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The Shrinking Influence of Youth Workers

The Shrinking Influence of Youth Workers

In conversation after conversation with youth workers, I hear one theme repeated over and over. It's articulated differently, but at its heart, the message is the same:

Many youth workers seem to feel their ability to influence teenagers may be lessening.

I don't have any data here. It's simply an observation I have come to based on the many (and awesome) encounters we get to have with youth workers. And I need to be very clear: I am NOT saying that the youth workers whom I encounter are less capable of influence. On the contrary, I am routinely blessed by the amazing people who devote their lives, or at least large parts of their lives, to journeying with teenagers as they deepen their faith. This is not about a failure on the part of youth workers. It seems the factors I hear over and over again are more environmental.

What are these factors leading to this percevied shrinking of influence? As I have tried to look for trends in the conversations we have, I think it boils down to a few things:

  • Time: Teenagers are busier now than ever before. With athletics (not only school but travel-teams), the increased demands of school, clubs and other extra-curricular activities, jobs, and so on, youth workers actually have less fatce-to-face time to influence students through relationships. 
  • Noise: What I mean by noise is a competition for attention. In his book You Lost Me, David Kinnaman calls this "Access." Our teenagers are constantly connected (nearly 60% of US teenagers have a smart phone) and therefore are constantly exposed to a landslide of voices, messaging, and opinions. The youth worker of a generation ago was a main source of truth and wisdom. While the youth worker of today is no less wise, there is unbelievable competition for teenagers' attention.
  • Culture: I am no alarmist, but let's face it: the culture our teenagers are growing up in is not exactly an environment that is conducive to absolute truth, monotheism, and so on. So, by nature of this cultural affect on students, they may be predisposed to give less weight to a voice that is in conflict what much of what they experience in their worlds. 

I'm sure we could come up with more factors. The point is that it seems to me that many youth workers are experiencing a drop off in opportunities for face-to-face, relational influence, and that when they get these opportunities, they're finding it's more difficult to break through.

If this is the case, what can we do about it? 

I've thought about this and have a few ideas. I wonder if you'd share any thoughts you have?

  1. We have to be more intentional with the opportunities we have. We have to be intentional in our teaching time, our big picture plan for spiritual development, how we program, how we build relationships, and so on. With shrinking opportunities for life-on-life interaction, we have to make sure we're not wasting our chances by NOT having a clear plan.
  2. You must multiply yourself, and do it well. Multiplying yourself via a support team of adult volunteers maximizes the potential for influence. Many of you reading this utilize adult volunteers in your ministry. For you, the emphasis is on recruiting and training. You have to be excellent here. For those who feel your ministry is too small for adult volunteers, or that you are a volunteer yourself, I would strongly encourage you to bring a few adults on board with you. Study after study shows that the more meaningful adult relationships teenagers have, the more likely they are to stay grounded in their faith.
  3. You simply MUST make sure your students' parents are a part of your ministry. Are you making sure your students parents are on the same page with what you're doing in your ministry? Are you routinely encouraging them? Are you regularly equipping them with information on youth culture or tips on discipling their teenagers? Are you empowering them to partner with you by giving them follow-up content that works alongside what you're teaching? These are all vital aspects of making sure you're making the most of the influence you have.

What are your thoughts? Do you see the factors listed above at work in your youth ministry context making influencing students more difficult? If so, what suggestions would you offer to address this issue?

At the end of the day, God has placed us in the position to have meaningful influence in the lives of teenagers. My prayer is that we continue to make the most of it.

(originally posted in April, 2013)

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