(Pt. 2) The Teen Decade: The Limits of Programming

"God, in 2018, I promise to bring this teen generation before you for The Greatest Awakening America has ever seen!"

Take a lesson from one of the iconic youth organizations globally. Mission drift can be very real.

Take a lesson from one of the iconic youth organizations globally. Mission drift can be very real.

For 5 years now I have been calling youth leaders to "The Teen Decade". It is the one time in a century that we have the teen years (2013-2019). There are only two years left.

This is a great time to emphasize an Awakening in the teenagers of our country. America has seen probably four spiritual shifts in her history (The 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings of the mid 1700's and the mid 1800's with Jonathan Edwards and Charles Finney and others, the Azusa Revival of the early 1900's with William Seymour and others, and the Jesus Movement of the mid 1900's with Billy Graham and others.)

Teens Today Have Never Seen A Religious Awakening

And we are poised for another spiritual renewal soon. To usher this shift into modern America, we are asking for 'A Thousand Personal Revivals' that will spark The Next Great Awakening. The American youth culture is in desperate need for a spiritual renewal. And out of great need can come greater works. This should be one of the most exciting times for the youth and youth leaders of our country. At a time when the hearts of young people are failing, it is a great time for spiritual youth leadership.

Here is the first spiritual challenge for 2018:


I am not saying that programming and events are not important. I am not saying that organization and administration is not spiritual. I am not saying that we don’t need graded or aged discipleship in youth ministry. And I am not saying that students do not want to play. Those things are important to a holistic youth ministry. But, we must take note of our philosophy of attractional youth ministry.

I know that we need systems and administration. And I know that teens want to party and have a good time. But, programming and events are not the central catalyst for an Awakening of national proportion. That takes something different. It takes an interruption of our regularly scheduled activities. It will take desperation like the feeding of the 5,000 or the explosion of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles in the Book of Acts. It will take an emphasis upon PEOPLE and not just CROWDS.

Youth ministry has struggled through the years to balance programming versus presence. The program-based people want organization and structure. And the presence-based people want relationship and spirituality. I don’t believe the two need to be mutually exclusive. Programming can be spiritual and presence can be structured. Let me explain it this way. Programming and events are not the only ATTRACTIONAL youth ministry philosophy. I believe relationship is even more ATTRACTIONAL to young people.

The History Of The YMCA

The YMCA was one of the first youth ministry organization’s in America. At the beginning of their history, it was clearly a very spiritual organization that focused upon the condition of the heart and soul and mind and body. Today, the YMCA would not be considered a spiritual organization. Rather, they would be more exclusive to the wellness of the body and natural activities. Not spiritual programming and religious activities. Over time, programming and events became the focus. And the spiritual lives of their members became less important. Look at the description of the YMCA from Frost.

On June 6, 1844, George Williams founded the first YMCA in London with the purpose of "the improving of the spiritual condition of young men engaged in cities.” By 1851, there were YMCAs in the United Kingdom, Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and the United States. They were places for wholesome recreation that would preserve youth from the temptations of alcohol, gambling, and prostitution that would promote good citizenship. 

J. William Frost, "Part V: Christianity and Culture in America," Christianity: A Social and Cultural History, 2nd Edition, (Upper Saddle River: Prentice Hall, 1998), 476.

What happened? Maybe programs became more important than people. Maybe there was a greater emphasis upon events rather than relationships. Maybe the natural became more important than the spiritual. Could it be that the crowds and attendance were more important than the lives that were being transformed in his presence?

The thing is, if we are not careful today in the 21st-century, the same thing could happen in the youth ministry of the Church. If it hasn’t already.  We can draft from mission 


Here are a few practical things to help with the possible danger of over-emphasizing programming over people:

1. Place the people in the center of programming meetings. Talk about how this program or event will impact J-High and S-High students. Or, which issue in your group will this planning address? As the leader, did I even speak with the people at the event? Or, was I more engulfed with the administration of the event? Don’t spend more time in the details of a program than you do with the people at the program.

2. Write a mission statement for each program and event. This will assure that people are placed before the program. We need more “why’s” to create “win’s”. If everyone knows why we are doing something you will be guaranteed the success of that effort. Get beyond how many showed up. If the win for a program or an event is merely attendance and not repentance, is it worth doing? 

3. Plan systems and events with life transformation in mind and not just creativity or the ‘wow-factor’. You are not going to be able to duplicate Disney anyway! Go beyond ‘did the students have fun?’ Learn to discuss ‘did the students grow in their faith?’ Ask ‘did the students meet someone new?’

4. Always do exit interviews after each system or specific event.  Evaluation and correction can increase the success of the next event or program. Talk about guests and how they may have been impacted by the event or the program that was planned. Evaluate programs with people stories.

5. Always pray in planning meetings for any program or event. In prayer you will discover the ideas and creatives that will legitimize the program. This will also bring the emphasis needed for spiritual transformation of the planned activities. 

Keep The Main Thing The Main Thing

Program is good. But people is better. Mission drift is easy if we don’t remind ourself and the organization about culture and DNA.

We have to rethink the way we do youth ministry. Programs can be cold and unrelational. Be careful of becoming more excited about how well-organized an event is or how well attended a program is. And focus upon how well the event impacted everyone involved.

The catalyst for change that we need in America today will not come from slick run programs with great graphics, and ga-ga ball pits, or 9-square frames. What will be the key catalyst for cultural change is an awakening on the people in our Ministry. It is not time to major on programming and events. It is time to major on people. 

Jeff Grenell