When I get asked about the future of youth ministry (as I have often been asked in these last weeks), I usually start by acknowledging, “I am not a futurist.” I’m actually not all that gifted at prediction. But I’m pretty good at observing current trends. And with that in mind, I’m going to make a few projections. Sure, maybe that’s semantics. But I’m calling these projections (of what I’m currently observing) rather than predictions. And I could be completely wrong.
Many of these, as you’ll see, are challenges. Don’t let ‘em get you down. Instead, view even the toughest stuff on this list as an opportunity for experimentation, innovation, renewal, and change.
And I could be completely wrong.
In no particular order:
- Our current use of Zoom and other online activities will not result in a massive re-imagination of youth ministry once we’re completely past quarantine. We’ll have some new tools in our belt, and that’s good. But there’s too much frustration with current approaches to call this a hinge-point.
- It IS possible, however, that significant innovation could arise out of this next stage – in the months when we’re not back to whatever normal was before quarantine, and when we’re experimenting with ‘only in smaller numbers’ limitations.
- Speaking of this next stage, as states start to slowly open up: even if youth ministries have no limitations (which will only be true in some states by June 1), many parents will be understandably skittish about sending off their teens to any large gathering (and for some, any gathering at all). This will provide much more of a challenge than learning how to log into Zoom or how to ‘mute all’. If your youth ministry is more than 10 students, you’ll be forced to innovate (which will be hard, but could lead to good stuff).
- Many are already learning that good, online, produced content is not connecting with a large percentage of teenagers. Thoughtful youth workers are currently building new systems to leverage old, tried-and-true approaches to connecting with teenagers: texts, calls, snail mail, even gift drops. I’m hopeful that some of these systems will outlast our current limitations.
- Church-based ministry with remote college students, however, will have some new means of connecting with students year ‘round. In almost every coaching cohort I lead, someone asks about how to connect with the college students who are mostly away at non-local colleges and universities. Many of these youth workers have often concluded that gathering at Christmas and over the summer are their only options. Now they know this limitation was merely a façade.
- Many churches (especially larger churches) are going to weather this storm just fine, financially. But many churches will feel the financial impact of these challenging days for 18 – 24 months. Some churches won’t make it (though this is likely only an accelerator toward death for churches that are already in trouble, whether they acknowledge it or not). Budgets will be limited. Spending will be cautious. This could force some needed innovation; but it won’t be fun.
- Paid roles in youth ministry will most certainly decrease. They already are, and I hear about youth workers losing their jobs left and right for budget reasons. This is not a new thing – giving in churches has been declining for years, and was projected to continue declining well into the future as people shift their giving patterns in our culture (mostly due to the departure of institutional loyalty and the reduction of the role of church in society). So this ‘tightening’ is an accelerator. We may see a small amount of rebound on giving, post-quarantine; but – as Mark DeVries has been saying for years – many youth workers will have to find other funding or other means of living into their calling.
- Youth ministry supporting orgs (camps, short-term missions orgs, coaching, training) and freelancers (speakers, musicians) are going to be decimated. Maybe some change was needed here; but this is particularly sad to me. Without summer events, camps and short-term missions orgs are holding on by a thread. And without a bailout (I don’t mean a govt bailout – I mean either a massive donation or cash reserves amounting to an endowment), many will be forced to close. With a large percentage of church budgets tight for a long time, those freelancers who rely solely on churches won’t survive and will have to re-direct, vocationally. Even your favorite Cartel is very much at risk: as of this writing, we haven’t received a PPP loan yet, and I’m increasingly concerned about our ability to make it to the fall (I haven’t given up hope, though!).
Do not give in to despair! Many of these seem pretty bleak (and I suppose they are, from one viewpoint). But youth ministry is needed as much as ever (more, in many ways). We’re just gonna have to get creative. And remember: hope starts with lament. Then, with honesty and open hands, we follow the whisper of the Spirit’s leading. God is with you, and with every teenager you love (and even the ones who drive you crazy).