Can Our Youth Save Us?

Congregations love to advocate on behalf of youth ministry…at least in principle.  At some point in every congregational planning process someone stands and issues the battle cry, “We need to be doing a better job with our youth. They are the future of our church. If we have a thriving youth program, the church will grow.” The notion that a thriving youth ministry will lead to church health and vitality is a long standing assumption in most of our congregations. 

We look at the void of young adults in our congregations today and we aren’t quite sure what to do about that. We see young adulthood as a time when people are not inclined to seek out church participation, and so we convince ourselves that reaching out to young adults is simply too hard. But youth ministry, that’s a different story! We know that the teen years are critical faith formation years, and we know from our own personal experience that parents will attend almost any church to which their adolescent children feel attracted. Many of us also have fond memories of vibrant youth ministry years in glory days gone by, and we’re sure that the way back to those glory days is to tend to our youth and to get that particular vibrancy back.

Over the last several years nearly every congregation that I have worked with on strategic planning has claimed children’s ministry or youth ministry (or both) as one of their 2-3 key strategic initiatives for moving forward. In other words, they recognize that their children and youth ministry programs have lost their impact and they believe that infusing energy and resources into these ministries will make the biggest difference in the right direction for the future health and vitality of the congregation.

However, there may be a problem with our assumptions about the role that youth ministry plays in revitalization.  In 2009 the Hartford Institute for Religion released the findings of a significant research project called American Congregations 2008 . The report states the following:

“Interest in many areas of congregational life cycle up and down over time. Youth ministry is one of these. Right now interest is rising. The reason may be because of increasing worries about flat to declining memberships and the perception that youth programming would stimulate growth. Interestingly, FACT2008 finds that a positive relationship between youth programming and growth (For FACT2008, in worship attendance) only holds for our Evangelical Protestant and Catholic/Orthodox families, and even here it is not very strong. For Oldline Protestantism the relationship is actually negative, although again not very strong.”

What are we to do with this piece of information? It’s startling and it feels counter-intuitive. Certainly no one is suggesting that we eliminate an emphasis on youth ministry. But, if your congregation has limited resources to invest in revitalization efforts (and what congregation doesn’t have limited resources), is youth ministry the best thing in which to invest those limited resources?

Here is one of my favorite mantras as I work with large congregations in the midst of planning. The large church has the capacity to do just about anything it chooses to do with excellence, but no church has the capacity to do all things with excellence. No congregation has unlimited resources. Choices must be made. Realistically, a congregation can only focus on two-three key strategic initiatives at any one point in time.  Should youth ministry be showing up on every congregation’s list right now?  Are we investing ourselves in an area of ministry that feels safe and familiar when a riskier approach, with greater potential for impact, remains unexplored?

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