What You Need to Know about Youth Ministry

What You Need to Know about Youth Ministry
By Rick Lawrence

Rick, tell us about the importance and impact of youth ministry today.

About 80 percent of all people who come to Christ do so before the age of 18. So the most powerful evangelism strategy we have is children’s ministry. But that’s just the first part of the process. For a rocket to reach orbit, it has to have boosters. It doesn’t make sense to work hard to get the rocket off the pad but never see it reach orbit because you didn’t have boosters. So children’s ministry is that strong liftoff mechanism, and youth ministry is the booster needed to get people into discipleship orbit.

A lot has been written lately about a drop in interest in church when people reach high school and college. I’ve seen some really high numbers about how many young people drop out of church when they go to college and never come back. Most of the numbers are inflated, but our research shows that up to 27 percent of kids who had been consistent in church attendance stop going permanently after high school. So youth ministry is critical for helping to lock Christianity into their hearts over the entire arc of their lives.

Does that mean that a lot of youth ministries today aren’t connecting like they should?

One key is what I wrote about in Jesus-Centered Youth Ministry. There’s a pattern I’m seeing where the focus on Jesus is missing. Youth ministry is doing a lot of cool things, but they aren’t producing kids who understand who Jesus is. We took film crews all over the country and asked young people to tell us who Jesus is. Overwhelmingly their answer was, “He’s a nice guy.” As a result, these kids aren’t trusting Jesus with the realities of their lives. Why would you trust Mister Rogers to walk with you down a dark alley? Of course Jesus isn’t Mister Rogers, He’s our Savior, but that’s not the Jesus kids are coming to know in youth ministry today.

The Exemplary Youth Ministry study found that churches with the most effective youth ministries had an obsessive focus on Jesus Christ. So believe it or not, even though Jesus is supposed to be the point of our churches, the reality is that our young people just aren’t getting that.

How do you move in that direction in a way that does connect?

The first step is that you can’t construct anything until you deconstruct what is already there. Drag into the light the Jesus kids think they know already. You can simply ask them in conversation, and you can more formally give them a survey asking them to detail what they know. This is going to sound strange, but a lot of youth ministries don’t know what their kids believe. You start with finding out, and then deconstruct the false Jesus they’ve come to know.

There’s a church called Vintage 21 in North Carolina that did a whole month on deconstructing a false Jesus. They produced a whole series of hilarious clips using their own sound track to Jesus movies. They lampooned Jesus in the way we commonly think of Him. It’s hilarious, but then you realize this is actually closer to the truth than we want to admit. Once you’ve exposed that image, you can start building up the right view. As you discuss a story about Jesus, stop and ask everyone, “What is Jesus doing in this story and what is He not doing?” That alone slows people down and starts to reintroduce them to who Jesus is and transform their image of what He is all about.

What are the big trends in youth culture today that we should be connecting with?

Our culture is so digital today. If you’d told me five years ago that kids would get into what is essentially a telegraph system in which kids slowly send compressed messages to each other I’d have said you were crazy! And yet, there it is. There’s a psychological power to texting that nobody saw coming, but kids have really adapted to it. That has changed communication patterns and relationship patterns. Lots of youth leaders have set rules on texting during meetings and retreats, but not much work has been done on ways to leverage this communication style. In the last issue of Group magazine we ran something unique—a totally texted youth-led worship experience. The whole thing was built around a youth leader and young people texting each other through a worship experience when they weren’t even together at the same place and time.

It’s like sonar… receiving a text says you exist and you matter. It’s like on MySpace when you talk about how many friends you have signed up on your page. The more friends you have the more you matter. And I think kids are really desperate to find a sense of identity that is positive for them. That’s always been true. Texting is simply a powerful way they have found to undergird that identity. If you’re in constant communication, it’s constantly saying you matter.

There’s a trend in the music that kids listen to today, too. There’s a broader definition of what Christian music is today than there was even five years ago. A lot of the Christian music they listen to today isn’t on a Christian label. Their tastes have moved to people who talk about truth, wherever it comes from.

Kids are so involved in electronic media that it’s almost a sin not to use film and music and TV shows and even videogames to reach them. Not to analyze what’s the good stuff or bad stuff, but using it to spark Christian discussion. About two years ago, video gaming surpassed music and film as the greatest influence in kids’ lives. It’s a hot medium because you’re watching something akin to TV but it’s a cold medium in that it fully engages you to the process. There are kids who are literally as addicted to video games as they are to drugs. The church has had a hard time accessing that world, because it is so unlike music—you can listen to a song on an album and then have a good biblical discussion about it. But to talk about a video game, you have to put in time playing it. A lot of time. We’ve tried to take some of the most popular games and pick out some of the themes in them, and give instructions to the youth leaders on what you have to do to get to that point. You can pause the game at the right point before the youth meeting, and when you are ready for discussion time, play it from that point for a few minutes. Then you can have a great discussion with questions tied to that theme.

Adapted from a podcast interview with Rick Lawrence, executive editor of Group magazine. Rick Lawrence is executive editor of Group Magazine

“This article may not be written by an Apostolic author, but it contains many excellent principles and concepts that can be adapted to most churches. As the old saying goes, “Eat the meat. Throw away the bones.”