Every generation faces unique challenges, and today’s young generation is no exception. Recent studies show that Gen Z (born 1997 to 2012) struggles with more hopelessness, anxiety, depression and other mental health issues than any other generation. As we think about what students are going through today, what is the future of youth ministry and how can we best engage today’s students?
When I read the latest studies, I’m reminded of our deep need for community—one of our five ministry motivators. God has designed us for community. It promotes personal and relational well-being and, as the people of God, we need each other if we’re going to fulfill our mission to multiply transformational churches among all people. Since the earliest days, the local church encouraged God’s people, as we see in Acts 2:
“And they devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers” (Acts 2:42).
Isolation has profoundly impacted students. While young people are more connected through technology, studies show they lack personal connection and relationship. By bringing students together, youth ministry provides a space for relationship and allows local church leaders to share the gospel with students. Youth ministry is uniquely positioned to tackle the challenges students face and help them grow in their faith.
Since 1940, the EFCA has hosted a youth conference for local churches across the nation. Today, Challenge, the EFCA’s biennial youth conference, continues to gather, equip and strengthen students’ faith as they follow Jesus. Next week, over three thousand students will gather in Kansas City, Missouri.
To learn more about the future of youth ministry and to share about the upcoming Challenge conference in July, I invited Justin Wevers, director of student ministries to write an article answering this question, and also spoke with him and Laurie Seay, EFCA events director, to discuss how Challenge is designed for gospel flourishing in the next generation. Please take a few moments to read Justin’s article and watch our video.
The closest I came to quitting full-time ministry happened in February of 2018. It came on the heels of a ministry partner moving out of state. She was incredibly gifted in counseling, and I didn’t realize how much of that load she had been shouldering. After the 12th meeting of the month where someone shared with me about a significant mental health struggle, I went home and laid face down on the living room floor and asked my wife, Amanda, if I was in the right profession. It was heavy. And I felt underequipped, outnumbered and frankly – I felt sad and tired.
Nationally, the situation for Gen Z (and up-and-coming Gen Alpha) has devolved since 2018. Concerning statistics on mental health, failure in school, isolation, violence and declining religiosity pop up like dandelions. Youth groups aren’t immune. Sometimes we envision our student ministries will be vibrant, shining examples of multi-generational discipleship.
You start a youth pastor job and believe that your philosophy of ministry will run like a Ferrari. Not long into it you realize you’re leading a youth group that resembles your Oldsmobile Bravada from high school that needed new suspension four years ago. In other words, it still moves, but the ride is bumpy. And, depending on the hygiene habits of your middle schoolers, smells similar.
And yet, when I talk to youth leaders around the country I hear the same chorus: this challenging landscape doesn’t make it worse, it makes it more meaningful. There’s a need and there are incredible people all over the country trying to meet that need.
It starts with acknowledging the unique challenges facing Gen Z.
And yet, when I talk to youth leaders around the country I hear the same chorus: this challenging landscape doesn’t make it worse, it makes it more meaningful.
It’s now a weekly ritual to read another study bemoaning the landmines facing adolescents in 2022. There’s a crisis of confidence. Reports of anxiety and depression are at an all-time high. Some wonder if this is caused by anxious parents making life too easy for their kids, but it’s shortsighted to conclude there’s one Machiavellian cause. Yet, I’ll admit – if I could only pick one, I’d be tempted to say it’s the incredibly powerful (and dangerous) screens that the average teen uses up to nine hours a day.
There’s difficulty in ministering to a generation crushed by the weight of internal pressure, frozen with anxiety, failing to live up to what they see on Instagram and lacking the kind of real community that could alleviate some of their struggles. It’s hard to think about compelling young people to live on mission when a real victory is getting kids to leave their room, let alone put someone else’s needs above their own.
If I’m honest, on the days I wanted to quit, it was because my expectation to partner with parents on issues like understanding the Bible and learning how to share their faith was dwarfed by their expectation to help their kids make it out of adolescence in one piece.
That’s me being honest; it’s not me being holy. Those days were tinged with unbelief. Jesus Himself said, “It’s not the healthy who need a physician, but the sick” (Matthew 9:12). Every panic attack, every pang of loneliness, every temptation to please people is an opportunity to plant and water the gospel in the lives of young people.
So for all the unique challenges facing this generation, there are unique answers in Christ. The future of youth ministry relies on youth leaders who believe the gospel they preach is the power of salvation for the students they serve. There’s no place in our hearts for doomsday pessimism when Jesus promises to build His church.
It’s now a weekly ritual to read another study bemoaning the landmines facing adolescents in 2022.
For those of us wanting to join this ecclesial construction project, we refuse to leave young people behind. The future of successful youth ministry hinges on our willingness to make resilient disciples who make resilient disciples. Churches that replace nervous hand-wringing with energetic mission to the next generation will get a courtside seat to the transformation of young people. To meet that task, I would emphasize three key things that could help reach the hearts of young people.
The gospel doesn’t save kids to an island. As God saves individuals, He is also saving a community. It’s multifaceted; faith brings with it a new family that thinks and prays together, serves one another with its shared gifts, welcomes one another with hospitality and above all, loves one another (1 Pet 4:7-11). All students can taste this because it isn’t based on the right status, parents, ethnicity or popularity. It’s based on the gift of faith.
The first night of youth group where I was the official pastor, one sixth-grade student threw another sixth-grade student across the room. It left a nice sixth-grade student-sized dent in the drywall. With fear and trembling, I brought the news to my executive.
“Sounds like a good night of youth group,” he replied.
If you oversee a youth pastor, take note. The wall was a small cost in light of the reward of a place where students can be themselves. When you make the decision that you will intentionally welcome and invite all students to find community in your church, you acknowledge that it will cost you something.
Teenagers, and this is obvious, are not 40 years old. They might not use chairs for sitting. They might find new and creative ways to drive the custodian crazy. And that’s the church kids. I compel you, it’s worth the cost of their admission. And when the kids show up who don’t act like church kids, it’s worth the cost of their admission too.
When you make the decision that you will intentionally welcome and invite all students to find community in your church, you acknowledge that it will cost you something.
The gospel shows us the way. It was expensive for God to welcome us into His community. And now that we are adopted into the family, He promises to never leave us or forsake us. That’s the isolation-destroying power of the gospel. You don’t have to earn your way into His acceptance. You can dent walls and everything.
One EFCA church in Pennsylvania cleared the way for their middle school community to grow with an annual “do-nothing” retreat. No cell phones allowed. A dash of teaching. Some extended prayer. The rest of the schedule was completely free. It’s been transformative for students – and now it’s a highlight of the ministry calendar.
In his work, How to Reach the West Again, Tim Keller makes the argument that counseling will prove to be one of the key evangelistic tools of the church in coming years. I think he’s right. Loving our neighbor means loving our neighbor. If she’s hungry, feed her. If he’s naked, clothe him. If a generation is kicked and beaten by mental health issues, how should we respond?
In the EFCA, I’ve met more and more youth leaders who, after starting this kind of work, enrolled in continuing education in the field of counseling. I told you that in 2018 I felt underequipped. But more and more EFCA leaders are not. With ReachStudents, we intentionally address this topic in trainings alongside Kara Powell and Jeff Vanderstelt.
No matter the obstacle, we’ll learn, train and improve to overcome the odds for students who need to hear the gospel. And even those of us who feel untrained and unready, we know that we can point to the Wonderful Counselor (Isa 9:6). He comforts us so we can comfort others (2 Cor 1:4). The gospel doesn’t leave us to die.
Last summer, I sat down for lunch with an EFCA youth pastor and heard about how his whole group had transformed into an outreach-focused, friend-inviting, gospel-sharing juggernaut in the local school. It’s powerful to hear the stories of all these kids coming to faith. On top of that, his group had internalized a purpose that shifted their life’s focus from inward needs to outward mission.
Generation Z is notoriously self-pressuring. And yet, when the gospel invades their hearts, it puts flesh on dry bones.
Generation Z is notoriously self-pressuring. And yet, when the gospel invades their hearts, it puts flesh on dry bones. Take a 16-year-old, empower them to be a gospel influencer and turn them loose. Dents in walls, sure. But purpose can be an incredible antidote to the chilling effects of self-centeredness. Especially the purpose the gospel calls us to.
A moralistic youth group won’t help them. It will add to their trepidation. But a community centered on the gospel means that your students won’t have to save themselves. They don’t have to look a certain way, achieve certain things or please certain people. They have the power of a purpose-filled existence and the freedom to pursue it. And your church has new laborers waiting to be empowered, but the church that won’t use young people will certainly lose young people.
Jesus said, “In this world you will have trouble, but take heart, for I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Gen Z has trouble in this world, like every generation before. But take heart and point them to Jesus. Show them His community, comfort them with His grace and send them on His mission. And may God bring revival through them.
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