“U.S. companies market to adolescents and children with an annual budget of over $15 billion, or about two and a half times more than was spent in 1992,” according to the American Psychological Association. These figures were based on Susan Linn’s Consuming Kids: The Hostile Takeover of Childhood. If that was true in 2004 when the book was published, can you imagine what the figure is now? What does this have to do with youth ministry shrinkage, you might well ask? In some ways, everything.
It’s troubling that this monetary value placed on children, including teens is simply in terms of a financial return. However, it points to a recognition that they have some worth. The question for us in the church and in youth ministry is, what value do we put on young people?
Here is something to consider from 4Imprint in their blue paper on “Marketing to Today’s Youth“: “The second camp is comprised of brands like Coca-Cola or Hulu that seek a broader audience in terms of age. Youth marketing in this camp operates on the assumption that younger audiences can be tapped now in order to cultivate loyal relationships well into the future.” This points to these and similar brands taking a long term view of their youth marketing strategy.
Youth ministry shrinkage and value
The question of the value we place on youth keeps coming back to me as I stack the approach of marketers against what is happening in some places in the church. Youth budgets are being slashed, youth ministry positions are being eliminated, and it seems as if we have lost a sustaining vision for youth ministry. Yes, youth ministry shrinkage is evident at a time when young people are under tremendous pressure. This pressure includes heavy assault on youth by those who are interested in the monetary value of their heart, aka loyalty.
Youth ministry shrinkage, however, is more than a budgetary or monetary issue. That is important, yes. However, it often points to a church’s self-understanding and priorities, which gets back to value.
When youth and education are the first things cut in a budget, you don’t need much of an imagination to figure out the priority being placed on the future that is already manifesting in the present. The same holds true when this budget is cut disproportionately in relation to other cuts. Youth ministry shrinkage therefore, is about mindset and vision as much as it is about money and value.
Youth ministry shrinkage and mindset
Unfortunately, youth ministry shrinkage mindset too often exists in the minds of the youth worker as much as the church. The youth worker does not control the budget. Often, you have limited say in it. While it is true that sometimes you can be a bigger advocate for a larger slice of the pie so to speak, you can only do this with the right mindset and vision.
What does it say if as a youth worker you do not spend any time preparing? Rather, you look for resources that require as little preparation as possible, whether or not they will help your youth grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ? Whether or not they will help youth go deeper in the faith? Whether or not they help your youth connect their faith and life issues? You get the drift.
This “whatever is easiest mindset” has at its heart a sense of filling space and giving the young people something to do. It is often fed by a sense that you should do something with youth, anything, because a church should have a youth group. This “whatever is easiest” mindset is unwilling to invest the time that is needed to value young people and help them grow as disciples of Jesus Christ. It afflicts the church. It afflicts youth workers. It indicates a lack of vision for the present and future.
Youth ministry shrinkage and vision
So where is the vision? Where is the vision that propels a church to invest in its youth? Where is the vision that guides your selection of youth ministry resources and propels you to make a time investment? Where is the vision that counters youth ministry shrinkage? Without a vision, the people cast off restraint (Prov 29:18). It was true when it was written, and it is true now. If you do not have a vision, if your church does not have a vision for youth ministry, stop everything and prayerfully develop one.
Invest. Invest. Invest.
The antidote to youth ministry vision is investment. Investment of finances, of course. But more importantly, investing time. Time in prayer, time in preparation, time in building relationships with youth, time . . . A needed investment that will make sense of all of this, is investing in laying out your vision for youth ministry as a church, as a youth worker, as a youth ministry. If you think you don’t have time, consider and re-prioritize what you are doing.
Less isn’t always more. Less can simply be youth ministry shrinkage. Given our times, youth ministry shrinkage is the last thing we need and a less than worthy offering to God. Don’t leave it solely up to the big brands to have the vision and make the investment in our youth.
Talk back: How do you deal with youth ministry shrinkage?
Living fully. Living faithfully. Following Christ.
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