“The more things change, the more they stay the same.”
But if you do not prefer the musings of 18th century French intellectual Jean Baptiste, the first chapter of Ecclesiastes said it best (and first). “History merely repeats itself. It has all been done before. Nothing under the sun is truly new.” (Ecc 1:9 NLT)
Youth Ministry in America has been, like it’s mercurial teens, a ministry of constant change. Yet its heart and purpose is consistent: to point the next generation to the cross, to disciple life long followers of Jesus and to equip them to engage in the world as evangelists and salt and light. Over the past 20-30 years, we have seen a dramatic cultural shift that has led to the fastest growing religious group to be the group ironically dubbed “the nones”. And the people most affected by this trend are the young.
While there are countless blogs, journals and books dedicated to explaining why this has occurred, there are a few consistent themes that can be drawn out from the research: 1) young people are hearing moralism instead of the Gospel, and 2) youth ministry, primarily with older teens, has been too disconnected from the multi-generational Church. They are then thrust into adulthood ill-equipped to find their place with “adults.”
Gateway has been blessed with a fantastic youth ministry for its entire life. The testimony to that is in the lives of the countless young adults who grew up in our church and who are today serving in ministries all over the world - many right here at Gateway! (I count myself as one!!) As we look to where God is leading us as a multiplying church, focused on missions and proclaiming the Gospel in Findlay and beyond, we want to be responsible to continue to maintain our effectiveness.
This is not done by changing everything, but adapting to where we are today and where we will be tomorrow and adapting to where teens are today and where they are headed! Our teens are under spiritual assault in ways that many of us can barely comprehend. Just the other day, I was speaking with someone about the fact that teenagers are walking around with a device in their pocket that can give them access to anything their minds can think of at any moment! Culture was pleasantly “Christian” a few decades ago and so we could assume they were “safe”, but today our kids are bombarded by a constant array of anti-Christian programming and information. Nearly half of their friends are growing up in broken homes and the majority of their peers have never even stepped into a church outside of Christmas Eve. The pressure to conform to the world is immense.
The answer to our heart concerns for the next generation is not being busier or having more church events. Instead it is the same answer that Jesus’ disciples had for a lost world in the First Century. That Jesus, the Word made flesh, came to die for our sins and to set the captives free, then three days later rose and ascended to the right hand of the Father and rules and reigns today. And all who call on the name of Jesus will be saved! In a word, the Gospel.
As a church, we seek to connect people to Jesus Christ and one another through four values (or convictions): Worship, Connect, Serve and Go. It is in these values that the Gospel can be clearly taught and shown through the examples of others. If you have spent any time at our church, you know that we are convicted that God is leading us to prioritize these values for all that attend Gateway. This is a conviction for ALL people. Whether you are 1 or 101, we invest our resources and gifts to that end.
In our evaluation of the status of our teens, our youth ministry and culture as a whole, we have recognized a need to reinvest through our four values to be effective to serve our teens and their families as we seek to bring the Gospel to bear in each student’s life.
In years past, all teens, 6th -12th, went to the Attic for their own service. What was obvious to the parents and our ministry team is that the personal and spiritual needs of an 11 year old are radically different than that of an 18 year old. And taking into account what was previously mentioned about needing to help students connect to the larger church, we adapted what we were doing to:
Middle School: At all services our middle schoolers start the morning in worship with the whole church. This is to help them experience corporate worship with God’s people. Our desire is that during these years they are beginning to learn HOW to be a part of worship by not only participating but by observing how faithful adults worship God in the singing of hymns and spiritual songs. Following the time of worship in song, they head off to a curriculum-based class led by a number of amazing adults. Currently, we are using the Gospel Project curriculum for middle school. You may recognize this from our elementary programming. As we seek to always be in partnership with parents and families, we hope that families will be able to have Gospel-centered conversations with all their kids about a singular topic - no matter what age they are!
High School: Cognitively and developmentally, we have high expectations of what teenagers are capable of. Have you seen the standardized tests we give kids in school lately!?! If the world can have a high standard for what a teen can learn, how much more should the church! Therefore, during all of our service times, we expect our high school students to fully participate in the main service. We do recognize that for some younger students this may be an abrupt shift. To help address this, we have reserved a location in our CR9 campus (front left) specifically for high schoolers. While we know that sometimes teens can distract one another, we want to challenge them to grow and connect with the church in a way that allows them to “dip their toes in” with the ultimate goal that they mature through the experience.
Additional High School Sunday Morning: Currently, we are offering a class on Sunday mornings at 8am in the Attic at our CR9 campus. This is not a curriculum-based class, but instead a “Learn how to study the Bible” course. The students are trained by taking small portions of Scripture each week and learning how to really dig in deeply. Our goal with this is twofold: 1) give high school students their own space together, and 2) build them up in God’s Word and their personal study of God’s Word as a tool to be confident in their faith as they go into the world.
Just like adults, a key component of growing in faith is through the encouragement and accountability of relationships. And just like the adults in Life Groups, we have Life Groups for all youth on Sunday nights. This has not changed from what we have been doing effectively for many years. The only difference is the location. On the 1st and 3rd Sunday of the month, all teens meet at our North Main campus and the 2nd and 4th Sunday, we meet at our CR9 campus.
Each Life Group is age and gender-based, and each group is led by a team of adults that started with them as 6th graders and sticks with them through graduation. The leaders your students had last year are the leaders they have this year! We start each evening with a large group experience, games, worship and brief teen contextual teaching and then head to Life Groups for the rest of our time together.
If you are looking for the best place for a teen to connect with other teens and to have an environment to invite a friend to, this is it! The first Sunday of the month, we start with a dinner for the students and have plenty of time for relationship building and fellowship every week.
Studies show that a vital component of someone attaching to any community is having a sense of purpose and value there. We have always encouraged students to serve in different capacities within the church, and we continue to do so. The big internal difference is that we are working on becoming more deliberate in equipping and encouraging students to use their gifts for the body. Scripture teaches us that everyone who is a follower of Christ has a gift meant for the edification of the body and that we are poorer as a community when we don’t use those gifts. In the weeks to come, students will be given more opportunities and clear steps to participate where appropriate. Many already serve in a variety of capacities within Gateway and our prayer is that in the years to come it will be as common to see a teen helping greet you as you come to church or teaching a Sunday school class for younger students, as it is to see an adult!
All Christians are called to make disciples of all nations and students aren’t exempt from the Great Commission. Next summer, our high school students have the opportunity to serve in a mission trip to either the Dominican Republic or Haiti with our good friends at Mission Possible. This is a ministry that our students have gone with for years. We are also beginning to look into some “closer” middle school opportunities for the summer as well.
We will also be implementing a “fifth” Sunday GO opportunity where students will get to live out the Gospel locally. More details will be coming soon related to our October GO’ing event.
While change is inevitable, you can rest assured that Gateway’s mission for students and adults will never change. The Gospel of Jesus Christ and making disciples will never go away! If you want to stay in the loop with our youth ministry, sign up for our weekly e-newsletter. And please call me or email me (419-957-0227, Adamb@gatewayepc.org ) if you have questions. Also, I never turn down lunch!
Thank you for entrusting myself and the Next Generation team with your kids. It is a privilege to share the Gospel with them every week.
Director of Youth Ministries