Episode 43: “Resurrecting Youth Ministry” featuring Jen Bradbury

Leading Ideas Talks
Episode 43: "Resurrecting Youth Ministry" featuring Jen Bradbury

Are you longing to connect with youth in relevant and faithful ways? In this episode we speak with Jen Bradbury about fresh approaches to youth ministry and how to conduct youth mission trips with integrity and purpose.

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Are you longing to connect with youth in relevant and faithful ways? In this episode we speak with Jen Bradbury about fresh approaches to youth ministry and how to conduct youth mission trips with integrity and purpose.

Ann Michel: I’m Ann Michel, Associate Director of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary and I’m pleased to be hosting this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. I’m talking today with Jen Bradbury, who I have come to know by reading her latest book, A Mission That Matters: How to Do Short-Term Mission Trips Without Long-Term Harm. Jen is a career youth worker in the Chicago area and she’s written widely on the subject of youth ministry. So, to kick things off, Jen, I wondered if you could say a bit more to introduce yourself to me and our listeners and tell us a bit about your ministry and your work.

Jen Bradbury: Absolutely, thanks for having me on the show today, Ann, I really appreciate that. So, like Ann said, my name is Jen Bradbury and I have been in youth ministry for the last 18 years at four different congregations in the Chicago suburbs. I kind of got into youth ministry accidentally. But I have absolutely loved it. It uses all of my gifts. I think it’s such an important ministry of the church. And because I think the youth are the leaders of now, not tomorrow, but now. And so pouring into and discipling and investing in them is super important and something that I think every church needs to focus on, whether or not you have a paid youth worker. So I have largely been in mainline congregations. So I’ve spent the bulk of my career in the ELCA at three of the four churches that I’ve served. And then was also, for five years, at a multi-site, multi-ethnic non-denominational congregation. So I’ve been around for a while in a variety of different settings.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I’m really happy to hear your enthusiasm for youth ministry because, I think as I look around the church, broadly, youth ministry really is a tremendous need and concern. There are so many churches that no longer have enough families or youth to sustain a viable youth group or, in a lot of churches where they still do have a youth group, their approach to youth ministry hasn’t changed very much from the way people were doing youth ministry many decades ago when I was in high school — they got the kids together in the church basement on Sunday afternoon or Sunday evening. And so, where do you see new hope and new possibilities for how churches can be in ministry with youth?

Jen Bradbury: Oh, what a great question, Ann! So I see a ton of hope and possibilities for youth ministry ranging from the idea that I don’t think youth ministries have to be big in order to be effective.  I think you need to have adults who care deeply about youth and who love God and want to follow Jesus and are willing to invest in teens in creative ways. And so, I don’t think that’s necessarily coming together in playing an hour of games and then talking about scripture for 15 minutes. I think it can be much more of a small group format where scripture and discipleship really is the center of what you’re doing. I think there is a lot of room for discipleship on mission trips, which we’ll be talking about later, and I also think intergenerationally is a huge aspect of what churches, especially in the mainline, need to be moving towards. And I don’t necessarily mean just that you throw a bunch of youth and adults into a room and hope for the best. I think intergenerational ministry takes time and intentionality to do it well. But I think things like, in the church that I currently serve in, we have a team of high school youth who serve faithfully in our children’s ministry. And it’s a moment in time where we’re having a really hard time getting adults to serve in that ministry. And yet, we have these high school teams that absolutely love it. And so they are bringing energy into that. And at the same time that they’re serving, they’re also learning and they’re growing in their own faith because they’ve been forced to, sort of, take on this teaching role. And as anyone who has ever taught anything, whether it’s professionally or accidentally, knows, you learn more when you teach something. So, I think, even opportunities like that are really important. For the last two years, I’ve also been involved in a cohort out of Fuller, where we’ve been talking about youth ministry innovation. And what I love about what we’ve been doing with that is that it’s not innovating from scratch, but it’s looking at some of the ancient practices of the church and figuring out, what does that look like today? So in our congregation right now, we’re doing a 10-week series on testimony. And so, we’re talking about storytelling and what does it mean to tell your story as a person of faith, as a follower of Jesus. And we’re doing it with our high school kids, this is where the idea originated. But because we recognize that parents really are the primary influencers of a student’s life, we also thought, “wouldn’t it be amazing if we could do this as a church-wide initiative?” And so, we’ve shaped our worship services to reflect these themes and we’re doing adult small groups. So that adults can learn this language of faith right alongside our students. So, even though they’re not doing it together, we hope they’ll go home and on the way home from the church that they’ll have a conversation in the car and that youth ministry will keep happening outside of the walls of the church because of what parents are talking about with their kids in the home.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I’m so glad you raise this issue of an intergenerational approach to youth ministry. Because I’ve been part of the same congregation over many years. And we’ve had, I think, the typical struggles with youth ministry. But some of the bright spots that I’ve really seen are youth who have had a really meaningful or formative experience of church because they’ve kind of leap-frogged over youth fellowship and they’ve gotten connected in their own areas of giftedness and passion. So I can think of a couple kids who  really, you know, loved music, either they were singers or they were instrumentalists, and they got connected with some of our worship teams and our choirs, or a couple of kids who just really had a heart for mission and they got involved in the leadership of some of our ongoing mission work or participated alongside adults on mission teams. And, for those kids, they had a built-in community of supportive adults who really became their mentors and their cheerleaders. And I think so often we want to ghettoize kids. And that’s not the way every kid wants to engage the church.

Jen Bradbury: Oh, absolutely. And I love some of the work that Chap Clark has done on this. So, he talks about the reverse five-to-one ratio. And so the idea that, in the youth ministries that we grew up with, that it was always just for every five students you have in the room, put one adult in the room and the job of that adult was to keep those kids alive, right?

Ann Michel: Yeah, or to keep them from doing anything naughty. Yeah, when I was growing up they were just kind of there to make sure you didn’t destroy any property or something.

Jen Bradbury: Right, exactly. But what happens if we reverse that? So that for every one kid we have five adults who are pouring into those kids. And it doesn’t mean we want to line a youth room with five adults for every one kid. But it does mean that we want them connected enough in the church that they feel that they can turn to all of these different adults.

Ann Michel: Right. Yeah, I think that’s such a good point. I want to pick up on something else that you said which was the importance of parents. Because I know that research suggests that parents are the most critical influence on the faith life of children and youth and young people. And so, how do you equip parents for that role and get them to be meaningful allies in your youth ministry?

Jen Bradbury: Yeah, that is such a great question, Ann. And one that I think everyone I know is wrestling with. We continue to wrestle with. We definitely don’t have it figured out. But some of the things that we are doing — so one of the things that makes this particularly tricky right now is that parents, at least in the area where I serve, have flat out said “we’re extremely busy and we can’t do anything else.” And so, essentially, the equipping has to get creative. And so some of the things that we are trying, one is to really maximize the time that we have parents in the church building anyway. And so, one of the things we started last year was just a parent discussion group where we’ve gotten a bunch of parents together during the Sunday School time to wrestle through some various issues that their kids are facing. So, we’ve talked about school shootings. And we’ve talked about screen time. And we’ve talked about what does it mean to get scripture into the hands of your kids and how do you do that well? And with everything we’re talking about, we’re engaging them in their own faith and we’re talking about and tying it back to scripture, trying to give them practical tools for how to live this out at home.

Ann Michel: Yeah, that’s so important because, I think time is a real constraint, but I think in what you said, it’s also incumbent that I think a lot of parents don’t feel like they have enough grounding in their own faith life to do the job. And so it’s not just making time, it’s empowering parents to have the spiritual confidence to be what their children need them to be in terms of faith guides and mentors.

Jen Bradbury: Absolutely. And so, along those lines, too, we try to give them good communication tools. And so we send out a weekly email to parents that has “here’s what we’re talking about in each of our youth and family ministry area.” So children’s ministry, confirmation, all the way up through high school. With some questions in it that, you know, even if you don’t know anything about this topic, here are some questions that you can ask your kids about it. To just engage them in what they’re learning so that, hopefully, they get more than “how was youth ministry tonight?”  “Oh, it was fine.” We want to help to make that conversation as deep as it possibly can. We’ve also been really intentional about either looking for curriculum or writing our own curriculum that has a parent resource page on it and providing that to parents too. And that has been a really powerful thing in that it has given our parents some of the background about scripture that helps give them that language, that competency that you were referring to and to make them feel like they can do this. That whatever they’ve got is good and is an important piece of shaping their kid’s faith.

Ann Michel: Yeah, that sounds so fantastic. I think your congregation is very, very fortunate to have someone with your level of competence in how to engage youth and parents. But what advice would you give for a church that maybe doesn’t have a full-time youth worker or maybe is having to think about how to either restart a youth group or jump start an existing youth ministry. What are some first steps that you would recommend to a church that really is at the starting line in terms of thinking about a new approach to engaging youth?

Jen Bradbury: Yeah, so I would say look at the assets that you have within your current congregation. And so, ranging from, I think a lot of times within the church we have this mindset that the youth worker, whether that’s a paid or volunteer, has to be this cool, young person. And some of the best youth workers that I know are older. They’re grandparent-level age because they have time to invest in kids. And they have the passion for it. So you want to find those people in your congregation who have that passion to hang out with kids. I think you also want to look at, again, what are the touchpoints that we already have. And so, that might be, on a Sunday morning when kids are already in the building. It might be that you don’t have a person to actually lead a Sunday school class. Well then the question becomes how do you engage them in the worship that’s happening? Can you have them serve? Can you have them be lectors? Can you have someone go out to eat with them afterwards and simply ask “what did you think of the sermon? What were some of the things that you heard that were interesting? What did you disagree with? What did you agree with? What questions did that raise?” And to be really conversational about it. To find the giftedness of the handful of kids that you have, too. So, I think that’s the other thing that we often get wrong in the church, is this mindset that we have to wait for the kids to come to us. But if you’ve got a high schooler, if you’ve got 2 high schoolers in your building, you’ve got a youth ministry. And so, the question is how do you just connect with those two kids? And so it probably doesn’t look like saying “Oh, the youth ministry is going to meet on Wednesdays at 7.” Instead, it probably looks like reaching out to those two kids whether again, it’s the pastor, a volunteer, a parent, whatever the case may be, and saying hey “I’d love to take you both out to breakfast before school one day this week. Can we do that?” And brainstorming with those kids themselves. “What could we do to help you grow in your faith? What we do to help me grow in my faith?” To recognize that mentoring and discipleship often go two ways, that we learn from the kids that we are discipling just as they learn from us.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I really love that because it’s so organic. And I think we’re so inclined to think in terms of everything having to be a program. And what you’re describing is so much more a relational and organic approach and yet, one I really think is biblical and makes sense in terms of a church that may have a relatively small number of teenagers in their midst. I recently came across a quote from a woman who is a very respected commentator on church life in America and when she was asked where she thought the church would be in 50 years, her answer was “on the internet!” And I think people who work with youth, kids who are totally digital natives and who are experiencing so much of their life online, I wondered if you wanted to comment on the role of social media and digital communication in youth ministry?

Jen Bradbury: Yeah, what a great question! I do think we have to not only be paying attention to this but learning this language, so to speak. And our kids are the ones who can teach it to us. So a couple of things that I think are really important in terms of engaging with kids on social media is to go where they’re at and so to recognize that that’s not Facebook, which tends to be the social media source that most adults are most comfortable with. And so we need to kind of move from there. Again, don’t expect them to come to us but go where they’re at. In my ministry, the kids are most connected to Instragram still, by far. Snapchat is also something they use really regularly. And so we, in our ministry, in our high school ministry, we have an Instragram account. And a couple of things that have been really key for us is that I am not the one who runs that Instagram account. So one of my student leaders actually posts to that regularly and does all the updates there. And what I’ve found is that I am old enough where kids don’t want to feel like they’re being policed in their social media, which is the tendency that a lot of adults have. They kind of freak out at what kids are posting. And so, to have one of our students who is the one monitoring it, makes our kids feel much more able and ready to engage with that material online than if it’s an adult who is the one running it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a free-for all. I am certainly paying attention to what goes on in that account. But that has been something that is really key. It’s also been really key for me to not actually be the one to initiate online relationships with my kids. But to readily receive that when they initiate those with me. And so I am really careful about how I comment on their photos. That I don’t comment on every photo which, again, can be the tendency of an adult in that space. But what happens is it makes kids feel like they’re being stalked. Like they’re being watched by an adult. And so, I’ll comment occasionally. I’ll do a lot of likes. A lot of times I’ll use what I’m seeing on social media to engage with my kids when I see them in real time.

Ann Michel: What do you think are some of the major pitfalls that someone needs to steer clear of if they’re going to take seriously online engagement with the youth community?

Jen Bradbury: So, you need to just recognize the age difference there. So it’s kind of the Safe Sanctuary policies you want to put in place online as well. So you want to be careful of what you’re saying. You want to make sure that you have a record of that in some way. For example, if I am chatting with a kid online, I always, always take a screenshot of that so if someone were ever to ask something about that conversation, I’ve got a printed copy of it. And a lot of people, I think hear that and think “oh, that’s an overreaction.” But it’s kind of, it’s counseling notes in a way, right?  And so, you want to be careful of that because these are things that are happening in a space that we, as adults, are much less familiar with than kids are. So we need to just be really aware of that. You want to make basic policy things like you never comment on what someone is wearing in a picture. Which again, sounds so basic. And yet, I can’t even tell you how often I see a youth worker comment on “oh, that’s a great outfit!” or something like that. Which can seem harmless, but to a kid, might not feel that way.

Ann Michel: So, what kind of comments would you think are helpful?

Jen Bradbury: Yeah. So I try to do one of two things. I’ll try to either affirm something that I see. And often the affirmation comes from the comments that the kids have made in their caption on, like an Instagram picture, rather than on the picture itself. And I will also often raise questions, even in the comments. And not like super deep questions, but just, “oh that looks like a cool event. What was the event? Tell me more about that” kind of thing as a way of engaging them. And I’m always surprised at how much kids respond to that. And sometimes they’ll respond right in that comment, and so it becomes kind of a dialogue there. Sometimes I’ll get a direct message. Sometimes all of the sudden I’ll get a text from a kid. Texting is another thing that I think we really have to use well in our ministries as a media tool, if you will. And so, to recognize that how a kid communicates over the phone. They don’t pick up the phone, they text you. And so, if you want to talk to a kid, you have to be willing to text back and forth. Those are going to be shorter, kind of fragmented conversations. They might not respond for a couple days and that’s okay. And so, for us to be willing to, again, kind of enter into their world with how they’re doing it. But to always think twice before you post something, just recognizing that once it’s out there, it’s out there and you can’t get it back.

Ann Michel: Right. This is really, really helpful. Before our time gets away from us I want to make sure that we get to the subject of mission trips and youth mission trips since that’s the main focus of your book. And, I really, really appreciated the book so much. I’ve led a lot of mission trips myself and I think the book is just jammed pack with all sorts of practical perspectives and advice for mission trip leaders. But, for the sake of our listeners, there’s the whole short-term mission movement which, on the one hand, has been such a significant phenomena over the last three or four decades, but on the other hand, more recently the movement has really come under great scrutiny from those who questions whether helping is really hurting or whether the money spent on transportation and sending kids on these trips is really well spent or from people who say “this is just religious tourism.” We all have heard the criticisms of mission trips and your book really engages that controversy head on. And obviously, this is a huge subject. But to summarize things a bit for our listeners, what are some of the things, in light of this controversy that we need to be paying attention to if we want to do our mission trips with integrity?

Jen Bradbury: Some of the key things that I think are really important in terms of doing mission work with integrity. So one is to really think through how you, as a congregation do this and what your plan is and what your vision for this is. And so, I would argue that youth mission trips are always fundamentally about discipleship. Which is different than how a lot of people view them. So, a lot of people think it really is about serving. And I would argue that that’s secondary. And that when discipleship is really your prime focus, it gives you a different lens to be able to look at everything else through. Now in terms of the justice pieces, I think a couple of really key points. So one is to choose wisely where you go and what organization you serve through. So I think a lot of churches have kind of this mindset of “oh, we’ll just assume if there’s a mission trip organization out there that they are doing good work.” And that is not necessarily true. And so, to think through what is important to you and the people you partner with. So for me, I want to partner with organizations that are in a community long term. I think making sure that where you go is, that you are using the resources of that community. So, if you’re going to a Native American reservation in the States, that the guides that you are using are actually Native American. That you are not bringing white people in to tell you about what’s going on there. But that you are hearing from the people there themselves. To recognize that the best work that you can do may very well be listening to someone’s story and not ever building anything. And that again, is a pretty significant mind shift for people. Because a lot of times, especially with youth mission trips, we for some reason, associate this with construction projects. Which is just ludicrous when you think about it since youth have no experience and no skills in that area whatsoever. There are rare exceptions to that, but for the most part, this is an unskilled labor force. And so, to recognize that you may really be doing harm to a community if you go into that community and you takeaway jobs by having youth who are going to do it cheaply.

Ann Michel: Yeah. So, in my denomination, the United Methodist Church our Volunteers in Mission movement has a motto “It’s not about the project. It’s about the people.” And that the relational element of being in mission in, whether it’s in a foreign country or a domestic location, always has to be the focus. But yet, I think, somehow, we just keep defaulting back to this idea that we’re going to go and do all this great work and sort of be these rescuers. And I think part of it is because we approach it from the paradigm of volunteer service. And I think the fact that you named that we have to think about this through the lens of discipleship is a really, really important point.

Jen Bradbury: The other thing that that frees us to do is to think through how we prepare teams. And so, the preparation then becomes not just about teaching them how to, you know, build a house or a picnic table. It’s about teaching them how to listen well. And it’s about teaching them about the Imago Dei. And that all people are created in the image of God. Those become key discipleship points that you deal with before, during, and after your trip. To help give teens a healthy lens through which to view everything else that you’re doing.

I think we need to be way more intentional about the adults who go on mission trips with our kids. And so, ideally, these should be the adults who are serving with your kids all during the year. They should have first dibs at going on a mission trip with those kids. And so they may be parents, but they may not be parents and those are the folks that have relationships with the kids though, which enables them to do that discipling. And it enables that discipleship to be long term, longer than that one week or two weeks of the year. I think also, ideally, with the adults that you bring on a mission trip, you’re looking future oriented so the idea being, you want those adults to have a commitment to continue serving in your youth ministry afterwards. So that it’s not just the mission trip is kind of the culmination event for everybody but instead, it’s part of forward thinking, here’s what we’re going to do when we get back.

Ann Michel: Yeah, I appreciate that so much because I think there’s so much “one and done” thinking. That the mission trip is this unique moment in time and then there’s no follow up in terms of discipleship or in terms of connection with other mission opportunities.

So, I want to begin to draw this to a close, but I thought maybe a nice way to end would be, do you have a particular success story that you might be able to share to inspire our listeners? Maybe a particular young person or a particular mission success that you feel good about in terms of these different perspectives that you’re trying to embody in your youth work and your mission work?

Jen Bradbury: Yeah, great question. So, I’m going to use one that’s several years old, but I still, in my mind is the one that embodies everything that we’re talking about. So, in my previous congregation, we had an ongoing relationship with some missionaries in Rwanda. And so, when I was three years into my ministry in that congregation, we decided to take a high school mission trip to Rwanda, Africa. And we did so because of this refugee connection that our congregation had. And so, our congregation, at the time, was situated across the street from an apartment complex which, in our county, was an apartment complex where refugees, literally from every spot you could think of on the globe, were being resettled into this apartment complex. And so, our church, as a congregation, had looked at this place that was directly across the street from us and said “my word, talk about folks that we can learn from, for one, but that also have a tremendous amount of need.” So, as a congregation we were hosting ESL classes and computer literacy classes and we provided a group of refugees with sewing machines so that they could sew clothes for their family and also sew bags that they could sell. And we “what would it look like to get these kids who had so much exposure to refugees, not just in their congregation, but in their high schools –these were kids who were in classes alongside refugees — to the other end of the refugee highway. And so, through our network, we had gotten connected with these missionaries who were doing regular ministry in a refugee camp in western Rwanda. And so we went to their camp as a part of this experience and so, we did things as well as we possibly could have in that we did some honest fundraising. We did preparation really well. So this was a trip that ran in the summer and yet, we spent the entire year before meeting with this team of students and adult leaders. We required them to read. So, I likened this trip to a varsity sports team and an advanced placement class combined in that we were expecting commitment, and dedication, and a willingness to learn. But we were also expecting kids to do homework. So, we were honest about that from the get go — that you were going to have to put into this trip. So all the kids on that trip have now graduated from college, not just high school. And of the eight kids that went, half are in fields that directly relate to refugees now. Which is just an incredible thing vocationally. Something stirred in them, not just on this trip, though the trip certainly played an important piece of it, but because of the linkage that happened. The fact that once we got home from this trip, they were serving in our ESL, they were working with those parents and with their kids, they were finding ways in their school to come alongside, and they had recognized the needs abroad and chose, very intentionally in some cases, careers that would enable them to do this. So one of our kids, when we had been in that refugee camp kept going “you know, everybody talks about the medical needs and we’ve seen tons of doctors, but we haven’t met yet a dentist.” And he decided he was going to be the one fix that. And so, sure enough, this kid went to dental school. He just graduated. And during the course of his dental school years, formed a non-profit called “Countries Without Cavities” that works alongside refugees to bring some dental care into that community. We had another kid who came very much from a law family. And so he very much saw the need for human rights lawyers in the situations that some of our refugee friends were facing. And so, again, he went to law school and is now actually using that degree to do the very kind of law that he set out to do.

Ann Michel: What a story, wow! I’m so inspired hearing that and thinking about the impact on these kids lives and their vocation and their ability to put their Christian faith at work. Thank you so much for sharing that story. Jen, I’m just really grateful to you for this work. It’s so unusual to have the opportunity to talk to someone who is so thoughtful about the approach that they bring to youth and the approach that they bring to mission work so, I want to thank you for your work and for taking time to talk with our listeners today.

Jen Bradbury: Absolutely, it’s been my pleasure Ann. Thanks for the great conversation and the good questions and just your recognition that youth matter and that they’re important and that we need people, whether or not they’re youth workers, to understand the value of youth in our congregations.

Announcer: On the next Leading Ideas Talks we speak with David King, director of the Lake Institute on Faith and Giving, about new research findings on how congregations receive, manage, and use funds.

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About Author

Jen Bradbury is the content director for Fuller Youth Institute. She has more than twenty years of experience in youth ministry and is the author of several books, recently coauthoring Faith Beyond Youth Group: Five Ways to Form Character and Cultivate Lifelong Discipleship (Baker Books, 2023), available on Cokesbury and Amazon.

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.