What do we do now?
Students who used to be involved aren’t showing up anymore.
New visitors at youth group aren’t sure what to do—or if they belong here.
Volunteers are in short supply, and the ones we have are exhausted and burned out.
We’ve been looking for a youth director for months, and just aren’t getting leads.
Our church feels like a battleground for political culture wars—or like a reflection pool no one dares disrupt.
At FYI, our team hears from youth ministry leaders every week through research, conversations, in our training, and on social media. We love to listen to what’s on your hearts and minds to better understand the many challenges and opportunities facing youth ministry.
And what we’re hearing is a lot of weariness, confusion, discouragement, and grief. One leader in our Youth Leader Advisory Council recently told us:
I’m just seeing a lot of students suffering with anxiety about the future—worried about high school, worried about college. Their prayers have been different. They pray, “I hope I get home OK, hope my school won’t get shot up, hope I won’t get COVID.” There’s so much racial pain, and they wish it would get better, but I hear hopelessness about that. How do you add hope in the face of all of that from students?
The challenges facing youth ministry don't look like they used to
Over two and a half years into the COVID-19 pandemic, and in an era of intense racial reckoning and political turmoil in the US, none of our lives are the same. There was never a “return to normal,” and the new normal of constant disruption has left many of us heading into a new ministry year feeling tired.
We’re tired of trying new things. Tired of parents’ pushback. Tired of students’ disengagement. Tired of hearing how many leaders like us are leaving ministry.
I feel it in my own church too. Ministry has been hard. But that doesn’t have to be the whole story.
5 changes to help us move forward
The world has changed, and teenagers have changed along with it. Although leaders are dealing with complex challenges facing youth ministry, The good news is that youth ministry can change too. Now more than ever, young people need us to be with them and for them in new ways to help them develop faith for today, and faith that sticks and grows with them into the future.
Here are five changes any leader can make this year to face our challenges, better connect with teens, and give our ministries new energy.
1. The challenge of instability and the opportunity to prioritize consistency
The students who walk into your youth room this fall have been through a lot of change. Even for those who enjoyed relatively stable lives pre-pandemic, their recent experiences have been marked by disruption, disappointment, and loss. The pandemic has been their generation’s defining moment.
Most all of us know teenagers who’ve had big events, sports tournaments, school trips, promotions, graduations, and proms canceled because of COVID outbreaks. Many of the teenagers I know have also had to miss these events themselves thanks to a positive test result, even though all of their peers got to attend. Turn after turn, they are denied fun, satisfaction, or closure.
As a result, kids have come to expect disappointment. One youth leader told me they see a lot of students “managing expectations.” Young people are making sure they don’t get too excited about anything so they no longer have to be devastated when something doesn’t turn out the way they had planned.
Since inconsistency and instability continue to be constant companions to today’s teenagers, what they need from us is stability. Every teenager needs a few adults who are consistently part of their lives over time. Adults who show up at moments and places that matter to that teenager, and who show up for them when it matters most.
Post-pandemic youth ministry must prioritize consistency. You might serve at your church, Young Life club, or neighborhood ministry for decades, or you might be there for a short season. But building stability in your ministry isn’t all about you. Whether or not you have a sense for your own longevity, lean into volunteers, parents, and intergenerational mentors who can outlast you.
Start by asking everyone who is serving now to be as consistent as possible. That means showing up when they’re assigned to volunteer. It means making every kid present feel seen and valued. And it means following through outside of programming—through texts, calls, and cards, and by attending games and performances. I know a ministry team that put together a simple online spreadsheet to capture students’ games and events by season and encouraged volunteers to mark which ones they could attend, with a goal of each student experiencing at least one touchpoint from a leader.
If it’s been a while since you’ve reinforced consistency with your volunteers (like it has been for me), now is the time to say it again. And as the next point encourages, it may also be time to slim your programming to accommodate new volunteer rhythms.
2. The challenge of rising teen anxiety and the opportunity to elevate mental health
It’s no longer a secret we’re in a national and global mental health emergency, or that teenagers are one of the most impacted groups. This was true pre-pandemic, skyrocketed during 2020, and hasn’t yet retreated in the post-pandemic landscape. Teen suicide has been at an all-time high for several years, and the US Surgeon General has declared youth mental health a national crisis.
This is a major change and challenge facing youth ministry. Based on CDC statistics, one New York Times article details that “Three decades ago, the gravest public health threats to teenagers in the United States came from binge drinking, drunken driving, teenage pregnancy and smoking. These have since fallen sharply, replaced by a new public health concern: soaring rates of mental health disorders.”
In response, your ministry can become more mental health-friendly by giving students tools to cope and creating spaces where they can experience rest and restoration. FYI’s resources on addressing anxiety can help by elevating awareness, making mental health discussable (including addressing cultural stigma), and providing practical ideas like the Daily Replay, modeled after the ancient prayer of examen. Consider finding trauma-informed ministry training for your team (our friends at UYWI offer this one, developed in partnership with psychologist and FYI on Youth Ministry podcast guest David Wang).
Post-pandemic youth ministry practices might also involve revisiting our rhythms, programs, and structures. Maybe what students and families really need is less programming, not more. Maybe “Sabbath” doesn’t really equal “rest” when we pack our Sabbath days with activity.
Start by asking students, parents, and volunteers how your ministry supports and strains mental health, and what ideas they might suggest for change. As one leader told us, “We’re slowing down; we’re going to stop programming to death. We’re making time for deep conversations, caring more.”
3. The challenge of identity and the opportunity to nurture identity formation
One of the core questions every teenager asks is the question of identity: Who am I?
Our students walk through their days bombarded by messages that tear them down for who they are—or sideswipe them with pressure to be someone they’re not. Identity pressure was one of the themes that emerged in our FYI research for 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, especially the pressure to believe “I am what others expect—what they want or need me to be.”
More than ever, post-pandemic youth ministry must help young people name and crawl out from under these false identities so they can step into the identities God has for them. They need to know:
You are more than your loss. More than your failure. More than your labels.
You are a child of God. You are unconditionally loved. You are enough.
We can do this through our teaching, our unpacking of Scripture, and through mentoring conversations in which we ask better questions to guide self-discovery. I just heard a youth pastor tell a story about processing students’ cultural identities in his mostly-immigrant youth group. Through tears, he recounted the hurt students shared about experiencing stereotypes and prejudice, and the power of being reminded that each person is uniquely made “very good” in God’s image.
4. The challenge of belonging and the opportunity to practice repeat hospitality
How do you engage youth in ministry? Youth workers are generally pretty good at hospitality, but in post-pandemic youth ministry, we need to get better at practicing repeat hospitality: at saying “Hello” and “Hello, again!” over and over, and extending true welcome to an awkward generation of students. They’re not the same people they were before this all began.
It’s no longer a given that any particular student will show up at youth group. Leaders keep telling us that ministry attendance is all over the map (even more than before the pandemic), and it’s unclear if this will change. In many cases, students and families became accustomed to life without church. Maybe they attended online, maybe they didn’t. Tracking attendance has been hard, and in the midst of all the changes, a lot of families probably also lost track of what your ministry was doing.
Yet youth ministry is all about belonging. It’s about welcoming strangers and regulars alike, and creating environments where you don’t have to fit in to be “one of us.” This season perhaps more than ever, we must keep the welcome mat out, and remind our teams that every kid who shows up might need a little extra hospitality to get over the awkwardness of being together.
This might require some new skill sets. For example, cue your volunteers to look out for developmental gaps. This year’s freshmen may act like 7th graders. In fact, youth ministry over the next decade will be welcoming students who experienced delays in social and emotional development during pandemic lockdowns and virtual school. This year’s teachers and youth workers have seen more behavior issues, violence, and social skill gaps than ever before—and it’s not all getting resolved. We need leaders who can be safe adults for kids who need help managing conflict, navigating emotional overload, and learning (or relearning) how to make friends.
Youth ministry in this next era also faces an opportunity to become the most diverse and inclusive youth ministry we’ve ever seen. This generation is the most racially diverse in US history, and that diversity is only growing. Gen Z is also the most religiously diverse generation, and holds a wide range of perspectives around gender, sexuality, politics, economics, and just about every arena of life.
Hospitality in today’s youth groups looks like welcoming young people to show up as themselves, bring their stories, and be seen without needing to first become someone different. It also means you are likely to have students who are culturally code-switching when they do show up, wondering how much they need to conform to the unspoken expectations of your ministry culture. Check in periodically with students from less-represented groups to see what it’s like to be part of your ministry, and ask what might be helpful when they participate.
Finally, given how many students might be in our records but not our youth rooms these days, it’s more important than ever that we enact strategies for reaching out to teenagers who aren’t showing up to our programs and gatherings.
5. The challenge of purpose and the opportunity to promote meaning-making
What do we do now? This is a question not only about youth ministry, but also one young people are asking about their lives. They wonder about what has happened, how their world has changed, and how to make sense of it.
Meaning-making is one of the most important skills for post-pandemic youth workers. Ministry always involves making meaning with people—helping them process and interpret their experiences, tell stories that give experiences meaning, and use that newfound meaning to look toward the future with the hope of the gospel.
A youth pastor recently reflected, “The world is asking teens to be normal again, but the world they live in doesn’t seem normal.” This disconnect swirls around our students. It can create even more pressure, raising anxiety and fear that maybe something is wrong with them for not feeling normal, whatever “normal” is supposed to mean (or who gets to define it).
In the midst of all this turmoil, young people want to discover their own sense of purpose. They want to know if they can make a difference, if they can be significant in some way.
Practically, meaning-making in ministry can look like taking opportunities to process with students on a meta-level or after specific events:
1. What happened? Listen to students’ accounts of their experiences.
2. What does it mean? Help them interpret personal, local, or global events through the lenses of their faith.
3. What now? Encourage them to identify simple next steps to move forward with new meaning and a new connection to God and to God’s people.
Many are looking for help tying their faith to purpose through activism and justice-seeking. They hope we’ll show up with them to march and demonstrate, and when we do, we can model “praying with our feet” to connect the dots between faith and action. We can help them see the power of God connected to their own experiences and efforts to make a mark in the world.
The truth is, we may or may not actually be in “post-pandemic” youth ministry yet. I’m okay with the potential misnomer because it’s part of my own meaning-making to speak a prophetic sign of hope. There is a way through this, and we are not alone. The God of fire and cloud, water and desert, disruption and shalom—this God is with us. This God is with our teenagers.
Tweet this: The challenges facing youth ministry don’t look like they used to. Now more than ever, young people need us to be WITH them and FOR them in new ways to help them develop faith for today, and faith that sticks and grows with them into the future.
Post-Pandemic Youth Ministry Training
Live Online Training | September 20, 2022 | 9am-1pm, Pacific Time
Youth ministry needs to change because today’s post-pandemic teens have changed. Learn about the 5 vital changes you need to make to enter into a brand-new era of your youth ministry.
*Special thanks to the FYI Youth Leader Advisory Council for sharing many of the reflective quotes in this article.
If you’re worried about the safety of a teenager you know, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline right away: 1-800-273-TALK or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. The 3-digit 988 hotline may also be available in your area.
In addition, the Steve Fund Crisis Text Line is dedicated to the mental health and emotional well-being of students of color that can be reached by texting STEVE to 741-741 or visiting stevefund.org/crisistextline.
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