A couple years back I was sitting with a colleague and we were talking about the challenges of our churches. He has a smaller church of a couple hundred folks where my church has about a thousand folks. But, we were both commiserating over our economical afternoon teriyaki bowls. We were facing the same issues. We both proclaimed a passionate gospel message of a glorious Kingdom and yet it seemed that many of our youth and families seemed to prefer soccer and other activities to church. We didn’t even need a Pew Research Center to tell us this was true. After we had finished all of our griping and hand wringing, my friend said something important to me: “You know, as much as it irritates me that our families seem more engaged in soccer than in church, at least those other activities actually allow their kids to fully participate in something. With soccer they get to build something and are working toward a common purpose. I just don’t see that at church.” I knew he was right. I lose students all the time to black belts, robotics competitions, and state championships in a whole variety of sports. I want to be critical of those things, but at least in those activities students can compete and work toward something meaningful. Outside of some often facile initiatives at social justice I am not sure that they get to do that at church. Mostly they sit and listen.
Changes in the Landscape
A lot has changed over the 15 years I have been doing youth ministry. When I started, American Christianity felt relevant and fresh. By the time I had finished my time in seminary everything had changed. Christian music was uncool, even within the church, and Christian Smith’s research and Chap Clark’s “Hurt” had blown a hole in the armada that was American Youth Ministry. Suddenly no one really knew what they were doing. Everything seemed to be changing right under our feet.
The basic change that we are seeing is that the opportunity cost of going to most youth activities has gone up as time has seemingly become more scarce. If teenagers choose church, it often means that they cannot engage in one or more of their other activities… The problem is that costly activities are often given pride of place simply because they cost more.
The single biggest change I noticed when I finished seminary was the change in the use and availability of time. Clearly we are competing for time and a diminishing attention span, but it’s all time no matter how you slice it. The most important thing that American churches need to realize is that time has become the most precious commodity that our families have. One could argue that the value of time supersedes even the value of money in our culture. The teen marketplace is saturated with activities, technology, and academics. It’s not that that teens and families don’t care about their faith, because many of them desperately want their children to know and follow in the way of Jesus. They are just strapped for time and attention. The reason that they are so maxed out? They are afraid.
They are afraid of a future which, given the perceived acceleration of time, seems to be hurtling towards them. And that future does not seem as promising or prosperous as it once did.
Time and Money
The American church family has come through a major economic downturn. Some have lost homes, some had to fire employees, others quietly sacrificed their retirement funds and college funds (if they had any). They did this on an altar that somebody in New York built. It has been a deeply painful process. They are worried that in a world that has increasingly become flat, their children won’t be able to compete against students from overseas. They wonder whether their own children will be held captive by years of onerous loan and credit based debt. Many parents have responded to these sorts of pressures by continually feeding the American “performance machine.” They are continually scheduling their teens in loads of performance-based activities that have all too often relegated downtime and play to some kind of forgotten corner of Sheol. Of course, the hope is that these various activities will pay off. Some of them do. But, my experience is that the numbers of scholarships often do not meet either the needs or the hopes of the families. The pay off is not nearly what they expected and in some cases might have been outstripped if they had been saving the money in a college fund for 18 years.
The basic change that we are seeing is that the opportunity cost of going to most youth activities has gone up as time has seemingly become more scarce. If teenagers choose church, it often means that they cannot engage in one or more of their other activities. The cost of choosing youth group activities is much higher than it was in the late nineties. Parents have to choose between things that they regard as having inherent value and youth ministries that often seem a bit more esoteric and sometimes even juvenile. To put it into economic terms, American families are looking for ROI (return on investment). Youth workers regard their ministry as having immense spiritual value and therefore, eternal value, but this is not always as obvious to all of our families. And what is different in the last 10-15 years is that the sheer volume of investment in non-church activities has skyrocketed in terms of time and dollars. In my own church some parents invest tens of thousands of dollars in the athletic “careers” of their children or their dance classes. One parent recently confessed that they had poured 80K into one child’s athletic career in the last 14 years. They are now struggling to pay for college. The problem with this is not the dollar amount. Families have every right to spend money where they choose, and some of those activities might actually do more to develop teens into full human beings than some of our youth ministries! The problem is that costly activities are often given pride of place simply because they cost more. This opportunity cost dynamic is compounded by a second problem—youth group is free.
In a capital economy there is a common way of thinking that economists call the “scarcity heuristic.” A heuristic is simply a mental shortcut that may or may not be objectively true. In the American economy we tend to make a mental shortcut that anything that costs more is more valuable. So this way of thinking tells our families that because church youth ministry is free, it is less valuable. To give a tangible example, if club soccer costs a family of three children $2,000 per year per child (not including travel) and dangles the venal hope of thousands of dollars of college scholarships, then in all likelihood they will send their kids to club practice rather than youth group. Time is so precious to American families they will willingly lay down thousands of their increasingly scarce resources in order to pay for the “effective” use of that time. So, a model of ministry in which families invest no capital and receive no tangible benefit for their child will be a harder and harder sell in our current culture. Since most of our models of youth ministry require no tangible investment and are not overtly geared to benefitting students this side of the Kingdom, they cannot compete for the limited time that families have. Our ministries must require investment and offer real and tangible life change value in order to be heard by today’s students and their parents.
Social entrepreneurship (or missional entrepreneurship as some are calling it) combines the desire to make social impact with the economic power of small business. By doing economic exchanges well, social entrepreneurship actually allows both the “giver” and the “recipient” of mission to engage each other on more equal footing than other mission or social justice models tend to promote.
Most of our models of youth ministry are not constructed around this sort of perception of value and usage of time use and attention. They were built for an era when play time was in abundance, teens had a common teen culture, and families were more idealistic about future prospects. No matter what model we look at (Attractional Ministry, Family Based Youth Ministry, Contemplative Youth Ministry, etc.) we are faced with the same problem. All of these require heavy time investment from those involved and take for granted that families will see value in them. In a world where things seem less secure families are looking for something that helps them in practical ways given their limited time and attention. While the average American may find the truth of the gospel to be wonderful, they are mostly looking for something that helps their children tread water in a sink or swim world. It’s not that parents don’t value truth or the gospel of Jesus. It’s just that in American culture if something isn’t inherently useful for the problem at hand, it is discarded. We call this pragmatism. And when Americans become afraid, the bones of American pragmatism tend to rattle even more audibly than usual.
Social Entrepreneurship: A Way Forward
So, what we are up against in American youth ministry are the new realities of fear, time/attention scarcity, loss of perceived value and good ‘ole American pragmatism. What we need are models that embody both the missionary and the prophet. The American church needs to begin experimenting with some new ways of doing youth ministry. These experiments must speak to the fears, pragmatic frameworks, and values of our culture without completely bowing to them. The church can begin by stopping its moralizing about how families spend their time. It’s not enough to say to our families, “You ought to be at church or youth group!” We need new forms of church that speak to present realities. A good missionary moves into a place and listens well to what God might be saying through a people. If a missionary were to move into a town where folks were worried about their economic future, it would behoove that missionary to construct a ministry to meet some of the perceived needs. However, we would also be remiss if we did not challenge the fear we see with a story of hope. While our ministries must speak to the fears of families, we also need them to come from places of deep trust in the One we follow. They need to create an alternative picture of what kind of abundant life God is really calling us to. In short, we need innovations that both bless and challenge our contexts. And we don’t just need four or five models from the three best “big box” churches we can find. We need a bunch of experiments, a kind of cloud of witnesses. The way forward I think lies at the intersection of the church and social entrepreneurship.
Social entrepreneurship (or missional entrepreneurship as some are calling it) combines the desire to make social impact with the economic power of small business. This may seem contradictory at first—the idea that economics and theology might hold hands and go for a stroll—but it isn’t. One might conceive of a church community that owns its own laundromat so that low-income folks can wash their clothes at a reduced cost. The fact that they are still paying for the laundry means that they are not being handed anything and they are allowed to maintain their dignity. By doing economic exchanges well, social entrepreneurship actually allows both the “giver” and the “recipient” of mission to engage each other on more equal footing than other mission or social justice models tend to promote. By allowing the recipient of a service to pay for some of the service themselves, social entrepreneurship avoids dehumanizing either party. This is what I have been exploring on my own and with a small group of folks from my community.
In the next 10-20 years many American churches simply will not be able to afford to do youth ministry as we currently know it. They will be extremely lucky if they can pay a staff person who is adequately trained to do it. We are going to have to take some risks and fashion some experiments in youth ministry that can both sustain themselves economically as well as accomplishing discipleship and evangelism. At my church we created a small business that is designed to put teenagers to work. In short, we gave them jobs by creating a small landscaping company that employs teenagers from our community. As they work we pair them with mentors and teach them life skills. We call it, “A Youth Ministry that Works.” Part of the goal is to do discipleship through a completely different platform that gives teens a fully participatory role in their ministry. In that way it operates much like their other sports and activities. They are also incentivized to work hard because they have an economic stake in the success of the program and because they want to earn money. The program is small but growing. It is already changing the lives of students in our community and is expanding in all sorts of ways that we never had conceived of. I think it represents a new way to do youth ministry and one that might provide a new economic engine for smaller churches to afford to do gospel work amongst teenagers. I plan to write more specifically about this experimental way forward in my next article.
Matt Overton is the Associate Pastor for Youth and Family Ministry at Columbia Presbyterian Church in Vancouver, Washington. He has been doing youth ministry in various forms for the past 16 years, and is also the proud owner of Mowtown Teen Lawn Care and Columbia Teen Enterprises. He loves new ideas and exploring innovative possibilities for just about anything! To learn more about the innovative work Matt is doing, please visit: www.youthministryinnovators.com.