Today’s youth-ministry leaders are facing a challenge. A recent study by the Barna Group revealed that three out of five young churchgoers will leave their churches either permanently or for an extended period sometime after they turn 15, which makes the teen years a crucial time for establishing religion as important component in their lives. Local youth-ministry leaders are quick to acknowledge the difficult task they face in keeping their groups relevant, but they also say it’s a challenge they’re eager to tackle head on.
“The culture is changing, and I think the church is changing,” says Karl Hudson, the director of Youth and Young Adult Ministry at Southminster Presbyterian Church. “It’s evolving rapidly, and it’s not what it was 20 years ago. For every kid that joins, three kids are leaving. That’s the national statistic right now… We need to work together to figure out how can we combat this and keep kids interested once they graduate.”
It’s a two-pronged battle for youth leaders of all denominations; it’s not just about keeping teenagers invested in their religion but also making sure they can fit the church into their busy schedules filled with academics, sports and other competing activities.
“There’s so much going on with sports and their family lives,” says Dana Mahr, youth minister at St. Winifred Roman Catholic Church. “The ones who I see on a monthly basis— they’re engaged and want to be there. The ones I don’t see on a monthly basis—it’s a challenge.”
The religion is different but the problem the same at Temple Emanuel of South Hills. “We are certainly struggling with the increasing demands our students face,” says Jessica Locketz, an associate rabbi and director of education at the temple. “We encourage them to come when they can and do our best to provide opportunities at times that may work with their hectic schedules.”
Matt Urian came to Mt. Lebanon United Methodist Church, eight month ago and is rebuilding his church’s youth ministry from scratch. One of the first things he did when he got the job was to pass out surveys designed to gauge people’s availability.
Ultimately, he decided that, rather than going big from the start, the best plan was to establish a core program by getting smaller groups to meet regularly and become comfortable with both him and one another.
“A lot of it comes down to relationships and getting kids to trust you,” Urian says. “Building those relationships is what establishes the youth group.” Urian has his teens participating in fun, breezy activities that they want to make time for—things like bowling and laser tag—without losing their focus on being a Christ-centered group.
Mahr finds it helps to reach out directly to the St. Winifred’s parents in an attempt to ensure the kids can make time for (and, in some cases, have a ride to) their youth group meetings: “If the parents find [the youth ministry] a necessity, then they’ll make sure to get their kids there.”
Youth ministry is not just about fitting church activities into teenagers’ daily lives, however; it’s also about spiritual guidance that teens are enthusiastic to follow. How youth leaders go about that varies from church to church and religion to religion.
Lisa Brown, director of children’s ministry at St. Paul’s Episcopal, and St. Paul’s part-time youth director, Paul Barker, share the belief that a successful youth ministry needs three components. “The kids need to do something real, where they can see [the value of] their work,” Brown says—a mission trip, serving as a musician during worship, working fish fries or a spaghetti dinner or helping with the curriculum for vacation Bible school. They need to be integral to the whole church, not segregated into youth activities.”
Brown also aims to provide the opportunity for spiritual growth, making sure teens understand that the activities they participate in are an important part of the church’s theological choice to be a community of grace and reconciliation, not a place of judgment and punishment.
And finally, she says, St. Paul’s strives to make youth group a true fellowship—a break from the daily competition teens face. “There’s no trying out for anything,” she says. “If you want to be an acolyte, we’ll find a way to make that happen. It’s easy to get sucked into a narrative of competitiveness. We provide an alternative that helps kids maintain emotional balance.”
At the Unitarian Universalist Church of the South Hills, also known as Sunnyhill, youth ministry means giving teens the opportunity to discover their personal brand of spiritualism on their own terms.
“For our particular faith, we’re pretty open-ended,” says Jennifer McGlothin, Sunnyhill’s director of religious education. “So I think that if we’re encouraging youth people to think critically and make their own path, then that’s encouraging and helpful to them.”
Throughout the summer, the youth ministry at Sunnyhill holds movie nights, where the kids watch a wide range of films from fictional dramas to documentaries and then discuss ethical issues that are embedded in the story. (Recent movies included The Breakfast Club, Mean Girls and the religious documentary Jesus Camp.) The church also has a “Coming of Age” program where eighth-graders visit other faith communities and then return to stand in front of their own congregation and make a statement of faith.
“They can say whatever they want,” McGlothin says. “That’s one of the coolest things we can offer our youth. We’re not preaching a strict dogma. We’re more concerned with how you’re going to live your life and affect the world in a positive way. For some, that may be a higher power, but for many of our individuals, it is not.”
Hudson’s group at Southminster isn’t quite that relaxed, but he agrees that it’s best not to be overly rigid when it comes to teaching teens what it means to be Christian. “I think there’s a preconceived notion of a church that it has stained-glass windows and is very traditional,” he says. “Yes, we do offer that to people who like that, but we also offer a contemporary service. Creating different avenues that appeal to this changing culture is important, and I think Southminster recognizes that.”
Some church leaders see the “changing culture” Hudson speaks of as a growing problem. Joe Williams, the director of student ministries at Beverly Heights Presbyterian Church, points to a mid-2000s study by sociologists Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton that shows a majority of American youths practice something they coined “moralistic therapeutic deism,” (MTD), a combination of morality-based beliefs that don’t adhere to any specific dogma. According to Smith and Denton, teens today treat God as a “divine butler,” an entity who’s there when you need him but doesn’t demand anything in return.
“That’s not Christianity,” says Williams, “but we realize students and the culture have embraced it. So we’re trying to teach them what Christianity is and compare it (to MTD). Christianity is 24/7. God is not a divine butler, but you can have a relationship with Him through Christ.”
Urian strives to keep God at the center of the youth ministry at Mt. Lebanon United Methodist, and that isn’t always easy. “We are an entertainment-saturated culture and an individualistic society, so sometimes it’s hard to see the value in the more philosophical questions in life,” he admits. When the group is enjoying fellowship through activities that might not seem to have a religious bent, he emphasizes that it is their faith that has brought them together.
To many local youth directors, youth ministry is as much about serving the community and the world at large as it is the individual church. The Unitarian Universalists volunteer at the Jubilee Soup Kitchen. The Southminster teens took a missionary trip to Malawi, Africa, which turned out to be such a success that some of the students who went started a Malawi Club at Mt. Lebanon High School and are now raising funds to send overseas on their own. Urian’s Methodists recently returned from a mission trip to Marion, Virginia, where they helped with construction projects designed to improve life for the elderly. Beverly Heights youths travel to Bertha Hill, West Virginia every summer to help run Vacation Bible Schools and improve local housing. “A mission trip expands your definition of community,” says Brown, whose St. Paul’s teens also took a mission trip to a poverty stricken pocket of West Virginia.
Hudson finds it helps to let the teens decide what they want to focus on rather than deciding it for them. “I really try to make it their program and not just Southminster’s program,” he says. “It keeps the group relevant by having them plan the activities instead of sitting on the sideline while I plan stuff.”
Urion plans on creating a student leadership team next year to help him gauge what his kids are interested in. Williams says that having the older teens help guide the younger ones creates a cyclical effect that keeps the program strong.
At the end of the day, the youth directors hope that, through a combination of fellowship, prayer and community outreach, the teens find a sense of fulfillment they can’t get anywhere else.
—Bob Taylor