The time bomb in the church's midst... and how to defuse it

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As someone who's passionate about youth work, I'm finding it hard to control my temper right now. Across the UK I see youth ministry being de-prioritised by churches seemingly too busy with all those christenings, committee meetings and flower-arranging rotas. I see budgets being slashed, roles being merged or 'deleted', and a church that's gradually losing its connection and relevance to young people. Perhaps most frustratingly, I'm watching as many of the best and brightest in Christian youth work leave the specialism behind and embrace 'grown-up' ministry.

To some extent, who can blame them? The youth work job market has become unstable in the wake of the financial crisis, and even the roles that do still exist are often poorly paid and badly managed. Unlike adult pastoral roles, youth ministry offers almost no viable career path, and asks those workers with families to support them on a pittance. If budgets are cut further, they know they're at highest risk of the chop, while at the same time they're often the least valued and least recognised members of any staff team.

Due to a mix of youth work's uncertain future, and the emergence of trendier training (St Mellitus, I'm looking at you), and yes, alright, the genuine call of God for some to adult ministry, there's been an exodus of great, experienced specialists out of youth ministry in the last few years.

That's unfortunately combined with a marked decline in the amount of youth work that the UK church is providing. Mid-way through the last decade, researcher Peter Brierley suggested that the number of churches doing no youth work at all was at around 50 per cent, rising to 60 per cent over the age of 14. Since then Christian youth work in the UK has been hit hard, with many churches either making posts redundant or combining them, almost impossibly, with a responsibility to oversee children's and family work. Many estimates suggest youth work in the church has suffered massive decline in the last decade. The exceptions aside, the majority of our churches can't find the time, or the workforce, to engage directly with teenagers. And that's a serious problem.

You don't need an awkward sex education lesson to tell you that the teenage years are the period when we go through the most dramatic and significant changes of our lives. It's the stage, more than any other, at which we find out who we are; where we begin to find a centre of gravity of our own, away from our parents and families. It's when we're most likely to form beliefs too; according to the Barna research group in the US, if they haven't made a personal faith decision by their mid-teens, they're very unlikely to make one at all.

Yet for most churches, that doesn't make them a big enough priority. It's why some claim that without good youth work, the church is dead in 50 years. Simple maths tells us that if we're no longer effectively reaching those under 20 (despite our heavy investment in children's ministry, which is often then wasted), there's a point coming on the horizon where there'll be no new blood to replace the old in our congregations.

That's not the main reason to do youth work of course. We should do ministry with young people because they're worth it; because our God loves young people relentlessly, even if our culture has either demonised them or reduced them to a target consumer demographic. We should do ministry with young people because they're amazing; because they're these wonderful, individually-wrapped packages of hope and potential. We should do youth ministry because it's the greatest and most rewarding call that our God has to offer; because a relationship with Jesus Christ is absolutely the best hope anyone can offer them in a culture full of broken promises and unfulfilling short-term highs. Young people aren't just the church of the future, they can be the church of today. And while we all know all this, for some reason the picture isn't improving.

If there's good news in the exodus out of youth work, it's that – in principle – there's a generation of new leaders emerging who totally understand these issues, and feel passionately about them. All those ex-youth workers who are taking on adult ministry roles are implanted deep down with a passion for youth ministry; my hope is that they'll prioritise it, fund it, resource it and implore their churches to care about it. The outgoing generation of youth workers are assuming the power to change the shape of youth ministry for the next.

So while I'm frustrated, I cautiously clutch at green shoots of hope. It seems to me that we need to rediscover the urgent call to work with young people; to find a new generation of men and women who'll give their time and their hearts to serving young people. We need churches and their leaders, right across this country, to decide – even if they don't yet have the skills, resources or people in place – that they're going to recommit to working with young people in their community. Someone has got to tell them about the love of God; the friendship of Jesus; the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.

It doesn't take much. It's not rocket science. All any church needs is a few volunteers willing to invest in young people, and a leadership with the vision to support them. The rest is, by comparison, fairly straightforward. So can the church step up? Can leaders, many of whom have first-hand experience in the area, respond to the challenge and re-commit themselves to youth work?

For the sake of our teenagers; for the sake of the church of the future, I pray the answer is a resounding yes.

Martin Saunders is a Contributing Editor for Christian Today and the Deputy CEO of Youthscape. He's also one of the hosts of the Youth Work Summit on June 20th. You can follow him on Twitter: @martinsaunders

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