The “No Show” Generation by Andy Lawrenson
From the rise of the electric guitar and Instagram to the death of the youth choir and Chubby Bunny, I have seen a lot of changes in youth ministry these past twenty-four years. Long gone are the hours I used to spend cutting out clip art and using glue to paste exciting event flyers together! I don’t tend to worry too much about these changes, but as I look at youth ministry today, I do find that one change has me completely rattled.
Just ten years ago your church could have a youth event, and students would actually show up. We announced a night with games and pizza, told students to invite their friends, and just like that we found ourselves with a youth room packed with students. Fast-forward ten years. Now when we announce a youth event and students invite their friends, they’re met with rejection, and we’re left with what feels like a failed event.
At first I thought this issue was unique to my church, but the more I talk to other youth workers, I’m learning that it’s a nation-wide trend and one that has left many of the old times scratching our heads. I can’t quite put my finger on what has happened, but I do have some theories or ideas.
Changes in schedules
Students are busier now than they were ten years ago. With Advance Placement classes and an increase in academic requirements, so much of a student’s schedule is now devoted to homework and projects designed to put them on the fast track to college scholarships. Travel sports teams and club teams have also exploded over the past several years, cutting into time that was traditionally set aside for church and youth group. Students don’t have time their schedules for youth group.
Changes in culture
We’re living in a culture that is more tolerant of a variety of lifestyles and less interested in churches that are accused of mistreating those who believe differently. When students used to ask, “What will we do?”, they now ask, “Why should I go?”. Culture has also dictated that Wednesday and Sunday nights are no longer sacred; today’s churches and youth groups now compete with dozens of sports games, academic clubs, and extracurricular activities.
Changes in family dynamics
We’re seeing a decline in parental and family involvement in the church. Families used to go to church on average 3 Sundays each month, but now it seems that many have scaled back their church attendance to once or twice a month. Attendance is dropping, and priorities are changing. For many Christian families it appears that practices that build faith have been put on the back burner to the busy schedule, sports, and academics.
With all of these changes, I find myself a fifty-year-old youth pastor trying to figure out student ministry all over again. I won’t compromise teaching God’s Word each week, and I won’t neglect setting aside opportunities for students to worship together. I will continue to teach my students how to practically apply the Bible to their lives, but I do want to make changes on my end to reflect the trends that I’m currently seeing.
Part 2, “Getting “No-Shows” to Show Up”.
In my previous post I wrote about the changing climate of youth ministry. Ten years ago it wasn’t difficult to get students to show up to an exciting youth ministry event, but now it isn’t so simple. Changes in students’ schedules, American culture, and family dynamics have made it more challenging to get students involved in our ministries.
I’m not interested in sacrificing truth or changing the priorities of my ministry, but I do want to make changes and adjustments to help me better connect with this generation of students. Here are five of my suggestions to reach a group of students that is busier and possibly less interested in the church than ever before.
Rather than expecting students to come to us, we need to discover new ways to meet students where they are; our goal should be to get connected to a student’s community. As youth leaders and mentors, let’s devote our energy and attention towards taking a sandwich to a student’s sports practice, meeting with a student to study over a cup of coffee, or planning a small group Bible study to accommodate a sports or extracurricular activity’s schedules.
Don’t Avoid Parents
Part of our outreach also needs to be geared towards parents. We should pursue individual conversations with parents to communicate our desire to partner with them for their son or daughter’s growth and discipleship. A one-on-one conversation with a parent at a baseball game will set us up for more success than a one-time, large group parent meeting.
Remember Less is More
We’re better off taking advantage of our already scheduled times for ministry than trying to add new or extra large group weekly activities. Instead of adding events, we can use the time that we have for a variety of different purposes. Each night of youth group could take on a different focus from games to service to mission trip prep.
Invest in the Faithful
It’s important that we invest in the students who do faithfully attend youth group and measure success through discipleship rather than numbers. True disciples will multiply and reach others, and if we let discipleship take its course, we will see more and more students reached for the Kingdom.
Prioritize Student Leadership
We also need to change our thinking from a youth group for the students to a youth group by the students. Student leadership increases a students’ investment in the ministry, and when students are more invested, they are more likely to show up. We can help students get their skin in the game by letting them plan and lead outreach events, mission trips, small groups.
Times have changed. We can’t do student ministry like we did in the 80s, 90s, or even ten years ago, but by embracing some changes of our own, we can better reach this “No-Show” generation. My encouragement to you is don’t be afraid to try something new or different. If it flops, call it an experiment; if it’s successful be sure to share your idea with others.