The church is talking itself into a problem about its numerical attendance, and its mind, sadly is focussed on this. Fuelled by almost quarterly surveys on church attendance, ‘church growth’ has become one of the key priorities running throughout its stated objectives, and vision. Whilst any organisation is reliant on its members for its survival, responding only to the needs of that membership is counter productive – especially when the cause of the organisation is to hand.
The Church isnt for its members, it is in the ‘business’ of world transformation.
However, and with this in mind, it is then worth reflecting on why Youth Ministry is seen as one way of enabling the maintenance of church growth to happen, and being brave enough to suggest that it isnt the answer the question it might be looking for – not that youth ministry doesnt do good in itself. Here are a few reasons why Youth Ministry isnt the answer to the church growth problem, or more so, here might be factors which if thought through further in the church as a whole then it might be more likely that churches could be places where young people are more likely to thrive in discipleship & faith, and maybe this is what should be the driving force.
- Youth Ministry isnt the answer to church growth if the whole culture of the church isnt changed, to one that enables the generation of faith and discipleship to be culturally core.
- Youth Ministry is not the answer in a church if there is only 2 years funding for the professional
- Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth if young people are not given reasons to stay in it beyond attending
- Youth Ministry is not the answer if it doesnt connect deeply with young people, giving tools for discernment and discipleship in the space of the faith in the world, not just a fun time and a god slot (yes this still happens), but even this deep faith might be at odds with the faith of those who ‘attend’ church.
- Youth Ministry is not that answer if it doesnt occupy a space practically with young people through their crisis.
- Youth Ministry is not the answer if it doesnt fight with the powers that cause the oppression of young people, even in the church, but also in their family and social life.
- Youth Ministry is not the answer if it genuinely believes that young people can be free to make choices, and one of these may be the possibility of them leaving the church
- Youth Ministry is not the answer if the high points of young peoples faith experiences happen outside of the week by week. Somewhere else might become more interesting.
- Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth whilst young people seen as numbers and targets.
- Youth Ministry is not the answer to church growth, because it is seen as separate from ‘real church’ and separation doesnt work.
I do know of a churches where having good youth ministry enables families to attend and stay and the church is growing, and i would hazard a guess that where a church is in a niche position – ie the only charismatic church, and has an influx of people into the area such as a university town, then this flow of people is likely to be attracted to the good family work, but even in these kind of situations, large numbers of children in sunday school age groups doesnt necessary mean large number of 16-18 year olds in youth groups – and most of these are likely to move away (to a different university)
The challenge in non university towns (with low achievements) is that a static population has the potential of long term discipleship – but does the church have a presence in FE colleges? or 6th form centres? And in towns of high achievement where students move away – the task is different again. Understanding local culture is vital for long term discipleship.
There are situations where youth ministry is no doubt helpful, maybe it plugs a few gaps in the leaking sieve of young people from the church. But without a radical rethink of the culture, the format of church itself as a learning or empowering organisation youth ministry is not the answer to the church growth problem. Is it the answer to helping young people find faith? or for developing spaces of mission in the schools? is it a good thing? Yes. But it might not be the solution to the problem.
But it might not be the solution to the problem of church growth.
The problem with church isnt that it isnt growing, it is forgetting that it has the task of being goodness in the world, youth ministry and young people can join in this in collaboration.
If churches are losing heart for youth ministry, as a recent consultation exercise by youthscape (details here: https://www.youthscape.co.uk/research/publications/losing-heart) set out to begin a conversation on. Then maybe theres a element that when youth ministry was meant to be and proclaimed of itself to be the fix to church growth that everyone was looking for, to actually achieve this requires a considerable extra amount of effort that on face value, and this aspect of cultural and sytematic change is something that the church as an organisation was limited in their acknowledgement or preparation to do. And thats even before thinking about developing work with families, with developing work with young people who the church doesnt know yet and enabling church to become a culture within young peoples existing groups (rather than a leap they have to make to).
So Clergy, dont give up on Youth Ministry, love it for what good it can do, the adventure of it.