.
Implement. After evaluating, planning and casting the vision it’s time to set a goal date to implement the plan. The changes you are making are new, they will take time to feel normal. Don’t scrap the plan after a few weeks. Give the plan time to take root and grow. Change is not easy for you, your volunteers and the church, but you must give it time. LeaderTreks has a great assessment the “Healthy Youth Ministry Assessment” this tool might be helpful as you evaluate and plan. I know it helped me immensely, also their product Reset was a game changer for me. For me Reset helped solidify the changes that needed to be made as a result of the health assessment. The coaching I received in Reset helped get my mind wrapped around what needed changing and move in the right direction. So consider some assessments and coaching along the way.
What will our student ministry look like in the future?
If youth group is no longer meeting a social need we need to consider this question:
“Can we even compete with technology when it comes to the social need?”
We used to be able to say “Youth group is going to be epic this Wednesday so come and bring a friend.” All because we were going to serve a 30-foot banana split and play a fun game. Our banana split and game is nowhere as impressive as that game they are playing on their phone. It’s not more fun for them than the satisfaction they get sitting at home on their bed texting with 20 friends.
So if we can’t meet the social need then what we have left is our biggest asset and strength—we meet their spiritual need.
For the last two years discipleship has been on my heart. Not gather all the students together in a class or group and teach discipleship, but real one-on-one discipleship. I drug my feet and even made a feeble attempt a few years ago to make a change.
I believe that over the next 10 years, due to the fact that our church kids will be attending youth group and church less and less, we have to step up our ministry into their lives.
Our model is based off the LeaderTreks Discipleship Model.
Our strategy has three prongs:
Teach discipleship in our small groups once a year. Help spur conversations on what it is to be a disciple among the students. Explain and lead them toward becoming a fully devoted follower of Jesus Christ.
Discipleship Relationships. Because some students won’t immediately buy into a discipleship relationship they may need the teaching and discussion in their small group to nudge them in that direction.
Mentor relationships. Our volunteer team will be discipling our students, one leader with two students. This relationship will last until the student graduates. We will disciple students who want to be in this type of relationship and accountability. BUT because we have more students than our Sunday night volunteer team can handle I am in the process now, in our church, discovering other adults who could be a discipleship mentor with students. These mentors won’t be an active part of our Sunday nights but will be active in students’ lives. Our main tool will be? Did you guess it? A cell phone. We will meet face to face once a month outside of youth group and then communicate via text and phone each week.
Because most students will be hit or miss at youth group or even totally missing youth group, this relationship with a caring adult will be a huge step in helping them continue in their faith upon graduation.
Parent Ministry. I’m stepping up my game in the world of parent ministry. I recently started meeting with the parents one Sunday night each month while their kids are in student church. In January I’ll be teaching a class for parents, “Foundation Builders: the discipleship journey with your child starts at home.” In this class I will show the need for parents to be the main discipler of their child and also give them practical help in doing so. Most parents aren’t discipling their child beyond taking their kid to church. Because we will see less and less of some students, the parents’ role in teaching their child to follow Christ will be vital to their child’s spiritual growth and success.
With the changes in our world I believe that student ministry is going to take more work accomplished by more people, both adults and students, within our church to keep up with and even try to get ahead of where student ministry is heading over the next 10 years.
This article originally appeared here.