What are the greatest challenges facing people in youth ministry today?
Jacob Youmans, director of the DCE program at Concordia University Texas answers:
In my mind, there is no doubt, the greatest challenge to youth ministers today is — time! Students are incredibly “busy” and unfortunately, many of them seem to get busy long before gaining any kind of understanding, let alone mastery, of basic time management skills. Any extracurricular activity sucks up their time like a sponge. I would agree though that these extracurricular time sponges are not necessarily bad; however, many youth ministers perceive them to be bad. Music, sports, theater, student government, after school jobs, academics, etc.– these are all good things. Students can learn a great deal about life and ministry through these and the many other activities offered in the high school experience. So the challenge comes when youth ministry is focused around programs. Church/youth group becomes another thing to do on the list that is already too long. It is very easy for the youth minister to view all of the student’s non-church activities as “competition,” and in so doing create a more compartmentalized understanding of faith where one has “church activities” and “secular activities” and there is no connection between the two.

This busy-ness has lead to a group that some have referred to as “slacktivists,” half Slacker, half activist. (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Slacktivism) They are concerned about global issues: poverty, AIDS, hunger, Climate Change, etc. They can usually talk a good talk, and they genuinely want to do something about it, but they are too busy to walk it. Or perhaps they have never been shown how to act. Has being an “activist” really ever been modeled to them in a healthy way?

On that note of “busy-ness,” in the activities they are busy with I have a fear that students are often viewed as “commodities.” Coaches, teachers, perhaps even parents, give off the message of conditional love. “I’ll love you if you win,” “I’ll love you if you make me look good,” “I’ll love you if you don’t embarrass me.” I venture a guess that this conditional love is for the most part unintentional, but loudly communicated through actions. So the challenge for the youth worker becomes how to model and teach unconditional love when all they are used to is conditional love. 

Leah Abel, DCE at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Oviedo, Florida, answers:
Early this summer I sat down with a church volunteer who had been recruited with the task of placing and managing youth volunteers for Vacation Bible School. She was well-suited for the work and yet relatively new to the congregation so I offered to help her place students in roles that would suit them well. As we worked our way through the list of 80+ teens and preteens, I found myself expounding on nearly every student.

“He is an only child and isn’t very good at working with his peers; put him with older students.”

“She is extremely shy and hates to be up front. Let’s put her in snacks or something where she can hide out and serve.”

“She is boy-crazy so watch who you team her with–her dad is not much part of her life and she seems to be seeking that attention elsewhere.”

“He is new to our day school and hasn’t come to church so let’s be sure he gets paired with one of his friends.”

“He has Asperger’s Syndrome so we need to be sure he has a patient, nurturing adult leader with whom to serve. Also, keep him away from younger kids who are too touchy.”

“His parents are going through a divorce so let’s put her with Mrs. Smith who can get anyone to open up.”

It went on and on with one student after another.  As I considered that experience later, I realized this was a snapshot of a struggle I’d been having in youth ministry: everybody has a story.  We live in a world that focuses on the individual and meeting the individual’s needs.  We live in a society that tends to label and categorize people in order to “fix” or at least manage them.  We want our youth ministries to meet each student exactly where they are at in their faith development.  This is a tall order as we realize that the spiritual is intertwined with the emotional, social, and intellectual.

I am overwhelmed by the virtual scroll I see as I talk to a kid: daddy issues, parents going through a divorce, brother has special needs, confused about his sexuality, poor social skills, not as smart as his older siblings, ADHD, parents are out of work, spoiled, ignored at home, etc.  There are so many issues with this one and that one that I can barely keep them straight.

Each student seems to require special attention and consideration.  As students and their parents grow in their trust of a youth minister, more and more time is spent dealing with the family and interpersonal issues (divorce, questioning sexuality, depression).  The time to help students grasp God’s word and basic doctrine seems to slip away.  As I prepare a Bible study or get ready to lead a small group, I find myself struggling to find the one-size-fits all message that will connect a student’s hurts, needs, and limitations to the message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Steve Meyer, a civil engineer who volunteers with the senior high youth at Timothy Lutheran Church in St. Louis, Missouri, answers:
I think the greatest challenge we face is making God/church/youth group a priority in their lives. Youth have so many other things going on in their lives: sports, music, drama, clubs, jobs, relationships, etc. that it can be hard to squeeze in “one more thing.” There was a time when Sunday was the Lord’s day. There weren’t soccer games or club meetings on Sundays because everyone knew that Sunday was a day of rest, to be spent at church and with families. Similarly, Wednesday night used to be reserved for church activities. When I was in high school (about 15 years ago), no activities went past 7 pm on Wednesdays, as most church youth groups met on Wednesday nights. There are simply too many activities, and not enough time in which to do them. So the challenge is to both find times when everyone can attend, and to also make them want to attend, rather than use that free time for something else.

There are also far more ways for youth to spend their free time, some healthy, some unhealthy. Like it or not, technology isn’t going away. When we were younger, maybe we played video games at the arcade or on our Nintendo, but today kids are immersed in gaming both on home systems and online. They’re connected to the internet 24/7 by their phones. They’re checking Facebook, emailing, and texting at all hours. So how do we get them to put down the phone and interact with the people right in front of them?