The Changing Contours of Youth Ministry: An In-Depth Interview with Deech Kirk


What new approaches to youth ministry are emerging in our post-Covid era? Ann Michel interviews Deech Kirk of the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He describes some of the common challenges confronting youth ministry today and some of the characteristics of the newer, innovative ministry models that are taking shape.

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Ann Michel: Could you describe the mission of the Center for Youth Ministry Training and some of the work you do?

Deech Kirk: The Center for Youth Ministry Training (CYMT) equips both youth ministers and communities of faith, including partner churches as well as nonprofit ministries and sometimes camp or campus ministries, to develop effective and theologically informed youth ministries. We do that through three methods.

First, we have a graduate residency in youth ministry. We recruit folks, both nationally and internationally, who feel vocationally called to children’s or youth ministry and place them in a residency at a local congregation where they serve for three years while also completing their Master of Arts in Youth Ministry degree through our partnership with Austin Seminary. Our goal with each resident is to surround them with everything they need to grow into whom God has called them to be, including pairing them with a veteran minister who guides them as their coach.

Second, we have the Innovation Lab which works with congregations across the country to help them reimagine what it looks like to do ministry within their context and within the changing social context of our country and world right now. Finally, we have an initiative called Theology Together where we are looking at how to use disruption or disorientation to create space for today’s young people to engage in theological reflection. We’re really excited about that work. And this fall we have some new curricular resources coming out that will help young people dive deeply into their questions and doubts.

Ann Michel: Could you name some of the common challenges churches are facing when it comes to youth ministry today?

Deech Kirk: One longstanding challenge is that some older adults have a fear factor when it comes to engaging with teenagers. I’m not sure that we know all the reasons or where that comes from. But a lot of it comes out of our own personal adolescent fears. Many churches just put the youth “over there.” They find an individual or a few people who can relate to them and let them do their thing. So, there’s often a challenge of integration, a generational challenge. This siloing of youth ministry has existed since the sixties or seventies when many churches imitated parachurch ministries for youth. And that approach has carried forward all the way to today.

Ann Michel: What are some of the challenges related to the work your center does in calling and equipping youth leaders?

Deech Kirk: What we’re experiencing today is that young people increasingly have frustrations with the church. They are increasingly disconnected and are far less present. Statistics from Barna Research and other research institutions suggest that we have fewer and fewer young people and fewer and fewer families in church. What’s really interesting is that they feel very connected to social justice, to serving and meeting the needs of others, which we would consider works of the church. But in their disconnectedness, they don’t see the church doing that particular work. We’re missing a real opportunity to connect young people with the mission of Christ in the world. They want to serve others, but they’re not quite making that connection.

Ann Michel: I hear so much conversation about how ministries of justice and service can be entry points into the church for younger people. Yet I think a lot of churches don’t really know how to bridge that gap and make their mission work a visible calling card to young people. Are you seeing places where that is happening?

Deech Kirk: One of the places I could point to is Central United Methodist Church in Asheville, North Carolina. The youth minister there, Andrew Mockrie, was really intentional about using our Theology Together process, which uses disruption. What that involved was having the young people name the needs that they saw in their community, whether that was hunger, the anxiety young people were experiencing growing up in a high-pressure society, or the need for a space of welcome and belonging. They began to identify those needs and then look for ways that they could live into those spaces.

Andrew’s work there is to be admired, not only because they try to meet the needs the young people were naming, but they also make the theological connections between “This person needs a cup of water” and “What does Jesus tell us about that? What does that mean for the nature of who we understand God to be? If we understand God to be this, what does this mean for what it looks like for us to be a disciple of Christ?”

Another example is Youth Front, a nonprofit ministry in Kansas City. They have an initiative called Imagine X, which stands for Imagine “fill in the blank.” They’re working with middle school students in school settings and having them process the needs of their community. In one of their projects, the students realized there were no swimming pools in the lower income communities. There was a “water desert” in all low-income areas of Kansas City. They came up with a plan to purchase a portable pool and got permission to take it from city park to city park so that people could have access to the fun of playing in water.

It’s a beautiful story and I love the work that they do. Because they work in the school systems, they don’t do the theological reflection at the same level. But because Youth Front is a Christian organization, there’s some curiosity that is allowed in those spaces. It’s very exciting to be able to take this kind of ingenuity among teenagers and bring it together with helping them understand how that’s in line with God’s vision for the world. But on the whole, the church is struggling to do this.

Ann Michel: Covid has changed the contours of so many aspects of church life. My sense is it’s been particularly disruptive, even devastating, to local church youth ministry. Could you share what you’re seeing both through and coming out of the pandemic in terms of its impact on youth ministry?

Deech Kirk: Devastating is the word I would choose. It’s very rare that a congregation was able to hold all the pieces together and move forward during the pandemic. There are some that did, but they are very few in number. Most congregations and the youth ministry world more broadly are rebuilding. There is just a real gap and churches are struggling to fill the holes. The impact in many local churches is similar to what happens when you lose a youth minister and the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who were connected to that minister fall away. When you bring in a new youth minister, they have to start to rebuild, starting with middle school and working back up. We really lost a lot of time, precious time, with the young people who were in their early high school years all the way through to those in college, especially for the group that transitioned from high school to college during the pandemic. They’re disconnected from Wesley Foundations or UKirks or other campus ministries. So, there’s a real gap.

Of course, the mental health of young people, which was a crisis in our country prior to Covid, has really escalated post-Covid. Young people always need a place to belong and help in discovering their identity, purpose, and calling. Guitars and games are really important to youth ministry — I love guitars and games — but right now youth need to be cared for and known. Because of the isolation young people experienced, their social dynamics are really low. As we prepare youth ministers and as we welcome young people into our spaces, it’s really important to realize that, just because they come through the door, that doesn’t mean they have the social skills to interact with each other.

Ann Michel: What more can local churches do to respond to the epidemic of loneliness and mental health challenges among youth?

Deech Kirk: I think we’re going to have to learn how to respond. And we’re going to have to learn really fast. With nearly one in three young people experiencing a social anxiety disorder, we need to ensure that those working with our teenagers are able to identify these disorders. And it’s not just teenagers. Those same things have emerged among our children as well. We will have to prepare both staff and laypeople to be aware and to have a sense of how to respond.

Just as someone who’s hungry is not able to hear the gospel until you’ve fed them, we can’t help young people understand what it means to be part of the body of Christ until we’ve helped them. Our theology tells us that helping them understand the body of Christ will help them address their social anxiety. But we need to acquire a learned knowledge of how to respond in this time and space when young people have had an experience that is different than anything we’ve ever experienced before.

Ann Michel: We’ve known for a long time that the old Sunday-night-church-basement youth group that so many of us grew up with is not the future of youth ministry. What newer, more innovative approaches do you see taking shape?

Deech Kirk: When the Center for Youth Ministry Training visits with a potential church partner, the church leadership is almost always imagining youth ministry to be what we think of as ‘90s youth ministry. That’s what they think their church needs. And maybe our evangelical brothers and sisters aren’t helping us with that because they still have a lot of that going. But the youth ministry paradigm has to shift.

Because we’re in the midst of that shift now, we’re on the way towards “writing the book,” so to speak. We see among our graduates a real focus on creating spaces of rest and belonging. For example, Becca Bibee is at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. As a part of her work, their young people named that they didn’t know how to rest. They didn’t know how to take Sabbath. They didn’t even understand quite what that looked like. So, they went through a process of discovering what Sabbath and rest look like and they have embedded that into all forms of their youth ministry. That’s really countercultural to the flashing lights, guitars, and games we think of from the past.

Church is a place where you can come and “just be.” You can just live into the fact that you belong here, you’re welcome here, you can find Sabbath here. At Trinity, as the adults in the congregation learned that the youth were working on this project, they said, “Wait! We don’t know how to rest, either.” So, the entire congregation had a Year of Jubilee where they cut back on the number of programs they offered. Then they ensured that they were practicing Sabbath and rest throughout the entire congregation. That’s a really different type of shift.

I also think of Justin down in Houston, Alabama. His ministry is emerging and developing around gaming. Now gaming has been really big for a long time — ever since Atari came out — but it’s a different thing today. When I was a kid, a couple of us got together to play the newest game. Now they can talk to each other online. There’s an entire social component involved.

Justin had grown up as a gamer and he realized the opportunity within gaming to create spaces of belonging. And he has been very intentional about creating an outreach through his young people who participate in that space. That connection has allowed him to bring discipleship and Jesus into those spaces and invite young people in a very different way. He’s had to shift his understanding of what a youth group is, inviting people to be together not just online but also to come together in person.

Some of their activities look a little bit different. Some of his gamers were also really into Legos. I don’t think of Lego construction as a youth ministry game. But if you can get young people to come together around Legos and also incorporate Jesus, then we’re moving in the right direction.

I also think about First Methodist in Fort Worth, Texas. Similar to many high-income, affluent areas, the young people in their community were naming that they felt extraordinary stress and pressure. One young person said that he wished his parents would just put his picture on the refrigerator like they did when he was a kid. He’s a high school senior. He’s not still drawing pictures. But he used to feel that whatever he did, no matter how bad, it was good enough. And now he felt this extraordinary pressure, that nothing he did was good enough. First Methodist Fort Worth was able to name the reality that all their youth felt an extreme fear of failure, so their youth ministry began to build into their program “fail-safe components” — opportunities to intentionally fail for fun. (See 10 Questions to Develop Transformative Ministry Innovation, by Meghan Hatcher.)

While these three examples are very different, I think what they have in common is that they seek to understand the needs of young people and then look for creative ways to respond. In all these situations, the young people are part of the solution. I think that is a big part. In each of those spaces, there was tremendous opportunity for theological reflection and discipleship. When we think about mental health, when we think about the challenges the church faces in connecting with young people, we need to be adaptive and creative in inviting young people to be a part of the solution to their problems, and then invite them to reflect theologically on what they are doing.

Ann Michel: So many churches find it challenging to get and keep the right youth leadership team, whether they have a paid staff person for youth or whether they rely on adult volunteers. What advice do you have on that front?

Deech Kirk: Volunteerism in churches is really down, I think as one of the by-products of Covid. The folks who were volunteering in youth ministry who tried to keep it together online or through distance programs were really tired. And a lot of churches have lost youth leaders.

Hanging on to good volunteers has a lot to do with making sure they are equipped. If they are willing to do this work, are we providing the resources and training they need to do it well? Because if they feel they’re not succeeding, they are not going to stay with it. They also need support. I’ve got a lot of experience working with teenagers, so when it doesn’t go right, I’m not going home feeling like a failure. But a volunteer might easily feel discouraged when something gets derailed.

They need a community of support when things don’t go as planned. It’s incredibly freeing for them to hear that this work is hard and it doesn’t always go well. But that’s okay. It could be the volunteers themselves getting together and talking about how much they love what they do, or it could be a youth staff person getting together with other youth workers.

Finally, it’s very important to express appreciation. Most churches are not the best at appreciating people. How can we show appreciation for the work our youth volunteers do and recognize that giving up every Sunday or Wednesday night or every Sunday morning is a significant sacrifice?

Ann Michel: You wrote a book a while back called Raising Teens in an Almost Christian World. Can you speak about the critical role parents play in forming the faith of their children and what congregations can do to help equip and motivate parents with regard to their kids’ faith development?

Deech Kirk: If the church could do anything right now in youth ministry or children’s ministry, it would be to equip parents. That work is going to be essential. We did a small study last summer for a grant proposal we were writing, and 75 percent of the parents recognized that their conversations about faith at home were one of the most significant things that could happen. And 75 percent of that 75 percent felt ill-equipped to have those conversations.

If we know that faith formation truly takes place in the home, how do we prepare the home for that faith formation to happen, especially when the parents are likely biblically illiterate and don’t have the tools for theological reflection? That is the primary emphasis of our Theology Together work at CYMT. We are developing resources that will help parents be able to have those conversations at home.

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About Author

Dietrich Deech Kirk

Dietrich “Deech” Kirk is executive director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He is the author of  Raising Teens in an Almost Christian World: A Parent’s Guide  and one of the coauthors of  Now What? Next Steps in Your New Life with Christ.

Ann A. Michel has served on the staff of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership since early 2005. She currently serves as a Senior Consultant and is co-editor of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. She also teaches at Wesley Theological Seminary in the areas of stewardship and leadership. She is the co-author with Lovett H. Weems Jr. of Generosity, Stewardship, and Abundance: A Transformational Guide to Church Finance (Rowman & Littlefield, 2021) available at Cokesbury and Amazon. She is also the author of Synergy: A Leadership Guide for Church Staff and Volunteers (Abingdon, 2017), available at Cokesbury and Amazon.

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