The Biggest Culture Shift for Youth Ministry?

HH is spending the week with his congregation’s youth group on a mission trip to DC. I have colleagues doing the same thing this week in Cuba, South Dakota, and West Virginia.  Mission trips with youth and adults change lives – usually the lives of those traveling youth and adults most of all.

Just as we live in a time when the average committed church member attends weekly worship less often (read this), youth ministers tell me that their youth do not attend activities every week.  A youth group might have a substantial number of participants if everybody attended every week, but attendance can be spotty for the same reasons that their parents no longer attend worship every Sunday. Among the comments I hear:

  • Youth members do not attend school together and so they are not necessarily with their close friends in church.
  • Kids are busy and “church” has become another activity like orchestra and soccer.
  • Connecting to church is different from connecting to God and some kids have never experienced a connection to God.

Camps, conferences, and mission trips are considered important for connecting people to God.  They offer time away from the usual activities when people are focussed together for a common purpose.  Mission trips to venues far from home offer a glimpse outside their own experiences and – if done well – they learn sound theological and ethical principles.  They learn how not to do toxic ministry. 

So what if we did away with weekly or even monthly “youth group” and offered 4 retreats a year?  I know some congregations who have shifted to this kind of youth ministry and it seems more effective.  [Note:  I am not a youth ministry expert but I’ve observed the following programs which seem to work, depending on the context.]

  1. Partner with other churches if you have less than ten teenagers in your congregation.  Imagine teaming up with 4-6 local congregations and sharing costs and leadership.
  2. All retreats, conferences, and mission trips involve orientation, preparation, and a covenant of participation.  This creates intentionality and commitment on the parts of both the leaders and the youth.  And we are teaching that these events are more than social activities.
  3. Mix it up.  Some congregations might plan four different mission trips a year, but you could also plan one local mission trip, an international mission trip, a denominational youth retreat, and a pilgrimage (e.g. focussing on Civil Rights or Interfaith Understanding.)  Or you could plan two mission trips and two retreats.  It could vary each year.  And participants should be required to raise some/most of the money to attend.
  4. Remember that God uses everything – and talk about that.  What is God telling us about our own calling in these experiences?  Where have you seen God in these neighbors?  And – again – teach healthy partnership, not hierarchical charity.

Experts in youth ministry are good at sorting out the details.  But my point is that congregations might want to let go of the notion that The Youth Group looks like it looked generations ago.

What if your congregation has no kids?  Then ask the local high school guidance counselors or principals what their kids need and consider addressing that need.*

*Repeat after me:  Youth Ministry Is Not About Increasing Church Membership.

Our calling is to offer spiritual nourishment, practical ministry skills, and community to all ages – not to perpetuate an institution.  And our youth are spiritual human beings who want to belong and understand life.

This might be one of the biggest shifts in 21st Century ministry.

Image from the 2016 Presbyterian Youth Triennium.  The call for volunteers for the 2019 Triennium has begun.

6 responses to “The Biggest Culture Shift for Youth Ministry?

  1. Hi Jan, our former Associate Pastor, Jen Strickland, provided a foreword to an excellent book last year about this very subject. “The Fruits of Our Labor; Creating Meaningful Work Camp & Mission Trip Ministry” is written by Alan J. Kobs. The book features youth stories from Kobs’ decades as a youth director in his Greenville, TN church. Alan’s book would be a good resource for any church wanting to start or grown their youth mission opportunities. Alan lives in Dayton, OH.


  2. Yes! I continue to believe that we are increasingly competing for time. How do we do it in ways that honor the Kingdom? I might argue that we don’t need less time with kids using selective retreats. We need models that engage kids with the right things. I’ve been trying this for about 3 years.


  3. Thanks Phil Whitmarsh for the heads-up on Denise and Jan’s blog. I am always excited when I see others interested and promoting work camp mission ministry. I also appreciate any opportunity I can network with others interested in developing, revamping, or assisting their mission programs with teens. My book, The Fruits of our Labor, is available personally through me. If anyone is interested, please contact me at My prayer is that our denomination continues to be a leader in mission work … there is so much that needs to be done.


  4. Pingback: What If We Reached Out to Youth Who Will Never Join Our Church? | achurchforstarvingartists

  5. I’ve been steadily adding retreats and trips my church’s youth ministry for the past year. Next year’s calendar has three more. These feel more fruitful than new experiments in weekly gatherings.


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