The Changing Face of Youth Ministry
The Changing Face of Youth Ministry

4 key transitions over the last 40 years . . . and what the future holds


By Nick Tomeo

In 1975, a month after graduating with a bachelor’s degree in ministry, my wife and I filled our Chevy Nova and a U-Haul truck (driven by my brother-in-law) and drove through the mountains of West Virginia to begin our first full-time youth ministry at the First Christian Church of Covington, Virginia.

I was armed with a new Bible college degree, two “Ideas” books from Youth Specialties, experience working for Christ in Youth, a background of serving on outreach teams for the college, memories of growing up in an amazing youth group, and the ability to play a mean guitar.

Little did I realize this was the beginning of a very long and satisfying life focused on working with children and teens. To say things have changed over the last four decades is an understatement. Sure, some things have stayed the same—kids still hunger for God’s Word, a relationship with the creator through Jesus, and good relationships with peers and adults who make them feel important—but I want to focus on four basic changes that have occurred.


1. Technology Has Changed

The good: Technology makes youth ministry easier. During my early days in the field, things were more primitive. I served a couple of churches that had media/IT groups that developed sight and sound productions using multiple screens, a soundtrack, slide projectors, and dissolve units. Each three-minute production could take a month to put together. We took photos with an SLR camera that used . . . gasp . . . film, which took time to develop. Today the same type of production could be completed in a few hours using digital equipment and computers.

A great number of youth ministry resources are now available in the cyber world: curriculum publishing sites, youth ministry blogs, youth ministry streaming videos, and, of course, YouTube.

And we now have many more ways to communicate with youth. Early on we had only “snail mail,” posters, telephones (with wires and dials), church bulletins, and verbal announcements. Today we have Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, texting, and many others. A person still needs to see something advertised four to seven times before getting the message, but the new technology provides multiple methods of communicating.

Consider the importance of cell phones, such as when a church vehicle breaks down, directions are needed, and to communicate with parents during emergencies. Students can even use their phones for Bible study and to interact with the theme and leader (perhaps by using a game-based platform quiz site like Kahoot!).

The bad: The digital world can also be harmful. Cell phones can distract teens during Bible studies. On youth group trips, teens sometimes ignore their fellow travelers and use their phones to communicate with others back home. For many youth and adults, the urge to use their cell phones seems uncontrollable. Many psychiatrists predict “cell phone addiction” will soon be recognized as a diagnosable mental health disease.

Other digital problems include a new form of bullying that has developed and easily accessible pornography.

This digital technology has affected the core beliefs of students. Many students today believe:

  • All messages are equal—there are no absolutes; the causes with the loudest voices must be right.
  • True multitasking works—a person can concentrate on two things simultaneously (like checking social media while listening to a professor’s lecture); studies at MIT and Stanford University have proven this false.
  • Few things are worth the wait—students will wait only a few seconds for a website to download before moving on, and this impatience carries over to the rest of their lives.

2. Our Understanding of Teen Decision-Making Has Changed

The brain matures at age 25, experts believe. The last brain region to mature is the prefrontal cortex, which is the home for sound and wise judgment, and the region that supervises, regulates, and directs the other regions of the brain (including the rewards and emotional centers). That means in the typical adolescent, an immature brain region is trying to communicate with other brain regions through immature connections (inconsistent wiring).

That explains why a teen can solemnly commit to a higher calling one day, and seem to forget their decision and do something immature, harmful, or sinful the next. As one youth minister said, “So that’s why kids can be so squirrely.”  Student ministers, keep this in mind when you get frustrated to the point of giving up on a teen.


3. Our Belief about Age Segregation Has Changed

We once believed the goal was to build the largest youth group. “We will do what we need to do to reach kids. Who cares about the rest of the church?” We call this the youth ministry ghetto approach. We built our little world and made sure there was no interaction between the students and the rest of the church. We had our youth Bible studies, youth mission trips, youth worship services, and youth socials. We kept kids away from the church’s “uncool” adults.

So, we had the kids until they graduated from high school, and then many of those formerly active students dropped out of church. It was almost as if we forgot the church in an effort to build “our” youth ministry. The only adults our teens had relationships with were the student/youth minister and the adults who volunteered to work with the middle school and high school students. After all, we youth workers were cool, our music was cool, our activities were cool, and the rest of the church adults were . . . boring. Still, we (youth ministers) were glad to be connected to a church since it provided the money to buy a new sound system or rent inflatables for the next party.

Then, in 2011, came a revolutionary book called Sticky Faith based on a research project that followed more than 500 students for six years, through high school and into college. The research showed that 40 to 50 percent of students active in youth groups dropped out of church upon graduating from high school. Sticky Faith also provided a solution to the problem: Encourage students to interact with the various generations of the church through worship, fellowship, and service opportunities.

The authors of Sticky Faith—Kara Powell and Chap Clark—also reported things like, “High school and college students who experience more intergenerational worship tend to have higher faith maturity.” It turned out, separating youth from the rest of the church might lead to short-term growth in numbers but could also result in spiritual immaturity. The book challenged leaders to find ways to put the generations of the church back together.


4. Time Constraints Have Changed

Teens were once willing to devote three to four hours per week to attending youth ministry programming. But that is no longer true in most American churches. Many student ministers work with students who are willing to commit only one hour per week to some sort of church attendance.

Adolescents are busy with sports leagues, academics, jobs, and extracurricular school activities. But teens need more than one hour of worship per week. Adolescents also need developmentally appropriate Bible studies, socials, activities, and “youth groups.”

Think about it: If a child attends church only one hour per week for 18 years, that amounts to a mere 946 hours in a formal Christian educational experience. By contrast, children spend 1,080 hours each year in public school classrooms, or about 13,000 hours (not counting preschool and kindergarten) through high school graduation. Is a churchgoing 18-year-old who has the equivalent of a first-grade Christian education adequately trained to make adult decisions of a spiritual nature?

So how can we get commitment for more than one hour? Here are four suggestions:

  • All ministerial staff, especially the senior minister, must work with the student minister to communicate to parents that what goes on in church is vital to their child’s spiritual growth. (My youth minister son Eric said, “Getting the parents to understand how crucial youth ministry is to their child’s relationship to Christ is a priority!”) Parents, direct your child to drop one nonchurch activity to spend more time building their relationship with God and other Christians.
  • Program creatively. Get to know your students and then plan studies and service opportunities that connect with their interests and talents. In Choice Theory (1999), William Glasser noted that teens have six needs: survival, love, power, fun, belonging, and freedom. If these elements are provided within student ministry, some adolescents will notice and attend.
  • Advertise. Advertise. Advertise. You have the tools. Use them to reach out.
  • Don’t quit. Not every student will come, especially during your first year. Pray and stay.


Youth Ministry’s Future

I believe we will see more focus on reaching and including parents in the ministry to adolescents. Parents need to know what is going on, and why, and see the church as a helpful resource for raising kids.

Youth ministers will broaden their thinking and advocate ways to get the generations of the church to mix through social activities, worship, and service opportunities. Youth leaders will program based on the talents, gifts, and needs of their young people . . . and not simply base their plans on what other churches are doing. I also see more student ministers receiving advanced degrees in order to better engage new generations.

At least one group of people in the Old Testament would have made great youth workers—the men of Issachar: “Men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do” (1 Chronicles 12:32). May every youth worker be a person who understands the changing times and knows what to do with the changes.


After serving in a number of churches as a youth/student minister, Nick Tomeo presently teaches youth ministry and psychology at Cincinnati Christian University. He also works in the field of drug and alcohol addiction treatment.



The Emergence of the Youth Ministry Movement

I wonder if Robert Raikes knew he was creating a movement when he began teaching children how to read by using the Bible on Sunday mornings in 1780 in Gloucester, England. From Raikes’s actions, the Sunday school/youth ministry movement was born; it made its way into churches in the United States, thanks to William Elliott, a Methodist layman, in 1785.

The idea of reaching out specifically to children and youth with the gospel continued from there. In the mid-1800s, the YMCA became a major force for evangelism of teens. From 1857 to 1859, the YMCA reported winning more than 1 million teens to Christ.

In the late 1800s, the church intensified its efforts to reach teenagers after the U.S. government raised the legal age of marriage to 18 and began using tax monies to build schools for 12- to 18-year-olds. Along came the Young People’s Society of Christian Endeavor (1881), Young Life (1941), Youth for Christ rallies featuring Billy Graham (1940s), and Campus Crusade for Christ (now called Cru, 1951). Churches started to apply principles garnered from these organizations and began having “youth groups”—weekly meetings for Bible study, games, and fun events led by adults who loved youth.

Publishing houses such as Standard Publishing (1866), David C Cook (1875), Youth Specialties (1968), and Group Publishing (1974) created curriculum for teaching children and youth. 

From such a foundation grew today’s youth ministry movement—built to reach a changing culture.


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