De-Programming Youth Ministry

In this post, Rocky Supinger wonders if the future of youth ministry will have less to do with church-based programming—the hallmark of youth ministry in its heyday from the 1970s through the end of the 20th century—and more to do with engaging youth within their own cultural contexts and peer groups. This is an important paradigm shift from an “attractional” approach to a more missional and contextual approach. If post-Christendom youth are less likely to come to us on our terms, we need to meet them in their worlds. Yet Rocky also points out that there is something unique about church space in the lives of youth. Rocky makes good use of Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0, an essential book to read when it comes to thinking about what’s next in youth ministry.

welcome sneakers copyI’m not all that acquainted with what was “before” in youth ministry in the Presbyterian Church. I grew up an arm’s length from church, and I’ve been an Associate Pastor with responsibilities for youth for a mere six years. Yet allow me to wonder out loud about something that might feature prominently in the “next” iteration of our ministry with junior high and high school students across the PC(USA).

Simply put, I wonder if what’s next is fewer events and groups organized for church youth and more gatherings among established groups of students with no connection to the church.

A little background (and some caveats)…

Each Wednesday afternoon I’ve got two groups of students who gather at the church I serve: one group of junior high girls and another group of high school boys. I’m a bit baffled as to how this came about, as I certainly didn’t plan for it.

Four years ago I invited a couple of 7th grade church kids to drop into the church youth room after school once a week, since they walked right past it on their way home. Within weeks, those students were bringing nearly a dozen of their friends.

For two years that group of junior high boys came to the church once a week. Then they graduated to high school. Their walk home no longer took them past the church, so I didn’t see them anymore. Meanwhile, I extended the invitation to another 7th grader to drop by with her friends after school. Now what started as a “guys” group is all girls, and only two of them are related to the church.

Then something funny happened. I ran into some of those boys who are now in high school and that I don’t see any more. They asked if they could start coming to the church again. Dazed, I said of course, and now there are a dozen or so 10th grade boys at the church every Wednesday afternoon. It’s turned into a kind of drop in center.

I’m not sure what’s happening with these groups. I’m thrilled that students from the neighborhood identify our church building as a place that welcomes them. I mean, I take swipes at “attractional” models of ministry like most of my colleagues, but the fact is that these students are attracted to something they don’t have anywhere else: a building with adults who mostly want to know them and play with them. That’s worth something.

But I’m not teaching them the Bible. We’re not having discussions of life issues. I suppose the most rigorous assessment of what these gatherings are providing is an experience of hospitality that is focused predominantly on recreation.

I wonder if this isn’t a pattern that we should embrace going forward, inviting groups of young people from our community into relationship with us and the church. (note: “into relationship with us” need not equal “into our church buildings,” but church spaces can be uniquely welcoming of teens.)

Of course, hosting gatherings, retreats, and work trips for students in our congregations—where catechesis and life transformation happens—must continue to get all the energy we can give it. But I think we should start supplementing those foci with some exploration of the peer relationships our students have outside the church, looking for ways to walk alongside those relationships.

My thinking in this direction has been influenced heavily by Mark Oestreicher’s Youth Ministry 3.0. Oestreicher suggests that adolescents in today’s heavily networked culture don’t need as much from the church in the area of belonging. That is, most of our students belong to their own peer groups that give shape to their life, whether that’s the marching band, the debate team, or the kids they play video games with. That the church would be a place for youth who are “outsiders”—who have no community in which to belong—is not as evident as it once was.

Of course this is not entirely true, and churches must always be places where young people experience a depth of welcome absent elsewhere. Yet the pattern is playing out in my context that groups of young people from the community with no existing relationship to our church are eager to make use of its staff and facilities for the sake of experiencing one another. I wonder if more of that isn’t what’s next.

rocky supinger (472x640)Rocky Supinger is the Associate Pastor at Claremont Presbyterian Church in Claremont, CA. He blogs at and has been actively involved in the NEXT Church conversation.

Image: shutterstock/LitDenis

4 replies
  1. Donna Supinger
    Donna Supinger says:

    I like it. Having worked at a high school I’ve seen groups of students drop by another’s house where parents aren’t home and eventually trouble ensues. Of course the school never knows this until after the fact when police get involved or an upset parent informs us. There is nothing we can do about it then. Having a non judgmental place to hang out away from home or school is a great idea and I commend you for it. Not having any formal program doesn’t mean they don’t absorb Biblical truths from a well placed poster that changes every few weeks. Kudos to you and your church.

  2. Eric Waraas
    Eric Waraas says:

    Great post. Very thought provoking. Intrigued by your statement that church spaces “can be uniquely welcoming to teens.” My perception has been that church spaces can be somewhat of a barrier to those who have not grown up in the church, rather than an attraction (and I don’t think this is unique to youth ministry but overall to ministry in a society that has not grown up in a church). The question I’ve wrestled with is: How can we prevent the building, the liturgy, the program from being a barrier? I suppose one option is to focus solely on relationship-building without any of the specific references to theology or faith-building, and I’ve tended in that direction. On the other hand, I wonder if that isn’t doing a disservice to the youth. Aren’t the youth in the community coming to the church knowing that it is a church and wanting an opportunity to at least hear about and explore the Chritian faith in the context of this community? Otherwise, what makes the church different than any other after school program or community center? Thanks for the post!

  3. Rocky
    Rocky says:

    Sorry I missed these comments before. Eric, it’s just recently hit me that the kids that are coming to my after school activities aren’t dissuaded a bit by the theology or any other kind of baggage related to the church and its building. It’s just a big space where they’re welcome to come hang out and run around. I’m not sure that’s enough, but I’m aware in a way I wasn’t before of how lacking that is in the broader community.


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