What’s NEXT for Youth Ministry?

paper dolls

By John Vest

Over the past few years one of the most talked about religious news stories has been the so-called “rise of the nones.” According to surveys and studies, one fifth of the United States now claims no religious affiliation. It’s not necessarily the case that they aren’t spiritual or don’t believe in God, but our society is increasingly uninterested in participating in organized religious institutions. This is especially true among young Americans—a third of adults under 30 fit this category.

This trend is not exactly news for mainline Protestants who have been declining in membership for decades. But now that the decline narrative has reached evangelicals, the most vocal representatives of American Christianity are starting to take notice and talk about it. While much of the evangelical handwringing has to do with a perceived image problem—if we’d only seem less judgmental, homophobic, power hungry, and hypocritical young people would stop leaving—the mainline response still seems muted, apathetic, and resigned. We need more voices—like those in the NEXT Church conversation—interested in moving beyond denominational politics and institutional maintenance and committed instead to paying attention to what God is doing in the world and envisioning how we can be a part of it.

If there is anything worth preserving in the Christian witness of mainline Protestantism—and I believe that there is—then we need to be more proactive in our response to the rise of the nones. It seems to me that there are two basic strategies: 1) reform existing expressions of church in ways that captivate the imaginations and passions of young people and others who are leaving our churches for, well, nothing in particular; 2) work with the youth and young people we still have with the clear intention of long-term sustainability. While I have the opportunity to dabble in the first of these strategies (BBQ Church is my pet project in this regard), most of my time and energy is devoted to the second.

Long gone are the days of thinking about youth ministry as “passing on the faith” to emerging generations. The last thing we want to do is simply replicate among young people forms of church that are on the decline and are clearly not compelling for growing numbers of their peers. Instead, youth ministry in the church that is becoming is more about empowering young people to do the work of ecclesial reformation for themselves. It’s about helping them catch God’s vision of a missional church making a difference in the world and deploying their own passions and creativity to figure out what that looks like in the rapidly changing world they live in and are actively shaping. This is going to look different in each context and there are no one-size-fits-all ideas or models for 21st century post-Christendom youth ministry. But there is an important conversation to be had and perhaps some common themes and approaches to better understand and engage.

I’m excited to be a guest editor on the NEXT Church blog during the month of January, curating a conversation about what is next in youth ministry. I’ll share some of what I’m doing in Chicago and a new conversation about progressive youth ministry that I’m hosting this spring. But I’m most looking forward to assembling a diverse collection of voices from around the PC(USA) that will bear witness to our hopes and dreams for youth ministry that matters and makes a difference in the world we live in.


John VestJohn Vest is the Associate Pastor for Youth Ministry at Fourth Presbyterian Church and blogs at johnvest.com. He is completing a DMin thesis on post-Christendom confirmation at McCormick Theological Seminary. He lives with his wife and two young sons on the north side of Chicago and in his spare time dreams of one day achieving the mystical union of BBQ and church.

8 replies
  1. Kaye Bledsoe
    Kaye Bledsoe says:

    Pleased to see you’ll be sharing on the NEXT Church blog.
    The Presbytery of Coastal Carolina actually has a church named Barbecue Presbyterian Church. How ’bout dat!

  2. Vola Larson
    Vola Larson says:

    John,
    With this: “While much of the evangelical handwringing has to do with a perceived image problem—if we’d only seem less judgmental, homophobic, power hungry, and hypocritical young people would stop leaving…” you have effectively eliminated any PCUSA evangelical from wanting to participate in Next Church or your youth ministry blogs.

    I know many young people who desire above all else to hear the word of God faithfully preached. They are busy ministering in various places, Mexico, inner-cities, their high schools, etc. but they want to hear God’s word to strengthen them in the walk with Christ. But you are instead with your words about evangelicals putting them down.

    • John Vest
      John Vest says:

      Viola, I’m not making a judgment here. This is what evangelicals themselves are talking about to diagnose the problem. I’m simply reporting about an evangelical discourse on why young people are leaving the church. You should check out David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons’ book unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity…and Why it Matters. This is based on Barna Group research. There are several other similar books I can suggest if you are interested.

  3. Vola Larson
    Vola Larson says:

    John,
    Are the authors evangelical or are they emergent? My problem with what you wrote is the implication that evangelicals believe the problems they might be experiencing are caused by their homophobia and power grabbing. Now I realize that we are all sinners and there may be some, not many, evangelicals who hate gays, etc., etc., but I am not aware of any nor am I aware of any churches and pastors who suddenly believe that because they believe that homosexual sex, as well as adultery and fornication are sinful that they must change their beliefs. Sure there are young people, as well as old people, who believe that evangelicals are homophobes but the solution isn’t to throw away the Bible but to keep loving all and teaching and preaching the word. And I think that is how most evangelicals feel. I’m just saying that among the evangelicals I know they are not accusing themselves of what you are implying. They are undoubtedly sure of their sinfulness (me too) but I think you described their thought processes wrong. My list would be we haven’t cared for the poor enough, (that’s me) we love the world too much (I do) we haven’t shared the good news that Christ died for sinners enough (I haven’t) We haven’t loved Jesus above all else (I haven’t).

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