The Need for Innovation

At some point in this history of the modern church, the terms “youth group” and “youth ministry” became indistinguishable from one another. Although we’ve all seen a variety of programs and models for ministering to young people, at the end of the day almost all programs boil down to the operation of a peer-based youth group.
Over the past 130 years, organizations such as Young Life, Youth for Christ, Son City, and others have offered a wide range of programming for youth, yet nearly all of the groups start with seven common assumptions:

  1. The group is peer-based.
  2. The group meets regularly face-to-face
  3. The group consists of like-minded peers
  4. The group is guided by designated Christian adults
  5. The group’s purpose is spiritual enrichment and faith education
  6. The group uses age-based curriculum
  7. The group’s goal is to see youth matriculate into adult Christian activities

Surveys after surveys consistently show that youth ministry in the mainline church is undeniably in trouble, yet organizations continue to be beholden to these seven assumptions, and continue to rely on this formula for youth ministry. 
If the mainline church wants to save youth ministry from its current state of trouble, then the traditional youth group can not be the only strategy for ministering to young people. Many churches are stuck in a cycle of imitation rather than innovation even as youth group dies on the vine, which is why CYMT has developed the Theological Innovation Process. 
CYMT began studying design engineering and we realized the similarities to the practical theological process which allowed us to create the Theological Innovation Process which is a unique blend of these two.  The Theological Innovation Process is guiding our efforts to innovative ways to minister to teenagers in today’s culture. The Good News has not changed, but how we invite people into a life of faith in today’s world needs new ideas. 
This year at Cultivate: A Thoughtful Conversation in Youth Ministry we will share some of what we are learning in our Youth Ministry Innovation Laboratory. We’ve also invited other leaders in ministry innovation to the conversation as well.  This will be a great opportunity to learn more about the Theological Innovation Process first hand.
Undoubtedly, many of you have ideas you want to create and implement. Some of you may have no idea where to begin, but you’re desperate not to do more than maintain the status quo. By walking through a structured, but flexible, process, we believe that collaboration and intentional actions will help pull ideas from unlikely places and push them into achievable practices.
Phase 1 of the Theological Innovation process is the Describing Phase. Almost all innovation experts agree that good innovation starts with noticing a problem or opportunity. There are three key elements in our Describing Phase: observation, data, and empathy. These three elements worked out in the Describing Phase create a solid foundation on which to build a potent idea. As Jesus reminded us, a house built on a weak foundation will fall, and a great idea based on faulty reasoning is just as likely to ultimately fail (but we can still redeem those failures!).
As we have worked with churches in the Youth Ministry Innovation Lab, we are not surprised to find that adult volunteers and youth workers alike do a lot of assuming about teenagers. We assume we understand their needs and the inner-workings of their lives.  Every generation’s youth subtly shift from the previous generation. Boomers, Xers, Millienials, and Generation Z (we will look at them at Cultivate too) are all unique from one another. Members of these generations experienced adolescence a little differently. 
As a part of the Innovation Lab, we invited participating churches to interview teenagers and to observe them, to talk to them, and to listen to them. We also talked to professionals who regularly interact with teenagers outside of the church.  If you want to begin thinking about how you might do youth ministry differently, we have to begin with today’s unique teens. We created a ‘teenager’ and an ‘adult who works with teenagers’ interview guide (download below!) so that you can start your own investigation into today’s teens. This is a great project for a student ministry team to tackle together. You’ll want to find adults to interview who regularly interact with a variety of teenagers in significant and unique ways. These adults may include sports coaches, scout masters, middle or high school teachers, school administrators, licensed adolescent counselors, school counselors, Young Life leaders, etc.
Second, interview a variety of teenagers in your community. Avoid the common pitfall of only speaking with the “usual suspects” who hang around your church or  already attend your youth ministry. We recommend having the adults whom you interview put you in touch with teenagers that you can also interview. You should coordinate to ensure that you’re speaking to youth who represent the diversity of your community in ethnicity, socio-economic class, gender, religiosity, etc.
*As a reminder ALWAYS conduct interviews in a public place, and try to have a third party present for the interview. Never be alone with the teenagers you interview, and follow any additional guidelines required by your church’s conduct policies.*
A second tool that you can use as a part of the Descriptive Phase as you investigate youth and your community is our Cultural Toolkit Assessment.  Remember, innovation experts agree that good innovation starts with observation and investigation. The first step in innovation is noticing a problem or opportunity. Please share with us what you notice and learn, we can’t wait to hear from you. 
To learn more about Innovation visit the Youth Ministry Innovation Laboratory or join us at this year’s Cultivate: A Thoughtful Youth Ministry Conversation.
At Cultivate, you will hear from people like Rev. Matt Overton. You can hear a quick summary of his youth ministry innovation story below.
Register for Cultivate 2020 to hear and discuss more about what an innovation approach to youth ministry in your own context may look like! Cultivate 2020 is January 22-24 in Nashville, TN! 


Starting in Innovation: Interview Guide

Use this week’s download to help you jump start innovative ideas on how you might approach youth ministry differently. Download Here.