Exciting New Student Ministries Changes!

First, Some Context

Over the past several years, I have felt a growing discontentment with the status quo of the typical Youth Ministry model employed by the average church in America. The philosophy of ministry feeding this model believes that at the core of your ministry programming should be an attractional Youth Group Night for the purpose of getting and keeping kids in the church. The typical goal of this night is to build community among teens around fun games, and a Bible based talk that is highly topical and relevant to teen issues. This model seeks to form bonds between students and encourages them to invite their unsaved friends to get a “taste” of a fun, relevant Christianity that would be appealing enough for them to want to become Christians themselves. This model grew out of good intentions to see large numbers of teens from our communities accept Christ by drawing a crowd with attractive programming. This description may be overly simplistic but does represent the core “nuts & bolts” of the model. For more on this issue read this blog post by Walt Mueller from CPYU written to youth ministry leaders: Why Youth Ministry Shouldn’t Be The Greatest Show on Earth…

Over the past several years we have noticed a steady decline in attendance at our Youth Group nights and special events. We are not alone. Almost every youth pastor I talk with is experiencing the same thing. Here are some issues I have observed in our current model that we will be addressing through these changes.

  1. Students rarely bring friends. I don’t believe that a fun night of programming has the same appeal as it once did. One reason for this is the rise in prominence of smartphones, video games, and social media. Because of today’s technology, teens don’t feel the need to “go” anywhere to connect with their friends. This is one reason why there is a growing trend among teens who delay getting their driver’s licenses until much later…they don’t need to “be” anywhere physically to interact with their friends. To run the kind of program that would attract today’s teens would be incredibly demanding on resources like time and money to the point where we would have to seriously ask ourselves if this is the best stewardship of our resources.
  2. This model sends a confusing message to our teens about what it means to be a disciple and to make more disciples. The message the old model communicates is that teens should invite their friends to a night of fun where they will hear the Gospel from their youth pastor. I believe this indirectly communicates that sharing the Gospel is for “professionals”. According to the Bible, sharing the Gospel is for ALL disciples, including our teens.
  3. Many of our teens’ friends and acquaintances from school/sports/etc., will never attend any of our programs because of commitments to other activities or general lack of interest. Why should the the majority of our evangelistic efforts be “limited” to ONE program night where we will see very few of our teen’s friends?

While this model continues to dominate the average American church, studies continue to claim that shocking numbers of students who grew up in church become disconnected from it when they leave for college. Some studies have claimed that these teens who are leaving the church were never really “there” to begin with. Other studies have been conducted of churches that tend to “retain” students after they go off to college. One well known study, and valuable resource, is Sticky Faith from the Fuller Youth Institute. This was produced to help churches invest in the lasting faith of students after high school. This initiative sought to discern the common denominators in churches whose teens stick around after high school graduation. Some of these factors include:

  • Families where discipleship happens in the home. The influence of parents on the faith of their children is massive and deep. Genuine faith modeled to a teen through the example of their parents is more powerful an influence than a lifetime of Youth Group nights. Plus the influence of parents will continue with a teen long after they have graduated from high school and our youth ministry. A parent’s impact is lifelong and will follow a student into college, career choices, marriage, parenting and more!
  • Intergenerational relationships are encouraged. It has been said that the more positive connections a teen has with mature adults in the church the more likely they will be to continue on in their faith into college and young adulthood. There is also a massive amount of untapped godly wisdom in the older saints of our church! For more about the value of intergenerational ministry read this post from the Fuller Youth Institute.
  • Students have close mentoring/discipleship relationships with adults from church.
  • Students are encouraged to use their gifts and talents to serve their local church.
  • Students are not just taught “what” we believe but also “why” we believe it. Students are equipped with a sound apologetic for their faith. This gives students more confidence in their faith by providing a type of intelectual inoculation against attacks on their faith they will likely face from liberal, intellectual elites they will likely encounter in college.
  • Students are equipped and mobilized for the Great Commission understanding that being a disciple means we have been given a divine mission with great significance that is often energizing for a student’s faith.

I have personally spoken with some former students from our ministry and who are still active in church. They shared with me that several of these factors have been very influential for their own continued involvement in the church community and their ongoing faithful obedience to Christ.

Over the years we have sought to promote and implement many of these values but it was always in addition to maintaining a resemblance of the old model. These efforts eventually faded due to the programming demands on time, energy, and resources. Recently Pastor Howard challenged me to rethink how I would build a ministry for students from the ground up with ZERO expectations…even to have a traditional attractional Youth Group Night. After much thought and prayer, and with the full support of Pastor Howard and the rest of the elders and all of our current youth leaders, we will be making some significant changes to the way student ministry is done at Fishkill Baptist Church.

What’s New

The following areas will be major points of emphasis moving forward

Home Discipleship

Deuteronomy 6:4-9, Psalm. 78:1-7, Ephesians 6:4, & 2 Timothy 1:5

I plan to spend time connecting with parents to discuss a plan for discipleship in their homes. Helping parents see God’s design for them to be the primary disciplers of their children. I can offer help in the form of resources, ideas, and accountability. I plan to continue our current practice of providing annual seminars for parents designed to help them become better disciplers of their children.

Intergenerational Focus

Titus 2, 1 Timothy 5:1-2

Intergenerational relationships would not chiefly manifest themselves in any one particular program. Instead, I plan to work to make Intergenerational relationships the culture of our church that would permeate every program. The more interaction students have with mature Christian adults from our church the better. Intergenerational ministry will be especially promoted in areas such as mentoring, teaching, corporate prayer, and serving. In place of Sunday School, teens will be encouraged to be regular participants in the Sunday morning corporate prayer meeting with adults.

Mentoring

2 Timothy 1:6-7

In addition to the spiritual impact of his parents (mother & grandmother), Paul was a mentor to Timothy. I will invest time in recruiting, training, and equipping mentors for students. Mentors will meet weekly with 1-3 students. Mentors will disciple students through Bible study and prayer. I will meet monthly with adult mentors for training, coaching, and encouragement.

Service

1Peter 4:10 & Galatians 6:10

Service to the body will be encouraged by mentors as they help students identify their gifts and talents. Possible areas of service include: music team, A/V, ushers, greeters, Children’s Sunday School, nursery, church work days, and more.

Equipping for Life Long Mission

1Peter 3:15, 2 Corinthians 5:20, Matthew 28:18-20, Ephesians 4:11-16

I believe that one way the church can come alongside parents to supplement their discipleship is by providing specialized training in apologetics/worldview, evangelism, and doctrine. It is important that our methods include both formal instruction as well as opportunities to practice what we are learning. Brett Kunkle, who led our recent mission trip to Utah to share the Gospel with Mormons, shared this wisdom with me: “If you give a teen a book about theology and tell them they should read it, it will likely collect dust somewhere in their bedroom. If you bring them to Utah where they will likely get “thrashed” by a Mormon, who knows the Bible better than they do, then teens will come to you saying, “give me that book on theology!’” Active engagement in a  mission greater than themselves is a powerful catalyst for spiritual growth in the life of a teenager. Therefore, we will be replacing our existing Friday night Youth Group program with a Wednesday program with this emphasis. Because this program will be so different from what Youth Group was, we’ve decided to give this program a different name. Our new Wednesday program will be called “Ambassador Training”. 

A Summary of Opportunities for Students in this new Model:

A weekly mentoring relationship with a mature Christian adult from our church involving Bible study and prayer.

Intergenerational involvement in the body life of our church through regular attendance at corporate prayer meetings, serving, and other occasional church activities.

“Ambassador Training”, an equipping program on Wednesdays with practicum experiences designed to prepare students to live out the Great Commission in their spheres of influence.

Occasional (maybe quarterly) fun activities for students to invite their friends to hear the Gospel. Teens will be involved in the planning and executing of these activities.

Real opportunities to serve in an ongoing ministry of our church (music, A/V, greeter, usher, children’s Sunday School, etc.).

Q&A

Will this new approach guarantee that my child will follow Christ?

NO. Conversion and spiritual growth is never formulaic. Every model is dependent on the Holy Spirit’s work in the hearts of students. That said, I believe this new approach is more biblically faithful.

Has a model like this ever been used by other churches?

The values of this model are beginning to be embraced by more churches but it is still the minority approach compared to many. Adults on our Student Ministries team who grew up outside of the United States have told me that they were discipled in models very similar to this one. I also recently spoke with another youth pastor in our area who is implementing very similar changes at their church this fall.

What if this model does not sound fun to my teen and they don’t want to participate?

I think we need to be careful to not parent out of fear of what our children may think. As parents we make our children do things they don’t like all the time because we know it is good for them (eating vegetables, doing homework, going to math class). How much more valuable is the investment of our church body in the lives of our children? We must fear God more than the opinions of our children because it is Him to whom we will give account for our parental stewardship. As a side note, I have worked with teens for over 15 years and know how to engage students in a manner that meets them where they are at.

My teen has too much homework and other extracurricular commitments to participate on Wednesdays.

Two responses. First, many churches run programs for children and teens midweek (many of them on Wednesdays) and families find a way to make it work. Much of it will come down to prioritizing your family values. We often value academic excellence and athletics, which are not in and of themselves bad things. However, how much more valuable should the spiritual formation of our children be through high quality formal instruction?

Secondly, the Wednesday program is only a part of this new model. Even if your teen cannot attend regularly on Wednesdays, they can still participate in a mentoring group, find a place to serve on Sunday mornings, and participate in corporate prayer and worship services.

The Wednesday program sounds too serious for my teen and I’m not sure they are spiritually mature enough for it.

Studies continue to show us that teens are tired of Christianity “lite” even if they are not professing followers of Christ yet. An approach like the one we are taking on Wednesdays will likely show spiritually immature Christians and even non Christians that the Christian worldview can compellingly address all of life’s most difficult questions. Therefore, even if a teen is not spiritually “there” yet (wherever “there” is), the teaching they will encounter will provide a powerful apologetic for the Christian faith.

Lastly, if you are still not convinced that your teen is ready for the Wednesday program there are still mentoring groups. These groups will be much more tailored to addressing a teen’s current spiritual maturity level.

Lack of a weekly attractional program for teens doesn’t sound like we are serious about reaching the teens of our community.

This model is a shift from “if you build it, they will come” programming to an “equipping and sending” philosophy. Our students will be strengthened in their own faith as they are equipped and deployed for the Great Commission in their schools, sports teams, etc.. I believe this approach has the potential to reach many teens who may never otherwise set foot through the doors of Fishkill Baptist Church. We will also still be hosting fun activities and events that students will be encouraged to invite their friends to. However, this will not be the week to week emphasis of our ministry and will involve our own students in the planning and execution of these activities.

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