Unleashing youth as co-participants in the mission of God
Photo by Kevin Schmid
We hear it in countless books, convention keynotes and blogs: the North American church is in decline! Like a tired swimmer trying to just keep afloat, across the board churches are struggling in terms of participation, giving, faith practice, and church community life. Yet even in the midst of decline, God is doing a new thing in our churches today: inviting us to see the mission of God and the role young people have in that mission in a new light.
When we get caught up in the mindset of stopping decline, we often look for any way to engage with the culture. Many churches turn to anything that could be considered cool, relevant, or authentic. The sad truth for a lot of our churches is that God is doing a new thing, which we often miss because we’re still waiting for God to show up in the old things that we’re trying to make more hip or more attractive. Instead, we’re being invited to join what God is already doing with new imagination, passion, and creativity—and the young people entrusted to our care are at the center of this!
We live in what some have called an age of authenticity; a time where we put the highest value on what speaks to us as individuals the most, what feels cool, and what brings us the most immediate happiness. Starting with the counterculture movements of the 60’s and 70’s, youth have played a major role in our culture determining what is cool. Unfortunately, since youthfulness is seen as a sign of authenticity, young people can unintentionally become like props to show how youthful, relevant, and authentic the church is. It’s almost like having young people in a church legitimizes that church’s cool factor.
The problem of this pull to authenticity—and our students’ role in it—is that it diminishes the central role of the mission of God in our churches. Young people start to believe that their place in the church is to make it feel trendy, and the mission of God becomes reduced to attracting people to programing rather than connecting them to a larger narrative or redemptive work.
Often, churches see young people as objects of the mission of God rather than co-participants in the mission of God. We fall into a trap where we see the mission of God as about doing ministry to young people rather than doing ministry with young people. This limited view does the church a disservice as it limits the agency of young people in the work of God. We need the gifts of passion and creativity that youth bring to the table!
Tweet: “We fall into a trap when we see the mission of God as about doing ministry to young people rather than doing ministry with young people.” @fullerfyi #churchdifferent #fuelwarmth #youthministry
How can we instead empower and encourage youth as we partner with them in the mission of God?
Here are five essentials to help unleash the passion and creativity of young people in your church:
1. Practicing keychain leadership.
When youth leadership is taken seriously, adults use their power and voice to give young people power and voice. Remember that some youth are more ready for this while others may need more encouragement to find and use their voice.
2. Teaching empathy.
Great creativity and innovation begin with empathizing, which Brené Brown refers to as “feeling with someone.” Empathy helps young people to see and feel, rather than assume, the needs in their churches, communities, and neighborhoods. Young people are more able to utilize their creativity and passion in alignment with the things in which God is already at work when they know to feel with the people in whom God is already at work.
3. Focusing on mission-driven innovation.
With innovation that is driven by mission rather than excitement or cool factor, the work of God stays at the center. Sometimes when I get an idea that I’m excited about, I can get swept away. I often want to move straight to doing without pausing to wonder if it is something that God is already doing or something that I’m trying to do on my own. While empowering creativity and passion, youth workers and church leaders need to help youth look for where God is at work and keep their eyes on the mission of God.
4. Reducing the fear of failure.
The idea that something you built might be a disappointment can be paralyzing. Adults need to remember that young people, like all people, are going to mess up sometimes and need grace-filled ways of handling missteps and miscalculations. When failure becomes the chance to continue in new ways instead of a defeat, youth learn that their value is more than their successes.
5. Minimizing hierarchy.
Youth can often feel like there is no point in utilizing their creativity to help the church since adults are in control. The hierarchy of our church communities can encourage young people to assume that their opinions and ideas won’t matter if they bring them to the table. To truly empower young people to use their gifts, their contributions to the church must be seen as equal to other generations. This is definitely an easier-said-than-done situation. A youth worker can believe that a young person’s contributions are equal to others’—but until the rest of church leadership believes it, it will not be the case. In my experience, the way to start changing the way leaders see youth potential is to show them what youth have already done. This means that youth workers need to allow youth to take on load-bearing roles in their own ministry, which in turn can help others build confidence in youth leadership outside of youth ministry circles.
It is true that the North American church is in decline; yet this does not mean that God is finished with us. God is at work in our neighborhoods and communities, encouraging us to get involved with what God is doing. Often, we get so caught up in doing ministry to youth, we lose sight of the important truth that doing ministry with youth as co-participants might give the church the passion and creativity it needs to align itself with the mission of God.
Want to learn more about Keychain Leadership?
 Liu, Joseph. “‘Nones' on the Rise.” Pew Research Center's Religion & Public Life Project. October 09, 2012. Accessed May 22, 2018. http://www.pewforum.org/2012/10/09/nones-on-the-rise/.
 In The Great Emergence, Phyllis Tickle lays out a beautiful argument for how God causes massive transitions in the church, which have happened approximately every 500 years. Tickle suggests that the changes in Western culture, as well as the ways that those changes have affected the church, create a time of great challenge for the modern church, but also great opportunity as God does a new thing in the world and in the church.
Tickle, Phyllis. The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why. Baker Publishing Group, 2012.
 With Faith Formation in a Secular Age, Andrew Root explores the beginnings of this age of authenticity as well as the ways in which authenticity has affected the church in North America has learned from culture.
Root, Andrew. Faith Formation in a Secular Age: Responding to the Church’s Obsession with Youthfulness. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.
 In Practicing Passion, Kenda Creasy Dean explains that youth ministry often lacks “wonder-producing, faith-provoking, life-altering acts of witness that [engage] young people in mission in their own right. Instead, youth ministry [relies] on adults’ participation in the Passion of Christ on youth’s behalf.”
Dean, Kenda Creasy. Practicing Passion: Youth and the Quest for a Passionate Church. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2004.