A scenario I see playing out in a lot of churches around the country is the phasing out of student ministries. There is a notion out there that says youth ministry isn’t relevant to the Church any longer. The main justification for this premise is that we now have a lot of cool churches with young pastors and they are more relevant.
Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why this might not be the best strategy to reach young people.
It doesn’t matter how young, hip, trendy, or relevant your lead pastor is. My lead pastor is practical and hilarious, but the truth is that I don’t know of a church anywhere in the country where the lead pastor is gearing his messages to teens. So even if the lead pastor is funny, young, and trendy, we are still doing our students an injustice because we aren’t focusing on the issues that students are dealing with right now in the season of life, they are in.
I have heard the argument that students seem older than they did in the past. Let me help you here. They may seem older, but they are less mature. We live in a tech-driven world, and students are being exposed to more and more at younger ages. This creates the illusion that students are maturing faster. But recent scientific studies show that while adolescence is starting at a younger age, it’s also lasting longer than ever before. Another factor to consider is the plasticity of the teenage mind. I realize that I might have just lost some of you, so let me explain. For years we have said things like “teenagers are at the most impressionable time in their lives” if you’re like me I have said that and believed it, but with little to no hard evidence to support it.
In recent studies scientist and phycologists have discovered that our minds are the most plastic during adolescence. When you think of plastic you probably think of a hard substance, but in this context think about plastic while it’s still in its moldable form. Our minds in adolescence are very much the same; moldable and being formed. So, the things students are seeing, hearing, and experiencing in this season of their life are literally shaping their belief system and who they will become. If this is the case, isn’t there too much at stake to not be intentional about creating ministries and programming that is investing in our students?
Another factor that we can’t overlook is the future of the Church. I was recently in Japan and learned some fascinating things. In a country of 126 million there are less than 1% that are Christ followers and Christianity is on the decline. I learned that there are over seven thousand Churches in Japan, but the attendees all have grey hair. They explained that after World War 2 missionaries flooded their country and that Christianity was on the rise. So, what went wrong? What happened that caused such a drop off? They never focused on raising up the next generation. There is a lot of research that suggests the most unreached people group in the world are no longer those in a geographical region, but those in an age demographic. The most unreached people in the world are those under the age of thirty. If we jump in and follow what’s trendy in Church culture right now, we might very well disenfranchise an entire generation.
Most would tell you that youth ministry is a relatively new idea in the history of the church. And if you look back to its roots it wasn’t started as a way to have a more fun or trendy space for young people. It was birthed from a place of need. Youth ministry in the American church got its start back in the 1940’s, but saw a huge increase into the 50’s & 60’s. Up until that point the family unit was strong, but as we began to see a rise in families falling apart and the divorce rate rising significantly there was a greater need for the Church to focus on these young people. I could make a strong case that the family unit in our country hasn’t gotten stronger, but weaker over the last 60-70yrs. I am a firm believer that we need to understand the “Why” before we address the “How”. The problem with deciding not to offer student ministry anymore when you don’t understand why student ministry was started in the first place can have lasting and negative consequences.
One more thought on this… Is youth ministry really a new idea? Most theologians will tell you that Jesus’ disciples were teenagers and young men. Jesus built His entire ministry and the Church with young people. Why would we, as the body of Christ write them off, discredit them, or not be intentional about building ministry that invests in them? I understand that in order to invest in them effectively it requires church resources, time and effort. But my mindset is that any resource, time or effort spent investing in young people are well worth it.
I believe that Youth Ministry is still very much relevant, I have spent my life investing in students, however I do believe that often times our approach misses the mark, but I will digress for now. This is why it is important for us to be intentional in our approach to student ministry. Part of that intentionality is building our youth ministry to reach students effectively right now in the season they are in. When we create fewer environments for students, I think we are missing the mark, and I fear we are creating long-term effects that won’t be so easily reversed. The greatest thing we can do for the young people that God has entrusted us with is to create more opportunities for them not less. Let’s unapologetically invest in our students because they are the future of the Church!