What Happened to National Youth Ministries and Conferences?
The movers and shakers of national youth ministry in America look a little different than they did 10 years ago.
While legacy organizations that have traditionally been relied on for providing curricula, resources and training to churches and youth ministers (such as Youth Specialties or Group Publishing) are still around today, they exist in somewhat diminished forms as challenges and new organizations have emerged on the scene.
Likewise, some national organizations like Dare 2 Share or Teen Mania that have been known for hosting national conferences and revival-like events attended by thousands of teens and pre-teens nationwide have either had to "reinvent" themselves or shut down entirely.
What is happening is what one expert in the field is calling the "tectonic plate shifting" in the world of youth ministry development and training.
"We saw just a plunge in national events in every industry with the recession that took place in 2008, 2009, 2010," Mark Oestreicher, a partner with Youth Cartel, a San Diego-based organization that has trained hundreds of youth ministers since its founding in 2010, told The Christian Post. "In the church world, whether that was a national youth ministry [training] event for youth workers or a national youth event, they really struggled and many of those organizations either went out of business or had to reinvent their way of doing things."
Oestreicher formerly served as president of Youth Specialties, an organization co-founded by theologian Mike Yaconelli over four decades ago that has grown to provide over 100,000 youth workers across the globe with training and resources to reach the younger generation each year. YS, which has been referred to by some as "the brand in youth ministry," also hosts the National Youth Workers Convention every November.
But like its peers in the industry, Youth Specialties has faced its fair share of struggles over the past decade as ownership has changed hands three times in the last 15 years.
"The truth is that training is done differently today than has ever been done before," Justin Herman, YS' director of social media engagement, said. "The majority of youth workers who are trained are done digitally. They don't need to show up to a location to get high-quality training. They can hop on Download Youth Ministry University and they can watch archives of videos that are going to be watched at [the National Youth Workers Convention] this year in St. Louis."
According to Herman, it's groups like Download Youth Ministry, which provides youth pastors with all the user-friendly tools and resources they need to better their ministries online, and Orange, which provides youth ministers customizable online curricula, that have essentially stolen the thunder from the legacy groups like YS.
As a matter of fact, DYM and Orange announced in April that they partnered to acquire YS from Real Resources/YouthWorks in hopes of bringing YS "back to life." Real Resources acquired YS in 2009 from Zondervan about three years after Zondervan purchased the organization.
Oestreicher, who was let go from YS in 2009, said that what has partially been responsible for plaguing YS and more established curriculum houses with their own warehouses has been the same thing plaguing most churches.
Customer base is "slowly going away"
"The way that has played out is that when churches start to struggle financially, and that was definitely the case with the recession, it's also playing out in churches that are struggling with attendance. Their numbers go down so their giving goes down also," he said. "The very first place they tend to cut is in staff development. So many youth workers I know, as their church struggles financially, the budget to go to an event for themselves gets cut. Then, the youth ministry budget is another place that gets cut."
"We are definitely seeing a lot of youth workers who are being downsized," he noted. "Churches are moving from a full-time position to a part-time position or they are letting go of a seasoned veteran with a reasonable salary in order to hire a young person with a starter salary. I can't quantify that but that's definitely an observable trend."
That trend means that the customer base for these national youth worker training organizations is getting smaller.
"Most youth ministries are already [on a volunteer basis]," Oestreicher said. "Our customers are the paid youth workers for the most part. This will definitely be a struggle for my organization in years to come. We are ... serving a customer base that is slowly going away."
Although he knows that the trend he has described could present a problem for Youth Cartel, Oestreicher said that Youth Cartel is still relatively new and in a trend of growth.
"The larger more legacy organizations like Youth Specialties and others like Group Publishing, they have definitely experienced that where the pool of customers is smaller," he added.
Herman explained that as the needs of the marketplace are changing, organizations that are able to adapt are the "ones who are surviving."
"Orange is a great example. You don't buy a box curriculum. The whole thing is one big digital package," Herman said. "Those who are in the paper curriculum business found themselves in a really tough spot because email is the quickest way to move things. As the marketplace changed, organizations moved along with that change and some didn't."
Herman admitted that YS hasn't done enough to adapt in the changing times.
"It was one of the reasons that YS was recently purchased by Orange and Download Youth Ministry," he said. "We have been around for many, many years as a huge cornerstone piece of youth ministry. We've been sold off here and sold off there and it's under different management. It really struggled. It really suffered. Part of the acquisition is to bring YS back to life in some ways. They are helping bring a new influence and new vision to something that has been a staple for youth ministry for decades."
Oestreicher pointed out that many of the legacy groups in this space are no longer publishing physical books. He also noted that Group Publishing is no longer running its national event. While YS will continue to hold its National Youth Workers Convention, the Orange Conference has become popular with many youth workers.
"I think more high quality leaders and teachers are accessible. Download Youth Ministry is a great example, even the rise of Orange that is giving opportunity and platform to younger leaders," Herman said. "It is creating a wider range that can be drawn from as far as bringing in expert talent, expert teaching for events like that."
"The playing field of youth ministry resourcing and developing has really shifted and some of that is really good and healthy," Oestreicher said. "There is a whole bunch of grassroots stuff now that's great. When there is only a handful of large legacy organizations doing it, there tends to be kind of a sameness in the voice of what is being developed and there is a lot more diversity now in what is being offered."
Of course, when many people think of national youth ministries, they might think of organizations like Youth for Christ, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, Youth With a Mission, Young Life or other legacy organizations that have been hands on in ministering to kids.
"Many of those groups, I would say they are doing well today but in a very diminished capacity," Steve Yates, youth pastor at Intown Community Church in Atlanta, Georgia, who's also on the teaching staff at Covenant Theological Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, said. "Most of those groups have sold their campuses and used to have the gigantic office structures and stuff. They sold their campuses and they have largely downsized their staff. They sold their publishing houses, many of them. They have sort of morphed into very different versions of themselves."
"Nothing like this has happened in youth ministry before."
One national youth organization that has changed its approach is the Colorado-based Dare 2 Share, which for 25 years held youth conferences across the U.S. to train teens to evangelize in their communities and share their faith with their peers and their own sphere of influence.
At its peak, the organization hosted about eight to 10 regional conferences each year. But that all ended in 2017 when the ministry killed off its two-day conferences and replaced them with a one-day simulcast event called Dare 2 Share Live.
Instead of hosting regional events at different venues nationwide, the organization now hosts one Dare 2 Share Live event that incorporates dozens of satellite sites across the U.S.
The event incorporates cellphone apps to enable youth to share with one another in real time each time they share the Gospel in their communities.
"So there is a map that auto populates of Gospel conversations that are happening simultaneously across the country," Dare 2 Share founder Greg Stier, author of several books on youth ministry, said. "Nothing like this has happened in youth ministry and nothing like this has happened in churchwide ministry that is truly a live coast-to-coast event that is tied in with an outreach."
The first Dare 2 Share Live was held last September and saw over 10,000 people participate at over 68 satellite locations.
On Oct. 13, the second Dare 2 Share Live will be held and feature 96 satellite locations.
Stier is hopeful to have over 20,000 attend at a satellite site or the broadcast site. He ideally hopes that Dare 2 Share Live will spread to over 300 cities and will be attended by 100,000 or more in the next five years.
"The same training happening in Fairbanks, Alaska, is happening exactly the same way in Puerto Rico. Every room has a live trainer that we have flown into Denver to train, and a worship band and tech team that has been trained through Facebook Live," Stier explained. "Everything is happening simultaneously. That means through the Dare 2 Share app, a kid in Brooklyn can talk to a kid in San Diego and share what they just heard together. Then when they go out to share the Gospel, they have Gospel conversations with photos and videos they can send out to their friends in their feed. When they go door-to-door to collect canned food and share Christ, they can hit a button that says I just shared."
For the past six years during the summer, Dare 2 Share has also hosted multiday events called Lead THE Cause, which are designed for teens who are more serious about evangelism and want to try learning more advanced concepts of evangelism.
When Lead THE Cause first launched, only one conference attended by about 200 youth was held. In 2018, Stier said, they held six Lead THE Cause events that was attended by about 200 to 300 students each.
"We use the term 'cause' instead of the commission because commission sounds like a bunch of money someone made on a real estate deal," Stier said. "Students are into causes and we are talking to them about what it means to lead the cause."
While Dare 2 Share is still around, its contemporary, Teen Mania, ceases to exist any longer as it shut down in 2015.
Teen Mania held several "Acquire the Fire" events for youth in cities nationwide every year since 1991. Over 3 million students attended those events that featured stage dramas, worship and live concerts.
Teen Mania's closing came as the organization faced severe financial issues, began to cancel "Acquire the Fire" events and even received legal pushback for not handing out refunds.
According to YS' Herman, what has changed over time is that "the big come-to-this-one-location-type" conferences for students have taken a back seat to more local and regional events.
"You will find a lot more churches who are hosting their own conferences and bringing the speakers and bringing bands than you are going to find organizations putting them on," he said.
One example of this is the multiday Motion Student Conference, hosted by The Church of the Highlands, a multisite megachurch in Alabama, for the last 10 years.
The Motion Conference, held in July, provides middle schoolers, high schoolers and college students with a weekend filled with worship and biblical messages. The conference serves as the "cornerstone" of the church's student ministry and is supposed to serve as a "catalyst" for students to join small groups and take on leadership in terms of the church and their faith.
"We don't just do these big Jesus camps where kids get all jacked up"
One national organization that has been hosting youth events for decades that has continued to thrive has been Christ in Youth.
Founded in 1968, Christ in Youth partners with churches across the nation to hold several youth events each year for pre-teens, middle schoolers and high schoolers.
The organization will have an estimated 80,000 to 85,000 students come with their churches to CIY conferences in 2018, Executive Vice President Jayson French told CP.
The demand for CIY events are so high that in 2016, the organization had to turn away as many as 5,000 students because it didn't have the space in some venues to fit them.
While the organization hosts most of its events at churches, in some locations it has had to move into arenas.
"We are growing every year and we had a lot of our events close out where we couldn't get anyone else in," French explained. "There are lot of groups hurting. We could go through the groups that are shut down and are no longer in business, that are struggling financially but I can't speak to why they struggle. For us, I know that the more we love the Church and respect Church and the more that we call students to use their gifts and talents for the Kingdom, the more we grow."
For fourth, fifth and sixth-graders, CIY hosts events called "SuperStart," which are two-day interactive programs. "Believe" is a hybrid weekend event for middle school students and "Move" is a five-day program for high school students that includes daily devotional times and nightly worship.
The organization also holds four-day summer events for sixth, seventh and eighth-graders called Mix.
"In an eight-week span over the summer, we will run 60 weeklong events coast-to-coast," French said. "At the end of the day, we don't just do these big Jesus camps where kids get all jacked up in goosebumps and go home with nothing to do."
French said that every time students come to a CIY event, they always receive a tangible call to action — a game plan for what to do when they get home.
At the Move events, CIY hands out what they call "kingdom worker cards" — cards that if the students open them, they signal a commitment to follow through with the command given to them on that card when they return home.
One card could tell a student to write a sincere letter to every person who works in his or her school to thank them for contributing to their education. Another card could instruct a student to hold a weekly Bible study in his or her own home. Other cards might ask youths to run marathons or raise money for another charity or ministry.
"It has been crazy how much our kids have raised [for partner ministries]," French said. "When a kid comes to a CIY event, there is going to be traction, it's not just going to be goosebumps."
Is youth ministry making an impact?
Of course, national ministries really only serve as supplements to the ongoing work being done by youth pastors and local church-level youth ministries in reaching the lost younger generation and providing them with hope.
If it weren't for the work of local youth ministries, the life of someone like Abel Guardado, a 22-year-old youth director at Bethel Church in Seattle, might have turned out differently.
Growing up in South Central Los Angeles before moving to Oregon, Guardado fell into a bit of a rough crowd as a teenager. He eventually was arrested for robbery and faced the possibility of spending three years in juvenile detention. However, Abel prayed to God that if He would get him out of jail, he would devote everything he had to God.
Guardado was spared in the sense that he received a lenient two-week sentence. After his release from detention, Guardado immediately got involved in a youth ministry at a Baptist church close to his home.
Being new to the ministry, Guardado made the effort to attend every youth group meeting, all-nighter and youth group camp week he could and even surrounded himself with a new group of friends. His faith grew to the point that he would at times evangelize at a grocery store parking lot while playing worship music. He would even help launch a Christian club at his school before ultimately deciding that he wanted to pursue a career in ministry.
"Slowly what started happening is my family started noticing a change," Guardado told CP, adding that he plans to begin seminary next year.
Unfortunately, not all students of youth ministry have felt that same impact.
A 2016 Barna survey found that nearly two-thirds of Christian parents say that their children attend youth ministry at least once per week. Yet Barna found earlier this year that today's teenagers in Generation Z are the most non-Christian generation in American history as only 4 percent of teens today hold a true biblical worldview.
Additionally, LifeWay Research found in 2007 that 70 percent of young adults aged 23–30 stopped attending church regularly between the ages of 18–22 for at least one year.
The results of those studies come as church attendance is declining in many denominations.
For several years now, youth ministry experts have been calling for churches to drop the models of youth ministry that rely heavily on attractions and entertainment and replace them with models that not only make students more biblically literate but also make them more likely to keep attending church and stay strong in their faith as they graduate high school and go off to college.
"Barna calls this Generation Z the first post-Christian generation in the history of the United States," Stier, author of Gospelize Your Youth Ministry: A Spicy "New" Philosophy of Ministry, said. "Well, we are using a strategy stuck in the '80s to solve an exponential problem. We have to go exponential. We have to go New Testament on youth ministry and start making and multiplying disciples."
Stier believes that we will see a "total transformation" of youth ministry within the next decade.
"As a Church, we are boring them with short lessons and big games. They have more fun on their phones than they do in most games. There is a growing number of youth leaders that see that and that are implementing these values and starting to get traction in their communities," Stier said. "I believe there is going to be a total transformation in youth ministries in the next decade and I think it's going to be super positive. Every major awakening in the United States has had young people on the leading edge of it. We are long overdue."
There are varying directions insofar as how churches are shifting away from the attractional and entertainment-based models of youth ministry.
Stier advocates for his gospel-advancing ministry concept, where youth ministries are encouraged to incorporate seven key values to mobilize children to "gospelize" to friends in their own sphere of influence.
"This doesn't mean you stop playing games in youth group. It doesn't mean you throw out the youth ministry [game] box and burn it. It means you create room in the box," Stier explained. "Kids want to be called to a cause, a mission, a vision. What we see is that teenagers once they get that in their soul, they will make a way to get there."
There is also the contemplative youth ministry approach furthered by Mark Yaconelli, director of the Lilly Endowment and YS-funded Youth Ministry and Spirituality Project housed at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The contemplative approach is an initiative to bring children mystical experiences that better connect them to their religious traditions in an attempt to solve the problem of youth ministry students being so isolated from the rhythms of the rest of the congregation.
Rooted Ministry, meanwhile, supports a Gospel-centered youth ministry model. This model provides students theological depth through expository, biblical teaching and relies on the element of desegregating youth from the rest of the congregation.
Rooted Chairman Cameron Cole, who is director of children, youth, and family at Cathedral Church of the Advent in Birmingham, Alabama, said that at his church, they try to empower children.
One way they do this is by having about five or six senior high students lead middle school Bible studies with an adult. Additionally, the church has about 14 to 15 youths who teach children's Sunday school with adults.
"We also have a group of kids who are student pastors who have to — from beginning to end — plan a retreat for the rising freshmen. They have to do evangelism training. They have to learn how to share a testimony. They have to lead that entire retreat," Cole said. "Of course, adults travel with them and are there to help them and consult them and kind of push them all forward. But the kids have to lead a retreat."
Although some of these newer concepts might have their differences, Yates assured that they are "definitely not '90s and early 2000s extreme Jesus youth ministry."
"So the shift is there and it's shifting in a couple different directions. The shift is happening but it hasn't filtered all the way down yet," Yates noted. "That is because of volunteerism, that is because of publishing houses. That is because it takes work. It is a lot of theological depth and training."
Youth ministry experts believe that the future is bright.
"The sky is not falling. There is all kinds of really amazing, good stuff taking place in youth ministries all over the nation and there is lots of positive change," Oestreicher said. "Youth workers are thinking more deeply, they are being more intentional. As a movement, I feel like there is really positive stuff that is happening."
Kenda Creasy Dean, professor of youth, church, and culture at Princeton Theological Seminary in New Jersey, told CP that the trend of churches moving away from the '80s and '90s model of youth ministry is "sporadic" but a signal of the biggest attempt at change in the Church in her lifetime.
"I am almost 60, it could well be that we are better positioned to try and do Church in the way that it is supposed to be done because we are being forced to break out of some of our old habits," Dean said. "That could help us reset so we can try doing this as a Church instead of an extracurricular activity or whatever. Almost everybody from every part of the theological spectrum agrees that what we have been doing isn't all that helpful so we are going to try some new stuff. There is a lot of innovation. That is a big word in every sector right now but that is really true in churches and churches are not built for innovation."