What was the formula for youth group programming in the awesome and audacious decade of the eighties? It was a weird science mixture of dodgeball games, singalong worship, quick lessons, cold drinks, hot pizza, caffeinated all-nighters, occasional mission trips, week-long camps and weekend retreats.
Although the clothes have changed (thank the Lord), most of our strategies to reach and disciple youth have not. For the most part, youth ministry today is stuck in the 80s.
Sure, now we can download our lessons online and get games from an app but, essentially, we have the same strategy. Underneath it all is the assumption that if we can attract a crowd of teens then we can transform a crowd of teens.
Don't get me wrong, I love the 80's. I love the music and movies (think Back to the Future, The Breakfast Club, Indiana Jones, and The Terminator ... just to name a few.) I graduated from high school in 1983 so I know what youth group in the 80s feels like.
And it was great!
At one point the youth ministry I was a part of had over 800 teenagers attending. We had massive games, huge camps, tons of fun and, of course, cheap and delicious pizza, pizza (thank you Little Caesars!)
But, for the most part, the eighties strategy is not doing so well in 2018. At the minimum, it's not effective enough to close the skyrocketing trajectory of the rejection of the historic Christian faith amongst Generation Z.
Here are a few reasons why the eighties strategy for youth ministry should be left in the past:
1. Teens are busier than they were in the 80's.
Ask the typical youth leader what the top challenges they face when it comes to youth ministry and teen busyness will be in the top three. From insane athletic schedules to growing academic pressures to after-school jobs teens today have full days and short nights. All of this busyness has led to deeper levels of anxiety for teenagers.
According to Psychology Today, "The average high school kid today has the same level of anxiety as the average psychiatric patient in the early 1950s."
So, while teens have deeper levels of anxiety than ever and need spiritual guidance more than ever before, they are often too busy to attend youth group ... or think they are anyway.
2. Teens are more distracted than they were in the 80's.
From SnapChat to Instagram to Google to YouTube teenagers today are bombarded by messages. As a result they are more distracted than ever. It's common to witness teenagers in the midst of a conversation with a group of friends reach for their smart phones several times to respond to whoever happens to be pinging them at that particular moment.
It's hard enough for teenagers to stay focused during school, let alone after school. In the mind of the typical teen another two hour block on Wednesday night where they may not be fully able to engage in social media may seem like a lot to ask. Sure, we try to keep their attention with our youth group games but, if we're honest, the games they're playing on their phones may be more fun than the ones we are playing in youth group.
3. More teens are choosing atheism than in the 80's.
According to the Barna Gen Z study the average teen today is twice as likely to be atheist than the average adult. Barna calls this generation the first post-Christian generation in the history of the United States.
Where curiosity once abounded, cynicism now abounds. According to my buddy Jonathan Morrow of The Impact 360 Institute, many Christian teenagers don't share their faith with others because they don't want to be considered "extremists" by their peers. In this culture it is becoming increasingly more difficult for teenagers to assert that Jesus is "the way and the truth and the life and that no one comes to the Father except through" him. Even associating with a typical Christian youth group can cause a teenager to be marginalized by some of their peers. In today's politically/socially/spiritually charged climate it's easier for a teen not to attend youth group than to admit to their friends that they do...especially if it's an "evangelical" youth group.
So what do we do about it? How do we turn the tide? How do we get out of the 80's in our youth ministry programming and do something that works better when it comes to capturing young hearts and minds for Christ.
This may surprise you but the answer is not to try to get ahead of the cultural curve by becoming more hip, more digital and more fun. Instead, the answer is to pull a Marty McFly and get in the Delorean, accelerate to 88 mph and to go back in time. But, unlike Marty, we're not going to stop in the fifties to connect with George McFly, Biff and Doc Brown. No, we are going to go back 2,000 years or so and connect with Peter, Paul and Dr. Luke (the author of the book of Acts).
What do we find there? We find the excitement of being part of a movement from something teenagers can't get out of a smart phone or find on YouTube. We find deep fellowship, passionate prayer, unashamed evangelism (Acts 2:42-47) and the 7 values of a Gospel Advancing, disciple-multiplying ministry.
We find a church on fire led by people on fire who can't keep the fire to themselves. We find exciting stories and intense persecution. We find a spiritual movement so compelling that it turned the early world upside down (Acts 17:6.) We find a "formula" for re-energizing our youth ministry programming with the stuff that revivals are made of.
Teenagers today, as busy as they are, as distracted as they are, as cynical as they sometimes can be, down deep inside are longing for significance and security. The ultimate significance can be found from being on mission with Christ to "seek and save the lost" (Luke 19:10.) The ultimate security can come from having a heavenly Father who loves them unconditionally and a tribe of brothers and sisters in Jesus who encourage them every step of the way.
Get your youth ministry out of the eighties. Go back to Acts and implement the original blueprint for the church. Then bring it all back to the future. Bring it back to your youth group. Not only will your youth group attendance begin to grow in numbers, but your teens will grow in spiritual maturity.
Don't worry, you can still play dodgeball and have pizza, two awesome things that even the early church didn't have.
By the way, what was your favorite movie from the eighties?