rebranding youth ministry

In the six years I’ve taught Youth and Family Ministry at Augsburg College, I’ve noticed a decrease in the number of students in our program. However, I’ve also seen an increase in the number of students across the college who are interested in and involved with youth ministry in some form. These students want to work with youth in the context of a faith community, but have no interested in earning a degree in youth ministry. In fact, many of them don’t see themselves serving professionally in youth ministry in the traditional sense.

This is both troubling and inspiring. The problem is not a lack of interest in ministry with youth. The problem, I think, is linked to the branding of our profession. I know many talented, innovative, young adults (20-somethings) with a passion for faith-based youth work. This is inspiring! Yet, they have no desire to pursue it professionally because the current brand of youth ministry doesn’t resonate with their own sense of call.  This is troubling and I’m not sure if the church is willing to do the hard work of rebranding youth ministry. I’m not sure this need is even on the church’s radar.

In January Studio 360 ran a story on their project to rebrand educators for the 21st century. Teachers had grown tired of what they called the “apple-crapple” branding associated with their profession – apples, ABCs, 123s, one-room school houses, rulers, etc. This branding did not express the vital work they do on a day-to-day basis and causes society to trivialize their work. This makes me wonder if the same can be done for youth ministry.

Watch the 5-minute video below, ponder these questions and then post your thoughts. I’d love to find out if there is a need to rebrand youth ministry and (if there is) what it might look like.

  1. Do we need to rebrand youth ministry? Why or why not?
  2. What are the icons and descriptors currently associated with youth ministry that need to be trashed (i.e., the equivalent of education’s apples, ABCs, 123s, etc.)?
  3. What might be some new images and words that would better describe the vital work we do on a daily basis?

Please take a minute and post your thoughts. Maybe this can happen!

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About jeremypmyers

Jeremy Myers teaches youth and family ministry at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, MN. His current academic interests include articulating a vocational understanding of youth and a public understanding of church. He lives with his wife and two children in St. Paul, MN. Bluegrass music, strong coffee and huge pancakes are a few of his favorite things.
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20 Responses to rebranding youth ministry

  1. Jeremy, I wonder if I would actually promote youth ministry as a profession. When someone participates in leading faith formation activities as an extension of life in a faith community, there is a greater ability to be radical and entrepreneurial.

    This person will not have to worry about losing his or her job and benefits by taking too long to produce results or by advocating for methods that are potentially threatening to those in power.
    This person would also be able to define boundaries in a more healthy way concerning raising his or her own family without endangering the financial care of that family.

    What would this mean for training folks for this vital ministry? It would be great if this kind of desire for discipling would lead to a resurgence of adult learning in the congregation. As Kenda Dean repeatedly points out, it is the faith formation of the parents and important adults that indicate the faith formation of the youth.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks for your comment, Mackenzie. I like your thinking but I also think that ministry with youth is specialized enough to merit specific standards and guidelines and training. Therefore, I think it deserves to be thought of as a profession, or vocation. Not anyone can do this work. You are correct that an individual would have more freedom if not bound to a contractual agreement with a church, but wouldn’t it be great if the contractual agreement for youth ministers were realistic enough to allow them the freedom they need to be innovative? That is the place I’d like to see us get to – youth ministry as a dynamic, innovative profession in which leaders call and equip other leaders (youth and adult) to discern and respond to God’s call in their lives.

  2. Ian McConnell says:

    That was a really fascinating video, and is a nice start to a larger conversation in the context of youth ministry.

    I guess just the fact that you’re noticing a shift in numbers and attitudes is enough to indicate a need for re-branding, and I do think there are some icons and ideas which are a little dated or misleading.

    A few that come to mind, immediately:
    1) The “Cool Guy” image: I’d like to see a shift into an image of professional youth ministers as being less coffee-totin’, soul-patch-shavin’, mussed-up-hair-because-that’s-what-the-kids-like, and more as adults existing as organically as we are, but intentionally creating, developing, and maintaining relationships.
    2) The idea that youth directors are essentially event planners. Perhaps re-focusing this image so that there isn’t so much a sense of building programs to attract kids to church as much as the response to a call to go into the community with an arsenal of great news and intriguing conversations that fit into the world young people already live in.
    3) Youth Directors are pre-seminarians. Why respond to a call into youth ministry at 18-22 years old if there’s a [real or imaginary] expectation that it is merely a first step into becoming a pastor? There’s an important distinction to make, here!

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks, Ian. I thought the video was fascinating as well and I’ve been surprised with how many people didn’t think it was fascinating. I agree with the three “icons” you critique above but what do we offer as an alternative? I get energized when deconstructing, but I’m also becoming eager to help construct something more useful. Any ideas?

      • Ian McConnell says:

        I guess the idea that keeps coming to mind is that of being a “place sharer”, a la Andy Root’s “Relationships Unfiltered”– the depth of excitement that comes out of honest, healthy, faith-based relationships.

        I’d like to think that a youth minister can be anybody– an adult who is ready and willing to share the good news, and also be a consistent and healthy presence in the lives of young people.

      • jeremypmyers says:

        I like the “place sharer” image as well. That seems to be the approach most people who enter youth ministry desire. But you’ve already added some things to it – reading (What does this mean?), willing (What does this mean?), sharers/proclaimers (What does this mean?), consistent (What does this mean?) and healthy (What does this mean?). Place-sharing is far more than just hanging out with kids and I’m meeting more and more college students who seem drawn to youth-advocacy or youth-organizing more than youth-development. I actually think advocacy and organizing might be more true to “place sharing” than youth development.

        Is it Spring up there yet?

      • Ian McConnell says:

        Oh gosh, yes. Jeremy, I agree 100% that advocacy and organizing are as important– if not more so– than simply development. I tend to think that once youth are drawn into the group, they start to experience the full range of community– joys, frustrations, and everything in between. But I definitely don’t think that’s where the youth minister’s job ends.

        I love the time I spend with the kids who show up at church throughout the week, but I’m also finding the opportunity to follow my passion for advocacy recently in being a community presence and voice for addressing issues of teen homelessness here in the Matanuska Valley (where it is, indeed Springtime!).

        Clearly, I need to put more thought into some of the questions you’ve posed, but I love where the conversation is headed… Thanks for this!

  3. Judy S-N says:

    I’m not sure the “rebranding” needs to go much farther than a different name. “Ministry” would, I think, have several connotations for our students. First, “Ministry” sounds like traditional, conventional church work–in other words, “religion” which as we know for them has almost wholly negative connotations. This includes the idea of working in a traditional church as a sort of junior pastor. Second, Ministry sounds like “we pour into students the missing faith-stuff that should be in their lives.” The youth are messed up/lost/lacking, and we have the answers. Overall, the idea of “youth ministry” conveys for most people (I think) something like an attempt at a hipper sort of Sunday school–sunday school + rock music + a “cool” youth room + pizza and pop + discussions of “relevant issues.” While there is nothing wrong with these, I don’t think that is what our students really are interested in doing with youth.Something more straightforward but with fewer connotations like “Work with Youth in Faith Communities.”

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Hi, Judy. Hans and I have talked at length about this. There seems to be something about the combination of the words – “Youth”, “Family” and “Ministry” – that makes some students think what we are doing is parochial. But eliminating any one of these words eliminates a crucial aspect of what we do. I just don’t think “Work with Youth in Faith Communities” fully describes what we do either. Is the problem with the name or have these words simply been stripped of their depth? Thanks for your comments. It is helpful to gets others’ perspectives on this.

  4. Jed says:

    I believe its a really great Idea, but it is less a need for re-branding because honestly that reminds me of an old Adventures in Odyssey episode where a con man was going around and just renaming and giving “excitement” to an old idea. What we truly need to see is a return to what youth ministry and in a greater sense what pastoral ministry is about and that is equipping the called of Christ to go out into the world and change it for him. We need to get out of this “I’m here to babysit mentality” and back to telling the hard truths….we need to get away from numbers and shoot for depth. That is not to say that we should abandon joy or fun but that we as ministers and more so even Christians as parents should look at a youth meeting not as a place to store there kids for an hour or two while they go to church but as a armory where we are equipping there children for the battle that is to come.
    This really is about going back to the “retro” brand of Christian where it was not solely the pastors job to lead people to Christ but the job of every christian person to take what they had been equipped with on Sunday and going out and using that for the war of life. We need what Paul called for in 1 Cor 3, to get off the milk and start eating meat like men. The bible and christian ministry is not in need of re-branding…it is in need of return to its true form.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Thanks for your comment, Jed. I agree, youth ministers do not want to babysit nor do they want to be thought of as babysitters. I think youth want to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken them and I think young youth workers (youth pastors) want to be taken more seriously than we’ve taken them. Maybe you’re right. Maybe the “re”branding that needs to take place is a “retro”branding; a return to a less programmatic, less institutionalized approach to ministry with youth. But how would you describe that?

      • Jed says:

        Hey, sorry for the long wait. I am honestly not sure how I would describe it, It might be described as just opening ourselves up to the idea that youth though they might be they are Christians and as such are full partakers in the grace and ministry of God. So instead of treating them like “second class Christians” we should allow them actual roles in the church so that they can attain ownership in the body. Youth ministers should then likewise use there time to be facilitators of that change in engaging students and adults in understanding that the place for youth is IN the church not outside waiting until they can finally take part. Then the Youth ministers can focus there time on teaching the youth about how to do ministry effectively instead of 8 weeks on why alcoholism is bad.

  5. Tiger McLuen says:

    This just seems like marketing mumbo-jumbo. Not interested. Great–we have the color yellow with some dots in the logo. Oh, boy, I feel better about myself as a teacher. Really? Branding has value, but the profession is lived out–not marketed. If re-branding youth and family ministry involved marketing people like these two–PLEASE leave me out!!
    But, if we are going to honestly engage in a discussion about the passions and core values of this unique calling of sharing faith to the next generation–then, let’s keep talking. If we want to wonder about how we engage the next generation of emerging leaders into this profession/calling/mission, then let’s put our thinking caps on. If we want to challenge the old ideas of just being employed by a church institution to run programs to keep people happy and produce nice kids—THEN I think we are onto something.
    Let’s not re-brand it with marketing. Let’s revision the mission.

    • jeremypmyers says:

      Hi, Tiger. Thanks for your comment. This seems to have touched a nerve, huh? I agree with you and my point was not to call for a new icon or symbol; that would be pointless. However, I do think it needs to be rebranded. The profession is lived out, but it is also marketed – in a sense. See, I’ve met many folks who have a compelling vision for mission with youth but they just don’t see the world of youth ministry as large enough, creative enough, or compassionate enough for this vision. They are choosing to live out their vision for ministry in other ways. I want those young, dynamic and mission-oriented leaders to find a place in the world of youth ministry so that it truly might change. I think the revisioning of the mission is underway, now we need to help promote a public image of youth ministry that matches that revisioning of the mission so these new leaders might begin to see youth ministry as a viable way to live out their vocation. How can people like you and I help churches, colleges, seminaries, etc. begin to talk about ministry with youth in a more dynamic way that allows for creativity, innovation, mission, and community engagement? So, what is it that we do essentially – at the core – and why can’t we talk about that in a way that is tantalizing?

      • Tiger McLuen says:

        OK…so I may have had too much coffee that morning!! I do believe we need to present a clear, compelling vision for this ministry role. We need to have this compelling idea of sharing faith to the next generation that is focused on transformation–not just maintenance. These comments about babysitting have been shared for so many years…yet, they keep coming up. Having a clear mission is part of this…but addressing the broader question of the health, vitality and mission of the church is a much bigger task. Youth ministry IS tied to the images of the local church–for positive or negative. It can get overwhelming at times.

  6. kleul says:

    Love this discusion! I think it is an important topic to start conversation about.
    I am a 20-something college grad looking into perusing Youth Ministry as my chosen profession full time. I am currently serving part-time at a Bible Camp as a retreat host and part-time as a youth director at a church in rural Minnesota. My frustration from my time at my church because parents and other congregational members see me as a babysitter, who as an additive teaches their youth about Jesus. What I’ve also noted in my congregation that the youth ministry seems, in their mind, to be a separate entity. It seems that there is this division because youth ministry caters to the young and the rest of the congregation caters to the not so young.

    I would love to see youth ministry become a respected profession. (I say respected because I get asked when I am going to get a real job.) This idea that youth ministers are babysitters needs to be put out in the rain. We need to figure out how to engage parents and congregational members that what we do is ministry, it’s just a specialized ministry created to minister towards youth. I think adding multi-generational programming with some of the youth programming could be a great stepping stone for obtaining people to actually testify that youth ministers aren’t just babysitters or event planners. Multi-generational programming also gives youth and other congregational members a chance to create relationships that last.

    I also will say that I don’t think we can rebrand youth ministry with rebranding the church, as a whole. And if we can, I think we have a bigger problem on our hands.

  7. Brett Carter says:

    Surprisingly, this issue doesn’t seem to have changed much since I started working with youth almost 20 years ago. Working with youth has always been perceived by some as a junior ministry. I’ve had to say, many times, “No, I’m not looking to ‘move up’ some day.” What that means, then, is that the rebranding that could happen comes first and foremost from the congregation, which may be the most difficult place to create change. In the same way that I’ve always thought of my ministry as beginning with one youth where he/she is, the idea of changing perceptions of youth ministry seems to begin with one church leader where she is. This task would involve presenting the rebranding of youth and family ministry to an audience of church leaders who would have to buy in as participants in the rebranding. Although the thought of it is a daunting task, it’s interesting to consider the challenge of moving the thinking of a mountain of church leaders to a new idea. Thanks for the ongoing discussion.

  8. Keith Anthony Bethell says:

    Hey, I just happened to be Googling this topic and I LOVE talking about this stuff. I’m a youth pastor and graphic designer as a hobby. So, I want to comment on names in general. From a Biblical perspective, names identified people’s and places’ character and origins (e.g. Abraham = father of many, Gideon = mighty, Mount Kadesh = holy mountain, Jesus from Joshua = Yahweh will save, etc.) So when branding, it has to relate to your vision and purpose and kind of identify what you’re about. I think the phrases “youth ministry,” “student ministry,” “youth group” etc., should be reserved for internal church staff/volunteer conversations. They sound very closed. The same is true of church names: [City/Town] [Denomination] Church. What can be communicated is that this church caters mostly or only to people in that town and in that denomination. And there is nothing wrong with effectively doing so. But if a church plans to take an assertive evangelistic standpoint, that may need to be under review. The same is true of youth ministry. If it’s labeled “[City/Town] [Denomination] Church Youth” then we create an invisible and unspoken barrier.

    Now, if you have a church that has an edgier name, churches like LifeChurch.tv, Elevation Church, North Point, Ressurection Church, etc., those names have definite meanings behind them and its easier to put YOUTH behind those names and make it work. In my church, I have youth that come from different churches and denominations. They don’t care about the name, but some parents and youth may. Right now, I’m branding under my church’s name and dropping youth behind it. I’m starting with good visual design: A good logo, solid social media, solid shirt designs, intentional program structuring, etc. I am not prepared to segment the youth ministry anymore by a complete different name from the church, because the church is not on a evangelistic trajectory AS YET. When we do get there, my senior pastor and I will have a discussion about that.

    My overall point, do visual art well, but be careful to not separate the youth ministry from the wider church. Play the same song (Christian faith/the Gospel), but stay in tune with the music.Branding is important, but as some people mention, not to be cool and edgy, but strategic for ministry purposes. I will say, though, for anyone considering branding, we need to assess our motives, and have a serious conversation with the senior pastor as to why this is intentional and important for evangelism and discipleship. I loved reading this blog and thread.

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