Lesson 3: Kids and Parachurch
by Dave Sippel
In my consulting work with churches, I hear it over and over again. It’s the cry of the youth worker who is running a ministry that is underperforming. These flustered leaders cry out:
- “Para-church organizations are pulling more kids out of the church than bringing them in.”
- “They have so much homework now that they don’t have time for youth group.”
- “Families seem to value traveling soccer teams more than the youth ministry.”
- “Once they get their car keys, they stop coming to youth group.”
- “These kids are so over-programmed that they don’t have time for church.”
These quotes each represent very real challenges that are facing youth workers all over the country. No one would say that these pressures are not legitimate. It’s the youth workers’ response that has been most surprising. Here are a few typical responses that happen all too often:
- In response to these challenges, youth leaders decide to do less. I am not sure how this seems like a reasonable response. I suppose that we’re trying not to create more pressure for families or individual youth. Perhaps we think we’re adding to the problem by making kids even busier. So, we scale back our programming and ask less of kids and parents. There is a problem with this response. Historically when kids are held to high expectations, they tend to rise to meet those expectations. Think about it…practice is mandatory, so they show up. If there are steps required for advancement, they work the process and steps. If we try to make it easier and more convenient, they are less likely to commit. Also, I am always puzzled when a youth leader cuts back on programming during the summer after complaining about how busy they are during the school year. Think about that for a minute.
- In response to these challenges, youth leaders offer kids more free time. A high school student once said to me, “They give us a bunch of hang out time at youth group. I skip that part. I don’t have time to sit around, and I definitely don’t need another place to just hang out.” I think that we offer free time because we know that kids are really busy. We want to offer them some shelter is the midst of the storm. There is a problem with this response. They are so busy that they’ll just stay home if we’re not going to do anything with them when they come to youth group. If they need shelter, open your youth room at other times as a place of rest and quiet study. When you open your doors for an activity, make sure that there is some…activity. I can assure you of this, they’re not going to Young Life because Young Life gives them lots of free time.
- In response to these challenges, youth leaders set the Bible aside. I’ll never forget this quote, “If you call it Bible study, the kids won’t come.” Small group leaders are famous for this response. They’ll put the small group curriculum away and “just give kids a chance to talk about how they’re doing.” There are at least two problems with this response. First, kids do not need more time to talk about themselves. Second, we forget that Jesus is amazing! I love Mark Galli’s book, Jesus Mean and Wild. Galli reminds us that Jesus did surprising things and made people uncomfortable. Jesus’ power draws us into a relationship. We neuter that power by focusing on relevance and applicability. There is content in the Bible that can transform a life and set it on a new course. The quote mentioned above may be partially correct. Kids won’t come to a Bible study that is boring, unsurprising and simplistic.
So, basically our response when faced with these pressures could be summed up in one statement. We disengage and become lazy. We’re really talking about values and decision-making. We want youth and parents to value our program enough that they decide to participate more often. Yet we often undervalue youth ministry ourselves. I believe that value is contagious. If we want someone to value something more, we need to value it more ourselves first. How do we do that?
- Plan ahead and parents will plan ahead, too. We make it difficult for parents when we give them dates and details at the last minute. Their calendar is full and their child’s participation is often more about availability than value. Plan your calendar at least one year in advance and share those dates with families.
- Infuse creativity and careful planning into your programming. Kids share this insight with me more often than I’d like, “It seems like they plan youth group at the last minute.” We can do better than that. Why would they care about youth group when it seems like we don’t care?
- Exceed expectations at every opportunity. Okay, we’re going to get a little scientific here. Let’s get biochemical and talk about the brain. Quoting the research of Wolfram Schultz, Jonah Lehrer make an interesting observation about decision-making in his book, How We Decide. He shares, “Just as the process of sight starts with the retina, so the process of decision-making begins with the fluctuations of dopamine.”[i] Dopamine is a hormone and neurotransmitter that works within the pleasure center of the human brain. Lehrer goes on to share, “What’s interesting about this system is that it’s all about expectation. Dopamine neurons constantly generate patterns based on experience: if this, then that.” If expectations are met or exceeded, the dopamine neurons “secrete a little burst of enjoyment.”[ii] If expectations aren’t met, the dopamine cells “go on strike.”[iii] To summarize, if we exceed expectations, kids will come back for more. If we fail to even meet their expectations, they will look elsewhere.
Youth workers everywhere, you are right! Parents, families, and kids do not hold a high enough value for the church and youth activities. We must remember how valuable it is ourselves. Plan ahead, be creative, exceed expectations and deliver a memorable experience of Christ’s power at every opportunity.
[i] Lehrer, Jonah. How We Decide. New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009. Kindle file (ch. 2).
[ii] Lehrer, Kindle file (ch. 2)
[iii] Lehrer, Kindle file (ch. 2)
Dave Sippel is the Vice-President for Connections for Ministry Architects.
Gathering and Opening Prayer (5 minutes)
Logistics and Organizational Topics (5-10 minutes)
Training Time (20 minutes)
- What programs or activities are the biggest challenges for your young people’s time?
- Watch Video together
- How, in your life, do you make time for what you are most passionate about? How does this help you understand young people?
- It is easy to see other activities or programs as competitors or as negatively impacting your ministry’s programs. What would it take to see them as positive, or to approach them with a smile?
- Where do you place blame in the quest for young people’s time? How can the Gospel being enough change that blame?
- What ways can you creatively seek to build relationships with young people, rather than dictating a regimented program time?
Take aways (10 minutes)
- How will this impact our church, our youth, or our team?
- Hand out essay for further reading
Close in Prayer (5 minutes)