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What the paradigm shift in youth ministry means for youth leaders

Last week I wrote two posts about the paradigm shift that’s happening in youth ministry right now. One of the commenters asked a really good question:

What sort of paradigm shifts do you see for youth ministers themselves? If youth ministry is shifting towards that direction how can youth ministers adapt/change to guide students faithfully towards being active participants of kingdom-work?

I think that the changes that are happening, make youth ministry harder and easier at the same time for youth leaders. Let me explain.

Youth ministry is harder

The paradigm shift makes youth ministry harder because it’s no longer possible to just buy the right materials, entertain the students with loads of fun and ‘show’, run a critically acclaimed program and be successful. I mean, you can certainly debate whether that approach was ever truly successful (personally, I’ve never believed in the ‘makeability’ of youth ministry), but it isn’t working now anymore.

That means youth leaders have the tough job of figuring out what will work in their context. That means studying their context, truly getting to know your community, your culture and subcultures, analyzing possibilities, opportunities and threats. It means actively looking for ideas for approaches, not programs, and experiment to see what works. It means failing maybe tens of times before finding what works.

It’s also harder because youth ministry isn’t safe anymore. Doing youth ministry in this day and age means stepping way out of your comfort zone, being prepared to let go of everything you know, everything that was done in the past and embracing new ways, new methods, new ideas. That’s scary for a lot of people, also because nobody can guarantee ‘results’.

Youth ministry has become harder, because it’s not safe anymore. It’s about stepping into the unknown, taking risks and failing.

A third reason why youth ministry has become harder is that your personal relationship with God is more important than ever. When transparency, authentic living, and relational youth ministry are key, you cannot hide anymore. Your faults and shortcomings, they will become visible and that isn’t always pretty.

Youth ministry is easier

At the same time, I think youth ministry has become easier because a lot of the pressure is gone. I’m talking about the pressure to be cool, to be funny, to have the latest gadgets and stuff in your ministry. I’m talking about the pressure to have great videos in your youth service and slick looking materials for your youth small groups. I’m also talking about the pressure of numbers, the pressure to constantly have to grow numerically.

Where to start

So where to start then? If you’re a youth leader, a youth pastor, where do you start in implementing this paradigm shift in your youth ministry?

1. Prayer

The absolute most important thing you need to do is pray, preferably not alone but with your team, the parents, the church board and/or the entire church. This is a step that cannot be missed, you need to earnestly seek God’s will.

2. Study and research

As I wrote above, it’s absolutely essential to know he context in which you’re doing youth ministry. So do your research, gather facts and data about your church, your town or area, specific issues (positive or negative), etc. Visit local middle schools and high schools if possible, what’s happening there? Are there subcultures you need to be aware of? Does your church have certain sensibilities? Study your context till you’re confident you know what’s happening and what changes are needed.

3. Reformulate your mission statement

The second thing you need to do is to have a look at your mission statement. Do you still support it, is it still relevant? If not, you will need to go through a slow process of redefining your mission with everyone involved.

4. Define success

A crucial step in my opinion is to define what ‘success’ means in your youth ministry. What ‘numbers’ or other ‘measurables’ can you think of that mean something? Try to think outside the box of ‘attendance numbers’. Can you think of a way to define spiritual growth?

This is strongly dependent on your context by the way and could also be defined in social or educational goals, like less dropouts, less teenage pregnancies, less crime, etc (and ‘less’ should preferably be defined in exact numbers). Again, don’t decide on these by yourselves, but get everyone involved so there’s a broad agreement and support for the goals.

5. Start with the basics

In my opinion, doing youth ministry the new way (Youth Ministry 3.0 if you prefer) is about these three basics: relationships, discipleship, and outreach. If you want to rebuild your youth ministry, put these three at the center. We’ll discuss these three in more detail in upcoming posts.

If you’ve been a youth leader for a while, do you feel youth ministry has become harder or easier? Why?

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