Insights from “Looking to the Future of Youth Ministry”
It’s always fun to try to guess the future. But history has shown that even our best guesses can be a little off. I’m still waiting for square tomatoes and grouch pills.
Nonetheless, looking forward to the future is an important exercise to determine our faithfulness to our mission. As we toil day after day in our work, taking time to pause and survey the landscape is a valuable practice.
In a recent interview, Youth Specialties interviewed Kenda Creasy Dean about her impressions for the future of youth ministry in the United States. Dean is a lead researcher in youth ministry and youth culture. She’s authored an insightful book, Almost Christian, that contains her reflections of the findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion (NSYR).
In the brief interview, Dean is asked about what she thinks youth ministry will look like in ten years. She shares that youth ministry in the next ten years will become more entrepreneurial and less programmatic.
Though she doesn’t elaborate much about entrepreneurial ministry, you can take away that it hinges on the creative spirit and nature that much of effective youth ministry engenders. On their website at Institute for Youth Ministry at the Princeton Theological Seminary, Dean and Mark DeVries work together to offer an intense experience to incubate and develop participants’ entrepreneurial ideas for pastoral ministry in Hatch-a-thon.
According to the website, Hatch-a-thon is a not a retreat but rather an incubator for developing your ideas into action. In their short promotional video, DeVries echoes Dean’s words that “the church, often, is the place where good ideas go to die.” It’s largely in part that churches operate within structures and programs that do not lend themselves for change.
I've found time and time again that new ideas and approaches to ministry are met with what seem immovable obstacles and barriers - and largely due to decision makers' attitudes, habits and fears. Youth ministers tend to assume a role of risk taking that sets terror in some people's eyes. And no I'm not talking about white water rafting experiences (though I've heard they're fun), I'm talking about taking risks in doing what we've done before in a new way with new ardor (just as the New Evangelization call us to).
I’d envision that youth ministry is probably the most innovative ministry within the church as it constantly challenges pastoral leaders to engage young people in new ways. Young people in and of themselves represent the latest (and sometimes fringe) trends in societal dynamics. They’re the first to tinker with new ideas and technologies which undoubtedly pose challenges and opportunities for pastoral leaders. Just when pastoral leaders think they get it, it’s time to return to the drawing board.
I believe it’s exactly this fast paced and global perspective that young people embody that demands a ministry that is innovative and entrepreneurial. The USCCB’s Renewing the Vision document on comprehensive youth ministry defines youth ministry as "the response of the Christian community to the needs of young people, and the sharing of the unique gifts of young people with the larger community." Effective youth ministry does not lose sight of the latter part of this definition. We’ve plainly understood that youth ministry should address young people’s issues with learning about their faith, creating safe environments for them to build community, etc. But fewer youth ministries capitalize on sharing the gifts of young people with the larger community.
The bishops define youth ministry as a two-way, dynamic action between young people and the larger community. Dean also speaks to this important facet of youth ministry in her response to the second question of the interview when she says that youth ministry needs to be less programmatic.
For many of us, it can be difficult to imagine a week in youth ministry without coordinating programs. It just doesn’t make sense. It would demand an entirely new perspective of how we do ministry and what ministry would look like. I think it's important to note that less programmatic ministry is not 'no' programmatic ministry. Relational ministry is important and programs can be useful resources to enrich and deepen those relationships. But too often, programs become the entire focus of our efforts. It's a looming temptation to quantify our effort with numbers, attendance, grades, hours, etc. We should always keep these things in check to ensure it doesn't diminish the priority of the people we serve.
In my experience as diocesan director, I was privy to the many ways ministry was done in the parishes and schools in the area. But it was always a surprise to find new methods and models to reach young people. One surprise came from a non-profit organization, Project ARISE in Alamo, Texas, in our area. As I met the leaders of the organization, it was quite impressive to learn and see how they had worked with local women to empower them into leadership. They recognized the value and opportunity of working with women from the local colonia to impact the change they wanted. They recognized the women not as, using Dean's language, objects of their ministry but rather agents.
That's exactly the dynamic of the latter part of the definition of youth ministry. We need to empower and develop young people to share their gifts of enthusiasm, energy, honesty, service and faith with the larger community. These are the things that many parishes seem to presume exist outside rather than within their communities.
All in all, we should look to the future of youth ministry with honesty to recognize the many opportunities that lie before us. Time can too quickly get away from us if we toil day after day in our ministry without taking the long view.
You can quickly grasp the important difference between leadership and management if you envision a group of producers cutting their way through the jungle with machetes. They’re the producers, the problem solvers. They’re cutting through the undergrowth, clearing it out.
The managers are behind them, sharpening their machetes, writing policy and procedure manuals, holding muscle development programs, bringing in improved technologies and setting up working schedules and compensation programs for machete wielders.
The leader is the one who climbs the tallest tree, surveys the entire situation, and yells, “Wrong jungle!”
But how do the busy, efficient producers and managers often respond? “Shut up! We’re making progress.” (Seven Habits, p 101)
This story underscores the difference of the visionary leader, operational manager and the dutiful producer. At different times in our life and ministry, we’re one of the three. We sometimes climb the trees to gain the new perspective, other times we’re the managers looking to make the operation more efficient, and at other times we’re the ones keeping the effort moving forward.
My recommendation is to take time to climb the tree and take the long view. It's important to ask: Where are you going in your ministry? In your life? What role are you assuming right now (producer, manager or leader)? Are you working the “wrong jungle”? How do we know we're getting to where we want to go?