Youth Ministry is a unique "beast" in the sense that it is always changing, yet it is always the same. While students need don't change, the culture, methods, and strategies to connect with those students often do. This list points to 7 challenges that we believe are especially relevant to Youth Ministry in today's cultural context.
1. You are not in the same social context as the students you are ministering to. This has been a constant for all eras of youth ministry. Even if you are a young youth director, you still aren't sitting in class alongside these students. But, what makes this cultural context unique is that culture shifts can happen overnight. This is due to the unlimited accessibility our students possess that has never been rivaled in the past.
2. You have to deal with parents. Ministering to parents is nothing new in the youth ministry world. However, our experience has been that parents are more likely than ever to side with their kids than with teachers/coaches/other adults. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but if you have been in youth ministry for any length of time, you know the parents we are writing about. We live in a "No, that doesn't sound like my kid," and a, "He was just expressing himself" culture, more so than every before. Victim culture is greater than it has been in years, and it is a culture in which we are called to minister. (Please understand there are real victims, this is not addressing those situations)
3. "Church Culture" disappeared long ago. It is an unfortunate reality: the church is becoming less and less the "norm" in America. In 1990, 85% of Americans claimed to be Christian. As of 2019, that number dropped to 65%. In one generation the claimed title of "Christian" in America dropped by 20%. Sadly, statistics do not indicate that declining pattern to end. This means that the church must begin to change its assumptions about teens. For many, this is not particularly new. But for those in the "Bible Belt" this is becoming a shocking reality that many churches seem unprepared/unwilling to address.
4. Teens have more voices of influence speaking into their lives than ever before. In the social age, accessibility is unprecedented. In 2004, 45% of all teens in America owned cell phones. In 2019, 85% of teens own their own smartphone cell plan, with 53% having that by the age of 11. Our students are bombarded with influence. As Youth Ministers, we are striving to speak truth into the lives of teens that are hearing every imaginable contrary opinion.
5. Generally, parents are not discipling their teens at home. For many families, the responsibility of teaching the Bible has been fully handed over to the church. God bless the youth ministers and volunteers who are stepping up to invest in these teens! Unfortunately, the church's role was never designed to be the sole discipleship entity in the lives of its children. Deuteronomy 6:7-9 lays out a model of discipleship that can only be fully implemented by the parents of the children.
6. Sports/Extra curricular activities have taken priority over church activities. Twenty years ago, travel/select/tournament/competition activities were cognizant and considerate of church activities. Not only that, but they were limited to the incredibly elite athletes/performers. Today, these types of activities are the norm in our culture, regardless of how especially talented (or not) someone actually is. This is forcing a change in the traditional structure for youth ministry meetings and the situations in which relational ministry happens.
7. The Biblical knowledge for many teens just isn't there. It is becoming rare to find a teen who has memorized catechisms, knows the creeds, or even knows how to find their way around the Bible. For many, these things have died away with much of tradition. Just last week, one of our R3 Team spoke to a group of 150 teens at a local, upper class private school. He asked for a show of hands of who knew the story of the "Rich Young Ruler." TWO students raised their hands. What we are experiencing is a dearth of biblical knowledge. Now, this doesn't mean that saving faith in Jesus necessarily requires all of this knowledge, but it does put us in a little bit of a bind. We are no longer working with certain foundational assumptions (we know many of you have already made this shift). Instead, we are building a ground-up foundation for faith. In some manner, this should change the way that we approach teens.
What do you think makes youth ministry challenging in your context? What wisdom do you have for those struggling with any of the items on the list above?