The future of youth ministry

October 7th, 2020

Generation Z: Today’s teens struggle 

According to a February 2019 report by the Pew Research Center, 70% of teens today see anxiety and depression as a “major problem” among their peers. These mental health concerns cut across all gender, racial and socioeconomic lines. Bullying, drug addiction, drinking alcohol and poverty also made the list of major problems observed by this generation. School is also a concern, as 61% feel “a lot” of pressure to get good grades. To put it simply, our youth are not okay. 

Eighteen months after this report was first released, our youth can now add the disruptions caused by the COVID-19 pandemic to their list of struggles. In June of this year, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) surveyed Americans on their mental health and found symptoms of anxiety and depression up sharply compared to the same time last year, with young people the hardest hit of all age groups. Overall, one out of every ten (11%) respondents said they had “seriously considered” suicide in the past month, but for ages 18 to 24, the number was more than twice as high. An NPR article last month summarized the CDC findings highlighting worries among experts that we will see a spike in suicide “. . . because young people are increasingly cut off from peers and caring adults, because their futures are uncertain and because they are spending more time at home, where they are most likely to have access to lethal weapons.” 

All of these are concerns that fall most heavily on Generation Z. This generation was born between 1996 and 2010, right after the millennials, and comprises the current cohort of teenagers and young adults. The oldest in this group are just finishing college. This generation, unlike previous generations, has been raised on the internet and social media, not really remembering a time when those did not exist. 

However, while the internet and social media do generate some social engagement, it is also necessary to remember that these aren’t the kind of relationships teens truly crave. In a recent article, Dr. Josh Packard summarizes pre-pandemic research by the Springtide Research Institute, revealing that 61% of young people feel disconnected from people in virtual environments. Additionally, one-third of teens who were surveyed said they do not have a trusted adult to turn to when feeling stressed.

Countercultural messaging 

As every generation has, youth today are understandably asking a lot of questions about life, culture, and faith. However, we can no longer assume, like we did only half a century ago, that churches are their go-to place to explore these struggles and doubts. With youth attendance at church in decline, how do we reach those teenagers who desperately need to know the “width and length, height and depth” of the love of Christ? (Ephesians 3:18) 

The Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) based in Nashville, Tennessee, wrestles with this dilemma daily. Their mission is to give youth directors “on-the-job training,” while also providing these ministers with solid theological grounding so they are prepared for the tough questions teens are asking. CYMT also offers coaching and care to these ministers, since the youth they work with are often dealing with difficult life issues. These participants, called graduate residents, are then placed at a local church or faith-based nonprofit to serve while simultaneously earning a Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree from Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary. 

Dietrich Kirk, founder and executive director of CYMT, often refers to research from the Barna Group, which shows that 60% of teens say that “the church is not relevant to me personally.” Kirk explains that while church leaders believe the biggest challenge to working with teens and their families is the busy schedule of extracurricular activities many youth maintain, the reasons why they occupy themselves with these activities are more significant. “Youth find meaning in those activities or believe they will help them be successful, so they prioritize those activities over spiritual growth,” says Kirk. “CYMT is teaching youth ministers to present the gospel as countercultural. Following Christ is not about success, it is about experiencing joy, living vocationally, and discovering you are loved the way you are. We must offer them a life pathway that is radically different from the frantic, pressure-filled world they live in,” Kirk added.

Innovative youth ministry 

Youth ministry leaders are learning that in order to reach the youth of Generation Z with the same good news that changed their own lives, they must develop new models of ministry. These new models aren’t about attracting youth with the latest technology, fun games, or entertaining worship. Rather, groups like CYMT are seeing that theological reflection and action are key to helping young people notice God’s activity in their lives. Meghan Hatcher directs the Innovation Laboratory at CYMT and their Theological Innovation Process to help youth leaders and young people across the country discover better ways of engaging questions about their faith. Furthermore, the Innovation Lab seeks to challenge and change assumptions about the nature of youth ministry in the American mainline church. 

“As young people walk away from the church in increasing numbers every generation, it’s imperative that youth ministers design ministry that meets the real needs of the teenagers and families in their specific context,” says Hatcher. “There is no universal quick fix for declining engagement in the local church or youth group, but there is a process through which youth ministers, senior church leaders, and volunteers can grow in their understanding of the needs of young people in their midst.” This process must begin with authentic curiosity, asking hard questions, and talking with teens. “This was the same process Jesus used in his encounters with those he ministered alongside,” continues Hatcher, “so as people of faith, we have plenty of examples available to us as we engage young people in this way.” 

Be sure to check out FaithLink, a weekly downloadable discussion guide for classes and small groups.

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