Engaging screenagers

What does ‘effective’ youth ministry look like in Australia?

On most Friday nights across Australia, groups of young people gather together.

Some come begrudgingly – they attend at their parents’ insistence, and the highlight of the night is the free food at the end of the “sermon”.

Others are there because their friends have invited them, and they enjoy an environment where they can feel accepted and safe.

For others, it’s where they can discover what it means to be a Christian in a world that is increasingly hostile to anyone professing to be a follower of Christ.

To build a snapshot of what different youth ministries are doing, and how they’re responding to these sorts of challenges, Christian Research Australia spent time with 21 church youth ministries over 3 years, observing them and talking with their young people and leaders.

These stories and case studies have been published in a book titled A Vision for Effective Youth Ministry: Insights from Australian Research.

Faced with alarming statistics in Australia, for example, that 50,000 young Christians are moving from identifying as a “Christian”, to identifying as a “none” (no faith), or that 90 per cent of young Australians are outside our churches, we need to be able to understand and respond appropriately to the rapidly changing culture around us.

Sitting down over coffee with a group of youth leaders I knew well, I asked them to share how things were going for them. “Often it’s just hard work, and really complicated,” one offered. “I’ve got parents who see me and my leaders as professional babysitters. We’re supposed to keep their kids safe, while entertaining them, while also growing them into strong Christians. I’ve always got someone who’s not happy with me … parents, my church elders, my senior pastor, my small group leaders, my worship band … and the church neighbours who often call the police to complain about the noise!”

In A Vision for Effective Youth Ministry, Philip Hughes observes that, “through most of human history, religious traditions were major contributors to the development of the spirit. The religious traditions told stories of the universe which explained why human beings are here and the purpose of humanity. They told stories of how one can achieve a good life and how one can redeem a life which has been misused.”

Without a framing meta-narrative, or a sense of how and why things came into being (i.e., the story told in Scripture of a creator God), how do young Australians begin to define their own story, and find their own place in this world – other than to come to the conclusion that life is just “random”?

The message pumped into young people today is that they “deserve” to be happy, and they can achieve happiness by obtaining the right “things”. That message primarily comes from clever marketing departments, which convince young people that they “need” the latest smartphone, car, clothes, sunglasses, holiday, gaming console.

A vital element in the journey of a young person “owning” their faith, are safe spaces to express their doubts and questions. For many churches, this can be really confronting. I was disappointed in the research finding that “most youth groups provide few structured opportunities for young people to explore fundamental questions of faith. In many cases, youth groups were not offering sustained opportunities to explore the big questions of life. In other cases, answers were too readily given.”

We know that young people learn differently, and to most effectively engage them, youth ministries need to have an understanding of their young people. Hughes suggests four expressions of faith based on personalities and learning styles: The Nerd, The Drama Kid, The Practical Helper and The Party Animal. He describes the traits of each of these, and how they are best engaged.

There were some areas not fully addressed in these case studies, or that were identified as being challenging. For instance, in a society that views Christians with suspicion, how do youth ministries connect with non-churched young people, and avoid creating the “Christian bubble” in their youth ministries? How might we move beyond the intent of Bible “study” being about learning information, to being about young people “experiencing” the Bible? If engaging with Scripture is one of the vital ingredients of growing into a life-long follower of Jesus, then it has to be a priority in our youth ministries, not just a token ten-minute “Bible message” at the end of the night.

There are many youth ministries exploring creative Bible engagement – and doing great things! I really value the groups where the leaders make room for young people to share what they are discovering through Scripture, and what questions they are asking. Often they’re really good, difficult questions about God and the Bible, and as they explore them, God turns up – often in surprising ways!