Two positive trends in youth ministry

I’m on the tail end of a one week tour of the East Coast. (Catching up with youth workers; talking about PlanetWisdomYS Palooza, and all things youth ministry.)

One of the things I like to do when I meet with youth workers around the country, whether individually or in a group setting, is ask the same two questions. I frame the question differently depending on the group. But these are the two questions I’m asking and comparing answers to others to see if I can sniff a trend.

  1. What is a new problem you are facing in your own youth group in the past 12 months?
  2. What are you doing that is making a difference?

For question #2 I am continuing to hear the same things all over. While I heard these in 2009 and 2010– it wasn’t emerging quite as strongly as a trend until this trip.

For me, it’s very exciting because the two trends that I’m seeing are actually quite healthy and sustainable.

First trend: Bigger churches (Congregations of 1000+) are continuing to see their youth ministries grow numerically. They are reaching more and more students. (Largely unchurched) And their ministry is asking hard questions which shape how they minister to students, parents, and train their teams. The lead youth worker at these churches are typically highly experienced, highly trained, and exceptional at both leading staff teams and replicating themselves to maximize impact & set-up long-term impact.

Second trend: Smaller churches (Congregations of  >500) are ditching models altogether and approaching their ministry from a more missiological perspective. They are saying things like, “We still meet on Wednesday night, of course, but I have a small group of guys who get together every week to visit a homeless shelter. My students won’t bring a friend to Wednesday night– but they are bringing 2-3 to that.” Even if they aren’t articulating it in words quite yet, they are saying that the traditional ministry model they grew up on is fading in effectiveness. As such, they are adapting by maintaing status quo while finding new ways to reach students while meeting a real need in the community. I’d label this a shift from meeting felt needs to meeting obvious needs. Meeting actual needs is leading to growth and they are forming their ministry around those areas of growth… which look very different in every community.

The hallmark of both big & small of these are the same— their spending, dollar per student, is quite low. Bigger churches have staff spread over large numbers; smaller churches lost their paid staff due to the economy and are adapting their ministry to a much cheaper model.

The uncomfortable middle

The pain seems to be in the middle. What I label “medium-sized churches” of 500ish-1000ish are all over the place. Some are fine while some are in crisis mode. I can imagine that their dollar per student ratio is high enough where they are feeling a big pinch. They seem to be feeling a lot of pressure as their midweek program isn’t doing as well, (a hallmark of a smaller church) they are too large to invest their time finding a pocket of mission that would likely lead to new students coming into the fold, and they don’t have the money to go to a staff-size that might take them into that big church team model which would likely put them into growth, as well. This is the size church where I’m seeing lots of people lose their paid staff jobs. This is also the size church I’m hearing that the leaders (church wide) are shifting to a model like their favorite megachurch.

Quick disclaimer: I’m not a sociologist. (But I did stay at a Comfort Inn last night.) And I don’t have hard data for things I’m writing here. [This is my blog…] These are notable things I’m learning by talking to youth workers around the United States. Feel free to engage with them, but don’t assume that I’ve got data to back this up or that this is some sort of scientific process. I’m labeling a trend as something that just keeps coming up without my prompting.

By Adam McLane

Kristen and Adam live in the San Diego neighborhood of Rolando with their three children.

12 comments

  1. I can definitely confirm locally that my small church youth ministry has abandoned programming altogether. I would have to know more about missiology to know if that would be us as well, but I think we probably are.

  2. Good note as usual. Interesting to lump/group all churches under 500. someone at a church of under 150, I see a big difference between that and churches with over 250.

    For us, youth ministry is far less about program and much more about missional efforts. Big emphasis on Heifer project this fall. The youth went to a Global Village on the eastern side of Michigan for a weekend and had a great experience. Came back all pumped up about learning more about Heifer and raising money to buy animals. $1,600 later they are working on a presentation to the church using video and songs. They have led worship at the nursing home and worked at teh soup supper. All of this with a volunteer leader.

    Again, appreciate the note and hearing what is happening elsewhere

  3. Adam,

    I’m in a small church 110-ish on Sunday morning with a large youth group. Middle school last week was 18 and our high school group last night was at 19. Our Children’s ministry night (also Wednesday) consistently runs in the 30 range. Most of those in CM and Middle school are not churched. This began a few years ago, and we took a lot of time to ask, “hard questions which shape how they minister to students, parents, and train their teams.” and are still working through that. For the next school year, each and every 8th grader (there are 8) are from non-churched backgrounds and that will seriously impact our high school group next year. I would love to see some insights into what these larger churches are doing to minister to these kids and their families.

    Our missiological shift looks like non-churched kids bringing their non-churched friends with them.

    Just some insight from a church in Eastern Iowa!

  4. I tend to agree with your observations, as well, Adam. I definitely agree with your assessment of the medium-sized churches; I feel inclined to agree with your assessment of the small churches; and I really don’t think I’ve have enough conversations with people in the large churches to make a judgement all either way. So I’ll just agree with you in the meantime. 🙂

  5. “I’m not a sociologist. (But I did stay at a Comfort Inn last night.)”

    This was my favorite part of this entire post! 🙂

    (The rest was pretty good, too, I guess.)

  6. Good post. I am at a medium-sized church and being medium just poses some unique problems for the church overall. Many times medium sized churches are in transition (getting bigger or smaller) and transition is tough on everyone.

    1. Well, are students excited about it? Is it a place that gives them life? Are they rearranging their lives so that they won’t miss it as opposed to the opposite?

      Obviously, criteria for evaluation are vastly different for each ministry… things you measure have to be tied to your vision and strategy.

      That said, I’m seeing more and more small/medium churches who spend the majority of their energy on a mid-week meeting not seeing measurable impact. Comparatively, other innovations are seeing growth.

  7. Adam,

    I read this several months ago and had it come to mind after youth group last night.  I am a full-time youth pastor working in a small to medium size church.  With all of the demands of school and extracurricular activities, I am seeing a steady decline of participation on Wednesday nights.  Even when my students are able to come to church, they are so worn out from going non-stop all day that they almost don’t want to think anymore.  They just want to relax!  

    I don’t just want to accept this as the future of youth ministry for the churches > 500, but am kind of at a loss for what to do.  From your tour and talking with other youth workers experiencing trends like this, have any of them found something that is working better?

    Jason 

    1. Jason, I am still hearing from churches who are experiencing tons of great things at the >500 level. I think this path starts with ethnography. You might want to spend some serious time trying to understand what is going on in your community. And 2-3 days of observation and interview just might help you discern what has changed.

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