Kids will be kids—but their culture has changed.
I’ve been serving in full-time student ministry in Berlin for 8 years and I can testify that in that time span, youth culture has experienced seismic shifts. Sure, youth culture is always changing somehow, but it’s arguably changing faster than ever. With things like social media, advances in technology, accessibility of youth sports, new marketing techniques, and busier schedules, I’ve come to pivot points in ministry where I realize that some of the old ways of “doing ministry” just won’t work anymore. It’s not that they’re bad or they didn’t work at one point. But new cultures and trends may require a fresh approach.
I checked with a few youth workers and asked what changes they’ve noticed in student culture over the last 5-10 years. Here’s how they responded.
Tim Bordeaux: I’ve noticed an increase in how busy kids are and their level of stress is also higher. The demands put on them have increased in multiple areas of life. But with that, opportunities have also opened up, good and bad. There’s more you can learn, but also be distracted by.
The number of kids who say I deal with a lot of anxiety, worry, and depression has ramped way, way up. Technology has made the world smaller and made a few things seem scarier.
Amanda Dowdy: In an age that pretends to be more connected than ever, students are feeling lonely and disconnected. When relationships are valued at “likes” and “streaks,” vulnerability and authenticity go out the window. This is tough for students, but also a wide-open opportunity for us as youth workers.
John Howenstine: The biggest thing I’ve witnessed is the pace of how things change. I think social media has played a huge role in that. Social media, for all its benefits, has also made a lot of kids feel either bullied or depressed. I’m noticing that more.
You’re also starting to see pushback from students as well because they are tired of change. They desire stability. It’s changing too quick and too often. They’re not able to appreciate what’s currently in and thrive in a steady environment.
All three responses share a common trait: lack of real connection. How will the Brethren respond? As I’ve been processing this, I can’t help but wonder what the Brethren and their fellowship model has to offer a youth culture so saturated with options and choices. If you’re not familiar, the Brethren hold firm to a Fellowship Model of being the church. The Fellowship Model is a highly relational way of living that emphasizes communication and personal connection because we see that this is the way Jesus lived and the way he designed us. Brethren believe strongly in relationships at nearly every level of our polity and values. While this can be frustrating at times, it’s a beautiful portrayal of the Church scripture envisions for Jesus’ family. It’s a distinctive feature that helps shape our understanding of being Brethren. And this Fellowship Model has monumental implications for student ministry in today’s culture, too. We should be encouraged because we’re positioned perfectly to engage the culture around us, breaking through walls of opposition if we simply embrace who we are as Brethren and be intentionally relational.
When the trends change (like they always do), students consistently crave community. And I’m not talking about a large following on Facebook, Instagram, or Snapchat. I’m talking about someone who will sit down with them and listen to life’s struggles from an authentic perspective, perhaps someone who will clear their schedules and show up at their door because they’ve heard a friend is struggling. It’s much different than sending a motivational picture through an app.
You see, Brethren are positioned to engage student culture well because their value of fellowship doesn’t change. It doesn’t matter if there are new options for students to take part in, or some craze that’s swept through schools and clubs. Relationships make us relevant no matter the trend or decade. It’s why the Brethren have “staying power” and are ready to connect with the student culture around us.
Here are some examples of the fellowship model and connection working in different ministries.
Tim Bordeaux: One positive thing is that kids are starved for an extended family experience and community. They can be the most difficult to reach type of kid, but if you’re meeting that need, they thrive. Unchurched kids cling to this. They love when there are adults and students ready to embrace them. You don’t need a big budget for this, huge outreach events, or have a team of trained professionals. Instead, it’s folks who are ready to extend acceptance and love through community in Jesus. They’ll take it and love it—a place to belong.
Amanda Dowdy: Connecting with students once they graduate is something I’ve been investing in, and the response has blown me away. We spend years with them while they are in high school, helping them build a firm foundation and understanding of their identity in Christ, and it is an honor to walk with them as they start to live that out in new contexts. Just keeping tabs on them and going for a walk or coffee with them when they are in town continues the relationship past student ministry and helps them see themselves as a part of the wider church.
John Howenstine: I spent time and sat with a student at Engage Conference this year. Being able to spend time with this student for a week was fantastic. She called me the other night out of the blue and opened up about some family situations. She did that because she valued our relationship. Our time at conference opened up a launching point for her. I didn’t tell her to call me back later, or wait for office hours. It was important to engage fellowship so that’s why I did. And it’s paying dividends.
Another story--a family that left our church a while back has reached out to talk because they saw real relationships in their time with us. They came back to talk because of the connection. It was more about relationship than program.
Kids will be kids. Their culture will change. But the need for meaningful connection and relationship within the family of Christ will stand the test of time no matter the trends or culture.