Pastoral Care

Youth Ministry in the 2020s

By Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed

Back in the 1990s, when I was a teenager, youth ministry was relatively straightforward. My peers and I met for junior high and high school Sunday school and then attended worship. We came back on Sunday evenings for a less formal worship service and youth group (which often involved outings such as laser tag, mini golf or a scavenger hunt, plus the requisite pizza dinner) and on Wednesday nights for churchwide supper and seventh -12th grade Bible study. The youth schedule largely aligned with the adult schedule, and attendance was pretty consistent week-to-week and across Sunday mornings and evenings and Wednesday nights. 

This is no longer the world in which we live. Extracurricular activities associated with school spill over into all the times formerly considered off-limits for non-church obligations. The definition of regular church attendance has changed rapidly – and continues to morph –  as much social, academic and work life is lived online more so than in-person. For all of these reasons and more, the model of youth ministry must also evolve.

Laura Stephens-Reed
Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed

This is not an article about nostalgia for the “good old days,” though. Seminary professor Elizabeth Corrie puts into words the assumptions that underpinned the negative aspects of my church experience as a youth. In her book Youth Ministry as Peace Education, Corrie says that many adults see youth as “incomplete adults” who must be overly protected from the world or as “precocious delinquents” who need to be kept out of trouble. Though this is probably not the language churches have used, it frames the entertain-and-contain approach: We must tell young people what we know to be true, but in a sometimes vague, euphemistic way. We have to keep them busy, because there’s no telling what they’d do if left to their own devices. 

Gen Z is not going to go for these ideas that are holdovers from the older models of youth ministry. This current generation of young people, born between 1997 and 2012, requires something different. Because they are digital natives, meaning they have never known a world without smartphones and social media, they crave spaces for face-to-face, authentic connection. Because they value diversity and justice and earth care, they need places to help them think through how their social commitments connect to faith and how to live out what they believe. Because teen pregnancies are down while self-harm and depression are skyrocketing, they need people around them who love and support them just as they are. Because they are less likely to have a strong spiritual formation background, they need support and open-ended questions to seek out truth and to reflect on their experiences of God. 

These are the reasons that youth don’t need a program that they simply consume. They need a community, one in which they can both find identity, belonging and purpose and in which they can support their peers as they look for the same support. They need a say in shaping this community so that they can come into their own. They need adults who see them as fully-formed people with big questions and big ideas, not as blank slates or reform projects. They need to be held accountable and to hold others accountable, because that’s a key aspect of living with and for others. Here’s what you as an adult can do to foster this kind of community.

Be not afraid. Many adults are hesitant to work with youth. What do I say? What do I do? What do I do with what they say and do? Here’s the secret: You don’t have to be an expert on young people, the Bible or anything else in order to work with youth. You just have to love them.

Play together. There are so many ways to do this. Fun opens up creativity and builds connection among everyone involved.

Covenant with them. How do they want to be as a community? They will have ideas. These behaviors and actions aren’t just for the youth themselves. Adults should commit to them as well. This signals respect for the youth and a willingness to go on adventure with them.

Wonder with them. Youth have big questions. You probably do too. Think about them together. Mull where God is at work in them and what God is inviting you to consider in the midst of them. You are on a growth path alongside these youth. They will provide you with insight just as you will for them.

Listen deeply to them. All people – not just young people – have fewer and fewer spaces where they are heard, seen and valued, and there is no better gift to offer a fellow child of God. When we sit before a person and receive what they share, we listen them into being.

Stoke their imaginations. Ask powerful questions that make youth really think. Point out connections you see that maybe they haven’t yet, such as between their gifts and one of the world’s needs. Help them reframe situations when they get stuck.

Encourage their agency. Though it might feel uncomfortably unpredictable for us as adults, it’s important that we give youth chances to lead and that we in turn follow that lead. They have a passion for change that the world craves. Young people are not the future; they are the present and I am here for it. (The first member of Gen Z was recently elected to Congress, after all.)

I hope this perspective lessens pressure on youth ministers and youth leaders. You don’t have to have the perfect curriculum, all the answers, the biggest youth group or the flashiest activities. What you need is a deep love and respect for youth and a willingness to journey with them. When you do, you will both bless and be blessed by these fellow disciples.

Rev. Laura Stephens-Reed is a clergy and congregational coach based in Alabama

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