Youth Ministry 180
Youth Ministry 180

By Jerry Harris

I remember the way youth ministry used to be. (Yes, I’m one of those guys.) It was a time when adults wanted to create a space for young people so they wouldn’t be bored in the adult service.

Back then, church services didn’t connect to students. The deacons, wearing suits and ties, marched in and sat in the front row while the preacher took his place behind the pulpit. The organ would drone an instrumental call to worship until the song leader instructed the congregation to stand, then he would beat out 3/4 or 4/4 time with his hand.

That day’s hymn numbers appeared on a wooden board at the front of the sanctuary—the numbers corresponded to hymnbook selections—while other additional instructions and news were printed in a bulletin. Two elders would take their place on either side of the ornately carved table for a devotion and prayer before Communion; at offering time, they would return to that table as the congregation sang the doxology. Sound familiar?

Meanwhile, student ministry flourished in a separate environment where songs were contemporary, guitars and drums were used, crowd interaction was essential, and the worship space was more about function than form. Crowd involvement consisted of icebreakers and games from Youth Specialties “Ideas” books and throwbacks from summer camps and Christ in Youth events . . . and did it ever work!

Public schools avoided scheduling events on Sundays and Wednesday evenings, in deference to church, and even supermarkets were closed on Sunday. Youth ministers were welcome in the school and to many students, it felt like culture was your friend and church was the enemy. That was then.

A massive swing has occurred in both church culture and social culture since then. Those students grew up and graduated into “adult” church. Worship wars ensued. First came overhead projectors, and then video projectors and stage lighting; small ensembles transitioned into full contemporary bands. Formal attire gave way to casual, even grungy clothing. Pulpit furniture went into storage. Bulletins listing the order of worship disappeared. Pews gave way to stackable chairs. Hymnals eventually went up for sale on eBay.

Worship services basically became a grown-up version of what the now young adults had experienced in their student environments. Young people were invited to lead—and often it seemed like “the younger, the better.” Buildings and architecture reflected the change, as sanctuaries gave way to big boxes.

While adult ministries were evolving in this way, student ministry began losing steam in many churches. Student ministry programming, it seems, was losing its distinctiveness from adult programming; the budget spent on youth worship was far less than was spent on adults. Alternative student programming declined as more students were mainstreamed into the larger worship setting. Small groups began replacing large ones.

While this was happening, social culture was also undergoing massive change. Anything with a hint of a Christian connection was banned from public schools, including Christmas and Easter programs, ministerial access, and prayer. School programming disregarded church times; at times it seemed like events were deliberately scheduled for calendar slots that formerly were avoided. Social culture became the enemy and church culture became the friend to students.

Churches compensated for these cultural changes by offering services at times when parents wouldn’t be forced to choose between church and school. Churches that dug in their heels to keep their traditions intact didn’t fare well—many faced closure as church members grew older and died off. Some old-school folks confused the newer methods of some churches with an abandonment or watering down of the timeless message of the gospel. This all probably sounds familiar too.

So what are we to say to all of this? How do we respond? As Haydn Shaw has written, we are living in an unprecedented time with five generations sharing church space all at the same time.

What is the future of youth, children, family, and adult ministry? It’s been a perpetual question our tribe has sought to understand and answer. As an example, our sister magazine, The Lookout, was originally called The Young People’s Standard when it began in 1888—part of an effort to capitalize on a youth movement called Christian Endeavor. (The name was changed to The Lookout in 1894.)

The quest to appeal to rising generations hasn’t changed much in the past 130 years. We must figure out a way to entrust sound doctrine and passion to upcoming generations, even as we change means and methods to convey the timeless message.

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