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Is Your Youth Ministry A Battleship? Or A Speed Boat?

Is Your Youth Ministry A Battleship? Or A Speed Boat?

Last week I had two moments that made me think about how effectively we as youth workers have positioned ourselves to change with a changing culture. I read two articles that got my attention in a big way. I'll share them with you, then we'll unpack what they mean.

Shifting Demographics

I read a report last week from the 2010 census. Data shows that "among American children, the multiracial population has increased almost 50 percent, to 4.2 million, since 2000, making it the fastest growing youth group in the country." A couple of interesting takeaways:

  • The number of people who identified themselves as both white and black soared by 134 percent since 2000 to 1.8 million people.
  • Across the country, 9 million people — or 2.9 percent of the population — chose more than one race on the last census, a change of about 32 percent since 2000.
  • In the South and parts of the Midwest, the growth has been far greater than the national average.
  • The data shows that the multiracial population is overwhelmingly young.

What does this information have to do with the way we think about youth ministry? Plenty. But let's hold off one more second as we discuss the final article that got me thinking.

Shifting Consumers

This articleis simply one of the most thought provoking articles I have read in some time. It's written by Nick Shore, MTV's Senior VP of Strategic Consumer Insight and is all about the coming wave of Millennials. Here are some insights from the article:

  • There are close to 100 million Millennials making them "the single largest generational cohort in American history," larger than Gen X, and the Baby Boomers.
  • Millennials are "better educated, more self-esteemed, more demanding, more technologically savvy, more empowered and wired to win at the game of life" than previous generations.
  • The "parent centered" family has undergone a shift. The nucleus of the family has moved toward the child. "No longer the hierarchical structure with authoritarian parent "leadership," the new family is flattened to a democracy, with collective (if not kid-driven) decision-making process. Parents are more like best friends, life coaches, or as we at MTV call them 'peer-ents.'"
  • "Self-expression, having your voice heard, following your own path--these are all values that are positively encouraged in modern parenting styles."

What do these two articles have to do with youth ministry?A lot actually. But they triggered one main thought in my mind:

Battleship Youth Ministries (i.e., unwieldy, cumbersome, hard to change course, relatively slow moving) could find themselves slipping into irrelevance, while Speed Boat Youth Ministries (i.e., fast, fluid, agile) will be poised to meet the demands of a changing culture.

These two articles have some general and some specific implications that speak to what kind of youth ministry we will be. A Few General Implications:

  • There is a change coming that will alter the cultural make-up of our youth groups and the world our students live in. Racial-identity is headed toward uncharted waters. What affect will this have on the cultural lens we use to teach and relate to our students? Are you, your volunteers, and your church positioned to minister to an increasingly racially-diverse group of young people?
  • The Millenials are coming and they are bringing a land slide of change with them. Will you adapt your structure and philosophy to meet them? What are the implications for your ministry if you do not adapt?

A Few Specific Implications:

Attitudes Must Change

There is no room for prejudice of any form in the Kingdom of God. Yet, our churches too often are places where race-based prejudice exists. It simply can't be tolerated. In the future, your youth groups could see a significant increase in students who do not identify with one race. Will they find a Christ-like love and acceptance from you and your volunteers?

Morality Motivated By Love

If you believe what Shore and many others say to be true, it occurs to me that the moral discipline called for by Christ and the greater narrative of the Bible may very well conflict with the Millennials' unique resistance to restriction and lack of choice. This puts a huge premium on teaching and modeling a Christ-centered relational approach to faith life, as opposed to a rigid legalism where "holiness" is defined by checking off a list of do's and don'ts.

Engagement Is Essential

We have to more-or-less abandon models of ministry where student involvement is not valued at a premium. Hand's on, experiential application of spiritual truths will be key to keeping the engagement of a generation for whom interactivity is ingrained.

Fluid Model of Authority

We may very well have to rethink how we see authority. We can hold on to models of hierarchical, and authoritative ministry if we want, but we will risk losing the attention of a generation who sees itself as almost co-equals of parents, teachers, and coaches. Relational ministry with an emphasis on true friendship is and will continue to be a must. I can't claim to know all of the ways the factors mentioned will affect our ministries, but hopefully these are a good start. One thing is for certain: our culture is changing as rapidly as it ever has. If your models and attitudes are not open to change, if you are a Battleship Youth Ministry, you may find yourselves without a platform from which to speak God's timeless truth into the lives of teenagers.

  • What will it take for you to embrace a Speed Boat model of youth ministry?
  • What would that look like in your specific ministry context?
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