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.
- What is a new problem you are facing in your own youth group in the past 12 months?
- 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.