Youth Groups in the Digital Age, Part 2

Our youth ministry at the Church of the Advent has experienced a similar trend in students having little interest in Sunday night large group events. At the same time, we have observed a positive trend in another direction. Numbers have grown markedly in attendance at weekly small group meetings, while they have dwindled for large events. This trend has been so salient that it has led to the total reconstruction of the organization of our ministry over the past six years.
My theory on why this trend has occurred rests in the social and emotional state of postmodern teens. Quite simply put, teens are lonely, isolated, and disconnected. Kids want intimacy. Many point to the disintegration of nurturing family structure for this loneliness. Others emphasize the over-programming and intense schedules of children in the pursuit of what David Elkind refers to as “child competence.” Both certainly have a major role in the emotional malaise in which students live.
I personally believe that the evolution of social media and virtual life has played a major role in this social problem, as well. God made people to live in incarnational relationship with one another. Face-face, hand-in-hand, side-by-side. Biblical Christianity embraces the physical realm and embodied relationship. The opposite of what scripture endorses is a gnostic view that the material world is evil and that mankind should strive to transcend above and beyond it.
These realities have large import as it relates to the emotional condition of students. Many students engage in relationship through virtual means more than in an incarnational fashion. A 2010 study revealed that 49% of teenagers verbal communication occurred through text means (email, Facebook, text messages) compared to interpersonal discourse (face-to-face, telephone, etc.). A tremendous amount of student’s social experience occurs in a disembodied fashion where there is no tangible reality. In a sense, they are living the gnostic dream.
My theory has been that students do not desire any more superficial relationship; they access plenty of those via their iPhone. In a large group setting, there is little vulnerability or close connection. I think students really want intimacy, and this explains why they are far more likely to commit to a small group and far less apt to invest time in large meetings.
Seeing this trend, we decided to drop Sunday large group altogether and focus solely on relationship-building, small group Bible studies, and trips, where connections tend to be more intimate. I know many churches view “Sunday night’ as the face or flagship of their ministry and, therefore, resist not having this program. (Everyone seems to measure their ministry by recording how many kids they have coming on Sunday night.) For us, we are comfortable saying, “Nobody wants to come to Sunday night large group, so we don’t do it.” We also are grateful to see that weekly small group numbers continue to grow and students seem content with what we offer in that way.
Has your church or student group experienced similar trends?  How do you explain the cause, and how have you addressed the issue?

Cameron Cole has been the Director of Youth Ministries for eighteen years, and in January of 2016 his duties expanded to include Children, Youth, and Families. He is the founding chairman of Rooted Ministry, an organization that promotes gospel-centered youth ministry. He is the co-editor of “Gospel-Centered Youth Ministry: A Practice Guide” (Crossway, 2016). Cameron is the author of Therefore, I Have Hope: 12 Truths that Comfort, Sustain, and Redeem in Tragedy (Crossway, 2018), which won World Magazine’s 2018 Book of the Year (Accessible Theology) and was runner up for The Gospel Coalition’s Book of the Year (First-Time Author). He is also the co-editor of The Jesus I Wish I Knew in High School (New Growth Press) and the author of Heavenward: How Eternity Can Change Your Life on Earth (Crossway, 2024). Cameron is a cum laude graduate of Wake Forest University undergrad, and summa cum laude graduate from Wake Forest with an M.A. in Education. He holds a Masters in Divinity from Reformed Theological Seminary.

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