by Rev. Jonathan Walker
In just a few months I will be privileged to commence my nineteenth year in full-time youth ministry. At times I feel like I have seen all there is to see and while at other times I feel technology and the ephemeral nature of cultural trends causes me to feel like I haven’t seen anything yet. Youth ministry is the greatest and most rewarding ministry. However, if fully invested in young people’s lives, it can cause seasons of bewilderment and disappointment.
I have lost sleep, hair, and meals while travelling the adventurous roads of youth ministry but the blessings and benefits far outweigh the disappointments. I was created from dust, yet God chose a marred vessel that He could transform into a vessel of honor meant for the Master’s use. Being used by God in youth ministry to impact a young person’s eternal destiny, is a paramount and heavenly calling.
So often a Youth Pastor is thinking of the next service, the next fund raiser, the next outing, even the next mountain on the calendar to climb. These are all vital aspects of youth ministry structure we must adhere to, but without a broad vista of the future we often toil in vain. In recent years, I have been challenged by God to focus my entire student ministry towards the future. Now, how basic and simple does that sound?
Let me be more sobering and specific: A future that does not have me present as the vision casting, engine driving Youth Pastor. I felt God challenging me to create an Apostolic system, a culture that would far outlast my position. God wanted me to think towards a sustaining legacy and not merely my tenure as a leader. God was galvanizing me, by faith, to embrace not only my youth group’s present, but their future. It sounded good, but I didn’t have a clear picture of where to start.
Many years ago, I came across a staggering article that stirred my heart in the USA TODAY newspaper. The headline on the front page of the paper grabbed my attention. It read in bold letters that leaped off the page, “Young Adults Aren’t Sticking with Church”. The article was written by Cathy Grossman in coordination with Lifeway Research. In the extensive study they discovered that in evangelical and mainline Christian churches, in America, seven out of ten young adults between the ages of eighteen to thirty have left the church of their youth. The dropout rate of hyphen age evangelicals is up to an astounding seventy percent.
The associate director of the research study was quoted in the article as saying, “This is sobering news. It seems the teen years are like a free trial on the product of church. But by the age of eighteen, when it is their choice to now buy into the church, many don’t feel engaged to continue.” This reality and trend haunted me. I am incredibly thankful the Apostolic Pentecostal movement does not have these same generational losses, but it opened my eyes to what the enemy wants to do with our young adults.
If seventy percent of young adults in evangelical churches across America are disconnecting, what does the future hold for revival and basic sustainability within those organizations? If a generation is lost it does irrefutable damage to the destiny of the church. I began to muse, ponder and pray about this alarming trend. I quickly realized that just having the young adult demographic ‘hold on’ or ‘stick around’ to combat this trend would just merely be a statistical win. What God was looking for in our youth group were young adults, Hyphens, who would not just hang around the church, but young adults who would develop as the engine, the very driving force, behind the church.
Our leadership team began to pour everything we had into the college and young adult demographic at Bethel. It is not just in the Northeast, but a national trend that proactive collegiate education and waiting to marry until a later age are now the norm. This affords student ministry the vital opportunity to expand the scope of youth ministry and here is why: Youth Pastors and youth workers have profound impact on the lives they lead. However, in my case as a Youth Pastor in my thirties with two children, I am like the iconic dinosaur bones that greet patrons at the Museum of Natural History in Manhattan. A fifteen-year-old loves me and respects me, but they are looking just a few years ahead to the young adult demographic to observe what is happening and what their immediate horizon could look like.
So, I began to ponder what could happen if not only our leadership team was leading and influencing with an Apostolic culture out in front but supported by a revival of young adult leaders joining the vision with the same Apostolic influence from within. Over time it began to happen, and it took our youth department to greater heights than I could have on my own or even with a wonderful leadership team alongside. We were not subliminal, but intentional. In many forums and with focused communication, I invited this young adult army to be an army of influencers, in ways I could not achieve. I challenged them to wholly invest into the teens and demonstrate, with their lives, what investment in the Kingdom of God should look like; what it could look like for those teens following after. With intentionality, I laid out a vision of what could happen, systemically, if this age demographic would become an engine for our church. I told them they would not just be living for the moment but creating a dynamic legacy for years to come.
Over time I began to look around the church in services, forums, and outside venues away from the church campus. In almost every aspect I could discover, from ushering, sound, music, platform ministries, altar ministry, outreach, and off campus life groups, someone in the young adult demographic was engaged in one way or another investing their life in service and eternal things. We went to the mountains of Costa Rica in 2016 with fifty people from our church to minister at their national conference. Thirty of them were young adults from our youth group! My mind went back to the article of young adults leaving the church, and a deep joy flooded my Spirit to see that narrative shifting. It began to speak a message beyond what I could say in a pulpit or across a lunch table to a teenager about the foundational life command: ‘Seek first the Kingdom of God and His Righteousness and all these things will be added unto you.’
Teens were not just hearing it, but they were seeing it played out in the lives of our young adults. An optimistic, Apostolic culture was being established in a greater dimension. A teenager was not just looking at me, but by osmosis, watching that connected college student and coming to the desired conclusion, “That is just what you do when you get that age. I want to be committed and involved.”
God began to challenge me in my Spirit that a local vision was good, but a youth group with a global vision would be great. We handed out small globes to everyone at the beginning of a recent year. The hyphen group began going on AYC trips each year at a rate far above the average level. When a young adult would return from their AYC trip, we would let them share their burden and experience. We created ‘Mission Walls’ with pictures from AYC trips around the globe our students had been a part of with post-it notes adjacent to them with prayer requests. It built over the years, until a culture was established. In our youth group when someone turns 18, the question is not ‘if’ they will participate on an AYC trip, but ‘where’ will God lead them to go?
This is directed by the Spirit of God. It is not by might or our power as Zechariah 4:6 declares, but God will use us to create a leadership direction and an Apostolic culture for others to follow. Investing in your young adults and allowing them to lead alongside your ministry will galvanize not only your youth group, but your entire church, community, and world. This summer we had 17 young people go on an AYC trip, 3 go on extended AIM trips, and 2 dedicate a year of their lives to serve at Tupelo Children’s Mansion. We have seasons of disappointment, but our young adults by leading and investing their lives in God’s kingdom, have created a culture that will sustain far beyond my time as their Youth Pastor and their own lives as well. Invest in your young adults and unleash them. The young teens are watching you, but they also are watching the hyphens with a keen eye.
We are a part of a Kingdom that will not end. I have seen this culture and generational legacy be established across lunch tables, in altars, in our home, and in Bethel Youth forums and services. I have served on many committees and panels that are effective, but this is not a think-tank idea from a committee room. It is real and can happen anywhere. It is happening in many youth groups. What is your vision?
What are you doing to have a generational legacy far outlast your current position?
Jonathan and his wife Lindsi serve as Youth Pastor at Bethel UPC in Long Island, NY under Pastor Doug Davis Jr. They are blessed with two children, Quinci and Graham.