Youth Leaders 'Shift' Against Tide of Discontent

During a shift from the modern world to what many call a postmodern world, ministers who lead younger flocks are finding more reason to change their approach to youth ministry.

With students walking away from the church in droves, youth ministry is no longer viewed as just fun and games. Rather, it's a serious time in ministry where high levels of creativity and innovation kick in, says author and sought-after speaker Brian McLaren.

Thousands of youth leaders have converged in the Chicago area for the Shift 2008 conference, hosted by the Willow Creek Association (WCA). Conference organizers desire to help "shift" the future of youth ministries and bring an end to youth ministries' ineffectiveness in spiritually transforming students.

"By the early and mid 90s, it was clear that there was some kind of a shift going on," said McLaren in an interview with WCA. "Different kinds of questions were being asked, [and there were] different kinds of doubts, different kinds of obstacles. And the better job we did at understanding the people who are from this culture ... the bigger the struggle was with a lot of our longtime church people."

Recent studies have shown that more than two thirds of young adults drop out of the church. In addition to the church losing its younger flocks, many are discontent and view the church more negatively than in years past.

McLaren sees a "tide of discontent" rising around the world. Seekers and the unchurched are finding a political agenda, social conservativism and fear of people with problems when they attend a church service, McLaren pointed out. And while they have deep concern for social justice and poverty, they find a completely different agenda of religious arguments in the church, he added.

"To a lot of unchurched young adults, they (religious arguments) seem kind of trivial compared to these life and death issues of HIV/AIDS, poverty, war, and environmental destruction," he commented. "It's that kind of disconnect that really is causing pain for a lot of us."

The disconnect was apparent even three decades ago.

During McLaren's time as a volunteer youth leader in the 1970s, his youth group listed contemporary worship music, the charismatic movement, and jeans in church as major issues in their churches. When naming issues that were important to them and their friends, however, the group listed global concerns including nuclear war, famine and overpopulation.

"There was nothing in common with those two lists," he told youth leaders on Wednesday.

Challenging the audience, McLaren asked if their church regularly addresses issues that are of most concern to their students.

Dan Kimball, pastor of Vintage Faith Church and a featured speaker at the April 9-11 conference, hopes it will be uncomfortable for the youth leaders at first to hear what many people think about Christians and the Church.

While many young people have great admiration for the person of Jesus, they're quickly turned off when the Church is mentioned. A Barna study in 2007 found that the majority of young non-Christians perceive present-day Christianity as judgmental, hypocritical, old-fashioned and too involved in politics.

But Kimball, author of They Like Jesus but Not the Church, still hopes ministers of this young generation will gain a sense of optimism, knowing that most of those perceptions are not true.

And it provides an opportunity to "truly go out in the world like Jesus sent us to as a youth leader," he said.

Youth leaders stand at a critical period in ministry when teens' minds are opening up and temptations are growing larger, as McLaren stated. So to Kimball, youth leaders are heroes and pioneers that change the future of churches.

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