by John Stoltzfus
There are many challenges that face our youth ministers and workers, yet we have a vision to overcome these challenges. A few stories I have heard from some Mennonite churches in our conference include:
- A family with young children moves into the area. They are advised by many friends to choose a larger church with more programming for children and youth.
- A youth pastor plans a weekend activity for the youth group. One youth shows up.
- A youth pastor asks another youth pastor from a large church for recommended curriculum. He suggests a full package yearlong curriculum that costs $799. The pastor from the smaller church immediately knows this is out of the question because of limited church funds.
- A family decides to leave a church citing the small number of youth and children as a contributing factor. The parents are concerned that their children will not choose to become baptized with so few peers.
- A youth pastor confesses that it can be hard on the ego to look at the diminishing size of the youth group. He feels that the church is putting some blame on him.
- With a smaller group, a youth pastor admits that he now has more time to spend with each youth.
From what I see, most Mennonite churches in the conference are not experiencing sustained or significant growth among the number of youth and young adults in their congregations. Of course there are always exceptions but the majority of conversations I have with youth workers include talking about the challenges of learning to work with smaller youth groups.
This is not just a youth problem. This is an adult, multi-generational challenge contributing to the decline of church attendance and affiliation. Articles and research studies abound in pointing to the reasons why this may be so.
Asking the why question can be a good and necessary exercise. However, I want to focus on the opportunities. Is there a compelling vision for the future of youth ministry in this changing context? The following reflections are a collection of ideas from area Mennonite youth pastors.
We need to act our size. We can’t pretend to act like the churches we used to be or like the mega church down the road. The smaller youth group can be a good place to grow disciples, deepen learning and widen our sense of mission. The sentiment of “we can’t do this because we are a small-sized group” turns to “we get to do things differently because we are a smaller size”. Think intimate, spontaneous, moveable, accessible, and other adjectives.
A youth group of 10 persons and fewer cannot act the same as a youth group of 50. It impacts budget, staffing, curriculum, programming and much more. While a small church may not offer all the bells and whistles of a larger church, it may offer more individualized care and discipleship. A church may be less tempted to hire a “rock star” youth pastor to relate to their youth and instead work to build up a congregation-wide culture of intergenerational relationship and discipleship making. I am not advocating for the devaluing of youth pastors and those who specialize in youth ministry; however, youth pastors at their best enable and empower other adults in the congregation to relate to and disciple youth.
Research indicates that the most common factor for youth who stick with faith and church into adulthood is that they had at least 5 significant relationships with adults as a youth. Might the future of youth ministry be less programmatic and become more embedded into the fabric of the overall mission and life of the church?
When I taught the Sunday school class at a previous church, I used to despair when the majority of the group would not show up on any given Sunday. But then I started to see an opportunity. With a smaller group I was able to adapt the lesson to the specific interests and concerns of each youth. I began to make the kids count rather than count the kids. I was better able to connect individually with the youth and be more practical in application rather than creating studies and lessons that needed to connect with everyone in a larger group. Might the future of youth ministry more like the relationship between Jesus, the rabbi, and his small band of disciples?
What if we were to consider our youth as not just those who show up on a Sunday morning with their parents, but also the youth who live in the communities surrounding our church? Consider what is happening with Project Haven in East Greenville operating out of the former Peace Mennonite Church building. A robotics club, bicycle recycling shop, weekend hangout spot are just some of the initiates that are engaging youth in the community and local schools. Might the future of youth ministry be more entrepreneurial, happening out in the community and making young people agents of ministry, not just objects of it?
Thinking wider might also include more collaboration with other community organizations and other churches. Mennonite youth groups in the area are already doing this — from doing winter retreats together to fundraising together to go to conventions. These relationships have the possibility of moving us across lines of culture, race, economic status and theology. Might the future of youth ministry be less about keeping youth in our church and more about helping them engage and build the kingdom of God in the wider world?
While we face many challenges in keeping youth engaged in the church and reaching out to draw in more youth, if we act smaller, go deeper and think wider, we might see that change.
John Stoltzfus is the Conference Youth Minister for Franconia Mennonite Conference and Eastern District Conference.