For most of us who've been doing youth ministry for a while, I believe there's a sense of this story: The reality that's playing out is somewhat different than what we imagined, hoped, or expected. While there's wonderful stuff happening in youth ministry all over the place - in pretty much every youth ministry - our impact, the transformation of kid's lives, seems less than we'd hoped. Study after study is bringing this harsh reality into focus. Kids are dropping out of church after youth group at staggering rates. 9as high as 50 to 70 percent in one reputable survey). And those students in our youth groups seem to be - according to researchers - subscribing to a faith that's neutered and unsustainable. To be fair, we youth workers are doing what we've always done - trying to love teenagers to the best of our abilities and help them experience the love of God. Our hearts are right (for the most part), but - I believe - there are flaws in many of our assumptions and methods. A disconnect. . . . the world of teenagers has changed, and we've been slow in our response." (p. 24-25).
Mark clearly demonstrates that something needs to change with how we approach youth ministry. The methods we have been using have lost their effectiveness.
After stating the problem with the present state of youth ministry, Mark takes us on a journey through the birth and growth of youth ministry over the past few decades. I loved his historical analysis of youth ministry. He begins by looking at Youth Ministry 1.0 as the time after WW2 through the 1960's. Many churches were slow to initiate youth ministries so many para-church organizations helped to launch a movement targeted to teenagers. Much of this style of youth ministry was seen as evangelistic in nature helping teenagers establish their identity in Christ through the proclamation of the gospel. Youth Ministry 2.0 is seen as the period beginning in the 1970 to the end of the Century. As youth ministry began to take hold within the church some major shifts took place. Programs replaced proclamation. The youth culture established their identity but now teens were pushing for autonomy. Youth ministries morphed into a "church within a church" offering programs specifically for them. Many of these programs focused on discipleship and helping to create a positive peer group. In fact, I would say that a majority of my education was spent in training me in this style of youth ministry. There were still remnants of YM 1.0 but the thrust of my training was in YM 2.0.
While many of us seem to still be wading in the methodology of Youth Ministry 2.0, Mark very emphatically points out that, "Our thinking is stuck in - let's face it - the previous millennium. We cannot build a great youth ministry to reach Youth Culture 3.0 teenagers with Youth Ministry 2.0 methods or thinking." (p. 64) It is vital for us to see that we are in the midst of a cataclysmic shift that appears to be going on all around us, philosophically, culturally, and within youth ministry.
Now with this in mind, it is with anticipation that the reader is just waiting for Mark to roll out the new youth ministry method for the 21st century that Youth Specialties will publish and make available to everyone! But wait! Instead of unraveling this "new method" Mark notices that there is no macro-methodology to youth ministry! In fact, he goes on to state that "There's no one-size-fits-all youth culture anymore. That did exist in the first two waves of youth culture. But it's likely that it will never exist again." (p. 69). With this in mind, Mark pushes us to immerse ourselves into the micro-narratives of the youth culture we find ourselves involved in in order to understand our teens. He goes on to point out that "Youth Ministry 3.0 needs to allow culture to inform contextualization. Once again, like good missionaries youth workers need to become contextual specialists. . . What's needed are cultural anthropologists with relational passion." (p. 72).
With very broad strokes, Mark gives some definitions to the new youth ministry that seems to be evolving. He sees the main purpose of teens today is to seek out affinity through community. In order to achieve this deep sense of community, Mark sees communion and mission as being instrumental in shaping a new youth ministry.
He defines communion (community) as:
. . . life-on-life, whole life, eating together, sharing journeys, working through difficulties, wrestling with praxis (theology in practice), accountability, safety, openness, serving side by side, cultivating shared passion and holy discontent, mutuality, and a host of other variables. True community is not a program. It's not something people sign up for, It's not something we force. (p. 74).
He then goes on to describe mission as starting . . .
. . . with the assumption that God is already actively working on earth, bringing redemption, restoration, and the transformation of all creation. Therefore, a missional ministry seeks to discern, observe, and identify what's close to the heart of God and where God is already at work - and then joins up with the work of God already in progress. (p. 75).
Mark sees this new youth ministry that is emerging as not "'purpose-driven', but 'present'. Living into the present "work of God in our lives and in the world. . . Present to life in the way of Jesus." (p. 77). This kind of "present thinking" can be messy and undefined when compared to previous models that reflected very structured business-like models for achieving success in ministry.
Now just before Mark throws us down the rabbit hole, he gives us these empowering and encouraging words that we are on a " . . . shared journey, utilizing a shared discernment process and involving both adults and teenagers. You know your students; you know your community. Dream and discern with them to create a localized ministry that brings the gospel to the real kids you see every week." (p. 86).
And now with a grin on our face and a brief moment of feeling empowered, Mark takes us to the rabbit hole! In order to move in the direction of stepping out of a Youth Ministry 2.0 models and moving towards a 3.0 model we need
. . . to cut programs. . . . The road forward must first go through the valley of doing less. . . Strip down your programming so you have space to spend time with teenagers, spend time with God, and consider rebuilding something new and fresh. . . . Let me say it plainly: Large is part of the value system of Youth Ministry 2.0; small is cornerstone to Youth Ministry 3.0. Communion necessitates small. Contextualization begs for small. Discernment requires small. Mission is lived out in small. (p. 97-99).
I have served in 4 churches now. It is in these transitional times between jobs which have offered me the opportunity to really evaluate what worked, what didn't work and what would I like to try differently as I begin at a new church. I know with my last transition into the church that I am currently in, I made the decision to stop doing so much programs and attempt to do less. Fortunately, I was coming into a church where I was their first full-time youth pastor so I did not have to compete with the memories of those who went before me. I was able to set the tone so that I could get to know the teens in the context of our church and within their community. I look back on my first church and it just blows my mind how many things we were attempting to do to build up the program for the teens. That was the model of ministry I was trained in though. We had so much going on it was easy to feel resentful towards the schools as we felt a sense of competition with them. But now I believe that we need to see the school as a part of the youth culture of which we need to have a greater understanding and appreciation for in order to understand our teens better.
The final element that helps to point us in the direction of YM 3.0 is that of worship. Mark explains what he means in that:
. . . worship includes the experience of raising our voices together in songs to God. And, yes, worship involves prayer. But a broader - more scriptural - view of worship is about serving the poor, righting injustice, caring for those in need. When teenagers - whether they're already followers of Jesus or not - experience this kind of worship-in-action, they have an enormous opportunity to have a tangible experience of God in their lives. This often leads to faith (or more faith). More importantly, this leads to a sustainable faith. . . For today's teenagers, experience is what they trust. (p. 103-104).
If there is one thing that my teenagers will sign up for, it is most certainly the experiential opportunities such as mission trips, and many other service opportunities that arise throughout the year. They love to be a part of a fresh experience of God done in community with one another.
In his concluding remark, Mark imagines that:
My hope and dream is that we'll see a groundswell of courageous youth workers who are willing to fail, willing to risk, willing to step out in faith and passion and into a calling to reach Youth Culture 3.0 teenagers with the present and transformative love of Jesus Christ. My hope and dream is that 10 years from now, we can easily show hundreds of examples - thousands of examples - of contextual, communional, missional, present youth ministries that are living out the gospel in the real world of today's adolescents. (p. 125).
I believe that Mark Ostriecher's observations and thoughts on the history and direction of youth ministry are right on target. Our culture has gone through a massive shift from modernism to post-modernism and while some adults may not have made the mental shifts that are required to understand our culture, the teens are on the cutting-edge of it. We can not ignore or disregard what is going on around us. We must get back to thinking and acting like missionaries that are integrating into a new culture. This book needs to be required reading for anyone who is pursuing youth ministry as a calling and anyone who is currently involved in ministering to teenagers.