Aug 18, 2020

ChurchPulse Weekly Podcast: Leslie Mack and Shane Sanchez on Student Ministry

Just a few weeks ago, nearly half of U.S. pastors (47%) said that one of the greatest challenges they’re facing at this moment is ministry to children and youth. In light of this, recent ChurchPulse Weekly episodes have included guest speakers such as Kara Powell and Jon Tyson, who both offered words of encouragement and advice to church leaders across the nation.

This week, podcast hosts Carey Nieuwhof and David Kinnaman drilled deeper into this stat with guest panelists and student ministry leaders Leslie Mack and Shane Sanchez, seeking to offer clarity and direction to pastors who are struggling with next gen ministry right now.

Keeping a Pulse on the Students in Your Church
While we know pastors have made an effort to stay in touch with their congregation during the pandemic, Mack—Director of Content for Switch (6th-12th grade) at Life.Church, OKC—says Life.Church’s youth ministry staff took check ins a step further, getting creative and meeting students on a social media platform.

“We ended up doing a pulse check with our students simply through Instagram,” says Mack, “by using a sliding scale and asking students to pick an emotion in response to the question ‘How do you feel about the pandemic?’ We then followed up with a question sticker on Instagram where they could write in their answers.”

Mack concludes, “What we found was the whole range of emotions… Some students are sick of hearing about [the crisis] and others are really worried and anxious.”

“We sent out a survey,” explains Sanchez—Inside Out (Senior High) Director at Gwinnett Church in Atlanta. “We also did some social media [polling] by including a link in our profile for [students] to answer questions about how they were doing and feeling.”

“The whole intent for that,” Sanchez notes, “was to guide what we would be talking about throughout the summer. We had so many thoughts and perceptions of what teenagers were walking through, but none of us who are making the calls are teenagers, so we felt the need to ask [students] directly.”

[barna-ad offset=0]

Content on Demand—Discipling Students Monday through Saturday
While traditionally, the focus for children’s and youth ministry culminates in a one- to two-hour production every Sunday, Mack and Sanchez share that they and their teams try to keep a steady flow of practical content available for their students, digital natives who are online all hours of the day and used to having content available and accessible to them with a simple swipe of the finger.

“What we realized,” Sanchez begins, “is that students really didn’t know what to do Monday through Saturday as it came to actually walking out and following the way of Jesus. So as much as [the content we’re producing] sounds like life skills, all of what we do in life is impacted by the Gospel.”

“I think that’s the opportunity that we saw,” states Sanchez. “[Students] know how to attend on Sunday nights and they know how to experience that almost as a ‘fill up,’ but they may not necessarily prioritize things that are happening during the week like physical health, mental health, reading their Bible, praying and forming healthy community.”

Sanchez concludes, “As soon as Sunday night gatherings went away, we realized that we’d taken the thing that, to them, meant everything in their faith walk… It wasn’t even an option—right now they have to focus on life skills because they’re not having deep, philosophical conversations like they typically would with their small groups on a Sunday night.”

You Created Content for Your Next Gen Ministry—Now Where Should It Live?
Coming up with content direction and clarity is just one step in the process of reaching out to the children and youth in your church, share Mack and Sanchez after a prompt from Nieuwhof. Another aspect, they say, is deciding where the content you create should live so that your audience can engage with and share it with friends.

“Sometimes things need to be communicated through small group leaders because it’s specific to a date, time or campus,” notes Mack. “Other times, we’re doing something fun like a Twitch tournament, and we would get the most traction there by [promoting] that through Instagram and having all the links in our bio. It really depends on the platform and the message working together.”

Sanchez adds, “I think [students] want to be entertained on YouTube, to an extent—there’s opportunity for some longer form content there. I think Instagram is where they want to scroll—though I don’t know how much content they’re [consuming] there right now, especially with TikTok.”

It’s also important to double or even triple check what you’re sharing out, to make sure it is always aligned with Scripture, says Mack. “We think of our content in four types. Candy, it’s a dopamine hit, it’s a meme, it gets you feeling good and it’s bite sized. Vitamins, which are our messages—these have sustaining good if you take it for the long-term and they build you up and fortify you over time. Medicine, that’s when you need to address a very critical need head on—we think of these like family meetings. The last one is poison—if you abuse medicine, that becomes a poison.”

Mack concludes, “We’re always trying to watch out for any of our content becoming poison. As believers, it’s easy to create content that maybe doesn’t always point back to Jesus… We want to make sure we’re looking through that filter [before sharing content].”

To the Senior Leaders—We Need Your Wisdom
One theme rang true throughout the panel with the ChurchPulse Weekly hosts and guests—while the end goal is the same, creating resilient disciples for Jesus among kids and teens, each generation takes a unique approach to achieving that goal.

In wrapping up the conversation with Mack and Sanchez, Kinnaman posed the question, “For the senior leaders who are listening in, what would you be really honest with them about in terms of what student ministry leaders need from them today?”

“I think we need them to have confidence in us to take risks because so much of this is uncharted,” Mack answers. “I think especially as ministries seek to collaborate with students—we’re creating with them, because ultimately this is their space that we’re trying to barge into as Millennials and Boomers—just giving them the freedom to take those risks and try new things.”

“We need your wisdom, but it’s going to look different [than before], and I think we need to reconcile both of those things,” responds Sanchez. “We cannot do what we’re doing without the wisdom of senior leaders. We need that guidance, we need the help to slow when we need to slow, and we need the encouragement and confidence to charge when we need to charge.”

“The thing I would ask,” Sanchez adds, “is that you would be open to looking at it differently. We may not have it all figured out, and we’re going to fail from time to time, but we’re going to try new things and we need some help with that, as well as confidence and trust, even if does look a little bit different than it has before.”

Comment on this article and follow our work:
Twitter: @davidkinnaman | @barnagroup
Facebook: Barna Group

About the Research
COVID-19 Data: 
Barna Group conducted these online surveys among Protestant Senior Pastors from March 20–August 17, 2020. Participants are all members of Barna Group’s Church Panel. Minimal weighting has been used to ensure the sample is representative based on denomination, region and church size. 

Data Collection Dates
Week 1, n=222, March 20-23, 2020
Week 2, n=212, March 24-30, 2020
Week 3, n=195, March 31-April 6, 2020
Week 4, n=246, April 7-13, 2020
Week 5, n=204, April 14-20, 2020
Week 6, n=164, April 21-27, 2020
Week 7, n=167, April 28-May 4, 2020
Week 8, n=165, May 5-11, 2020
Week 9, n=184, May 12-18, 2020
Weeks 10 and 11, n=191, May 19-June 1, 2020
Week 12, n=203, June 26-29, 2020
Week 13, n=256, July 9-14, 2020
Week 14, n=285, July 24-26, 2020
Week 15, n=336, August 13-17, 2020

Featured image by Brooke Cagle on Unsplash.

About Barna
Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization under the umbrella of the Issachar Companies. Located in Ventura, California, Barna Group has been conducting and analyzing primary research to understand cultural trends related to values, beliefs, attitudes and behaviors since 1984.

© Barna Group, 2020

About Barna

Since 1984, Barna Group has conducted more than two million interviews over the course of thousands of studies and has become a go-to source for insights about faith, culture, leadership, vocation and generations. Barna is a private, non-partisan, for-profit organization.

Get Barna in your inbox

Subscribe to Barna’s free newsletters for the latest data and insights to navigate today’s most complex issues.