T here have been a number of moments lately when the question “Was that post-pandemic or pre-pandemic?” has come up. For those working in youth ministry, this has also come to mean, “Was that when you knew what you were doing?” Today, many of us in ministry are just trying to get our heads around what is happening. It’s clear by the emerging trends of quiet quitting and expedited church exodus that people are no longer tolerating or showing up to places that don’t meet their immediate needs. (By “needs”, I also mean the things that people think that they want.)
Over the past two years, our Generation Spark team has really been tuning our ears toward young people with a posture of curiosity. We’ve been asking questions like, What makes faith matter to young people? And What do they really want from our ministries? Initially, these questions were pressing because we were wondering, but now they seem like just the sort of questions we all ought to be asking to better understand the value our ministries can contribute to our young people’s lives.
Related: A guide to listening to your people
Relationships make faith matter to young people.
Over the course of the last year, we’ve had conversations with over 60 young people from a variety of cultures and geographical backgrounds. In conversation, we asked these young people to reflect on spaces where they feel safe to be themselves and talk about their faith. While many of them communicated that church did not feel like a safe space, they all communicated that they had spaces with their peers to process where they were in life and faith.
The outliers in our conversations were often individuals who did have strong connections with a pastor or youth pastor. These young people communicated that their church was a safe space to practice their faith and ask questions. What could this mean? Very likely, that faith matters more when young people have others in their lives who are safe and trusted partners with whom they can work through hard questions and share the common parts of their lives that are related to their faith.
As youth ministry leaders, we have to start prioritizing relationships across generations to truly and effectively buttress the faith of our young people. Youth ministry is no longer defined by a large, fun gathering but instead, by meaningful one-on-one connection that students can have with other members of the faith community.
Mental health training and conversations are essential.
I have a friend who works for the local school district here in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He is a licensed therapist and was hired last year with the expectation that he would have a caseload of roughly 20 kids. Within his first day, he had 40 scheduled intake appointments from students, and a promise from the district to hire 2-3 more licensed therapists.
While it’s not news to us that young people are wrestling with their mental health, what’s key is noticing that the stigma around mental health is gone among younger generations. Young people are wanting to work through and normalize their mental health issues. And while it is critical for us to understand that ministry workers are not licensed therapists (we need to refer young people to the professionals in the field), it is just as critical that we are informed about mental health and appropriate ways to have conversations with those who are wrestling.
When in doubt, lead with good listening and empathy over games and activities.
In one particularly painful story, a young leader shared with us that when their parents got divorced, rather than the church supporting the family, the church kicked the whole family out. They said they needed time to reconcile as a community before welcoming the family back. We see the effects of this kind of behavior from a Christian faith community too often in the stories of teens and young adults. It is devastating.
While we cannot necessarily control the whole system of our congregations, we can personally practice and try on good listening skills. The Fuller Youth Institute often explains that society today is no longer the society that many of us grew up in. Often, as mentors and faith leaders, we try to empathize with young people by sharing, “When I was your age…” But we aren’t registering that our time as young people encompassed an entirely different culture.
Yes, our experiences are valuable and can contribute to meaningful engagement. But more often than not, the young people in our lives have very few spaces to be heard; and that is the mission for these moments—that your students, emerging leaders, and kids feel seen and heard. Instead of offering advice, we need to treat moments with our young people as fleeting. When they move toward a posture of vulnerability, our work is to position ourselves in listening. When we don’t understand, ask questions like, “Tell me more?” or “Can you explain that to me?”
Obviously, as young ministry workers, we cannot do one-on-one interactions alone. We believe that the youth ministry work of the future looks a lot more like training and raising up volunteers to engage with our youth, and less like planning big events, games, etc.
Lastly, I want to acknowledge that simply stating this truth is way easier than being the one to have to walk this out in your context. If you would like a coach to come alongside you or guidance as you begin or continue this work, please feel free to reach out to our team at email@example.com. You are undoubtedly serving in a context that is vastly different from what used to be considered “normal.” As you press on, please know that our team is praying for you during this challenging season of ministry.
Rev. Annalise Radcliffe
Annalise Radcliffe is director of future church innovation for the Reformed Church in America. She is passionate about intergenerational ministry and believes that youth ministry is the work of the whole church, not just the youth pastor. She and her husband, Ron, are planting pastors of City Chapel in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can connect with Anna by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.