How 9/11 Changed Student Ministry

On September 11th, 2001 I was a student at Saint Louis Christian College preparing to go into student ministry. By contrast, the 8th graders that are in the ministry I serve in today weren’t even born yet. That day turned out to have huge implications for all of us, even if today’s teenagers don’t realize it.

I’m not the first person to opine on this, but here are three ways I think youth ministry has been impacted by the events of 9/11.

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(Cyril Attias/flickr)

Our students grew up in a more fearful world. While 9/11 is something I’ll obviously never forget (it was my generation’s JFK assassination and Pearl Harbor bombing), I was old enough when it occurred to not really consider it a part of my formative experience. I grew up in the 90s. That decade wasn’t without conflict, but that conflict was mostly far from home. I didn’t grow up afraid of people who weren’t like me. I was not taught cynicism and precaution and restriction. This generation has been.

They’ve never walked into an airport and gone all the way to the gate. They don’t remember what it was like to not have your backpack searched when you go to a major sporting event. In this sense, the terrorists won. Their primary weapon is not box cutters or bombs. It’s fear. We live in a world that is very much afraid. This has youth ministry implications:

  • Parents demand to be able to communicate with their kids in an emergency, resulting in those ubiquitous cell phones at an increasingly young age.
  • Kids cling to those they can trust most. What used to be called “cliques” aren’t closed-off groups of friends shaped by hatred of other people. Rather, kids select small groups to be vulnerable toward because that’s who they trust. They only trust a few because they grew up in a world where you can’t trust everyone.
  • International travel with groups is more difficult. Safety is more of a concern than ever. Practical logistics are a challenge. Parents are nervous to allow students to go.

Our students exist in a smaller world. Globalization cannot be singularly attributed to 9/11, of course, but there is a sense that our world shrunk after 2001–and fast. Technology provided the assist, but interest in things on the other side of the earth increased. We are more connected through shared experience. We refer to horrific events in other countries as “their 9/11.” People in one country stand vigil after tragedies in another. We aren’t united in our fear alone, but also in our grieving. We are more of a global community.

  • More than ever (I think) kids crave meaningful community. Those phones super-glued to their palms are a manifestation of this desire.
  • Interest and involvement in global justice has increased. Organizations like Compassion International, World Vision and International Justice Mission have grown significantly in the wake of the terrorist attacks and ongoing conflict. Students are engaged outside the United States in record numbers.
  • Students want to be a part of something bigger. They’re aware of needs all over the world and want to contribute. Despite the fear, they get involved.

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(Some of our students in the Dominican Republic last spring)

Our students trust institutions less. While the terrorist attacks caused many to distrust people unlike them, the response to the attacks led many to distrust their own government. The generation we now serve is less likely to believe that their own government has their best interests in mind. They’re apathetic about politics. They’re looking for something more meaningful than an election to change their society. Since 9/11, our own government has surveilled us at an alarmingly increasing rate. This breeds greater distrust. And don’t think for a second that this distrust doesn’t get translated down to the local level — even your own group.

  • You don’t get students’ respect just because you’re the youth minister. You’ve got to earn it. Then you have to work to keep it. Your position doesn’t matter.
  • When we break trust with our students, it’s very difficult to regain. They’ve just been fooled too much by adults in power. We are lumped together with politicians and authority figures who don’t get it, don’t care, and don’t take time to treat them with respect. We become an institutional figure instead of an adult friend permitted into their lives.
  • Your students will either be welcomed, integrated, and appreciated in the life of the whole church or they will be distant, apathetic, and disrespectful toward it.

I may be guilty of over-thinking all this. You should read these words understanding they’re meant for thoughtful conversation. There may be other ways youth ministry has changed I haven’t noted. Would love to hear from my peers who have been doing student ministry since (or even before) the tragic events of September 11th. How has ministry changed for you as a leader, for your students, and for your ministry?

2 comments

  1. Good post and question. Worthy of deep reflection. I believe one of the first lessons here is that “there is a Satan and he is operating in ways we cannot even imagine…including 9/11.” How many youth truly believe in his existence and do they have the tools of God to defeat him in their life?

  2. I do know it was a major factor in Phil choosing to serve in the Marine Corps when he reached 18. He was 10, almost 11 that fateful, horrible day. I remember him telling me a couple days later that he might want to be a soldier. I have since that day, read articles about the current youth serving in the military, and many, like Phil, were influenced by 9/11.

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