The Growth of Global Youth Ministry
The growth of Christian youth ministry around the world has been nothing short of phenomenal. In regions where strategic ministry to youth barely existed 20 years ago, you’ll now discover well-organized ministries with established histories of effectiveness. Where none existed ten years ago, a group of adults works to establish a steady presence among the young people in a community. A quick Internet search will reveal a growing number of international conferences (like The Youth Cartel’s Open Paris) and regional summits on youth ministry, often coordinated by significant cross-national support networks (like Especialidades Juveniles and Global Youth Initiative). Universities and seminaries are developing courses related to global youth ministry and the International Association for the Study of Youth Ministry continues to flourish and expand its service for these academic initiatives.
Randy Smith of Youth Ministry International once said, “97 percent of the world’s formally trained youth workers live and work in the United States, ministering to less than 3% of the world’s youth population.” In 1992 it was an accurate assessment and used as a refrain to encourage North American youth leaders to invest in youth ministry overseas. However, the remarkable and exponential growth of youth ministry around the world over the last 22+ years has caused many to recognize that this stat has changed significantly. And that’s exciting.
The youth of the world present one of the greatest challenges and opportunities for the church today. Half of the world’s population is under the age of 25, a percentage that will grow before it gets smaller. In some countries, more than 70 percent of the population is younger than 25, and 90 percent of those live in developing countries. Despite its size, it’s not an economically powerful group. More than half the youth of the world survive on less than $2 a day. Yet, the potential for such a large group of people seems unlimited, and this generation will define much of the future for every region of the world. It’s no wonder that corporations, church and mission groups, colleges and seminaries, service agencies, parents, and governments increasingly focus on children, youth, and the concerns of adolescents.
One of the church’s responses has been to develop ministries focused on the youth of communities. Ministry to youth around the world is a busy intersection for youth workers to navigate where theological understanding, developmental challenges, cultural competencies, and socioeconomic realities cross paths. The wide-ranging conversation in global youth ministry requires of global youth workers to develop their knowledge base, competencies, and their ability to think, act, and respond faithfully in a variety of new frontiers.
The green light of globalization accelerates the pace of the intersection. Globalization will press into North America, where immigration, economic problems, and the widening economic gap in America will affect youth ministry strategies. The new breed of youth workers in America will have training in cultural competency, social work, and theology/apologetics if he/she wants to be effective in the coming years. And, for youth workers whose interest and training have primarily been methodological, the push will be challenging. Global youth ministry will untie youth work from its programmatic and information-dispensing moorings and set sail toward a more holistic and incarnational presence in communities and the youth and families who live there.
I am excited for conversations like Open Paris that champion global youth ministry. They function like prophetic visions of what is coming and provide priestly responses for youth workers to help teens discover more about Jesus Christ and his Good News for their lives and the world.
Some of the material for this article came from the book Global Youth Ministry: Reaching Adolescents Around the World.
Terry Linhart teaches at Bethel College. For a bunch of practical ways that North American youth workers can help their teens discover and respond to the “global context,” check out the book David Livermore and Terry wrote titled What Can We Do?