Generational Shift Can Lead to Missional Drift

Save the Forest and the TreesRecently, I’ve heard a few things said about “what needs to be done in Youth Ministry” that cause me to say “Oh really?” in my best sincere and slightly sarcastic tone.  In case you didn’t know, sarcasm is definitely a fatal flaw in Youthwork so it should be used sparingly unless you are a Jedi level Sarcastinator.

Statement #1- “We need somebody in the conference office who can go out and start Youth Groups in Churches that don’t have one.”

Now, I truly believe this idea has the best of intentions.  And of course I am all for Youth Ministry happening in Churches, it is my chosen vocational craft after all.  But, a serious look at some of the current relevant research that is available suggests to me that a potential reason that there are fewer and fewer 20, 30, 40, and even 50-somethings in church these days is related to what we have been doing in Youth Ministry in the past decades of the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s.

To be a leader means to not only see the forest and the trees but to also know the correct trees to look for in the correct forest.  Flying at 30,000 feet a person might know there is a forest down there but is it the correct one?  A significant number of Church leadership (middle and upper management in business terms) is stuck up in a plane that is flying too high.  So let’s say (to continue to mix these 2 metaphors) the person on the plane says “That forest there” but they actually end up with a logger on the ground going into the forest, soon there will be no more forest.  Now say a ranger goes in instead, sees the potential, and begins to do the work to enhance the forest and protect it from wild fires.  It was the same forest with two drastically different potential outcomes.

Statement #2- “I know what you can have the Youth Group do they can…..”

Again, a statement (fill in the blank as you wish) that is obviously well intended.  A person has a great and even fabulous idea of what Youth could be doing in a local Church.  Yet when the Youth hear the idea they can’t believe anybody thought that they would want to do this.

Back to the forest: previous generations wanted to harvest the forest.  My perception is that the current generation of Youth wants to preserve the forest and leave it better than they found it.  A future generation may want to harvest the well-preserved forest for some future greater good and on the cycle might go.

Statement #3- “We’ve tried everything here and Youth Ministry just seems to be an expense in this church that cause a lot of problems and the parents of those out of control youth don’t give enough money.”

Now, this is the forest that the person flying at 30,000 feet sent a logger in to “fix” and while they were chopping at the trees of discontent a forest fire broke out.  They tried to do what they heard people in the congregation say Youth should be doing even though the Youth didn’t want to do those things.  This well-meaning person simply did not have the proper tools, maps, and experience to realize what should be done in Youth Ministry in this particular context.  They didn’t have any training and they tried one to many things out of an Ideas Book without having an idea of the consequences.

This is why the work of groups such as Youth Ministry Architects and Youth Ministry Institute and the Center for Youth Ministry Training and Perkins School of Youth Ministry matter (or should matter) to those in leadership at 30,000 feet.  There are experts who know the landscape, can identify the correct forest, know which trees are valuable, and send the right type of person into the well mapped forest with the right training and tools so that the environment is enhanced and does not become toxic to all who visit and all those who live down stream.

We have shifted from the generation of folks who saw Youth Ministry as a way to get Youth into the Church (or parachurch organizations) and save those Youth through a number of 911 programs (no sex, drugs, or rock and roll) to a generation of folks who see that this generation of Youth already want to join in God’s Mission to save the world.  However, much our senior church leadership does not know this shift has occurred.  I believe it is this fundamental shift along generational lines that has caused us to loose sight of our mission: To Make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the Transformation of the World.


Charles W. Harrison
CEO- Center for Youth Ministry Excellence (CYMX)

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