THE REBOOT BLOG | November 12, 2020

For Youth By Youth - A Paradigm Shift for Youth Ministry

by The Reboot Grant Team

On Friday, March 15, 2019, in what was until then the largest youth-led protest in history, an estimated 1.6 million students in 300 cities from Europe to India, Australia to the United States, walked out of school to march for climate action. One marcher on that Friday was Greta Thunberg, a Swedish teenager nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize because she has galvanized many around the globe, including leaders in the United Nations where she spoke, to take action now on climate issues.

Climate change is only one area in which youth are leading the charge and demonstrating their agency in a world of adults. Young people are also taking the lead in other preeminent issues, such as systemic racism, public health, and policy debates ranging from gun control to voter suppression. No matter your political tribe, youth are showing up to lead the way and make a difference.

But what about the church?

A central tenet in our design of the Reboot grant is to facilitate youth agency in the congregation. Rather than youth ministry for youth—without their input and leadership—we advocate for youth ministry with youth. Youth ministry should be the ministry of youth—not ministry to youth. In this paradigm shift, young people exercise agency in how the congregation works with youth, what they do, and why they do it. Just as youth around the globe are making their voices heard concerning issues that have an impact on their generation now and in the future, so youth must become key agents in congregational leadership. As our congregations are discovering first-hand, a commitment to youth agency quickly moves beyond the fruitless silos of the youth ministry and spills over into congregational-wide decision making.

How are Reboot churches empowering youth agency?

At Christ’s Foundry UMC, a bilingual church plant in Dallas, youth are stepping up to lead and provide input. To make room for these new perspectives, many adults in the congregation are standing back, while maintaining 100% support.

Christ’s Foundry set up a 12-member student-led team to work with adult leaders to oversee youth ministry. They work jointly, in tandem. The pastor then explained how the youth stepped up big time this spring when the church closed due to the COVID-19 restrictions. “These student leaders sprung into action and started leading online Bible studies.”

Before social distancing impacted their congregational meetings, youth at Christ’s Foundry started a youth-run snack bar on Sunday mornings. This venue, explains the pastor, “gives youth experience in leading and running a ministry as well as raising funds for future activities. Youth who serve at the snack bar on Sunday mornings earn money toward their account to apply to future activities.”

Technology is frequently mentioned as an area in which youth agency can shine given their natural facility with the latest tech—something that often leaves adults lagging behind. Many of our congregations have become fully dependent on these digital natives for regular communication, liturgical expressions, and relational impact during the COVID-19 pandemic. Precisely here is a niche for youth to take the lead in the church, or even form an intergenerational team where youth can help adults learn, which shifts the direction of ministry from older-younger to younger-older.

“Technology could be the perfect conduit to inspire intergenerational partnerships,” notes the Reboot leadership team in The Village UMC in DeSoto, Texas, a community south of Dallas. “With the implementation of technology in worship, small groups, and Sunday School, youth can teach adults how to become more comfortable with ‘modern’ technology in these new settings. In turn, adults who have experience operating various means of technology, i.e. tech booth, TV news cameras, podcast set up, etc., can teach youth these skills so they can work in partnership to implement and plan ministry for the whole congregation and church.” Youth leaders from The Village were advocating for agency and ownership in the congregation’s technology endeavors for months before the technological demands of the COVID-19 quarantines.

Beyond service and technology, youth offer serious perspectives that can empower congregations to make significant cultural changes. Faith UMC in Hot Springs, Arkansas, is following the lead of their youth who want to see their congregation become more ethnically diverse. As Hope UMC in Tulsa, Oklahoma points out, lifting these honest, young voices can sometimes be a “harsh reality check” for a congregation. They’ve also discovered that in such weighty truth-telling, “youth and adults alike were not ready to give up on each other.” Maybe allowing youth to speak into these places is the reboot we all so desperately need…

How is your church empowering youth to lead right now?