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The Coming Era of Non-Professional Youth Ministry

a few weeks ago, i posted a short set of three “innovations im convinced are needed in youth ministry.” i had multiple people ask me (via phone, email, and other means) to elaborate more on the third one, models and practices for non-professional youth workers. i’d suggested that the era of paid, professional youth workers is going to wane, and that we need to be intentional about creating models for mid-sized churches who will no longer be able to rely on a hired gun.

here’s that bit:

sorry to be the doomsday guy, but the era of professional youth workers is going away, eventually. it might linger longer in certain denominations (like, southern baptist) or geographies (like, the south); but it’s on the decline, and it’s not going to return.

small churches, of course, have long done youth ministry without paid staff. but mid-sized to large white, suburban churches (where the majority of paid youth workers exist) have no idea how to even think about youth ministry without paid staff; and very soon, the money is just not going to be there.

since i was asked about this by more than one person, i thought i would elaborate a bit.

first, why do i think this is going to happen, and in what kind of time frame?

well, i don’t have a crystal ball. i’m only looking at trends and seeing where they’re headed (and the implications of those trends). but new realities could very easily pop up that will completely skew whatever “prediction” i might suggest. with that said, the churches that fill feel this pinch the most are mid-sized churches (say, 400 – 1000 in regular attendance). smaller churches already (often) do youth ministry without paid staff focused on exclusively on youth ministry. and larger churches will continue to have the resources, for a longer period of time, to staff a youth ministry. but the mid-sized church will feel the rub. already, i’m seeing this: churches who are cutting their full-time youth worker to a part-time role, or combining it with other responsibilities.

i think there are two major factors involved, and one minor one.

the two major factors are church attendance and giving patterns. other than the continued growth of some megachurches, the general trend in church attendance is, of course, downward. this will most likely continue over the decades to come. as mid-sized churches lose attendees, their giving usually goes down. they find themselves in the difficult place of repeated budget cuts. and my observation is that the youth ministry budget is one of the first to get cut, while the youth ministry position is one of the first staff positions cut (even if it’s not eliminated).

but even when attendance does not drop, churches are struggling with decreases in giving. people over 60 are often the ones who fund the church budget. much of this is because that generation still has a high degree of institutional loyalty, and a tithing pattern of giving most, if not all, of their tithe to their church. younger generations tend to give less; but even when they give generously, they’re much more interested in a connection to their giving. giving to a ‘general fund’ budget doesn’t float their boat. they want to derive meaning from giving, and they want an emotional connection to the recipient or cause. all of this is “bad news” for traditional church budgets that don’t offer meaningful engagement or designation.

the minor factor i see in play is the shifts that are starting in moving away from completely isolated youth ministry programming. this is still in its infancy, but there’s a growing undercurrent. even those churches who are not being intentional about this shift, in a healthy way, will start to hear about how “youth ministry isn’t biblical” or how the traditions of youth ministry programming are less in vogue (this isn’t really happening yet, but will within a decade, if not sooner).

bottom line: many churches (particularly mid-sized churches) will struggle to find or justify funding for paid youth staff. this is already happening in dramatic numbers, but the trend will increase over the next decade. two decades from now, we’ll have a very different landscape in the world of youth ministry.

so, what’s a career youth worker to do?

this is a question i was asked directly by one of my youth ministry coaching program participants, in response to that post. my thinking:

1. don’t sweat it
the change isn’t going to happen overnight. sure, your church might be struggling financially, but the overall shift is going to be gradual. and i think there are two very unhelpful motivators in how you might respond:

a. “i’m afraid!” i can tell you from first-hand experience that losing your job is a bit scary. but living in fear that you’re going to, or might lose your job sometime in the future is a debilitating distraction. do youth ministry where you’re planted, in the hear and now. have faith that god will take care of you (and your youth ministry). don’t expand an ounce of energy on fretting about hypotheticals.

b. “i want to be hip and cutting edge.” i run into youth workers all the time whose primary reason for considering what they see as a trend is just go they can perceive themselves as cutting edge. please, if this is you, pray that god will give you another place to anchor your identity than in hipness. if your only reason for thinking about reimagining your role is because you think it will make you cool, whatever reimagining you do will be highly flawed and likely to fail.

2. look toward a reimagined role and reimagined funding.
however, if you do sense (or know) that your church is headed for financial crisis, and you feel called to stay (a very good thing), beging prayerfully considering creative alternatives to your role, your responsibilities, and how your salary is funded.

3. look elsewhere.
i’m not a fan of “move when things get tough.” so i’m not suggesting you bolt, or look for greener pastures. but it is certainly possible that, if you church cuts your salary, you’ll need to move on. again, this should be a question of spiritual discernment, not a reaction born out of hurt or desperation.

at the end of the day, however, the best posture is not one of constantly watching the horizon, or expecting doomsday. the best posture, the one that is the most fruitful for your own spiritual health and the health of your ministry, is a faith-filled, hopeful choice to let things play out. be faithful. be trustworthy. and don’t freak out.

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moestreicher@churchleaders.com'
Mark Oestreicher is a 30-year veteran of youth ministry, and the former President of Youth Specialties. Marko has written or contributed to more than 50 books, including the much-talked-about Youth Ministry 3.0. Marko is a speaker, author, consultant, and leads the Youth Ministry Coaching Program.