Rediscovering Youth Ministry

I lose my keys all the time. When I find them I have a feeling of discovery because I've been reunited with the ability to move my car. Despite their temporary absence they are never truly lost or irretrievable, they just need rediscovering. 

I believe that the North American Church is in the process of rediscovering youth ministry. 

So has it been lost?

Not entirely, but somewhere along the way we've lost the story line. It's like we've watched the first 30 seconds of every scene in a movie. We understand the concept of the plot but don't know the characters or their development. 

There are lots of glimmers of hope in this generation of youth ministry. If we stopped to listen there are countless stories of students engaging in the Kingdom of God. These stories often involve students serving together and finding their communal identity as followers of Jesus.

However, I believe that in the next 20 years the Church in North America is going to undergo a seismic shift as generational transition takes place. Before we talk about where we are going it's important to see how we got here.

Late 80s and early 90s - pre-smart phone generation. "Christian" culture built to be attractive. Youth rooms riddled with fog machines, neon graphics, and dorky dating series. The idea that Christian culture was "anti-culture" was a popularly held notion.

Late 90s/Early 2000s - Lights, fog, speakers. "Acquire The Fire" was a popular event for "churched" teens to attend.  I Kissed Dating Goodbye was a popularly recommended book. 

The last decade  - Increasingly broad disillusionment with how we have done "church" in North America. Many church leaders have taken a step back and said that the way things were done for the last 30 years won't be how we continue. Many are managing decline as we ask what's the next step. 

One of the interesting things about the Church is that it's generationally characterized by trends: the seeker movement, the mega church movement, the small group movement, etc...

Maybe what's next isn't a fad or a trend to reach a numerical goal. I believe that what's next is going to be defining for the local church because it will involve a shift informed by a broader cultural trend. 

As our technology has increased so has our cultural individualism. The smart phone has made us more connected, and more lonely, than ever before. As my brother pointed out today (shoutout to Michael Schultheiss) it speaks to a broader pattern in American culture, one with roots in the ideational and spiritual crisis that beset Western civilization beginning in about the 19th century: the death of traditional values and ways of seeing and understanding the world, and ourselves, and the advance of materialism and consumerism. This is actually what Nietzsche meant when he talked about, and lamented, the “death of God” (definitely not something he was celebrating). 

The last 15 years the cultural pendulum has sped up and reached a near-zenith point of individualism. I believe that in the next generation of Jesus followers we are going to see a hard turn away from our cultural individualism. 

We currently consume information so frequently through podcasts, blogs, and tweet-able sermons that we have forgotten how to participate. 

When we participate in church rather than consume church, we are living into our identity - we are being who God made us to be as apprentices of Jesus in the world. 

Another way to think of this is the movie Nightmare Before Christmas. In the movie, Jack Skellington is the leader of Halloweentown - a place dedicated to all things ghosts, ghouls, and goons. Halloweentown, as a community, tells a crystal clear narrative of Halloween. Jack Skellington has created an environment where every resident is an active participant in making Halloweentown what it is.

For Jack’s friends, Halloween is their lifestyle, not a Holiday that they show up for. 

Does that sound anything like the Church? 

We, as the Church, are participants and image bearers in the story of God in the world. We are invited into active participation that leads to the flourishing of other image bearers and the renewal of all things. This means using our time, talent, power, and privilege to partner with God in the ongoing work of creation in the World. 

Is that how you think about Church? As a place where you consume, or as a narrative you participate in with your life? 

I believe that what is next is a shift from a sole focus on individual relationship with Jesus to communal partnership with God's restoring work in the world.

To be clear, I still think people will have a person relationship with Jesus. But I believe the invitation to a life with Christ is going to widen from individualistic to communal. 

This movement will require us to move from being consumers to participants. 

This has always been about Jesus. I believe that youth leaders of all generations really wanted the best for the students in their ministry. The idea of rediscovering is more about finding our keys again so that we can move the Church forward.

This is about simplifying.

We are awakening to the reality that it's always been about a relationship. 

What do you think? Do you work with teenagers that are visibly fed up with individualism and consumerism? What do you think we, as youth workers, should do about it?