A couple of week’s ago, Buzzfeed published an article listing advertising campaigns targeting teenagers in what seemed to be a world where the advertisers had never met a teenager. It’s a comedic article – showing just how wrong the advertising industry can be while also depicting the lack of communication between the generations (leaders/followers) and how people often play off outdated information and incorrect stereotypes.
While reading the article, I immediately likened the experience to that of my local church. One of my biggest arguments in the six years that I have been a youth leader is that church leaders speak to young people rather than listen to them. So churches like mine (and I’m sure many others), create ministries, elect leaders and put forward creative initiatives believing that its what young people need and want based on outdated research or incorrect stereotypes.
In recent films, television series, books, magazines, even cell phone games, there seems to have been a large push for loving your ‘sense of self’. That’s not to say that teenagers don’t still follow their friends or base the foundation of their identity on those around them. But now, even more than before, teenagers want to be respected for their individual interests and experiences.
As a youth leader, I also based the Friday night Youth Program on general problems that all teenagers were dealing with (or so I thought). These were things that I (along with many of my peers) struggled with when I was a teen. It was based on what my leaders practiced; what I saw at other youth groups; what older people told me to do and it took a long time after reflecting on my practice before I was forced to admit to myself that what I was doing just didn’t work – and I was stumped. But how could this be? I had gone on endless training sessions; read many books; and I spoke to lots of previous youth leaders and mentors, yet still nothing I did seemed to resonate with the kids. The games felt stale, the talks felt like it was falling on deaf ears and all our other initiatives weren’t well supported. So I went back to the drawing board and thought: “…if my work situation wasn’t working the way I wanted – what would I want my manager to do? I would want her to ask me why?” so this is what I did – I took it back to the source.
What we often fail to realize is that each of these adolescents are individual entities who have already experienced an intense amount of ‘life’ in such a short space of time. Every year the world becomes worse and outside threats become more prevalent – teenagers are caught in this reality with very little (if any) control are expected to grow up, toughen up and make the most of life at a much greater pace than what was expected of teenagers five years ago. So just like media, advertising and technology is constantly adapting to accommodate these alterations, so to the church and its ministires should be doing the same. These industries emphasize the importance of market research and have focus groups to ensure in that their products have the maximum effect and impact on their target market.
So I decided to follow these industry examples and held focus groups with the kids that were at my Friday Night Youth Programmes. Through this I realised that so much of the youth programme focused on getting more people to come to the Youth Group and not enough was done to cultivate and grow those that were already there. In the focus groups we discussed what the teens enjoyed; what they didn’t enjoy; how the youth leaders had impacted them; and what they wanted to ultimatly see change. We were lucky in that they were inherently (if not brutally) honest with us [so be prepared for this], giving us unfiltered criticism and also encouraging us to make the ministry the best possible experience for them and those that may still come.
In the following weeks after that, the youth leaders then proceeded to get to know each of the young people individually; learnt about their home situations; school situations, friends, like and dislike of church; we continued to probe about what they struggled with, what they felt they needed support with, what they wanted youth to be for them. And then only, based on what we learnt from this research, we changed our strategy from a ‘Get More Kids’ one to a ‘Relationships x3 – Relationship with God, Relationship with leaders, Relationships with each other’ approach. We started to focus on topics and activities that peaked their interest and excited them, with the things they personally struggled with and that which they could relate to. We are acutely aware that we cannot always speak to everyone nor please everyone, but we were commited to make a conscious effort to ensure that throughout our programs we were inspired by them and them by us; to equip, empower and inspire them on their journey with and in Christ.
I am not trying to propose that this model is flawless or that one research approach will revolutionise your ministry, but it might! I am very conscious of the cracks and so have no doubt that our approach would probably have to be changed again in the next year or so, when we seek to draw close to a new strand of teenagers in our community. But the important lesson is that no matter how much experience or education we have, we are not the experts of their (teens) lives – we should be the ones steering them, but not without consulting them on where they would like to go. We have to be willing to let go of the idea of success (growth in numbers); get out of our comfort zone; to sacrifice our complacency in outdated models and stereotypes and choose a willingness to ‘update’ to meet those we love, seek out and serve. Young people never stop growing and neither should we.