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Here Come the Plurals

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By Michelle Thomas-Bush

I like to plan ahead, so this week I ordered the class t-shirts for the fall. Every year, our 6th graders receive a visit from an older middle school mentor who delivers their class t-shirt, welcoming them to the next step in their faith journey. That next step is Youth Ministry. What will youth ministry look like for these 6th graders? That is the question we all are boldly asking with each other for the church of Jesus Christ.

Youth ministry is at a crossroads. Those t-shirts look exactly the same every year, with the exception of their graduation year. The Class of 2021. This 6th grade class marks the last class of the millennial generation. We are at a generational crossroads.

Millennials are beginning to graduate, and we are preparing to walk alongside a brand new generation of youth who are ready to embark on a spiritual journey of their own. Leaders will need to shift their concern away from why millennials are leaving the church and towards trying to understand the generation born after 2004. Our excited, energetic, and eager 6th graders belong to a new generation that has been officially named the “Plurals”—a peer group that has experienced their entire life in a truly pluralistic society.

Diversity shapes this generation’s worldview, and they will compete to have their voice heard. Our young people are already asking for help articulating their faith. They crave a spiritual language that they might not have heard from their families and for ways of understanding the mystery of God that are not in their vocabulary as they are experiencing that mystery themselves. Youth ministry may begin to be more about faith conversations than ever before.

Does this mean lock-ins, mission trips, and Sunday School are of the past? I think it will depend upon each individual congregation. As youth professionals, we may need to shift from sharing the perfect program to sharing big ideas instead. (Follow #BigIdeas on Twitter for a conference on big ideas in youth ministry currently happening at Columbia Theological Seminary.)

Our ministry as youth professionals will need to shift from just being chaperones to also being spiritual directors. Whether in a formal spiritual direction relationship or simply as a guide that aids a young person’s life with God, it will be critical for this generation to have someone who knows him or her in a real way and can help them pay attention to God’s activity in their life.

The good news is that it does not matter what size church you are. Spiritual direction can happen with one or one hundred. Whether your church has hundreds of youth on the roles or a core group of six, our youth leaders and adult volunteers will need to be trained to help young people, along with their families, and join them as they move beyond the “stuck” areas in their soul and challenge them to articulate faith as they maneuver through their faith journey.

Imagine if each young person had a few adults in their life who help them identify God’s movement in their life, to laugh, and create sacred space, reminding them that the Kingdom of God is all around them. This next generation will need adults who are willing to meet them where they are with compassion, encouragement, blessing and intentionality in all areas of their life—not just at church.

Let’s not wait to move to what is “next.” Let’s begin engaging this new generation where they are now and inviting them to join us in the mystery of faith.


michelle-thomas-bushMichelle Thomas-Bush is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Their Families at Myers Park Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. Michelle and her husband Dave have a son in his first year of middle school ministry and a daughter who would love to join them. She cannot wait to see what comes next and is grateful for the community of youth leaders who support one another through these changing days of ministry.

Each month we ask a different person from the NEXT Church community to assemble a series of posts around a particular theme. This month, John Vest has been curating a conversation around youth ministry. Have ideas or reflections to share? Offer your thoughts in comments, on our Facebook page, or contact us here.

photo credit: Christiaan Triebert via photopin cc

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 YoRocko.com and has been actively involved in the NEXT Church conversation.

Image: shutterstock/LitDenis