Three, the programs need to be substantive.
Young adults and adolescents come with factory installed BS detectors. What they do respect is an intellectual challenge and candor. The nature of the apologetic task may have shifted culturally from the ones we faced as youth and young adults, but the desire for substance and honesty is still paramount.
Above all, we need to offer adolescents and young adults a relationship with the living Christ. Cheap tricks and open-ended self-exploration with no clear notion of where we are trying to take them may avoid heavy-handed, dictatorial approaches, but if all we try to do is entertain them we can't win and we won't. The church needs leaders in this ministry who are well educated in the faith, well-read, capable of reading the culture, in tune with the rhythm of modern life, and its generational patterns and preoccupations. Above all, they need to have the same living relationship with Christ that they hope to share with others. It is worth noting that the most successful para-church organizations and the largest evangelical churches do not engage in youth ministry without a clear understanding of what they expect their youth to become as a result.
Fourth and finally, we need to invite adolescents and young people early and often to consider a vocation in the church.
The graying of the church proves, as nothing else does, just how stupid it was to tell young men and women to "go away, get some life experience, and come back later."
In spiritual formation we talk about "thin places," moments when you can almost touch God and God touches you. In some ways adolescence and young adulthood is a thin place, open to the leading of the Holy Spirit unlike any other in the human journey. It is a mistake to tell young women and men at that point in their lives to wait. The moment passes. It cannot be recaptured and the fact that many gifted young people never return is not a "sign" that they weren't really called. It is a sign that ecclesiastical leaders with errant notions of what it means to be called let the moment pass.
Young women and men need to be invited and encouraged again and again to consider a vocation to ordained ministry and to other forms of leadership in the church. They need models of the same energetic, imaginative, passionate, and compassionate leadership that we hope they will provide. And they need to be welcomed into a discernment process freed of ecclesiastical hazing and endless dithering on the part of the church.
The time is now. The place is thin. The canary is fading fast.