“The Changing Contours of Youth Ministry” featuring Deech Kirk

Leading Ideas Talks
Leading Ideas Talks
“The Changing Contours of Youth Ministry” featuring Deech Kirk

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Podcast Episode 127

What new approaches to youth ministry are emerging in our post-Covid era? Deech Kirk of the Center for Youth Ministry Training 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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Announcer: Leading Ideas Talks is brought to you by the Lewis Center for Leadership of Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, DC. Subscribe free to our weekly e-newsletter, Leading Ideas, at churchleadership.com/leadingideas.

How can your church help youth claim a vital faith? No question is more critical to the future of the church. Learn effective tips and strategies your congregation can use to improve ministry with teens and their families with 50 Ways to Strengthen Ministry with Youth. Read now, share, and download free at churchleadership.com/50ways.

What new approaches to youth ministry are emerging in our post-Covid era? Deech Kirk of the Center for Youth Ministry Training 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.

Ann Michel: Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks. My name is Ann Michel. I’m a senior consultant with the Lewis Center for Church leadership and one of the editors of Leading Ideas e-newsletter. And I’m so pleased to be the host for this episode of Leading Ideas Talks. Our guest today is Deech Kirk, who has served since 2006 as the executive director of the Center for Youth Ministry Training. He has over 25 years of experience in youth ministry. He’s written a couple books on the subject of forming youth, and we just couldn’t have a more qualified person with us today to talk about some of the changing contours of youth ministries. Welcome to Leading Ideas Talks.

Deech Kirk: Thanks, Ann. So glad to be here.

Ann Michel: Some of our listeners may not be familiar with the Center for Youth Ministry Training. So, to begin, I wondered if you could say a word about your mission and the work that you do at the Center.

Deech Kirk: Sure. The Center for Youth Ministry Training exists to equip both youth ministers and communities of faith, and we define communities of faith as being both partner churches as well as nonprofit ministries or sometimes a camp or a campus ministry. We exist to equip both youth, children, college ministers, and those communities to develop effective and theologically informed youth ministries. We do that through three methods. We have a graduate residency in youth ministry where we recruit folks, both nationally and internationally, who feel vocationally called specifically to children or youth ministry. And then we 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. While they’re in those roles, we provide them a veteran minister who guides them as their coach. So, our real goal with the residency is to surround each resident with everything they need to grow into who God’s called them to be.

Ann Michel: And when you say graduates, are these seminary graduates?

Deech Kirk:  They are enrolled in seminary. They are post college and are pursuing a master’s level education and have entered our residency department because of the support that we are able to provide them in addition to their seminary education. So, that’s a little bit about the residency. Then we have some Lilly Initiatives that we’re working on. We have the Innovation Lab.

Ann Michel: Right. We’re familiar with that work because one of our graduates leads it.

Deech Kirk: Yes, Megan Hatcher is a Wesley Seminary grad and leads our Innovation Lab process. And we’ve developed this theological innovation process. We’re working with congregations across the country to help them reimagine what it looks like to do ministry within their context and especially within the changing social context of our country and world right now. And we also have a Lilly project called Theology Together, and it is an initiative where we are working to help 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 we’ve got some curricula that’ll be coming out this fall that people might want to investigate as we help young people dive deeply into the questions they have, which we believe will foster faith as they pursue both their doubts as well as raise the questions that can be roadblocks sometimes.

Ann Michel: Well, there couldn’t be a better time to think about disruptive changes and how we respond to them. I wondered if, in very broad brushstrokes, you could name some of the common challenges churches are facing when it comes to youth ministry today.

Deech Kirk: In general, I think one of the challenges that exists is that older adults — and you can decide how old older adults are — but some older adults have a fear factor as it relates to engaging with teenagers and being in relationship with them. Maybe we were always afraid of ourselves when we were 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. And so, in many congregations, churches just “put the youth over there. Let’s put them over there. Let’s find a few people or an individual who can relate to them and let them do their thing.” And so, there’s often a challenge of integration, a generational challenge.

Ann Michel: The siloing of youth ministry.

Deech Kirk: Yeah. That has existed from the seventies or even the sixties when the church imitated parachurch ministries, and that has carried forward all the way to today. That’s one of the challenges that I’m sure we will continue to face, so just trying to figure out how to be in those relationships would be one of them.

Ann Michel: I’m glad you named that. Because I always sensed as my children were growing up through the adolescent and teenage years that we are really captive to a cultural myth that teenagers are difficult and rebellious and, you know, that wasn’t my experience in parenting teenagers. But I think that cultural myth is so dominant that it’s one of the reasons people are kind of afraid of engaging with teenagers. So, I’m really glad you named that. I wanted to ask the same question related to the work your center does in calling and equipping youth leaders. What are some of the challenges that you see there?

Deech Kirk: Yeah. As it relates to youth ministry, right now one of the challenges the “capital C” Church is facing is that we have a real disconnect. This disconnect has been growing, and maybe we would have even named it 30 years ago. It is that young people have frustrations with the church. What we’re experiencing today is that that young people are much less present. The statistics borne out by Barna and other research institutions would suggest that we have fewer and fewer young people in church. We have fewer and fewer families attending church. And so, in that space, as you unpack some of their statistics and look at and talk to young people after young people, they really feel very disconnected from the church.

What’s really interesting is that they feel very connected to social justice. They feel really connected 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. And so, we’re missing a real opportunity there 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: If I could follow up on that, I’ve heard so much conversation in recent years about how ministries of justice and service can be a real entry point for younger people into the church. Yet I’m not 100 percent sure that we really know how to bridge that gap and make that a visible calling card to younger people. Are you seeing that happen in effective ways in any places?

Deech Kirk: With the disruption of Covid, we certainly are coming out of a timeframe where the church really wasn’t doing much of anything. Right? A lot of the spaces weren’t meeting at all. So, the idea that we were serving others — there’s a greater separation that took place during that time. But one of the spaces 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 of using disruption. And what that implied was for the young people to name the needs that they saw in their community, whether that was hunger or whether that was a space of welcome and belonging or whether it was the anxiety that young people were experiencing as a part of growing up in a high-pressure society for young people. They began to identify those needs and then they began to look for ways that they could live into those spaces. Andrew’s work there is to be admired because not only would they then enter into spaces where they were serving others and trying to meet the needs that the young people were naming but they were taking the time to then make the theological connection 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? So, that’s a space where we’ve seen that work done and done well. But on the whole, the church is struggling currently to recover some of that space.

Ann Michel: My ears picked up when you were talking about how they were really making theological connections between the work that they were doing because I think, in general, churches do a poor job of that. They may have a lot going in terms of engaging people in social service, but they aren’t doing it in a way that’s particularly formative. I also was interested that the youth were actually engaged in helping to discern the areas of service. Because I think so often churches go out there and say, “we’re doing this wonderful thing —  come and join us” instead of allowing others to help shape the priorities.

Deech Kirk:  Youth Front is a ministry in a Kansas City nonprofit. And they have a component to their ministry where they serve in the local schools called Imagine X, so it’s Imagine whatever it is. And they’re taking middle school students in the school setting and having them process the needs of their community. One of the projects that emerged from Imagine X is that young people realized that there were no swimming pools in the lower income communities, so there wasn’t access to the fun that comes through playing with water. And as they began to investigate that with the help of some guiding adults, they realized there was a “water desert” in all low-income areas of Kansas City. Those adults even helped them get to speak to the mayor about these things. And eventually they came up with a project. They bought a portable pool and got permission to take it from city park to city park in the neighborhood, to take it down and reset it up 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. But because they’re in the school systems, one of the places that there’s not as strong a connection is that they don’t do the theological reflection at the same level. There’s some of it that takes place because Youth Front is a Christian organization, so there’s some curiosity that is allowed in those spaces. But when we’re able to take that kind of ingenuity among teenagers and bring that together with helping them understand how that’s in line with God’s vision for the world, then we’re moving toward vocational alignment with young people, which is very exciting.

Three young peopleHow can your church help youth claim a vital faith? No question is more critical to the future of the church. Learn effective tips and strategies your congregation can use to improve ministry with teens and their families with 50 Ways to Strengthen Ministry with Youth. Read now, share, and download free. Discover more 50 Ways tips and strategies at churchleadership.com/50ways.

Ann Michel: You very briefly mentioned Covid. But I wanted to drill down on that a bit. Covid has changed the contours of so many aspects of church life. But my guess is, at least based on the experience in my own church, that it’s been particularly disruptive, and I would say even devastating, to some of the work that local churches are doing in youth ministry. I wondered if you could share what you’re seeing both through and coming out of the pandemic in terms of its impact on youth ministry.

Deech Kirk:  Sure. Devastating is the word I would choose. It’s very rare that a congregation was able to hold those pieces together and then to move forward. There are some that are out there, but they are very few in number. The majority of congregations are rebuilding as we are in the youth ministry world. In some ways, it’s similar to having lost a youth minister and you lose the sophomores, juniors, and seniors who were connected to them because they now feel disconnected. And you bring in a new youth minister and they have to start to rebuild with middle school and work back up. That’s something I think the Church has experienced over the years. And we really lost a lot of time, precious time, with the young people who were in their early high school years that has carried them all the way into college. Especially that group, oh, my gosh, who transitioned from high school to college as a part of that. The disconnect from the church is very strong for them. They’re disconnected from Wesley Foundations or UKirks or other campus ministries, so there’s a real gap and hole. That’s one component of what we’re seeing. There’s just a struggle to rebuild that the church is experiencing a hole.

Of course, I know you’d be familiar — because the center has focused on this, too — but the mental health of young people, which was a crisis in our country prior to Covid and has just been escalated post Covid, is a real concern for those who are seeking to do youth and children’s ministry. Young people always need a place to belong, help with identity, and want to discover their purpose and calling. Those things haven’t changed but the mental health impact of young people right now, to be able to hear …. Guitars and games are really important to youth ministry. Don’t get me wrong. I love guitars, I love games, but right now — with the need to be cared for and to be known, the isolation that young people have experienced — their social dynamics are really low because they’ve spent years being told not to do those things. “Don’t talk.” That’s really, really significant, and it’s an important part of how we prepare youth ministers, but also how we welcome young people into our spaces by realizing that, just because they come through the door, that doesn’t mean that they actually have the social skills right now to interact with each other.

Ann Michel: I’m so glad you brought that up because I had intended to ask about that. You read so much about the loneliness and the mental health challenges among youth. What does it mean for how a local church is going to be in ministry to youth? I heard you just say to be really welcoming and aware. But what more can a local church do to respond to this crisis?

Deech Kirk: I think we’re going to have to learn, and we’re going to need to learn really fast. With nearly one in three young people experiencing a social anxiety disorder, there is a need to ensure that those who are working with our teenagers are able to identify social disorders, anxiety 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 also to have a sense of how to respond. It’s a need that must be met, similar to how someone who’s hungry is not able to hear the gospel from you until you’ve met their physical need of hunger.

I believe that we will struggle with young people right now. How can they understand what it means to be a part of the body of Christ until we’ve helped them? Now our theology would tell us that helping them understand the body of Christ will be a way in which we can help them address the social anxiety and components they’re missing. But there’s a learned knowledge there that will be really necessary as we try to respond to this time and space in which young people have had an experience that is different than anything we’ve ever experienced before.

Ann Michel: I think there are just so many areas of church life these days where we can just palpably feel the rumbles of paradigm change, whether it’s worship attendance or church finances or faith formation more broadly. I think we’re all aware that things are really changing. We have known for a long time that the old Sunday-night-church-basement youth group paradigm that we all grew up with is not the future of youth ministry, so I wondered how you see some of the newer, more innovative ways of being in ministry with youth taking shape.

Deech Kirk: Yeah, that’s a nice broad question. I think it’s really important to note when the Center for Youth Ministry Training visits with a church about potentially partnering with us. As we meet with the leadership of that church, they are nearly always imagining youth ministry to be what we think of as ‘90s youth ministry. That’s what they have in their head. 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, but we’re in that shift now, so I can name some spaces yet we’re on the way towards “writing the books,” so to speak, that people will read around ideas that other people can seek to employ. But we see among our graduates a real focus on creating spaces of rest and belonging.  Becca Bibee is down at Trinity United Methodist Church in Huntsville, Alabama. As a part of her work, their young people named the fact that they didn’t know how to rest. They didn’t know how to take Sabbath and even understand quite what that looked like. So, they went through a process of discovering what Sabbath and rest look like that they have now embedded into all forms of their youth ministry. That’s really countercultural to the lights flashing and guitars and games and, you know, messy games that we think of from the past.

One of the pieces that Trinity brings to the table is that this 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. That’s a really interesting shift and dynamic to imagine those things. What’s really interesting at Trinity was that as the adults in the congregation found out that the youth were working on this project, they’re like, “Wait! We don’t know how to do that. We don’t know how to rest, either.” And so, the entire congregation had a Year of Jubilee where they cut back on the number of programs they offered and then they ensured that they were practicing Sabbath and rest as a part of their ministries throughout the entire congregation. That’s a really different type of shift.

I also think of Justin down in Houston, Alabama. His ministry is really emerging and developing around gaming. Now gaming has been really big for a long time. Ever since Nintendo came out — sorry, it’s ever since Atari came out — gaming has been a thing. But it’s a different thing today. I’m almost 50 and it is a lot different thing today than it was when I was a kid and 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 that is involved as well.

Justin had grown up as a gamer and he realized the opportunity that existed within that group to help create spaces of belonging. And Justin has been very intentional about creating an outreach through his young people who enjoy gaming, to those who participate in that space. That connection has allowed him to then bring discipleship and Jesus into those spaces and invite young people in a very different way. And he’s had to shift his understanding of what “youth group” looks like to better fit what it looks like to invite those people not just to be together online but to come together in person. So, some of their activities look a little bit different. Some of his gamers were really also into Legos. I don’t think of Lego construction being 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.

Ann Michel: We actually have Lego Sunday School in our church in the summertime.

Deech Kirk:  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 the fact that they felt extraordinary stress and pressure. I overheard, as they were working, that a young person named the fact 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 was naming the fact that he used to feel like, whatever he did, no matter how bad, it was good enough. And he was claiming the space that he felt this extraordinary pressure, that nothing he did was good enough. They ended up naming that they all felt an extreme fear of failure, so that youth ministry began to build into their time fail-safe components — opportunities to intentionally fail for fun.

I think, while these three examples are very different, what they have in common is that they’re seeking to understand the needs that young people are naming and then looking for creative ways to respond to those. In all those situations, the young people are part of the solution, and I think that is a big part. When we think about mental health, when we think about the challenges that the church is facing as it relates to connecting with young people, a lot of it will be around the adaptability and the creativity of inviting young people into helping to be a part of their own solution and then viewing that with theological reflection because each of those spaces we just described creates tremendous opportunity for theological reflection and discipleship.

Ann Michel: Thanks for tying that altogether. That was really very helpful. I want to move on to the subject of leadership for youth programs. Whether or not a church has a paid staff person for youth, and most don’t, or whether they are relying on volunteer leadership, I think so many churches are finding it challenging to get and keep the right adult leadership team. And I wondered if you have any advice on that front.

Deech Kirk: Hanging on to good volunteers has a lot to do with making sure that they are equipped. If they are willing to do this work, are we providing them the resources and the equipping and the training that they need to be able to do this well? Because if they feel like they’re not succeeding, then they are not going to stay with it.

And then support. I love teenagers. And I have been with them for 30 years. And so, I’ve got a lot of experience in, when it doesn’t go right, not going home feeling like I’m a failure. But I know many a volunteer who is new to ministry. Where it gets derailed is, like they were watching the Yankees game before they came to the Bible study and they can’t quit talking about baseball. You just can’t quite get them on track for where you’re going or whatever it is. What is needed is a community of support, whether that’s the volunteers themselves at your church who get together and talk about collectively how much they love what they do but who also support each other, knowing that it doesn’t always go as planned. Or if they’re part-time or staff persons, they’re part of a community of other youth leaders where they can hear — I think that’s one of the most freeing things in the world — to hear that it doesn’t go well for everybody either, that it’s hard.

And then just appreciation. Most churches are not the best at appreciating people. How can we, even if they’re not a staff member and probably more so if they’re not a staff member, how can we appreciate the work that they do and ensure that we recognize that giving up every Sunday or Wednesday night or Sunday morning is a significant sacrifice and build in opportunities for them to feel appreciated in the volunteer work that they do.

Ann Michel: Those are great lessons, really, in terms of supporting any kind of ministry, so I appreciate you naming those. One final area I wanted to ask you about is the role of parents. I am not a youth ministry expert, but I’ve read a fair amount of the research and literature in the last decade or so. And everything that I’ve read emphasizes how critical the role of parents is in forming the faith of youth and adolescents. I know you wrote a book a while back called Raising Teens in an Almost Christian World. I wondered if you could speak to the role of parents 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 in an environment where the conditions are that the parents are both biblically illiterate and don’t have the tools for theological reflection? How can we do that work? That is the primary emphasis of our Theology Together work right now that we’re doing at CYMT. It is to develop resources that will help parents be able to have those conversations at home.

Ann Michel: Well, thank you for that work. It sounds like that’s exactly the frontier that is so important right now. And thank you for all that you’re doing and all that you shared today. This has been a fascinating conversation. And I’m really grateful that you’ve been willing to take some time to share it with our Leading Ideas audience. So, thank you to you.

Deech Kirk:  Of course, and thanks so much for having me.

Announcer: Thank you for joining us for Leading Ideas Talks.

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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.