The Missional Shift: How Youth Ministry Has Changed Over the Past 20 Years

By Dr. Alvin Reid
Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary

Our world is changing faster than we can keep up. Lots of believers are freaking out over our world but think about it: You and I minister to the largest group of teens and young adults in U.S. history. What an opportunity! While truth doesn’t ever change, how we apply timeless truth in a timely manner really matters! I want to offer five ways the youth world has changed followed by suggestions to meet these challenges today.

1. Public schools.

Twenty years ago, a youth pastor could grab a couple of pizzas, show up at a local school, and be welcomed to sit at lunch with some of his students. Today, a 20something year old showing up on a public school campus is not so welcome. From Columbine to 9-11, we’ve moved from Civil Defense drills in my day to lock- down drills now. In addition, LBGTQ clubs and issues related to transgenderism were virtually unheard of before 2000. The public school remains one of the great mission fields in America.

2. Sports and entertainment.

When I preach in a distant town nowadays, I almost always awaken Sunday mornings to a hotel filled with sports travel teams of mostly teenagers. That wasn’t the case 20 years ago. Add the rise of videogames to the equation: the average 21 year old has played 10,000 hours of videogames.

3. Social media.

Social media is here to stay, and there are more cell phones today than people. Social media offers new ways to interact with youth in discipleship and evangelism. It connects youth globally. But it habits pernicious side, from porn, to bullying, to the ability to experiment in the virtual world. It’s also created FOMO (the Fear of Missing Out), causing more anxiety in an already stressed out youth culture.

4. Time strains.

Youth people seem busier than ever. The pressure to be involved in extracurricular activity to impress colleges (among other reasons), rising AP classes, and a host of others has led many youth to have days filled with more things to do than hours to accomplish them. This obviously affects things like involvement in youth group; more importantly, it creates a driven lifestyle that does not deliver the satisfaction it promises.

5. Youth ministry focus.

In the church, for too long youth groups-unintentionally no doubt-focused too much on behavior modification and church involvement and too little on a Christ-centered life lived 24/7. The National Institute of Youth and Religion created a name for the teaching too often promulgated in churches: Moralistic Therapeutic Deism, resulting in what Kenda Dean calls “an adherence to a do-good, feel-good spirituality that has little to do with the Triune God of Christian tradition and even less to do with loving Jesus Christ enough to follow him into the world.” In As You Go I note a young adult who epitomized so many I’ve seen and youth pastors have recognized. She said once she finished high school, what she remembered from youth group was 1) don’t have sex, 2) invite a friend. She did not recall a strong focus on a Christ-centered life.

How do we respond to the changing times?

With excitement, optimism, and faith! To quote my friend and former student Tommy Kiker who teaches now at Southwestern Seminary: “It seems the line between genuine follower of Christ and the Bible-belt religious practitioner will soon become easily recognizable.” If we will reach this generation, we’d better clarify what a radically changed Christ-follower is and is not. Here are a few thoughts:

1. Share the unchanging truth of the gospel, but differently.

Os Guinness in Fool’s Talk observes how most evangelism training over the last generation has been built not on classic rhetoric or communication theory but on sales techniques. Youth today are both savvy and wary. Simple gospel presentations will reach some, but engaging youth with the gospel, showing them how Jesus changes everything, from our spiritual life to our careers, is vital. It is therefore important that they engage themselves with the ministry for youth and partake in events designated for them. It’s also why I believe that we must teach the gospel to youth both in its essence (the death, burial, and resurrection) and as an epic that is as big as the whole Bible.

2. Teach youth to confront their idols with the Word.

I’m convicted and convinced that sports have become an idol in our time. Sports are not evil, but if you and I talk about our sports teams more than Jesus each week, we may be idolaters. We have to help parents make wise decisions about sports involvement based on a Jesus- first mentality. Bringing in successful sports stars who also lead a faith-first life to speak at events and inculcate the same into the young people of today could be a helpful tool in helping them look at religion from a different perspective, and possibly bring about a deeper sense of faith in them as well. Organizations such as Sports Speakers 360 ( could be a valuable resource for such circumstances, allowing us to bring people in who can showcase how keeping Jesus first does not hinder, but instead can prove immensely helpful in whatever way of life one wishes to lead.

3. Social media can be leveraged as a fantastic gospel tool.

Yes, help students with filters and accountability. But also show them how to use social media to share their testimony, post evangelistic websites (like www. You can even have your youth group take a mission trip to the internet for a week, where their entire social media activity is given to sharing Christ.

4. We have to teach young people biblical priorities and time management.

In a FOMO-based world it’s both ok and necessary to say no, and to step away from our phones. We have not discipled youth if their entire adult life is marked by workaholism and exhaustion.

5. We must make much of Jesus.

I don’t know if there is a church in America that talks about Jesus too much. We don’t talk to lost people about Jesus because we don’t talk about Jesus with each other enough. I came to Christ in the Jesus Movement in the 1970s. Jesus was the big deal then. We need a Jesus Movement today! I believe there is a generation of young people desperate for the love of God and hungry for a vision as big as the Kingdom of God.