Reaching the Next Generation

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Dan Kreiss

By Dan Kreiss –

The latest Pew research confirms the continued decline in church attendance in the U.S. It is easy to over-react and try to halt the losses with slick programs and strategic use of already limited funds. It seems that young people are choosing to leave our churches, resulting in our graying congregations. To those who have been listening, the alarms have been sounding for years. Comments such as, “The Church is losing the next generation,” “Young people are leaving the Church in droves,” and “The American church will soon look like the European church” have been heard for decades and those sentiments are not unwarranted.

Some church communities respond in fear and panic, setting aside portions of already tight budgets to develop youth ministry programs and hire staff in an attempt to stem the tide, yet do little to ensure that the real needs of adolescents in the community are being met. Other churches question the value of youth ministry at all, as it appears that even young people coming from seemingly strong youth ministry programs are leaving faith behind once they set out on their own.

So, what is the value of youth ministry? The generation born after the Millennials, Generation Z, are those who were born in the late 1990s and early to mid 2000s. In other words: teenagers. How do we justify the time, resources, and expense associated with youth programs to reach this group? Is the traditional youth ministry model the most effective way to reach and disciple Generation Z, ensuring life for the Church in the future? If we secure funding for these youth programs will that be sufficient to retain and even grow our membership?

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 1.24.28 PMFirst, let’s not panic — at least not yet. The Church has always been only one generation away from extinction. This is just as true today as it was when the disciples were huddled together in the Upper Room asking, “What now?” Threats from persecution, invasion, heresy, new ideologies, as well as arguments, sectarianism, and major splits have remained constant and at several points seemed likely to overwhelm the Church.

God, however, has clearly ordained that the Church will be the tool used to spread the Good News of Jesus and bring about the redemption of the world. The next generation may be completely different from previous generations, but this too has been consistent in the church from the very beginning. Young people are currently, and will continue to be, a vital part of this dynamic institution.

Many argue that adolescents represent the future of the Church. This is frequently the type of thinking that encourages young people to actively look elsewhere for genuine community and a sense of belonging and purpose. The fact is that children and young people are not the future of the Church, they are already a vital presence of the Church. Children and young people need to be seen as integral to the current life of the church, not simply potential members and financial contributors in training.

Youth ministry is an opportunity for young people to be grafted into a dynamic, intergenerational body of believers, offering the entire community a deeper and broader understanding of the God we serve. At the same time, they should be fully immersed and discipled in their own faith. Adolescents have much to teach us and churches that foster this communal environment will tend to be those that do not see the precipitous decline in attendance and engagement of young people after high school graduation.

Making youth ministry a priority does require a significant commitment of resources, focus, and finance, but the payoff can be inestimable. The Barna Group and other researchers have concluded that the majority of those coming to faith will do so before the age of 16. This is significant enough to at least consider some form of Church-wide investment in children and youth ministry.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 1.23.42 PMEstablishing and maintaining an engaging and open-hearted youth ministry requires far more than simply hiring a staff person and providing a decent budget. Too many churches think the job is finished if they fill the “youth” position with a young and energetic staff person. The church members are then able to set their sights on priorities deemed more significant. Finding a good staff person and getting a program established is only part of the issue.

A willingness to integrate adolescents into all aspects of church life — connecting them to ministries, using them in worship services, providing opportunities for leadership, fostering dynamic relationships outside of their peer group and leadership team — will have far more significant impact on the course of their spiritual development than simply segregating them into age appropriate programs with trained staff.

“Today’s adolescents are, as a lot, indescribably lonely,” reported Chap Clark in his book Hurt 2.0. Additionally, the vast majority of them feel abandoned by the adults entrusted with caring for them. “The young have not arrogantly turned their backs on the adult world,” wrote Clark. “Rather, they have been forced by a personal sense of abandonment to band together and create their own world…” Parents, teachers, coaches, employers, and youth workers all seem to be more concerned with accomplishing their own agendas than expressing genuine interest in knowing and understanding the adolescents in their lives. Many young people believe that adults are only concerned with achievement, attendance, and success.

Clark believes that this abandonment is systemic, universally applicable to almost all situations originally intended to help and support young people. “Systemic abandonment by institutions and adults who are in positions originally designed to care for adolescents has created a culture of isolation,” he wrote. This is precisely why committing resources to providing age-segregated church youth activities is not automatically beneficial. It simply creates further isolation. Bereft of purposeful integration with the wider church body, segregating the kids can communicate that we are only interested in getting them out of the way until they are more useful to us.

The value or worth of church youth programs is often graded by attendance and cooperation rather than trying to measure the genuine benefit to the youth involved. The best solution is a clear commitment to providing necessary resources, while facilitating meaningful connections with youth. This communicates a care and concern unlike what they normally experience.

“We have given this generation everything to live with and nothing to live for,” observed a youth ministry adage. There is much truth to that statement. Young people desire as much as anyone that their presence on earth have meaning and purpose. Despite all appearances to the contrary, they want to be engaged, are looking for a cause worthy of the investment of their lives, and desire to have meaningful relationships with caring adults. They find that their cell phones and tablets, favorite shows and music, involvement in a multitude of activities and programs, are frequently nothing more than distractions to fill the void, creating noise that prevents them from having to focus on the real question of purpose.

In youth ministry, the Church has one of the best opportunities to help adolescents discover something real to live for at a time when they are open to that realization and capable of making choices that will bring God’s purposes for their lives to fruition.

If we are honest with ourselves, it was during our own adolescence that most of us committed to a faith in Jesus, and our faith has altered the course of our lives. The young people of today are no different, except they have infinitely more distractions and noises preventing them from hearing the call of God on their lives as clearly as they should.

The latest research is troubling, but it doesn’t tell us anything that we didn’t already surmise. It confirms that the spiritual and cultural landscape of the United States is changing significantly. It reminds us that we would be foolish to sit idly by, hoping for the best while praying for a revival. It chastens us to consider that our young people are experiencing life and faith very differently than youth before them have, even those of the very recent past. It exhorts us to find meaningful and innovative ways to communicate the gospel to Generation Z. It encourages us to demonstrate what it means to be a part of a vibrant, genuine, intergenerational faith community so that others will desire to join us in this journey and those that are being raised in it will want to stay.

The research is evidence that we have made mistakes in the past, particularly with our young people, and have not always accomplished our biblical responsibility to disciple the next generation into the faith. The research, however, does not represent the death of the Church in the United States or the complete rejection of faith by young people. It offers encouragement to reevaluate what we are doing programmatically, particularly in regard to our children and youth. It provides motivation to reassess our current financial commitments in light of the needs of the youth in our communities. It presents an opportunity to encourage development of meaningful relationships between adults and young people.

Should churches make room in budgets and facilities for youth programs and staffing? Without question. These personnel and programs can and should foster opportunities encouraging young people to connect with the full body of Christ, with adult Christians who have their own faith stories to tell.  At the same time developing the “village” concept of youth ministry will bring the most benefit. Providing meaningful and regular opportunities for young people to serve in and with the church as a whole should be one of the main emphases of the youth staff.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 1.24.08 PMThere are multiple ways to get students connected to the wider church. Regular participation in worship services through readings, testimonies, corporate prayers, music, and offering collection helps communicate that their service to the worship experience is not allocated only to the once annual youth Sunday. Organizing regular local service opportunities where young and old serve together helps students enjoy shared experiences with members who are demonstrating what it means to live out faith as an adult. Seeking opportunities to plan mission trips or gender-based discipleship retreats that are not segregated by age helps participants contemplate faith in regard to all stages of life. There are times when age-specific meetings and activities are absolutely appropriate, they just should not be the norm.

There are no exact formulas for success in this regard, no simple steps that will ensure transfer of faith from one generation to the next. However, efforts need to be made to help churches create positive youth environments where students can raise challenging questions and receive help working them through to meaningful answers. Churches should find engaging ways to involve young people in the full life of the church and in so doing help them find something meaningful to live for.

Allocating budgets to employ well-trained youth staff can help churches be more intentional about developing ministries with and for young people. Setting aside resources and facilities for programs, mission trips, camping opportunities, Christian education, confirmation classes, and the like, are all necessary and reflect the commitment of the church to care for their young people. Churches must invest in youth ministry for young people, both their own and those kids in the wider community. This investment is not made to save the church of the future — but to more completely be the church of the present. All of us will be better for it.

Dan Kreiss is assistant professor of youth ministry at King University in Bristol, Tennessee.

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