Donald Trump is the president, marijuana is legal, a man can marry a man, a woman can marry a woman, and Harambe is dead. Young people care about all of these things, but most ministries don’t acknowledge any of them. What a shame—because regardless of what you think about any of these issues, there is a lot of potential in the United States right now.
We want to do faithful ministries, but our programs and buildings just aren’t the right shape.
In the 1970s, skateboarding was almost extinct because of the way skateparks were made. The shape, physics, and angles were all off. People wanted a place to skate, but nobody really knew how to make the parks. After a few years, people realized this and became pretty bored and frustrated with skateboarding. It was off-putting to see something that looked cool but wasn’t functional.
The Church is in a similar place. We want to do faithful ministries, but our programs and buildings just aren’t the right shape. Youth ministry has been done a certain way now for quite a few decades, and my biggest critique is that this way we’ve done youth ministry has not led to good young adult ministry.
I have been doing youth ministry since 2007. My opportunities have come in many shapes and sizes. Each community I have served has done youth ministry by focusing on creating a support network around the youth, typically one that focuses on the family unit and emphasizes a sustainable model of ministry. Currently I serve in a mainline church that has a reputation for successful youth ministry. I work in two departments: the youth and the young adult. Despite the success of the youth ministry, the young adult ministry is known better for its absence than its presence. For all the ways that successful youth ministries create a sustainable structure around youth to grow into their faith, those structures often do not equip them for the next phase of life, nor do they encourage young people to pursue their faith without their family, nor do they engage their imaginations to consider what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus Christ into their 20s and 30s.
I believe the future of youth ministry will be ministry that strongly considers the actual future of the youth involved, acknowledging that extended adolescence affords a better understanding of that future than an educational rite-of-passage does. The future of youth ministry is young adult ministry, but our current model for ministry isn’t working beyond high school. I think it’s time to take learn lesson from skateboarding and start over.
Seeing Potential Energy
The Lilly Endowment recently released a statement titled, “New Initiative to Help Congregations Find New Ways to Engage and Support Young Adults.” This initiative will focus on “launching a $19.4 million initiative to help congregations engage young adults and work with them to design innovative ministries that support and enrich their religious lives.” Assuming this initiative does what it has set out to do, the landscape for young adult ministries around the nation is about to change. As it changes, my sense is that the youth and young adult departments in churches will begin to do the dance of figuring out how to work well together in a way that takes a holistic view of young people, from 12-years-old to 30.
The Church would do well to focus their time—and the Lilly Endowment’s money—on discipling young people in a way that capitalizes on the potential in our country today. Our ministries have to learn how to talk about God and the dead gorilla in a way that empowers young people to envision a lifetime of faithful discipleship. Most local churches can’t do that on their own. We lack the space to dream.
Nevertheless, I am sure God is up to something. Youth ministry still matters because people still matter. Jesus cares about people. So it’s time for the Church to dream of new skateparks, even if it requires a bulldozer and some new angles.
Josh Rodriguez is a soon-to-be-ordained Rev. in the Presbyterian Church (USA). He is currently serving as an Associate Pastor for Young Adults at First Presbyterian Church in Nashville Tennessee. He is a graduate of Princeton Theological Seminary and of Indiana Wesleyan University. Josh has worked with youth and young adults in local churches for the last 11 years. He is married to Abigail, and they have a son, Jameson, and are expecting another baby in the fall of 2017!