Help! What can we do to grow our youth ministry?
This is my new blog about using MissionInsite™ for community research and church development. Available exclusively to ACS Technologies® and MissionInsite subscribers. I hope you will join regularly as we explore how churches can become really relevant to the people within their reach.
Thank you for asking this question. It’s a question many churches are struggling to answer but are going about it the wrong way.
- The first mistake church leaders make is to ask their children. Teens are often so caught up in their own family dynamics or dysfunctions that they generalize their own needs and preferences as valid for all youth.
- The second mistake is that church leaders read the latest book from a youth ministry guru. But the “best practices” that make one youth ministry successful are so contextual that they are not easily replicated somewhere else.
- The third mistake is that church leaders survey the youth they already have. The one thing most church youths have in common is that they do not belong anywhere else, and their opinions are limited by their small circle of friends.
- The fourth mistake is that church leaders just guess, or they hire a relatively young “youth minister” who can guess better than the older members.
There is no substitute for community research, and this holds true for youth ministry. There are 7 ways you can use MissionInsite to make youth ministry more effective.
First, think plural.
- One size does not fit all. Youth gather together based on affinity or interest, not just age or grade. There are many lifestyle segments that include large numbers of youth between 13 and 19, but they can be very different even though they live in the same geographical area. Thematic mapping can reveal what kind of youth live in your mission field, and Experian lifestyle descriptions often reveal their most likely interests. Thriving churches do not have a youth group, but several youth groups. The time, place, and activities are customized to fit their lifestyles and not the church timetable.
Second, concentrate on service.
- Many young people are highly motivated to help others, solve problems, and make a difference in their communities. Indeed, some schools include volunteerism among expectations for graduation. They need an opportunity, some structure, significant resources, and practical coaching. It is important that ideas for service emerge from within their own hearts or passions and are not imposed by their church or denominational agendas. Demographic research can reveal an array of community needs and trends and reveal service opportunities no one saw previously. Service is one path to maturity. Youth need both responsibility and authority to discern, design, implement, and evaluate service by themselves without asking permission from abroad.
Third, build relationships.
- Youth (like all volunteers) burn out quickly if all they do is a program or project. They hunger to build and deepen relationships with the people with whom, and among whom, they work. These need to be intentionally facilitated by team leaders. Use Experian E-Handbook, combined with MissionImpact Mosaic descriptions, to prepare young volunteers to collaborate and empathize. Once you see beyond the behavior patterns and discover what anxieties and hopes motivate those behavior patterns, young adult service teams can build new friendships and create bridges of communication. Rest periods are even more important than work periods.
Fourth, use the right media to communicate.
- There are many communication choices. Some youth prefer one and some another, and many rely on multiple information streams. MissionInsite’s Quadrennium research can tell you which social media platforms are most used. (Hint: It’s rarely Facebook). Some youth rely on face-to-face networking, pamphlets, and physical advertising. MissionInsite demographic research can help you locate the recreational sites, restaurants, and other places where youth are likely to congregate. Mail, newsletters, and announcements during worship are rarely effective and symbolize just how “out of touch” church members are from the surrounding culture.
Fifth, deploy credible leadership.
- Youth want to connect with leaders who really care about them. More than this, they especially want to meet “heroes of faith”. That is, they want to talk with people who have really staked their lives on a cause, risk their livelihoods for their faith, and make serious sacrifices to help others. Too many churches rely on seminary students, twenty-something adults who are still living at home, parents of young families, and other people who act from a sense of duty but honestly can think of many other things they would rather do. Authenticity is key. The MissionImpact Guide gives insight into the leadership expectations for each of the 71 lifestyle segments. Youth (like everyone else) gravitate to the spiritual leaders who can best identify with their anxieties and help them achieve their dreams.
Sixth, expand one-to-one mentoring.
- A youth group that builds relationships, serves the community, and generates a sense of belonging and fulfillment is a good one. But many young people want more. They would like to have individualized attention. They know there are unknown challenges ahead, and they want to spend time with someone who is further down the road and willing to take time, turn back, and coach those who would follow. This is more about apprenticeship than counseling. Youth look for adults who can help them make hard decisions, live with courage, and navigate life.
Seventh, understand rebellion.
- There is infinite diversity among young adult tastes, habits, attitudes, spiritualities, and preferences … and what is true today may not be true tomorrow. But even if youth do not quite know what they want, they are often quite clear about what they reject. Think of this as the negative of a photograph. By studying the demographic makeup and lifestyles of parents, you can often anticipate the reactions of youth. And by studying the lifestyle, you can anticipate the reluctance of youth to participate. The real question is often not what youth want, but how flexible their families and their churches are willing to be.
The more a youth ministry struggles, the more church members should examine their motivations to do it. Youth ministry is not a program to increase membership or raise the next generation of institutional leaders. If that is your measurable outcome, youth ministry will fail. Youth ministry is a method to mature human beings for the unknown future and equip them for faithful living based on Christian values and beliefs.
I welcome any and all questions about using MissionInsite for ministry planning and leadership development.
You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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