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Redefining Youth Ministry in a Postmodern Culture, Revitalizing Reformed Churches

By August 1, 2007 No Comments
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We are living in confusing times. Many culture watchers are convinced that our society is undergoing a transformation of broad proportions. This cultural shift goes by various designations. Some observers tell us we are in the throes of a transition from a Christian to a post-Christian era. Others declare we are moving from a Constantinian to a post-Constantinian situation. But the most widely used description suggests we are witnessing the emergence of a “postmodern” society. Whatever may be the preferred nomenclature, the various voices are in agreement that the cultural shift now transpiring carries grave implications for the church.1

These thoughts of Stanley Grenz, former professor at Carey Theological Seminary, Vancouver, BC, in the preface to Making Sense Out Of Church, provoke us to rethink the effectiveness of our current ministry paradigms. The “grave implications” to which Grenz refers are evident to those involved in youth ministry. Many of our congregations seem stuck in “cultural lag,” a slow or delayed response to changing paradigms, resulting in the loss of relevance or impact, particularly with younger generations. Even when churches seek to understand these postmodern shifts, most struggle with simply “keeping up” in a rapidly shifting youth culture. Cultural analysts note that in the 1980s and early 1990s, the landscape of youth culture shifted significantly about every six to seven years; today this shift seems to occur every three years.

Recent statistics regarding baptized youth also reveal evidence of cultural lag. Approximately eight out of ten adolescents will leave their RCA or CRC roots within a year of high school graduation. Certainly this is one factor affecting the forty-year plus membership decline within the RCA, yet it’s a factor we have not addressed well. Revitalization efforts, if effective at reversing this decline, must embrace the reality that our static youth ministry efforts are not effective in the long term. Although solutions will not come easily, we must begin to elevate youth ministry as a higher priority. We are losing connection with today’s generation. We will likely continue to die as congregations and denominations unless we pay serious attention to this issue.

We Need Courage and Wisdom to

Embrace a Changing World

Most researchers and authors currently exploring the postmodern shift recognize the enormity of the challenge before us. Creating and implementing new and effective youth ministry models will be demanding work. Ron Hutchcraft, a thirty-year veteran of student and family ministry, calls the challenge we face “a battle for a generation.” “Youth ministry, Jesus-style, requires the courage to leave our comfort zone and plunge into the surf and storm as he did.” Hutchcraft further notes that “if this generation is lost, it won’t be because the world is more powerful than we are, or has something better to offer. It will be the result of not showing up. We won’t lose by fighting. We will lose by forfeit.”2

We Must Elevate Youth Ministry to a

Status of Higher Priority

Traditionally, youth ministry has not received priority attention within our churches. Recent analysis of the churches within the RCA Synod of the Great Lakes revealed that the average congregation invests less than 7% of its operating budget in youth ministry,3 even though according to George Barna, 41% of those who comprise American churches are 18 years of age or younger.4 In some cases, less than $500 is annually allocated for youth ministry efforts. Additionally, further polling reveals that only one in ten churches claims to have a vibrant youth ministry. Likewise, the profession of youth ministry has been one of the lowest paying vocational careers in America. In some cases, those in professional youth ministry receive a compensation package that is 60% less than other similar professions requiring the same level of education.

A Re-Imagined Paradigm is Needed

If eight out of ten baptized youth are exiting our churches soon after high school graduation, the time for change has come. Old paradigms of ministry are no longer effective. For instance, during the 1980s and 1990s, many youth ministries were built on the “field of dreams” concept, i.e., “if you build it they will come.” The idea was to create an impressive facility with “bells and whistles” that would “attract” community youth while keeping covenant youth excited. Today, there seems little we can build that will attract students. Most do not care if we have great auditoriums and nice game rooms. What they long for are authentic relationships that dive deep into spiritual understanding. (Developing meaningful relationships is the one constant that has not and will not change in effective youth ministry.)

We need a few churches to become innovative leaders in youth ministry development, churches that will move outside the box of traditional ministry and embrace innovative strategies that engage youth in the cause of Christ.   The average congregation invests less than 7% of its operating budget in youth ministry.   Larger churches must begin to share their resource wealth with smaller churches. This means that we must break down the walls that separate churches in our communities and explore community-based youth ministry approaches. When it comes to youth ministry, most of our churches are segregated and dysfunctional at best. Rarely have our congregations worked together with any sense of synergy. We live in communities where 50% or more of the youth are now unchurched, yet we remain isolated and ineffective.

Churches with innovative youth ministries then can become centers for youth ministry development, effectively cultivating and training leaders to coach and mentor youth. At the same time, our denominations must take the lead in advocating fair and equal treatment of youth workers, keeping these leaders engaged in kingdom work instead of sending them packing because of economic hardship. We must embrace our mission as “going into the world” instead of waiting for lost youth to find our church doors.

The biggest challenge will be articulating a new or revised paradigm that works. Webster’s Dictionary defines paradigm as “a set of assumptions, concepts, values and practices that constitutes a way of viewing reality for the community that shares them.” What core assumptions, values, and practices might we need for developing a pardadigm of youth ministry within our postmodern context? In his book Unfreezing Moves, Bill Easum argues that congregations must break out of a mere maintenance model and move into a missional model of ministry in general. He writes,

Most Protestant congregations are stuck in the muck and mire of their institutions with little or no movement toward joining Jesus on the mission field. To them faithfulness means supporting their church and keeping it open. For them to be faithful to their God-given mission, they must be freed up from their slavery to their institutions to live for others on the mission field, freed up to function in a constantly changing world.5


God is a God of mission. The Father sent the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit to reconcile the world to God. As God sent Jesus, so Jesus sends the Church to be ambassadors of reconciliation in the world. Thus Jesus provides the primary model for missional youth ministry. The Gospel narratives suggest that Jesus’ ministry was characterized by clarity of purpose and the practices of teaching, equipping, and sending. More specifically, we can note the following about Jesus’ ministry:

  • He was clear about his mission.
  • He invested in twelve and had a very close relationship with three.
  • He journeyed with them through life.
  • He taught more outside the classroom than in the classroom.
  • He modeled what he taught, allowing his followers to engage faith in action.
  • He challenged them as emerging leaders to move beyond their current capabilities.
  • He ultimately transferred ministry responsibility to them.

These aspects of Jesus’ ministry can be translated into guidelines for a missional youth ministry today.

Articulating a Clear Mission and Vision

Most churches, although unconsciously affirming the value of youth ministry, have never clearly articulated why their youth ministry exists. Without a defined mission and purpose, many churches find themselves “shooting in the dark,” hoping to somehow hit the target. As our statistics indicate, many miss. Clarity of mission must accompany conviction regarding the necessity of youth ministry. Clearly articulating a youth ministry mission and vision is the starting point that ultimately can lead to the development of strategic, measurable, achievable, realistic, and timely goals.

Identifying a Wider Target Group

Today’s adolescents face adult challenges and temptations at younger and younger ages. What were once typical experiences for high school and collegeage students are now typical for middle schoolers. Walt Mueller, president of the Center for Parent/Youth Understanding, refers to this shift as “age compression.” Age compression is created, in large part, by the media and popular culture. According to Mueller, “marketers have used [age compression] as a strategy to expand a product’s market by pushing adult-type products, values and attitudes on kids at younger ages. What’s resulted is an environment where what used to be for 18-year-olds is now for six-year olds, who are increasingly dressing, talking and acting like yesterday’s 18-year-olds.”6

Therefore pilot churches testing new paradigms of youth ministry must focus on younger students, especially those in fifth through eighth grades.   We are losing connection with today’s generation. We will likely continue to die as congregations and denominations unless we pay serious attention to this issue.   Additionally, we can no longer approach ninth through twelfth grades together. Both research and the experience of youth workers suggest that the first two years of high school are radically different from the last two years. The typical “youth group” approach does not connect with eleventh and twelfth graders. These adolescents today are more interested in leadership roles and mission opportunities.

We also need to expand our youth ministry efforts to include late adolescents and young adults post high school, ages eighteen to twenty-four. This group seems to be all but forgotten within many RCA and CRC congregations. While some in this age range take on leadership roles in youth ministry, a high percentage slip through cracks and exit our congregations.

Equipping a Team to Invest in Youth

Youth ministry leadership that connects relevantly with adolescents fifth grade through post high school requires that we move past the mindset that one paid professional or vocational youth leader can adequately do the job. Typically, churches hire vocational youth workers who are young and highly relational, thus able to attract students with a magnetic personality. Head to Head This fits with the “if you build it they will come” paradigm. However, this leader type often fails to produce long term results. Administrative and organizational responsibilities are a challenge, and the young, inexperienced youth worker lacks the maturity and experience to develop a strong volunteer team. These youth workers are often short-term, leaving their positions within one to three years. Students who develop a close friendship with this type of leader feel abandoned, and since volunteer leaders are not adequately trained, the youth ministry is placed on hold until the next star is hired. Consequently, the next youth worker arrives with new dreams and ideas but encounters skeptical students, all wondering how long this one will stay. Churches continue to spin their youth ministry wheels, while never gaining long term traction.

We must rethink the role of the “hired” youth worker. The youth worker should not be viewed as a “hired gun” to do the work of youth ministry for the congregation. Instead, the youth worker must be seen as a team facilitator, similar to that of a coach. The model of ministry as coaching is supported by developments in leadership theory. Easum writes,

A new understanding of organization is emerging, born out of quantum physics, chaos theory, and a return to biblical principles of organization. The thrust of this theory is team ministry, built around a gift-based, permission- giving, servant-empowered approach to leadership. The role of leadership is to provide an atmosphere of trust and permission so people can follow God’s leading rather than the will of a handful of people who try to control everything that happens.7

Implementing a gift-based style of youth ministry leadership within RCA and CRC structures will require significant change in our current systems. As mentioned above, we must deconstruct the concept of hiring a “director” that somehow will be “all things to all students.” The typical director excels in some areas of ministry but struggles in others areas in which he or she lacks skill and passion. This inevitably leaves “leadership voids and holes” within any youth ministry infrastructure. In contrast, gift-based team leadership allows a ministry director to excel in areas where he or she is gifted. This model creates space for others to utilize and express their gifts within the greater whole, a much more well-balanced approach. In the business world, this concept is often referred to as synergy, “the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual efforts.” Today’s effective youth leader (vocational or volunteer) knows both how to mobilize a team and how to create and foster synergy within a team.

By revisiting Jesus’ ministry model, we can conclude that a minimum of one effectively trained youth leader is needed for every twelve potential students that a congregation is seeking to reach. The role of the “hired” director/facilitator now becomes identifying, recruiting, equipping, deploying, and coaching youth ministry apprentices and leaders. In this paradigm, the “volunteers” are championed equally with the trained and equipped “youth leaders,” as they are entrusted to invest relationally in the lives of a small group of teens (rather than just serving punch and cookies in the back of the room).

Deep Relational Ministry–The Heart

of Jesus’ Ministry Model

Jesus invested in twelve seemingly average people. He journeyed with them through life. He spent significant, quality time with them. He became vulnerable and transparent on both good days and challenging days. His disciples saw him angry, grieving, distressed, lonely, disappointed, struggling over God’s plan, and praying that there could be another way. They saw him live faith and daily “work out” his relationship with the Father. We might say that field trips were a valuable component of his mentoring. Seldom did he use a classroom or a building.

When we compare this kind of intense interaction with the amount of time that youth ministers (let alone ministers in general) interact with young people, the latter seems woefully inadequate. Popular culture has far more interaction with adolescents than youth workers. According to Walt Mueller, adolescents engage popular culture for approximately twenty-five hours each week,8 while the average youth leader spends one or two hours with the same students. How is it that we truly expect any degree of lifechanging impact?

Time is not the only issue to be addressed when developing relational youth min
istry. We must also change the kinds of interactions we have with adolescents. The three-point, carefully articulated, theological argument, packaged in a thirtyminute lecture is a “terribly boring package.” Yet we continue to see many youth leaders and pastors frozen in this “talking head” teaching methodology. We dismiss the youth and say “see you next week.”   The youth worker should not be viewed as a “hired gun” to do the work of youth ministry for the congregation. Instead, the youth worker must be seen as a team facilitator, similar to that of a coach.   Hutchcraft writes, “Too often we expect a teen to be attracted to Christ through approaches that he or she probably considers irrelevant, uninteresting, and culturally foreign. Then we interpret this disinterest as rejection of Christ when, in reality, he may be rejecting the package in which we have presented him.”9

Today’s youth are interested in spiritual realities. The church must learn to connect spiritually with this generation in new ways. Conversations with post high school adolescents who remain active and involved in their congregations suggest that they stay engaged because of two factors. The first is authentic relationships, often cultivated through the context of middle school and high school ministries that utilized small groups. In most cases, these small groups were facilitated by one or two caring adults who invested in the teens outside of youth group or church functions. The second factor for their continued involvement in the church is that these older adolescents and young adults felt valued by their church. Each was given meaningful leadership and service roles within a gift-based, servant-empowered environment.

Jesus Challenged Them

as Emerging Leaders

Jesus never forced belief on his disciples. Instead he looked for teachable moments. He seized life opportunities to challenge the disciples’ faith, creating and cultivating an environment where meaningful questions could be pondered. He used illustrations and stories, tying real life situations and faith together. He provided space for them to wrestle through issues that did not make immediate sense, and he never became angry when they “didn’t get it.” He could see their potential beyond their current condition.

Today’s teens are under-challenged. Too often we conclude that youth are only interested in eating pizza, playing video games, or being entertained. Yet youth today are quite interested in questions of faith, social issues, or helping a friend through his or her parents’ divorce. As we rethink youth ministry in our Reformed settings, we must interact within adolescents’ real life settings. We must create challenging opportunities for them to discover their potential (God’s call) within the framework of a real life context–e.g., through extended, inter-generational mission trips.

Jesus Ultimately Transferred

Responsibility to Them

Jesus imparted responsibility to his disciples, ultimately trusting this rag-tag group to build the church. Here is where a massive paradigm shift is necessary. Serious questions must be asked regarding the viability of our static, Reformed church infrastructures. Why is it that all aspects of our churches are controlled by adults? Why is it that youth seldom have a voice? Why is it that youth do not serve in many leadership roles? Why is it that systems are lacking to help youth discover and implement their spiritual gifts? Why it is that youth ministry often receives the budget “leftovers”? It is within these “adultcontrolled environments” that perhaps the greatest disconnect occurs between the church and youth. Because there are so few opportunities for youth and young adults to connect through leadership and service roles, many, upon high school graduation, feel lost, with no purpose or reason to remain involved. They conclude that they are not wanted or needed. So it’s not surprising that many “check out” between the years of eighteen and twenty- four. As part of a redefined ministry context, student leadership development, accompanied by opportunities to serve, must become a high priority in every RCA and CRC church.

From Awareness to Action

Youth ministry must be redefined. No one church has it down to a science. No one approach will work in all congregations. And so we find ourselves faced with an exciting yet daunting challenge. Will we take the effort to rethink and redefine youth ministry, or will we continue to watch younger generations disconnect from our churches? Statistics verify that time is not necessarily on our side.

The purpose of this article has been to raise awareness and foster greater action. Although time tested solutions are not offered, rethinking youth ministry by revisiting Jesus’ model seems like the logical starting point. As we extrapolate from this model, I believe we can begin to build a framework that will reconnect us with younger generations. Student leadership development, engagement in missions and social action, and the creation of authentic communities that foster meaningful theological reflection and action will be part of the equation. The result can and should be revitalized congregations and Reformed denominations, a people gathered, equipped, empowered, and sent to be the presence of Christ in this world.


1 Stanley M. Grenze, “Foreward” in Making Sense Out Of Church, Spencer Burke (Zondervan, 2003), 15.

2 Ron Hutchcraft, The Battle For A Generation (Moody Press, 1996), 12, 13.

3 Duane Smith, “Summary Information: Surveys Gathered by Eaglecrest Youth Ministry Services,” January 2000.

4 George Barna, Transforming Children into Spiritual Champions (Gospel Light, 1999), 56.

5 Bill Easum, Unfreezing Moves (Abingdon Press, 2001), 10.

6 Walt Mueller, Engaging the Soul of Youth Culture (InterVarsity Press, 2006), 86.

7 Easum, 44

8 Walt Mueller, “More than Music” (seminar presented at the National Youth Worker’s Convention, St. Louis, MO, November 2004).

9 Hutchcraft, 44.

Duane Smith is the coordinator for youth ministries in the Great Lakes Synod (RCA). He also serves as a youth ministry consultant for congregations throughout the United States.