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Youth Ministry: 1.0 – 4.0

by Dave Palmer, member of United Church of Christ of La Mesa

     “I don’t understand teenagers.”  This could be one of the most common statements of the past 60 years, since the dawn of what we know as “youth culture.”  There’s also a good chance that those making that statement were once the object of their elders’ befuddlement.  Yes, that means you.  And me.

     I’ve been involved in youth ministry in some form or another since I was in a youth ministry program.  I’ve led retreats, Sunday school classes, Bible study groups and seminars for youth workers over the course of the last 20 odd years (and some of them have indeed been odd). In that time there have been massive shifts that are also reflected across culture.  Because in many ways, paying attention to youth culture tells us what lies ahead in our broader culture.  And what lies ahead has always been something new.

     I’d like to discuss a shift that is outlined in a book, Youth Ministry 3.0, written by my friend, former Youth Specialties President Mark Oestreicher.  In the book, Mark submits that the dominant paradigm of youth ministry is undergoing a sea change and entering a new phase that he calls 3.0 (three point o in software lingo).

     Youth Ministry 1.0 paralleled the rise of youth culture in the ‘50s, and the shift from pop to rock music, teen-specific events, and the broad formation of church youth groups, as well as groups such as Youth For Christ that produced large gatherings.  In many ways, the over-arching philosophy of these times was Proclamation, driven in large part by evangelism and correction. It was very much about setting forth a story and set of beliefs to accompany it, particularly to set clear guidelines of how to respond to (or combat) changes in culture.

     In the ‘80s and through to the ‘aughts, Programming was king. Weekly meetings had games, singing, a bible / topical study with discussion, and a wrap-up from the leader.  Some churches grew the production values of their programming to enormous levels, with rock bands, drama and multimedia added to the mix.  Nothing wrong with that, as many teens were able to contribute their gifts of music, art and creativity to the mix.  The challenge, over time, was that it cemented the view that teens were separated from the broader life of the church, and that they figure out how to fit into the program rather than being engaged for who they were.

     Youth Ministry 3.0, as we are experiencing it now, sees a shift from Programming to Affinity. This has a lot to do with the search for identity and groups that honor and engage teens, and it is why a programmatic approach feels less relevant.  According to a 2009 study from research group Chay McQueen, the dominant desires from life of young people are:  Autonomy; Connectedness; Purpose.  These values reflect the evolution of social networking, as individual identities are defined and refined through online personas, which lead to connectedness with other like-minded peers offline.  It is important to note that Purpose is the third value. To hold teenagers’ attention and interest there’d better be a reason or purpose to something.  Activities that lack something to be passionate about are quickly cast aside.

     What this means for youth ministry is that we must look at how to engage teens with what they care about more than, perhaps, what we want them to know, or want them to care about.  It has been intentional that our past few Youth Sunday services have come out of our conversations with the youth and learning how to convey their interests into a form of worship and celebration.

     The Facebook service they led last spring was a clear attempt to adapt the most popular and fastest growing mode of communication to how we tell the stories of God’s work in the world.  The UCCLM-ies Awards service came from the concept of a “conspiracy of grace,” where celebrating, caring for and honoring others in surprising ways conveys good news.

     This shift also means that much of youth ministry is invisible to the broader church, as time is spent at coffee shops, ice cream stores and parks rather than within the walls of the church.  It’s done in Friendship Hall after a Saturday afternoon set-up of a service or the book sale, when our youth have time to share their lives with one another.

     If much of that sounds like how the broader church usually works (in relationship, out of purpose), then it may be easier to understand teenagers.  The means may be different, but the end desires are closely aligned with the core values we want to reflect.  It also means that there are myriad ways for anyone and everyone to be involved in our church’s ministry with youth (not to – that’s so 2.0!), and to be part of building toward whatever awaits with Youth Ministry 4.0.


One Response to “Youth Ministry: 1.0 – 4.0”
  1. Gary Roberts says:

    Like this a lot, Dave. My only quibble is that these different iterations of youth ministry are more like different styles of ministry to two or three whole generations of people now largely missing from many of our churches. God’s church has been adapting to reach new generations and cultures since the beginning. See Acts for evidence. So the questions now are, “Can we still reach the 2.0 and 3.0 generation? How? And as your article suggests, “Where is 4.0 likely to take us?”

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