There is something almost magical about the ages of 18 to 24. So many of life’s biggest decisions are made during that time. How people are impacted during that season will affect them for the rest of their lives. I’ve given my adult life thus far to this age group, and I love the potential of every single student. With an added bonus, college students are old enough that I don’t deal with their parents very often (though that is changing). We intuitively know that the future of the church is dependent on the next wave of youth. I want to suggest here why – and how – youth ministry is the best place to experiment with innovative approaches to ministry.
To help build this case, I rely on the work of Kenda Creasy Dean (Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers Is Telling the American Church) and Christian Smith and his collaborators (Lost in Transition: The Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood). Dean will posit, “Youth ministry is the de facto research and development branch of Christianity, which is why attending to the faith of adolescents may help reclaim Christian identity for the rest of us as well” (6). Both authors will embody a “realistic concern” for the future of America’s youth, yet instead of pointing at “those kids” will acknowledge that the current generation in leadership is to blame (Dean, 3 and Smith, 4). Emerging adulthood is a mirror, suggests Smith, of our larger culture and a snapshot of the overarching values of society (7). As the students go, so goes our culture. And the reverse is also true: as the culture goes, so we will see in students.
Translation and Testimony
Dean offers the practices of translation and testimony as effective means of working against moralistic therapeutic deism. Her work resonates so well with innovation theory. In a lot of ways, she is using synonyms or at least congruous ideas with empathy and user-centered design. Translation (over conquest) is about understanding, being present, and having a deep understanding of the problem (89-93). She also relies heavily on the incarnational nature of Christ’s work and the power of relational presence. These are the building blocks, not only for healthy ministry, but for innovative postures.
One of my mentors tells the story of a student showing him his key chain with key after key after key – almost resembling a proverbial janitor’s set of keys. This student says (as the story goes), “I am a facilities manager. I am trusted with access to each of these buildings, in charge of managing security with multiple people reporting up to me. What are you asking of me? To bring snacks to the Bible study?” My mentor realized he was not fully trusting students to lead, lead boldly, and lead significantly. Students must be part of the creation process of solutions. While Smith calls for a pause for “premature activism” (245), I’m suggesting reflective, but rapid prototyping, while co-creating with students themselves.
I am so thankful for my personal experience as a high schooler. I came to faith at 17 largely through the ministry of a youth pastor who treated us like adults in our desires, our relationships, our questions, and our ideas to reach our peers. We developed a “Saturday Night Live” event with (attempted) comedic sketches, musical pieces, and a host – all from our own initiative. Dean agrees that the best source of learning and engaging others is the group of highly devoted teenagers themselves (192). Co-creation with students will be a necessary step for effective, fresh approaches to youth ministry.
I want to take a moment to highlight a group in John McLarty’s neck of the woods (Texas Methodists) – the Center for Youth Ministry Training’s Innovation Lab. When they dream of embodying what Dean calls “missional imagination” (104), they describe their desire to innovate:
What do we mean by ‘innovation’? We don’t mean just coming up with a new idea to replace the lock-in or a creative way of doing Sunday School. Rather than seeking tweaks or incremental enhancements to existing models and processes, the Innovation Laboratory for Youth Ministry seeks to foster innovation that dramatically changes assumptions about the nature of youth ministry, upends expectations, and develops groundbreaking means and disruptive methods for ministry with young people in the American mainline church (CYMT).
These practitioners help churches reimagine youth ministry through their theological innovation process. They are one of the few sources that integrate theological thinking with a structured process of innovation. They are cut from the same cloth as Portland Seminary – reflective practitioners.
While Dean and Smith are helpful in helping create a realistic concern, one should note that Smith’s work was written mostly about the millennial generation and some of the concerns have shifted. Generation Z (or the iGen) are much more risk averse and the numbers of youth engaging in sex, alcohol, and drugs are decreasing at a statistically significant amount. As I read Dean, her heavy reliance on Smith at times seemed like a recapitulation of his work and left me thinking my time would have been better spent reading Smith’s other works directly. Regardless of those critiques, Smith (et al) and Dean are helpful voices for prioritizing youth as the defacto research and development of the church, as well as a careful analysis of the environment by which older generations are creating.
Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church (New York: Oxford, 2010).
Christian Smith, Kari Christoffersen, Hillary Davidson, and Patricia Snell Herzog, Lost in Transition: the Dark Side of Emerging Adulthood (New York: Oxford, 2011).
“Innovation Lab,” Center for Youth Ministry Training, (accessed March 31, 2020), https://www.cymt.org/innovation-laboratory/.