Why Ministry with the Next Generation Matters: An Overview
Acting Head of Staff
Why Ministry With the Next Generation Matters: An Overview
The end is near. The end of summer that is. The signs are all around us. Our kids’ schedules arrived in the mail this week, our daughter started band camp on Monday, and the temperatures are (thankfully) dropping into the 50s overnight. Yes, the end of summer is near.
In the life of the church, the end of summer means many things. Most VBS and camp programs are done, kids have come home from mission trips, and the final family vacations are being taken. This means that fall and the traditional start of the program year, often noted by rally day or some other moniker, is right around the corner.
The start of fall isn’t what it used to be in many of our churches. There are fewer kids, and in some cases, no kids at all. One reason is the significant change in the number of children in our communities. The birth rate in the post-World War II era in the United States peaked in 1958; today, it is approximately half of what it was then. Another reason for this has been the steady drop in religious affiliation in the United States. Much has been written about the rise of the “nones” (religiously unaffiliated people), and even patterns amongst those who are religiously affiliated have changed to the point where one is considered “actively” involved in the life of a church if they attend one event per month (on average) or more. Finally, there are shifts in other aspects of our society. Whereas the church was once given a free pass on Sunday morning, there are plenty of opportunities for people to do something else on Sundays, including often-cited sports and performing arts competitions that pull even the most committed families in our churches away from regular participation on Sunday morning. Long story short, doom and gloom is an easy sell, especially regarding the elusive “young families” that many of our churches wish there were more of.
Some of you know that my primary sense of call to ministry came with a focus on the next generation. I went to seminary committed to the idea of doing youth ministry. Despite the detractors who said things like “You don’t need to go to seminary to do youth ministry” and the more obnoxious “Why should we ordain if you’re only going to do youth ministry,” I persevered. And while the specific manner in which I’ve expressed my call to ministry shifted when I joined the Presbytery staff in 2016, my overall sense hasn’t changed. In short, I still find the greatest sense of fulfillment from working with the next generation and watching them discover who God had made them to be and is calling them to be. In my work, I’ve found that the words of Psalm 78 have been the most defining for me. I’m going to include the full text of the Psalm at the end, but the key verse for me is: “We won’t hide them from their descendants; we’ll tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength— the wondrous works God has done. He established a law for Jacob and set up Instruction for Israel, ordering our ancestors to teach them to their children. This is so that the next generation and children not yet born will know these things, and so they can rise up and tell their children to put their hope in God — never forgetting God’s deeds, but keeping God’s commandments”
The Psalmist reminds us that there is a four-fold focus for us when it comes to the next generation: We are to tell what God has done, and in response, model and teach praising God, obeying God’s commandments, and placing one’s hope in God. The great challenge we face today is that we’re trying to do this work in the least-churched time in the United States since 1950.
To that end, I believe it’s essential that we begin thinking carefully about “Why” ministry with the next generation matters. For some of us, it’s just a given; you go to church, and it’s just what you do. And some would add to that, “So your kids come to faith in Jesus so they can experience abundant life in the present age and eternal life in the age to come.” But those reasons, as valid as they might be for some of us, are not true for many in our society, especially among the elusive young families. And if we’re going to reach them, we need to articulate why involvement in the life of a church is good for them and their kids in a way that will resonate and connect. We don’t like to think about it this way, but I’ll say it anyway: What benefit would a family with kids and teenagers gain from being involved in the life of your church?
As someone who has made this area of ministry a focus for 20 years (I led my first youth group in 2003), I’ve spent much time thinking about that question. And, in an era in our family’s life where neither my wife nor I are actively serving a congregation, that’s also been an acute question for us. And I could write on this topic for a very long time. But for today, I will give you the short version: Nothing in our society can do what the church can do in the life of a kid. I believe that with my whole heart and being. Why? Because I’ve seen it, and I’m seeing it in my kids now.
I will flesh this out in greater detail in the coming weeks, but here’s the short version. Being a disciple of Jesus and a part of his church helps them grow in their sense of who they are (identity), gives them a greater sense of being part of a community (belonging), and encourages them to think about their giftedness and purpose in our world (competency).
Nothing else – nothing – can do that for kids. And, I argue that when we look at the systematic issues facing our kids and society in general – a loss of meaning and purpose along with loneliness and disconnection – I sincerely believe that the need for the church to be the church in the lives of next generation has never been greater.
Full Text of Psalm 78:1-8:
“Listen, my people, to my teaching; tilt your ears toward the words of my mouth. I will open my mouth with a proverb. I’ll declare riddles from days long gone— ones that we’ve heard and learned about, ones that our ancestors told us. We won’t hide them from their descendants; we’ll tell the next generation all about the praise due the Lord and his strength— the wondrous works God has done. He established a law for Jacob and set up Instruction for Israel, ordering our ancestors to teach them to their children. This is so that the next generation and children not yet born will know these things, and so they can rise up and tell their children to put their hope in God— never forgetting God’s deeds, but keeping God’s commandments— and so that they won’t become like their ancestors: a rebellious, stubborn generation, a generation whose heart wasn’t set firm and whose spirit wasn’t faithful to God.” (Psalm 78:1–8, CEB)