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  • Hannah Williamson

Adaptable Youth Ministry

How Youth ministry has changed and what our response should be…

I grew up in a church with a great youth ministry and I remember the excitement when I got to year 7 and I could start going to the Friday night programme then called ‘ETF’ (Elevens to fourteens…inventive I know!) I was pretty shy and so didn’t get involved in too many of the ‘silly games’ that took place as part of the programme - and silly they were. I'll never forget one game where a kid had to wear a crash helmet and a fruit was dropped on their head - they had to guess the fruit. I’m not sure if this had any link to the fruit of the spirit or if someone just thought they were being cheeky by calling the game, ‘what the fruit was that?!?!’ I also remember the way the youth leader at the time had an old landrover that he would pile in more kids than you were meant to have to drop them home after youth. It seems funny thinking back to those days and how things have changed so much. It’s about 25 years since I was that shy 11 year old but even since the time I began as youth pastor so much has changed. In my work now with youth pastors, inevitably comments will be made like, ‘remember when we used to be able to XXX? (You fill in the blanks!). It can be frustrating but I wonder whether youth pastors today, in our very fast moving world just need to be that little more adaptable. Below are a few ways youth ministry has changed and I hope to offer a few thoughts to help you avoid the frustration but enable you to forge a new path into the future so that we can continue to reach thousands of young people with the love of Jesus.

Relational Complexities

“‘Come, follow me’, Jesus said…at once they left their nets and followed him.” Matthew 4:19-20

I would often give lifts home to young people in my car. It was kind of part of my philosophy of ministry as it gave me an opportunity to see how a young person was doing and a great chance for discipleship. I remember one young girl who was about 14 at the time who came from a non-christian background. She was struggling and one of the things I encouraged her to do was to have a journal to process both her thoughts and what God was saying to her. She was however, fearful that her mum would read it so we had an agreement that she could leave the journal in the glove compartment of my car, getting out every time she saw so she could write some lines to God. Looking back now this was totally fine, but today, taking a young person in the car may not be the wisest thing to do. Due to the misuse of power that we so often see on our TV’s being alone with a young person is just not sensible. But how do we do real discipleship when we can never seem to do it one to one? How do you build authentic relationship while ensuring both you and the young person are safe? Here are just a few thoughts…

Maximise the ‘group’ - interestingly Jesus, according to the gospels rarely discipled ‘privately’ - there were always groups of disciples. We often learn well when we can grow together with people.
Think ‘Visible’ - when meeting with young people, where can you meet where others can see? A coffee shop, McDonalds? These can all be positive allowing others in your community to see the good work you are doing!
Pastor Families - we often see our role as just pastoring young people but what could it be like if you were able to help a family to outwork their faith together? The reality is in the end you will probably not be in the young person’s life beyond youth age but their family will always be there.

Barriers to fun

A cheerful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.’ Proverbs 17:22

‘Chubby Bunnies’ - you know exactly what I’m talking about don’t you? The game that all youth groups played. How many marshmallows could some poor kid stuff in their mouth, continuing to say the word ‘chubby bunnies?’ I’m not sure why we loved it so much but if you grew up in any form of youth ministry you probably played it. I could tell story after story of ridiculous games that we played in youth ministry that we probably wouldn’t be allowed to play now. A few weeks ago I sat with one of the Youth Pastors I am mentoring. He told me that he was going to run a fireworks show in the back garden of the church for the youth. I mentioned that it might be worth just checking he could do that to which he said, ‘I’m sure it will be fine.’ Later that night when I text to find out how it went he told me he was sadly unable to do it for insurance reasons. I’m sure we have all been in similar positions being told we can no longer do some of the things we used to. This can often create a level of frustration that things have changed but I wonder whether it’s just an opportunity for us to exercise our creative juices and find new ways to create fun. Here are a few things to consider in this area…

Think outside the box - its easy to do the same thing over and over but the reality is no matter how disgusting the game, if done over and over, it can become boring.
Attitudes not activities create fun - remember, you as the leader will inspire your team. Go into games with a fun attitude!
Build memories not just laughable moments.

The Virtual World is fully integrated into the physical world

“From Issachar, men who understood the times and knew what Israel should do.” 1 Chronicles 12:32

There used to be a time where the virtual world was seen as quite separate to reality but now the lines are a lot more merged. We now speak about meetings being ‘online’ or ‘in-person’ and we often switch between the two. Young people are a lot more familiar with the online world than most adults. Young people have become ‘selfie-obsessed’ often creating online personas that are different to who they really are. The easy access to information is huge but because of the amount of information, young people are overwhelmed with varying amounts of views and beliefs which can cause confusion. The easy access to porn is scary and probably worse than we think. When I started as a youth pastor, 16 years ago we only had myspace - it’s crazy to think how that is not even that long ago and so much has changed! The level at which the virtual world has become part of our real world can be overwhelming but here are a few thoughts on how you can adapt….

Get culture savvy - there’s no point just getting frustrated, wise up! Ensure you know and understand what young people are using, the influence it is having on them and why it is so important to them.
Promote our God given identities - help young people discover who God made them to be and how they can live that out.
Use technology for good - I recently saw a church that has a ministry to gamers and encourages young people to be part of the community so that they can share their faith with others but also help them navigate this area of ‘online’.

The ‘Relationship talk’ has got a whole lot more complex.

Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God….therefore honour God with your bodies.’ 1 Corinthians :19-20

Every year we would ensure we did a series of teaching on ‘relationships.’ We were determined not to shy away from the ‘awkward’ topics but create a space for young people to ask questions and explore what God says in this area. We wanted young people to be strong in their beliefs so that they could confidently speak up. It seems however in the past few years the whole topic of relationships has got a lot more complex. To stand up for what you believe about sex, sexual identity and relationships in a school setting as a student could put you in a very difficult position regardless of what you moral viewpoint is. It might seem like it would be easier to avoid the topic altogether but things may only get worse and for many young people very confusing. How can you adapt to the changing world we live in relation to ‘relationships and sex’? Here are a few things to think about….

Promote a healthy view of the body - In her book, ‘Love thy body' Nancy Pearcey speaks of how todays culture has separated the body from the soul/mind giving people the understanding that the body is not worth a lot. This is not a Christian viewpoint but many people live like this and this line of thought has influenced the way we act. Maybe we need to help young people understand what it means to be made in the image of God.
Give young people good role models - there are so many broken families that for young people coming into the church it is radical to see a man and a woman married and in love. We sometimes have to show models so that people can believe that a loving relationship between a man and woman is both possible and how God intended it to be.
Speak about the difficult topics - read up/wise up if you cannot answer some of the difficult questions and help parents to do the same.

Mental Health has complicated pastoral care

Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care…” 1 Peter 5:2

For many years in the past young people may well have kept struggles hidden. 20 years ago we just did not talk about mental health like we do today. A great breakthrough of our time, I believe, is that young people will hopefully grow up in a world that acknowledges the power of poor mental health and again, hopefully helps young people get the vital care and support they need. This can however pose some difficulties for youth leaders/pastors in helping young people. If not careful, youth pastors could end up fulfilling the role of counsellor, social worker or mental health professional when they are not trained or called to do that. The large amounts of needs that young people have can then cause a youth pastor to forget that their primary role is to spiritually guide young people. You can get yourself into tricky situations if you start offering the advice that a professional should offer. Here are some thoughts on how to adapt….

Know where additional help is - remember you are not a counsellor, but you can point people in the right direction. (On that note, make sure you have someone to talk to….sometimes the needs of young people can become overwhelming and you may well need an outlet to talk through the things you have heard!)
Wise up - ensure you don’t just face difficulties blindly. As much as you are not a counsellor, knowing the right things to say when a young person confides in you is vital.
Remember you are a spiritual leader - you are there to point them to Jesus so make sure He is always your number one focus and motivation for what you do.

My prayer is that you will see change as great opportunity rather than deep frustration and will chose to be an adaptable leader seeking to continually reach more and more young people with the love of Jesus.

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