Cultivating Healthy Youth Ministry Environments—Getting Beyond Our Current Box

Rapid transitions within culture, and a delayed response to these changes, continues to create a loss of connection between many churches and youth. The ensuing result is that several youth are leaving, concluding that we have little to offer their world. In my zealous quest to address this, I’ve participated and led efforts to think “outside the box.” It seems that paradigms comfortable and familiar a decade ago are now becoming obsolete in a rapidly shifting culture driven by technological innovation. Typically, when this occurs, we engage in two common responses. One is to remain committed to our known paradigms (staying “in the box”), hoping to keep our youth engaged by simply altering a few methods. The second involves abandoning the known and paving a new avenue altogether (“outside the box”). Bill Easum and Dave Travis address this reality in their book, Beyond the Box: Innovative Churches That Work.1 Since many approaches aren’t “working,” this caught my attention. Easum and Travis identify three types of “church thinking”—“in the box,” “out of the box,” and “beyond the box.” “In the box” thinking represents churches that are stuck and, as a result, dying. “Out of the box” churches often thrive and grow, but are challenged to find a sense of identity within constant change. Easum and Travis refer to “beyond the box” churches as those which are radically innovative, property agnostic, constantly pursuing opportunity, and mission-minded with a kingdom-oriented vision. These churches foster new ministry, reproduce themselves through multiplication, train and send out leaders, embrace change, operate by flexible guidelines, disciple servants, and equip culture. Cultivating these attributes within our church environments is absolutely essential in our quest for healthy youth ministry.

Creating vibrant youth ministries of great impact must become first priority within our churches should revitalization be fully realized within the RCA. We must rethink youth ministry, moving not just outside the box, but beyond the box, preparing youth as servant leaders who redeem and positively impact culture. Such a transition will not occur overnight, but requires a patient, long-term vision and commitment.

The Lily Foundation has begun to release funding for several youth ministries studies.2 Initial results have begun to shed light on our journey forward. One such study entitled “The Exemplary Youth Ministry Project” identifies 44 “Faith Assets” that provide congregations a measuring tool to gage their youth ministry health (or potential health). These research findings are organized into two major areas—congregational life and youth ministry—within eight asset groupings. These include:

131 churches were surveyed and 21 churches extensively examined to determine what assets led to their youth ministry health. Ultimately, the more assets a congregation possesses, the greater their youth ministry results. The following is a brief outline of the 44 assets:

Faith Maturity (of the Congregation)

Pastoral Leadership

Congregational Qualities

Youth Involvement

Youth Minister Strength

Youth and Adult Leadership

Youth Ministry Effectiveness

Family Involvement

The study encourages leadership teams to brainstorm potential strategies for further developing each “faith asset” and to create specific action plans. Additionally, the study suggests that timelines should be set to measure the effective implementation and effectiveness of each once strategies have been initiated.3

Studies and assessments such as “The Exemplary Youth Ministry Project” provide helpful tools for moving youth ministries from surviving to thriving. However, as with any resource, understanding the unique nature and personality of a congregation is necessary to effectively adapt the tool to ensure relevance. Therefore, this tool (like others) will only be as effective as our ability to adapt the content to our distinctive character as the RCA. For this reason, a concerted effort will be undertaken in 2009 to unpack this and other Lily-funded studies and adapt them to our unique needs. As efforts are engaged by the Discipleship Youth Team (DYT) and regional Synod offices, the results of these studies as well as additional resources will be uploaded at various sites for electronic access by pastors and youth leaders.4 Likewise, members of the DYT and other experienced youth pastors are available to present these tools through seminars and workshops at your location.5

An unprecedented opportunity exists to re-think youth ministry in the RCA, ultimately cultivating environments that create and sustain lasting results. Should we succeed, we’ll not only produce effective servant leaders for now and the future, but also a vital component in our goal toward healthy revitalization.

Endnotes

1 William E. Easum and Dave Travis, Beyond the Box: Innovative Churches That Work (Loveland, CO: Group Publishing, 2003) 9.

2 The Exemplar Youth Ministry Study, www.exemplarym.org (accessed: 17 February 2009).

3 Ibid.

4 Resources developed through the Great Lakes Synod may be found at www.rcayouthgl.org.

5 For more information, contact me at duane@rcayouthgl.org.