When The Icing Becomes The Cake: 4 Ways Youth Culture Has Changed and What it Means for Youth Ministry

We’ve all seen and felt the affects of the rapidly changing youth culture. Those of us who work with students have felt the impact in a very personal way. Other than the occasional rookie who has just taken over a non-existent youth ministry and now has a dozen kids, or someone who is new to their church and is in the midst of the “Let’s go check out the new youth pastor” phase, I haven’t spoken with a youth worker in a long time who is experiencing a boom in attendance at youth group. Most of them are doing everything they can to reach and disciple students, and they are feeling heat from pastors and boards pressing them for numbers.

We now interrupt this article with an important announcement: Cake icing. I love cake icing. Remind me to come back to that.

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I recently talked to a very good friend who is an excellent, long-time youth worker. She had a pretty happening youth ministry, and would often have 50 students coming out to events. But over the past few years attendance has declined, and she has been running more like 25. She has outstanding character, a heart for students, and she works extraordinarily hard. Students and parents love her and her family. So imagine her shock when, after more than 15 years at her church, she was fired. The church leadership decided that the reason their numbers weren’t as high as before was because she was “too old.” I have to tell you something. Her age had little to nothing to do with kids not coming out in droves like they used to.

It’s not just her church. Our whole region is down when it comes to youth group attendance. In fact, it’s not just our area. This is the trend across the country. Sadly, we are losing great youth workers as a result of the challenges of ministering to students presented by our changing culture.

In his excellent book Youth Ministry in a Post-Christian World, Brock Morgan points out that many of the pastors and elders in churches today were youth leaders or students back in the 80s and 90s. Back then, all a youth pastor had to do was say they were having free pizza and giving away t-shirts and kids would line up around the block. Not so anymore. The prophet Bob Dylan rightly said, “Times they are a-changin’.”

So, how is youth culture different today than even 10-15 years ago? There are many ways, but let me share 4 that really stand out to me:

1. Busyness. I grew up in a small town in upstate New York. When I was a kid, my afternoons consisted of eating a snack, doing homework, then going outside to shoot hoops. I was looking for things to do! So when my youth group had an event, I was chomping at the bit to go. I now live on Long Island, and the students in my context have a very different after-school routine. It’s off to sports practice, then mom picks them up and whisks them off to tutoring, then they grab some food at the drive-thru on the way to music lessons. They get home at 9:30pm, and the poor kid still hasn’t done homework. So, the kid stays up until 1am doing homework, only to have to get up at 6am to do it all over again the next day. It’s insane!

When I started off in youth ministry, I would get calls from moms asking how they could pay for their kid to go on the retreat. Now I get calls from moms apologizing that their kid can’t go on the retreat because they’re taking their 7th Practice (Practice! We’re talking about practice!) SAT. When I travel back up to the town I grew up in, I often feel like I am in a time warp. I say that because I know there are certain parts of the country where this point might not be as noticed or felt as others, but I would still contend that the level of busyness is a major shift in youth culture as a whole. In his book Simple Solutions for Families in the Fast Lane, my friend and author Timothy Smith says, “A generation ago the latchkey kid was the poster child for neglect; nowadays it might be the overscheduled kid who never rests but is shuttled from activity to activity.”

2. Technology. No surprise here. We all know how technology has changed the world we live in and affected the way our students function. When I was a kid, my parents always used to get on me about walking with my head up. I was always walking around with my head down, and I was missing what was going on around me. But I was looking at my feet because, as a clumsy teenager, I didn’t want to trip and look dumb in front of girls. (Of course, I probably looked dumb staring at my feet as I walked.) Today, kids walking with their heads down is the norm. But they aren’t looking at their feet. They’re looking at their Feet App. Perhaps you’ve seen YouTube videos like the one of the lady falling into the fountain at the mall because she was texting and walking. According to Common Sense Media, the average teenager spends more than 9 hours a day on media. Cell phones have led students (and adults!) to become so fixated on what’s going on in everyone else’s life that they don’t really know what’s going on in everyone else’s lives because they aren’t looking them in the eye anymore. And, when they aren’t seeing what everybody else is wearing or doing, they are self-absorbed, focusing on how they are presenting themselves to everyone else.

3. Accessibility. Remember the hard work of looking up someone’s number in the phone book? Remember going to the library to look up information in the Encyclopedia? (The struggle was real!) Remember when looking at seedy material meant taking the risk of being seen reaching for the top shelf of the magazine rack in the gas station or grocery store? Remember when getting drugs meant going to a shady part of town and meeting someone face-to-face for an exchange of money for goods? Technology has forever changed the accessibility of information and exposure to material. A parent recently commented to me, “When we closed the door of our house when I was growing up, the world stayed outside. Now it is inside our houses.”

4. Intensity. And the culmination of these has led to students living in a world of increased intensity. Busyness has led to higher levels of pressure and stress. Furthermore, while kids today still have the same fundamental struggles as previous generations (sex, drugs, alcohol, etc.) the evolution of technology and accessibility have intensified the battle with temptation.

So how has all of this affected our ministry to youth? On the one hand, nothing has changed. Youth ministry is still fundamentally about loving students to Jesus. That has never changed. The students we work with need to know they are loved, accepted, belong, and that God has a purpose for their lives. And youth ministry still requires caring adults who love Jesus and want to help students love Jesus.

But here’s what I have found: Because of the afore mentioned changes in youth culture, the way we access students in order to minister to them has changed. As a long-time local church youth worker, for years I could bank on the fact that I would have the opportunity to impact students at least once a week when they came to church for youth group. I put a lot of time into my messages, we worked hard on our program, and we made sure that we connected with students relationally before and after services. Anything I did beyond that — going to kids’ games, concerts, plays, etc. — was icing on the cake.

Cake icing. Thanks for reminding me to come back to it. I love cake icing! I remember once my wife was making some cake, and she had leftover frosting which she placed in the refrigerator. One day, she went to get that icing out of the refrigerator only to realize that someone had apparently broken into our house and stolen it. We were furious! I was grieving. Mysteriously and thankfully they left all of our jewelry and expensive items behind. I may or may not have known the thief. When it comes to cake, I would almost say that you can skip the bread part altogether. Do we really need all of that fluff? Just give us that that sweet, delicious icing!

OK, back to youth ministry. Here’s the thing. In spite of all the time I spent in the kitchen (the church) planning programs and events and preparing sermons (making cake bread), I have been around youth ministry long enough to realize that kids remember very few of the messages I preached. What they remember, what has proven to be the most meaningful to them, is the icing — the times I left my church world and entered theirs. They remember when I showed up at their game. They remember when I came to their play, their karate black belt test, their concert. They remember the card I sent them when they hadn’t been to youth group in 3 months due to their sports. Not only is the icing of youth ministry the most fun part of the job, it’s also the most important, and the most impactful. The cake bread may be good, but the icing is where it’s at. In a day when many kids are finding themselves disconnected from church, it is the job of the church to go to them. The church is fundamentally a sent-people. It is our job as youth workers to be the church; to be church and take church to students.

The game has changed, folks! If you are a youth worker you know this. But it can be difficult to explain to pastors, elders, and church leaders who grew up in a time when everybody went to church, or, when all you had to do was announce free food and kids would come running to you like you were giving away free money.

I agree with Brock Morgan that we need to change our thinking, especially when it comes to the issue of numbers. It’s not time to stop counting, rather, it’s time to change what we are counting. Rather than asking how many kids came into our church building this week, how about we start asking: How many kids did you take out for coffee this week? How many kids did you text? How many leaders did you invest in? How many school campuses were you on? How many of your student’s friends were you able to meet at the football game? How many parents did you have a conversation with? Instead of asking who wasn’t at small group, ask your leaders if they know why those students weren’t there (practice, game, homework, out of town, etc.) and how they reached out to let the students know they were thought of and missed?

Rather than writing off youth as rebellious, irreligious, or disinterested because they didn’t come to our programs; rather than getting upset at parents because they didn’t bring them; rather than condemning youth workers for not being able to get kids to come to the church, let’s celebrate when youth workers capitalize on opportunities to impact a students’ lives by simply entering their worlds. Let’s communicate to students that they don’t just count when they show up at church to support what we are doing, but that they count, period. They matter to us. They can see, feel, and know we love them because, like Jesus, we embrace our call to incarnate the gospel, and we “move into their neighborhood” as Eugene Peterson says Jesus did when He became a human (John 1:14, The Message).

The icing is the cake. So …

be Incarnational. The ministry of presence is one of the most powerful things you can engage in. Go to students’ events. You might not get to have much conversation with them, even after the game, because they are often whisked away to the bus, but just hearing you cheering in the stands, seeing you waiving to them or congratulating them after the game will leave a lasting impression.

be Innovative. Find creative ways to enter students’ worlds, including their online worlds. Use the evolving technology to your advantage. When you do you are speaking to students in a language they understand.

be Intentional. Think through ways you can connect with students on a daily, weekly, monthly basis. One of my definitions of a good youth worker is a person who lives their life for Jesus and takes a student along for the ride. What are you doing in the course of your normal routines that you might be able to invite a student to do with you once in a while? Think strategically about how you can build relationship and invest in their spiritual growth while also getting things done that you had to do anyway.

and finally, Immerse Students in Grace. Just last week I took some time to send cards to 6 different students that I know have not been to youth group for months. Why hadn’t they been there? You guessed it. Busyness with sports. I had been keeping tabs on them, and when their seasons were wrapping up I sent them each a card to congratulate them and to let them know that we had been thinking about them, cheering for them, and missing them. I got several Thank You texts, but one really stood out. It was from a mom. She wrote, “Our daughter is choosing her college tonight. She was on the phone for over an hour with her sisters … After the call I finally got her to come downstairs for dinner and your note had come today. She opens your note [with a Starbucks gift card] and just starts shaking her head … ‘I was actually thinking about going to Starbucks tonight,’ she says. And then she teared up a little. God has been two steps ahead of her in the last 24 hours, and this was just one more validation of that fact in a CRAZY DIZZY whirl of choices and options…. I’m crying I’m so happy…. I just wanted you to know that your note — free of judgment (she’s been SO unavailable) and full of encouragement really gave her a boost and a seat at her youth group’s table….” This girl probably won’t remember the message I preached last week that I spent twenty hours preparing (bread), but she will probably never forget the note that took me just two minutes to write (icing). The icing has always been a part of youth ministry. Now, I believe, more than ever before, the icing isn’t just a nice compliment to the bread part of the cake, the icing IS the cake!