APRIL 11, 2023

“In the 1990s and early 2000s, youth group culture relied on delivering fun and entertainment by any means possible: gross-out games, Christian rock concerts, hip hangout rooms, and pizza-party blowouts.

The activities were seen as vehicles to get kids in the door before sharing the gospel or offering Bible lessons.

Things have changed a lot since Jeremy Engbers grow up “playing games, getting dirty, and drinking blended Happy Meals” in church youth ministry.

Engbers, the 31-year-old director of worship, youth, and family at Olympia Christian Reformed Church, is trying to be the youth pastor he needed back then.

Like other pastors working in youth ministry today, Engbers focuses on relationship-building, intergenerational discipleship, and partnership with parents. His studies at Fuller Theological Seminary and access to resources at Fuller Youth Institute were helpful in building his current approach. Engbers also noted books like Sticky Faith and Growing Young as influential for him.

Prior to the past five or ten years, youth groups generally operated on their own schedule and programming within the church. In some churches, that even meant separate meetings during the church service on Sundays.

The siloed activities often isolated youth from the larger congregation, making it harder for them to integrate into grown-up ministry as a college student or adult. Engbers called it a kind of “spiritual daycare.”

Churches across denominations have seen young people stepping away from faith, and researchers at the Fuller Youth Institute say they don’t need a pastor in skinny jeans or a hip meeting space to make them stay. They need practices to root them in faith and community in a way that sticks.

Heather Kenison, youth director of student ministries at St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, noticed the deep disconnect between students and congregants at her church. It affected the sticking power of the church once youth group days were over, she said.

“We had our high school small groups at the same time as ‘big church,’” Kenison told CT. “Then they would graduate and never want to go to ‘big church.’”

St. Luke’s changed its strategy in 2019 to allow students to attend the regular church service on Sunday mornings, giving them the opportunity to connect with the rest of the church and not just the youth group. Now, the youth group is decentralized, meeting in small groups weekly and convening as one larger body once a month.

Giving students the chance to make the “conscious decision” to be a part of the larger church is vital, in Kenison’s mind.

Youth ministry parachurch organizations have noticed the same trends.

Shane Pruitt, national next gen director with the Southern Baptist Convention’s North American Mission Board (NAMB), said he now educates pastors to involve youth more organically with the larger church. Before, he felt like they were asking youth to join an entirely new church after high school.

The NAMB speaks to both senior pastors and youth pastors, through the Youth Leader Coaching Network, about how they can equip and empower teens to serve the church as a whole.

This could mean partnering teens with adult volunteers in doing church work like sound setup or teardown, with the ultimate goal of a discipling relationship and contribution to the church.

“We cut discipleship legs out from under us when we’re separating people by ages and demographics,” Pruitt said, adding that one of the “greatest untapped resources” is senior adults and empty-nesters within the church.

Pruitt said that volunteer opportunities and serving together on mission trips are two ways he encourages churches to integrate more functionally and intergenerationally.

Gen Z, he said, often identifies with their grandparents’ generation more than their parents’. This is a significant opportunity for intergenerational faith formation that was absent from prior youth group approaches.

“The pendulum shifts from generation to generation,” Pruitt said. “Each generation is a reaction to the previous, and a lot of those senior adults have more time on their hands, too.”

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