The Changing Landscape of Youth Ministry

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. The majority of blog posts this month will share stories from church leaders who participated in a pilot coaching cohort in 2017. They will share the challenges they face, the movements they’ve made, and what they are learning along the way. We hope they will connect with your “me too” moments and give you a glimmer of a way forward, and the knowledge that you are not alone. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter

by Susan Wisseman

Background
I serve as associate pastor in a suburban church nestled in a neighborhood – the church and neighborhood grew together. Over the past 61 years, the neighborhood has changed and changed again. The church has not kept pace.

When the previous youth director relocated, I was asked if I would add youth to my portfolio. I inherited a ministry in decline. Since then, we have had some failures, and some successes. The good news is that it’s broken, and everyone sees it… which means we get start from a new place. Nonetheless, change is hard!

I requested a meeting this fall with key stakeholders in youth ministry, to be facilitated by a National Capital Presbytery coach. We met, and were fairly successful at deciding on and aligning priorities. One of the changes is a metamorphosis of our previous “Club 456” (an upper elementary youth ministry) to a new pre-teen ministry that will encompass grades 5-8. One of our struggles last year was trying to have a grade 7-12 youth group. (It’s not really surprising that the 12th graders weren’t all that interested in hanging out with the middle school kids on a regular basis.)

Trial and Error
Reinventing youth ministry for a changed context is not for the faint of heart. Once upon a time, the church was filled with families with young children and youth. The youth ministry was of good size and participation – vibrant by any measurement scale. There is a deep yearning for a return to those days.

We still have families, but our demographics are uneven. Many of the kids of youth group age are actively involved in a myriad of other activities… and sometimes church falls to the bottom of the list.

Lack of participation may be due to those activities, different priorities, or lack of relationships with some of the others (because they go to four different high schools)… or the change in culture. I know that our church is not alone in this cultural change!

As we try to discern needs, we’re throwing things at a wall and seeing what sticks. Some of things we are trying include:

  • Trying to engage our youth in all aspects of church life.
  • Posting their game schedules, concerts, plays, etc. and encouraging the congregation to go and support our youth in their endeavors (if we can’t always get them to church, we can get the church to go to them).
  • Creating real estate they can “own” – not just on Sundays, but to hang out and do homework, or play games at other times.
  • Offering random opportunities (or pop up events) to gather for lunch, coffee, or ice cream.
  • Increased service opportunities.

Hoped for Outcomes
Not only is it necessary to change how we engage with our youth, we need to develop a new measurement for success that is not about large numbers on a Sunday night.

Success, for me, would be for our church to be a sanctuary – a safe place where every one of our students feels comfortable being their own best self. A place where they know in their hearts they are beloved as the very person God created each one of them to be. That they know that there are adults here who willing to listen (without immediately jumping in to problem solve or judgment). And to know (in their minds and hearts), and trust, that this body of Christ would be greatly diminished without their presence.


Susan Wisseman is associate pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church in Springfield, VA.