The old model of youth ministry — inward-focused intensive overnight experiences like cons or rallies, plus weekly youth groups focused on community-building — still serves a significant minority of youth in our congregations. We shouldn’t abandon it, but my observations seem to indicate this model is slowly declining. My guess is in our increasingly multicultural, market-fragmented world, we are no longer going to have one single model of youth ministry that will serve the majority of youth in our congregations.
Given that the era of one-size-fits-all youth ministry is probably over, what are some other possible models?
(1) Well, how about congregations as training grounds for nonprofit leadership. Yes, I know this will only ever serve a minority of youth. But most liberal congregations already provide basic nonprofit leadership training to adults, since we already have to provide informal mentorship and training to adults who volunteer to serve on our boards and committees; it should be possible to extend that training to youth. I saw how youth can be trained in nonprofit and public sector leadership when I joined the Religious Education Association during their 2013 annual conference on a tour of the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative (DSNI) in Boston. DSNI reserves a certain number of its board seats for teenagers; teens who have served on the DSNI board have gone on to serve on other nonprofit boards, and to careers in politics and in the public sector. (Note that most of the youth who live in the Dudley Street neighborhood are lower income youth of color.)
Similarly, our congregations can serve as training grounds for nonprofit leadership. In our congregation here in Palo Alto, we currently have youth serving on our two top leadership groups, the Board of Trustees and the Committee on Ministry; we have had youth serve on the Finance Committee. Vital nonprofit skills these youth learn include how to read a balance sheet; the basics of nonprofit fundraising in a membership organization; how committees and boards function; etc. I tell youth (and their parents) that if this kind of thing interests them, service on our board will fit them to serve effectively on the board of almost any small nonprofit; it also looks great on resumes and college applications. Unfortunately, our congregation is not able to accommodate more than two or three youth per year in this kind of opportunity.
(2) Another important opportunity our liberal congregations can offer to young people is the opportunity to serve as worship associates. In our Palo Alto congregation, worship associates assist the senior minister in leading worship by presiding over simple liturgical functions, doing readings, and by giving a 5 minute reflection on the topic of the week which they write and deliver themselves. Worship associates commit to serving at least three times a year.
For interested youth, service as a worship associate not only provides an opportunity to articulate their own religious and spiritual thoughts, coached by the senior minister; it also provides wonderful practical training in public speaking. Now public speaking skills are of course useful in many jobs, but more importantly public speaking skills are crucial to the democratic process. By training worship associates, liberal congregations can help strengthen democracy.
(3) Another fascinating opportunity to expand youth ministry lies in the realm of social entrepreneurship. For some years now, the nonprofit sector has been doing lots of experimentation with social entrepreneurship, combining for-profit enterprises into nonprofit organizations in different ways. But I’m just now beginning to read about how people are applying principles of social entrepreneurship to youth ministry.
Just today, the Faith & Leadership blog has a post on this topic: “Mowtown Teen Lawn Care is a social enterprise offering a new model for youth ministry.” This post describes a youth ministry and jobs program at a mainline Protestant church in Vancouver, Wash. A short excerpt from the post:
“In Overton’s view, the standard ‘sit and receive on Sunday night’ ministry doesnt help teens tap into their God-given gifts, much less discover or hone them. Upper-middle-class assumptions built into youth programs are flawed as well. They don’t address the needs of teens whose families struggle with poverty or domestic abuse, and a “zero tolerance” society leaves little in the way of grace for teens who need the chance to fail, to solve problems and to learn through correction from trusted mentors.”
Because so many liberal congregations are serving upper middle class youth, this particular model of youth ministry social entrepreneurship may not be particularly interesting. But it is sparking ideas for me, and making me ask: how might our congregation combine social entrepreneurship and youth ministry?
I’m sure there are other emerging models of youth ministry out there. What are some of them?