2 Growing Trends in Youth Ministry or is it Just me?

I am not new to youth ministry nor have I been around forever (a brief disclaimer to my upcoming observation)  I may be on to something or super off base. I realize the responses in this blog are skewed by region, church size, city, church affiliation and so  on. Yet, I think I see a growing trend and I want to see if you make similar observations.

Mark Oestreicher of the Youth Cartel, April Diaz of Newsong Church in Irvine and Steve Argue of Mars Hill in Grand Rapids will be answering my question on this “all skate” blog.

So here is my somewhat current observation of youth ministry…

Large group gatherings with the great speaker and band are no longer drawing the numbers they once did while recruiting volunteers who serve for over two years or more is much harder than it was 10 years ago.

 I asked MarkO, April and Steve to Agree, Agreeish, Disagree or Disagreeish with each statement I made.

1. Large Group Gatherings-
MarkO weighs in…Agree-ish
in general, i think these sorts of gatherings are, across the board, not getting the numbers they used to get. shoot, just look at Planet Wisdom or Acquire the Fire or Dare 2 Share, or any number of the large denominational events. they are fairly marko.april12.normal1.trimmed-669x1024universally smaller than they were 10 – 15 years ago. my contention would be that while there are many reasons for this (including the economy, increased parental pressure for academic and sports achievement, and what i perceive as a general rise in skepticism, cynicism, and organizational mistrust amongst youth workers) is that the splintering of youth culture has resulted in a super-heightened need for belonging above the previously elevated need of autonomy. people don’t really experience belonging in large groups. so the youth ministry that focuses on a large group show is much more challenged these days, i believe, in connecting with the desires of teenagers.

large gatherings don’t need to be flushed. they’re still good for a few things (helping teenagers feel like they’re part of something bigger than themselves and their small-ish group where they are known; curating an experience of God, which is valuable in a culture where we understand what’s true based on our experience).
what does that mean for us: embrace the value of small. work toward offering unconditional belonging prior to belief. discern a youth ministry approach that is wonderfully unique and contextualized. and when we approach big events, we should approach them as a gathering of clusters or smaller tribes, rather than a one-size-fits-all gathering of individuals.
April (representing the entire female species) weighs in...Agree :
There’s something incredibly refreshing about the large crowds being decentralized into april-diaz-squaresmaller tribes of people. I think the days of the “big show” in youth ministry (and the American church for that matter) are quickly ending. They’ve probably been dead for longer but the crowds are catching up with that reality. There’s something so powerful to how Jesus did ministry with his 3 then 12 then 30 then 120 then the crowds. Far too long we’ve focused on the crowds without considering the unique ways people grow in Christ (their discipleship). We’ve traded customized spiritual formation for one-size-fits-all processes.


Steve on large groups… Agree-ish : …but not sure if we know what we’re seeing actually means. If you are suggesting that the form of big group/speaker/band is less effective, I’d say steve-arguethat’s probably so but we have to assess this through multiple lenses. Sociologically,  we are an increasingly more diversified culture (in some ways not, but that’s outside the realm of this argument). Take music or trends- the variety of expressions and groupings have more options than back in the day of mainstream country/rock/pop, three TV networks and the FM radio. Bottom line, large group Youth group gigs aren’t the only options any more (within or outside of church, agreeing with April here). If “ineffective” then means, “we don’t have the corner of the market where kids show up,” I think we better get used to this reality.

Programmatically, the large group concept may have just lost its creative excellence. Is it possible for large groups to still be effective in connecting with teenagers, calling them to an idea, a story, a question, their humanity, God? I believe so. There is an art to the large group talk/sermon/message that has been under-studied and crafted. I find that many people who don’t like large group things either don’t work at the art of speaking or are wrongly informed that a speaker/band/large-group magically makes teenagers into Christians. Or, worse, the large group is used to shame/manipulate into group think. If we’re not careful, youth ministries can adopt the “young people are leaving our church/group/organized space, therefore they are going to hell” mantra that is short-sighted, shaming, and  fails to critically self-reflect on church/youth ministry’s actions/postures.
I say, let’s work on the art of the sermon. Let’s reconsider this sacred, gathered space. There is something to teach and model and invite people into, in  this space that other spaces can’t do. At the same time, this space can’t do it all, nor should it. Now, I’ll contradict my last thought with this caveat– large groups might symbolize the “come to my space on my time” youth ministry. It seems that if we really believe in this missional business, then youth ministry forward must recognize the need to go to students’ spaces when students are available. I’m not saying that it’s all about the student, but we need people who are willing to make the first move toward relating to them, rather than finding the right gimmick/tragedy to get them to show up at the church youth room.

2. Difficulty in Recruiting

MarkO on recruiting… Disagree-ish : i suppose organizational allegiance has gone down across the board, so maybe some are experiencing this more; and people are busier (or think they are) than ever. but, really, i haven’t seen a marked shift in this area. volunteers who are treated like props won’t last. volunteers who experience meaningful belonging themselves, who are built up and equipped, who sense god working through them, are likely to stick around.

: As for volunteers, in our setting this is not the case. We have volunteers continually joining the ministry and others who roll off do to college graduations or moving but the core of our teams are people who’ve been around for many years. Perhaps this is because of the thrust toward intergenerational relationships. In some ways we expect more from volunteers because of the connections to the broader church and other generations. But in many ways our volunteers are just normal people embedded into the life of our church. They our “volunteer” pool is increasingly deep and wide. The volunteer focus is centered on relationship building over programatic participation.

: Not-so-sure-about-this-ish. Three thoughts… First, people are really busy and I think the church needs to find ways for volunteers to be successful rather than shaming them into service [e.g. "We still need 3 more teachers for middle school boys! Anyone? Anyone?"].

Second, I’m convinced that volunteerism is sacramental, in that we adults can/need/must to volunteer to encounter the living Jesus. It is formationally necessary and personally scary as adults must face their own demons in real time. So, let’s talk about volunteerism this way. It’s not about “changing a kid’s life” as much as it is having adults’ lives messed up. You’ll have to work on the messaging, but I’m over churches head-faking adults into serving.
Third, at Mars Hill, our retention rate is over 90% in high school. I think one of the reasons for this is that we invest in their formation through yearly formational arcs. I actually think that they think their faith is growing as they journey together with young people (agreeing with Marko here). It’s not perfect, but I like the retention rate and the investment we’ve made into our volunteers. Again, let’s not be quick to blame volunteers for not sticking around. Maybe the church needs to rethink how it invests in the volunteer spiritual journey.
Really grateful to MarkO, April and Steve. Great food for thought.
Would love for our youth ministry community to weigh in on these questions and responses.

Thomas Merton’s Transparent Prayer

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.  I do not see the road ahead of me.  I cannot know for certain where it will end.  Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.  But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you.  And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing.  

I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it.  Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death.  I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and will never leave me to face my perils alone.  
-Thomas Merton


I am 36. My mom called me out. She was right.

Miss Ellie

Miss Ellie

This past weekend I had the great opportunity to speak with students and then parents at the church that raised me. While speaking to the parents on Sticky Faith and more, I said something about one of my daughters that didn’t sit well with my mother. Yes, my mother and father were in attendance, supporting me from the back. As I was showing pictures of my family I referred to my 3-year-old as “crazy.” When I got back to my parents house that night my mother said, “hey mister, enough with crazy stuff when talking about Ellie. That is not who she is and you don’t want her believing something that isn’t true.”  Point taken. End of sermon. My mom was so right.

Raising our 3-year-old has been difficult. She is so much like me it hurts, really.
In many ways she is a typical threenager ( a term I just learned!).

My mom caused me to reflect for a second. I realized that I have spent 14 years seeing the hopeful and positive side of many teenagers yet I was struggling with seeing the positive side of my own child. My wife reminded me of a woman who works in our children’s ministry who reports great things about our daughter to her almost every time they see each other. Unfortunately our response has been, “Really? You mean she didn’t act like a honey badger?” Are you sure?

In further reflection of my own story, I was known in high school and college for being crazy. I would do anything for attention. I can clearly remember thinking how exhausting it was to live up to my crazy reputation. It wasn’t me. It was just a behavior that got a response. 

For seven years I allowed a title given by others to define my actions. My mom was right. I need to stop calling my daughter crazy. I want her to find out who she is and not who the world thinks she is.

Lesson learned,
Thanks Momz.


Reverse Youth Ministry: A Story of Another Nate

In the past few years I have been awakened to the fact that youth ministry is often consumed with discipling young people while forgetting that students disciple adults as well. I don’t believe for a second that Timothy was the only benefactor in the relationship he had with the Apostle Paul. Mentoriship and discipleship are two-streets, if not 6 lane highways.

One of many young people who have blessed me is this bearded wonder named Nate Zuercher. 10015126_848089128550855_32580961_oI met Nate when he was headed into high school. He was a cool kid who loved music, loved people yet lacked confidence in many ways. Over the years I got to watch this unique guy find his voice in terms of faith, relationships and music. There was a season where his singing and guitar playing were not yet completely honed, but Nate went for yet. He just kept putting himself out there and honing his craft while making all sorts of friends along the way. Nate’s confidence was and is inspiring to me.

Today Nate is a co-founder and banjo player in the band Judah and the Lion.  He is living his dream and continuing to learn and grow as he goes. Nate might value relationships more than any other person I have ever met. He genuinely 1000640_518148531624852_1565079761_n copycares about people in a rich and deep way. So I was and was not surprised when I found out last week that Nate tattooed the names of people who have loved him and who he loves on his arm. He loves community so much he made it permanent on his arms. While I was shocked and honored, I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to mess with the dude. I told him he spelled my name wrong causing a bit of panic.

Thankful to this guy and many other “teenagers” over the years who have shown me the love of God.



A Thought: How do YOU interact with your children differently?

I want my middle school daughter to tell a good story.
I want my high school daughter to live a good story.
I want my college daughter to question the story.

Thought from Steve Argue of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids.

Would love to know your response.