is youth ministry really working?

If we’re honest many of us have asked this question. Given too much time and space to think, it through, it’s likely that many of us have also been afraid of the answer.

It seems like whenever we read anything about youth these days, phrases like “lost generation” don’t seem to be too far behind.

Even we’ve previously joined in the conversation and blogged about it here.

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There’s nothing new about this phrase. It was coined in the 1920’s as a term for those who came of age around the time of World War I and therefore served or died fighting. The lives of this World War 1 “Lost Generation” were marked with battle, heartache and trauma. Understandably, that Lost Generation struggled to ever “adjust” back into the hopes, values and culture of mainstream society. Our 21st century Lost Generation have identified with many of those same struggles (though for different reasons) and have relentlessly been labelled in the same way, seemingly destined to be part of a similar story.

But what would it look for the story to be re-written? What is Jesus doing in the midst of this? And what glimmers of hope are there in amongst all the repetitive doom and gloom as we seek to answer this question?

We were chatting to Rich Atkinson(*) about his new book, Target, and we asked him to describe the heroes and enemies that he sees in youth ministry today, as well as his story of hope for seeing transformation of a lost generation:

“The enemy that I really wanted to take on with this book is the enemy of hopelessness that means people simply give up. There’s a lot that’s been written on youth ministry in recent years, particularly about youth ministry that’s not working and the fact that people are walking away from the church after they turn 18.
People are asking the question: “Why do we put so much time and money into the youth work when at the end of the day they just walk away?”
There’s a lot about that right now, but I wanted to tell a different story. I wanted to come against this enemy that gives us the idea that we shouldn’t bother with young people.

In this book I’ve told a lot of the stories of our young people deliberately because we need to come against this enemy with stories of hope. The young people really are the heroes of the whole thing: a lot of them have managed to come through really tough circumstances and backgrounds and come out the other side flying and on fire for Jesus, helping to re-write the story of their friends, families and communities. That’s the hope I want to hold out to people.

The adventure we have called our young people on is simply to see a generation transformed. This is what I bang on about all the time. I want to see this so-called “missing” or “lost” generation restored to its place.

That’s the quest of the book. It spans the journey of a lost generation of young people who are waiting for someone to help them write the story of restoration for Jesus.

Something I have talked a lot to people about is the picture of the London riots in 2011. I think they were an opportunity to get a glimpse of what is going on in our culture. As people watched what was happening, immediately everyone said “it’s those teenagers!” That was the first response. The youth seemed to have been completely blamed for the entire thing!

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That saddens me but I also think it’s a fascinating thing to reflect on. It gave a little “indicator” of what people are thinking about young people and the attitudes they have towards them. Unfortunately, I think this is even reflected within the church: people are a bit unsure and scared of teenagers, they are not certain about what to do with them. Because of this, there’s the temptation to feel like we need to do something flashy and terribly exciting – its almost as if we see them so differently from normal human beings that something must be done to capture and subdue them!

I believe that’s why they are “lost”, because we pass this mind-set on to them and consequently they begin to feel like they are separated from the rest of society.

The whole point of this (sharing our story) is to try and communicate what we discovered: that they are not after all the stuff many people think they are after. They literally want to be invited in to a family and go on an adventure with a bunch of people who really believe in them. And we can believe in them, there’s hope –
we’ve seen lots of communities start and grow and loads of young people come to faith. That’s why I’ve included quite a few personal stories, because they share the journey of young people who honestly could be down on the streets in London smashing buildings up (and all that kind of stuff that people are scared of) but instead are actually going out and doing incredible things for Jesus all the time, and are helping to re-write the story, reaching the lost and changing a generation.

In the end, I would want the hope of our story to be that anyone can start to grow just one of these communities and see some followers of Jesus raised up, even in what might feel like a small setting with only a handful of young people and a couple of volunteer parents around. That’s enough to start with and I am just as passionate about what that impact that could have.”

*Rich Atkinson has been leading youth ministry in Sheffield for the last 10 years. His book, Target shares both the story and strategy of planting multiple communities of youth across a city and seeing hundreds of young people come in to a living discipleship relationship with Jesus. Our hope is that this will not just provide inspirational stories, but also some helpful principles that can be implemented in any context where leaders are looking to grow communities of faith amongst this generation.

(Image courtesy of the Classics Circuit)

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3 replies »

  1. Got this book and am feeling really inspired. Just starting out as a Missional Church and God clearly asked me, ‘What does a Missional Youthwork look like?” I’ve been on a journey over many months, this book is the best I’ve found on the marker, to date. Ron, thank you so much for this resource.

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