Challenges of Youth Ministry Across Faiths

*Update April, 2nd, 2013: This was the essay I wrote for my Harvard Divinity School application. After struggling with how to frame and write this part of my application, I finally produced this essay. I decided to share this note with you even though I published this post in January, in case you’re also thinking of applying to HDS. When I sent this into HDS I didn’t think it was perfect, and I’m still feel the same way. But, sometimes the imperfect can be exactly right. Oh, and yes I found out I was accepted a few weeks ago. 🙂

My work with so far has focused on working with Muslim and Unitarian Universalist (UU) communities youth communities; hence, I’m going to layout the challenges of youth ministries across these two faiths that I’ve seen in my work. Many faith communities in the U.S. are facing the problem of large elderly populations in their congregations, and small to non-existent population of youth aged 18-30. The challenge of retaining youth after high-school, is more than just about them leaving for college. Twenty percent of the U.S. population under the age of 30 is now identifying as religiously unaffiliated and some of those adults are theists (nones). This fact suggests that faith communities are unable to maintain relationships with their estranged youth communities.

Why is there a decline in the retention of youth in American faith communities such as Unitarian Universalists and the American Muslim community post high-school?

The main contributing factor – the way youth and youth ministries are perceived.  In his book, Acts of Faith: The Story of an American Muslim, the Struggle for the Soul of a Generation, Eboo Patel states,

Too many adults secretly consider the absence of young people in mainstream religious communities the natural course of events, viewing the kids as too self-absorbed, materialistic, and anti-authoritarian to be interested in religion. The result is that adults pay lip service to the importance of involving youths in faith communities but let themselves off the hook when it comes to actually building strong, long-lasting youth programs. Youth activities are typically the top item in a congregation’s newsletter but the last line in the budget. Youth programs are the most likely to be funded by short-term grants, and youth ministers are the first to be fired when a religious community has financial problems. (148-149) from Yet Another Unitarian Universalist

Adults in congregations whether they are Muslim or UU speak about the importance of youth programming, but only perceive that importance as a short-term goal. Meaning, that youth are perceived as leaving a congregation at the age of 18, hence, the budget for youth ministry programs are the first to be cut and comes with additional limits. Congregations across diverse faith communities stop investing in maintaining a relationship with youth after they leave their congregation for college.

Another factor to consider is the way perception of clergy influences the relationship they have with their youth ministry and youth under 18. Often older ministers have gone through a type of youth ministry training 20 or 30 years prior with no updated training. Youth ministry is not going to be the same as youth ministry was in the 1960’s, which ends up being the expectation of older clergy. In the case of most Imams, they’ve not had any youth ministry training. In the case of Unitarian Universalists, youth ministry training for ordination only became a required competency about ten years ago. The large disconnect between clergy and today’s youth generation who can fall victim to cyber bullying or sexting is a disadvantage that prevents adequate pastoral care from being administered.

How can an older minister provide pastoral care to a youth victim of cyber bullying or sexting, when that minister does not know what Facebook, Tumblr or Pinterest is? Youth advisors, who usually are volunteers, cannot completely be relied on to provide the level of pastoral care that a minister should be providing. Of course, the easiest ways to learn about the constantly changing youth culture is to build intentional relationships with younger congregants or youth groups in faith communities, and maintain that relationship through consistent presence. Mindful presence requires seeing value in youth ministry and in those youth relationships.

In a recent article by Omar Sacirbey titled, “American Imams Too Few to Meet the Demand in American Muslim Community,” he explored how the American Muslim community has to reach out to immigrant imams in order to provide the demand for religious leadership in Muslim communities. However, most immigrant imams are not trained in youth ministry, and cannot connect to American youth with western values. One such religious leader, Imam Nasr is quoted as saying,

“It’s not part of our training to work with the youth. We’re trained to teach the religion,” said Nasr. “I don’t think this [youth programming] is the imam’s job, just to go and play with the kids. Imams should keep their dignity, and keep their character.”

The Imam’s perception that ministering to youth is equivalent to playing with youth is one reason youth ministry or youth programing is undervalued in Muslim Communities. There’s more focus on getting youth to memorize the Quran, than there is teaching them about their Muslim values through action on social justice issues and service projects. I’m not saying all Muslim communities are like this, in fact there is a rise in youth programming in American Muslim communities, and my local mosque – Dar Al Hijra exemplifies investing in youth.

Another thing to mention is the role parents have in some of these challenges. There’s been a perpetual perception that youth programming is equivalent of babysitting. So, parents drop their kids off to programs, classes and/or events, but then they don’t engage their youth in religious education at home. In order for youth to value or appreciate their faith and morals, they have to see them in action through their parents at home. There’s only so much that youth ministry and religious clergy can provide in terms of engaging youth in values based education. There has to be more commitment on the parts of parents to uphold the values that the youth are learning in their faith community. Don’t be afraid to engage in your kid’s spirituality- and FYI you don’t have to have a theological background to be able to communicate the importance of standing up for the oppressed, taking care of the poor or not being wasteful.

In conclusion, perception of youth ministry has to evolve to view investment in youth ministry as having long-term value. Rewards of investing in youth are immense and measurable. In my last year of work at Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington, our youth group raised $10,000 to attend the Unitarian Universalist Associations General Assembly focused on immigrant rights. Additionally, they made a documentary focused on what their faith means to them and how it inspires their social justice interests. They also raised $750 to pay for one Guatemalan high-school student to attend school for a year in partnership with a local organization. The simple act of sending surprise care packages to youth who are away at college goes a long way in maintaining the relationship that those youth have with their faith communities. Hence, in order to engage post high-school youth to stay involved in their faith communities, we must engage them before they graduate, and long-term after they leave the congregation for college. That means transforming perceptions to invest in youth ministry.

Share your thoughts and experiences about youth programming in your faith community below!

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3 responses to “Challenges of Youth Ministry Across Faiths

  1. In my experience, UU youth ministry is being handled wonderfully, at least at the district/region/national level. My youth group is tiny – we literally have two members – but cons and other district events have allowed me to meet some of my best friends and completely renewed my outlook on UUism. I’m so glad that we have UU leaders who are incredibly committed to youth involvement and ministry.

  2. Richelle, I’m glad to hear your experience has been great with youth ministry! I think challenges come into play depending on the size of the group, I worked with ministry that had 70 members on the roster. So, while it was an amazing experience and the youth had lots of great opportunities, it also created a space for disconnect in some cases. But, overall I agree, UU’s are taking the idea of investing in youth much more seriously!

  3. I’m part of the international Jewish youth group BBYO. Through the past year and a half that I have participated, my connection to Judaism has strengthened and I’ve made some of the most wonderful people. Although BBYO is more culturally Jewish than religiously Jewish, I know that it has helped many teens keep connected to their faith. My particular chapter has a close-knit 43 members, with my region has 670 members. I think every religion should have some sort of youth ministry since it’s beneficial not only in a community sense but in a profoundly personal sense.

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