Nate Birkholz, the assistant pastor for Lakeside Baptist in Grand Rapids, MI, posed this insightful question to the Rooted blog regarding declining attendance at large group and its relationship to social media and the digital age. Dave Wright and Cameron Cole offered responses that will follow in this short series.
I'm writing to ask for your thoughts about the future culture of youth and youth ministry. Here's what I mean by the future "culture". As I've talked with a few youth pastors we've seen a shift in the culture of youth. Just a few short years ago teens were piling into youth group on Sunday/Wednesday night because their friends were there. Many of these pastors steered away from the entertainment based ministry and focused their time on singing,
preaching/teaching the word, and small groups (by the way, I am including myself in the 'they'). While a number of the teens were simply there for their friends, most would listen respectfully, sing energetically, and participate in the small groups. The gospel was the center of our teaching then as it is now, but then something happened...
Many of the teens do not show up to youth group anymore. We're wondering what happened. Here's a thought: Many teens used to come to youth group because it was a place for them to interact with their friends. We, the youth pastors, were more than ready to have these teens in the audience knowing they were going to hear the gospel. But, a few year later, those "types of teens" aren't there anymore. These types didn't show much interest in spiritual things during the week, but when it came time to preach, they were there listening politely. Their moms and dads didn't make them go to youth group. They just showed up because of the fellowship.
Is it in part b/c of the digital era? Is it that their friends are on their hips, in their pockets, or constantly in the palm of their hands vibrating away and ready for a response in less than 10 seconds? So why show up to youth group? They get to be with their friends at any time via digital technology.
Question: Have you all seen this pattern? If so, do you have any suggestions on how to 1) adapt to the current culture, 2) view the change (positive and negative), and last what should we think about in terms of change as we proceed into the digital future?
Thanks for any thoughts and resources,
I was asked to respond to your email on behalf of Rooted...
Your question and observation is interesting and worth giving a good amount of thought to. I have been in youth ministry since I got out of college 25+ years ago and watched many shifts in culture and technology that affected things.
I do wonder if being technically in relationships that are so constant via social media and texting affects the relational draw of the youth group. Long ago (before I entered youth ministry) getting a crowd to a youth group event was as simple as offering food or a concert. Students yearned for social opportunities. I entered the field at a point when that was no longer the case, so we had to find what would draw them in. Many were moving into entertainment driven and while I dabbled in that, I really sensed that students needed something they could not get anywhere else (in addition to the gospel) so I put a heavy emphasis on community - a place students could really be themselves and experience deep relationships. Cyber relationships are so open these days though that the counterfeit it offers to real depth is hard to distinguish from the real thing. What I mean by that is that students are so open on FaceBook and not hiding so much behind false personas as they did in the 80's and 90's. So, I think they don't feel the same need as they did 20 years ago for an accepting place to belong. Yet at the same time, there is something more to be had in the relationships at youth group that is transforming (in light of the gospel) than what they get via technology. I believe they need to somehow experience and know what real authentic relationships are these days.
I kinda think we could take a cue from advertising and think about what we can do to show students their deepest needs and seek to meet those. I do mean deepest needs, which starts with gospel truth and extends to spiritual relationships. It seems impossible to ignore the potential of social media to create hype and communicate these days. The buzz we are hearing about all the time is FOMO (fear of missing out) which could be leveraged to help us reach and keep students at youth group. It has to be centered around the gospel of grace that transforms lives though and not cater to a fear of missing entertainment and social.
Dave Wright is the Director of Youth Ministries for the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina and is a candidate for a Masters in Religion from Reformed Theological Seminary.