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Tim Alford

Leadership 101 - The future of youth ministry

We are living through a defining moment in the history of our nation, and the nations of the world.

In 100 years' time when we are all gone, they will still look back at this moment we are living through, and remember the pandemic that swept the world.  I believe in just a couple of decades' time we will look back and we will see a pre/post-Covid world. and we will be able to reflect upon how, almost overnight, our world was changed forever.

And it’s, for this reason, I believe that some of the models of ministry that served us in the old world will no longer serve us in the new.

In order to effectively reach and disciple young people in the years ahead, we must be willing to adopt entirely new approaches.

So during this period of lockdown, I have been reflecting on a couple of trends that we have all been experiencing in youth ministry; things that have been true across denominations and demographics. And whilst there are of course exceptions to every rule, these are undoubtedly the trends:

Over time, young people gradually disengaged from our online contact and content, and ...

The first young people to disengage have been those who are not connected to our churches via their families.

Now on the surface, these trends may appear to be a simple cause and effect of the season, but I believe they are actually symptomatic of something much deeper; they are telling us something that, if we will have the courage to engage with them, will inform how we do youth ministry in the new world.

So I want to suggest four things, potentially controversial and hopefully stimulating, about how I see the future of youth ministry.

1. The future is not online

 During the coronavirus pandemic, we have placed our ministries online because we’ve had to - there has been no other way to stay connected.

But what we didn’t see coming is that, in doing so, we have placed ourselves in direct competition with countless other applications and notifications that are screaming for the attention of our young people.

This is one reason I believe the future is not online, but rather, the future is in radical community and supernatural expectancy.

The world can easily out-do our entertainment based groups and online videos, but it has no substitute for beautifully diverse yet unusually united families, through which and in which the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit is regularly at work in signs and wonders.

That is unique to us and cannot be replicated in the world.

The gravitational pull on your ministry right now is to leverage the online world to attract people to your programme, but I believe the brave and courageous youth leader in the new world will give more attention to setting young people free from digital addiction than, creating more digital content to grab their attention.

They will give more time to generating fired-up communities than views and engagements; and more energy to understanding signs and wonders than online algorithms.

Yes, the online world is here to stay, but I believe the signs of the times are showing us that it is not the answer to the change we are looking for. I believe that the Lord is calling us to pursue radical community and supernatural expectancy.

2. The future is intergenerational

The fact the first young people to disengage have been those who are not connected to the church via their parents shows us something profoundly important that I don’t want you to miss: young people need spiritual parents more than spiritual programmes.

Here’s a crazy thought … what if the best way to raise and disciple a young person was not through mono-generational groups of 11-18 year-olds, with a few adult helpers? What if youth ministry in the new world look more like a family unit than a school classroom?

Reggie McNeal expresses this thought saying, "The program-driven church has created separate generational silos in the church experience, from worship services to religious education to activities, even community service and mission engagements. It is quite possible for families in the program church not to share any common experiences during a day at church. This may keep consumers busy, but it doesn’t do a thing for people’s development. People often grow more in intergenerational environments. That’s why God created families. We come into this world and learn our most fundamental life lessons in an intergenerational setting. There is something profoundly abnormal going on when spirituality is detached from this natural dynamic.”

This is why, in the new world, the brave and courageous youth leader will divert increasing amounts of their time and attention to raising up spiritual parents with an intense commitment to passing on the gospel to the next generation.

3. The future is smaller

This is not to say that the church should not strive for growth, nor is it to deny the transcendent and irreplaceable power of the large gathering, but it is to say that those large gatherings or services are not sufficient for making disciples who make disciples.

I believe we need to learn to value the secret and unseen above the public and the celebrated. I believe that even if we have a large group we will have to learn how to break it down into environments that are small enough for everyone to be known and develop their gifts.

I believe that, counterintuitively, focusing in on the few will enable us to more effectively reach the many.

4. The future is about making disciples not programmes

I believe this pandemic has exposed a shocking truth that we must have the courage to embrace and reflect upon: our models of youth ministry have not been effective in making disciples.

We have created fantastic event-based programmes where young people show up, have a great time, and feel loved and valued, but we have not done so well at helping young people who are far from God become independent and interdependent followers of Jesus, with a robust personal identity in God, that is not dependant on their connection to our groups.

Could it be, that the fact that we gather people has deceived us into believing that we are making disciples? Is it time to acknowledge attendance and discipleship are not the same things?

I am deeply challenged by this thought from Mike Breen: “At the end of the day, the only thing that Jesus is counting is disciples. That’s it. He doesn’t seem to care too much about converts, attendance, budgets or buildings. It’s about disciples.”

And so in the new world, the brave and courageous youth leader will make everything that they do about making disciples. They will humbly and brutally examine their programmes and ask themselves, ‘is this making disciples?’ and if it’s not achieving that objective, they will have the courage to stop it or change it.

I write at a period of time when many of us are wrestling with the complexities of reopening our youth ministries. But as we do so I don’t want us to simply try and rebuild what we had before, and miss what the Lord is doing now.

So rather than thinking about reopening, I want to encourage you to think about renewing. What might it mean for you to renew your youth ministry to more effectively reach and disciple young people in the new world?

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Director of LIMITLESS

Tim Alford lives in Malvern with is wife Jen, son Tobijah and daughter Aria.

He is the National Director of LIMITLESS, the youth movement of Elim Pentecostal Churches in the UK and Ireland. He is a passionate communicator of the gospel, having spoken at churches, conferences, schools and events all over the world. Tim is the former frontman of [dweeb], a frustrated supporter of Arsenal, and has on more than one occasion been to the cinema in Star Wars fancy dress.


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