The pandemic has been exceptionally challenging for young people, and I don't think we've seen the full extent of it yet. They continue to live in a rapidly changing culture, surrounded by social media, with significant pressure and uncertainty around their education, and I have never seen mental health challenges on the scale I am seeing right now.
The role our churches and youth ministries have to play in investing in the next generation is significant, and should not be underestimated. It has been brilliant to see an army of youth workers consistently loving, supporting and discipling young people over the last couple of years and I've been so encouraged to see many youth groups rebuilding and meeting back in person.
Anyone that gets alongside young people knows that authentic relationship is absolutely key – they need consistent connection and I believe youth groups need to meet together now more than ever - in their local settings but also in bigger ones too.
In 2021, Dreaming the Impossible was one of the only youth festivals to go ahead – and God met with hundreds of young people in the most incredible ways. It was a massive rollercoaster and faith journey to get there, with a lot of uncertainty – amazingly all the restrictions lifted just in time! We persevered through all the complications to make the event a reality, because we the young people needed it, they needed to meet each other and meet with God.
I grew up in a small Anglican church in Cambridgeshire, in a youth group of about 15 young people. When I was 13, we went to Soul Survivor for the first time. While I'd grown up in the church and was involved in the church community with my family, nothing quite prepared me for what I felt walking into that cow shed meeting room for the first time. I was surrounded by thousands of other teenagers who were passionate about worshipping God. I saw God move in a way that I hadn't encountered before and I had loads of fun!
Youth Festivals are a huge annual highlight for young people and from the age of 13, I went every year until I was in my early 20s and I was too old!! When else do you get to spend a prolonged period of time with your friends and with God at that age? I built such deep relationships with my peers and youth leaders and looking back, those gatherings were absolutely catalytic for my faith. It was at Soul Survivor when I was about 14 or 15 that I first felt a sense of God calling me to church leadership and give me a heart for the next generation.
Many people are questioning the return of big events in this post-Covid landscape, asking whether there is value in the big. Have festivals run their course? Is God doing something and shaking up the church to try something else? And I've asked myself these questions too but I am convinced, youth festivals continue to be as valuable as ever. It's here that young people are primarily known and discipled and we must continue to invest in local youth ministries, but there is something special that happens at a youth festival, that can't be replicated in a local setting.
What happens in just a few short days can impact what happens for the rest of the year; festivals have long term impact. They give young people the opportunity to be completely immersed in community and in the presence of God for a prolonged period of time.
Whether it's spending time in the meetings encountering God together, at seminars, at the cafes, playing sport, in the silent disco or having hot chocolates together – memories are made and relationships are accelerated between young people and also with their leaders. I've often heard it said, you can do a year's worth of youth ministry in a week at a youth festival!
It's also invaluable for young people to gather with thousands of other Christians and those exploring faith, because it helps them to realise that they are part of something bigger. A young person might be in a youth group of five young people, feeling like they are the only Christian around because they don't know of any in their school or college – but then they come to something like DTI and they realise that there's hundreds, thousands, millions all around the world like them. It's so important for them to know that they're not just part of their tribe, not part of the Baptist or the Anglican or Free Church, but part of God's family, the church.
It doesn't matter whether you take a small group of 3-5 young people or a much bigger group – when young people are outside of their usual environment, immersed in community and the presence of God, hearing relevant talks from the bible, being prayed for, worshipping together, as well as all the fun, there is something incredibly special about what God does in that time.
I've seen it in my own life and in hundreds and hundreds of other young people now. I also think we've seen it in a generation of people who are now in their twenties and thirties. If you walked into many churches and asked these guys whether their faith had been impacted by a youth festival, I would suspect the vast majority of the room would raise their hands.
I know youth work has been a real challenge for many youth groups and churches during this pandemic and many young people are less engaged and struggling spiritually, mentally, and emotionally. Youth festivals are so valuable, often a mountain top experience, a place of accelerated relationship and encounter but we know that festivals alone can't bring all the support and discipleship that these young people so desperately need. It's got to be about relationally discipling these guys through the other 360 days of the year and the role of the local church is vital.
Festivals can give young people the tools in their hands to walk with Jesus, day in day out but it's their youth leaders and peers who are crucial in walking with them through all the ups and downs. They are the ones who are there when they've had a bad day at school, when their exams have gone wrong, when home is difficult, when their grandma has died, whatever it is – they will be there... at their house dropping a present off, sending an encouraging text, praying with them.
So my challenge to you...even though youth ministry right now is challenging and we don't know what the next few months look like; even though you're stretched and some of you might even feel like you've not got much left in the tank, keep loving and gathering your young people locally, and try and do whatever it takes to get your young people to a youth festival this year. It will be so worth it, it will be brilliant for your young people and your youth ministry will be in a stronger place as a result.
Susie Aldridge is the lead pastor for Dreaming the Impossible (DTI) youth movement. DTI serves young people from churches and youth organisations everywhere and is run by Vineyard Churches UK & Ireland. She is based in Nottingham at Trent Vineyard, where she is an Associate Pastor and a volunteer youth leader. She loves anything yellow and is almost always found wearing sunglasses!