an interview with Scott Wilcher of the Upstream Project

The following is an interview conducted with the Founder and President of the Upstream Project Scott Wilcher.  Scott has 25 years of experience working successfully with young people.  He has served at two Evangelical Presbyterian Churches during his time and has recently served as an advisor to churches and youth pastors who desire to not only reach out to young people, but to see them committed to the Body of Christ for life.  

Scott is not only a professional colleague, but a dear friend.  I think the world of him and the work that he is doing.  I hope that you not only enjoy what he has to say, but I pray that you are enriched by it as well.

Scott: “I’m not Chicken Little saying “The sky is falling,” but I am the Rooster saying churches better wake up. We are losing 75-88% percent of our young people by age 25, depending on which survey you read. Simultaneously our population is aging. Folks are living longer, so churches are getting more mature members with the money and the influence to steer the church to their liking. Church leaders have to figure out how to shepherd both populations with different worship styles effectively. I think it’s an exciting time for the Church.”

As the Rev. Scott Wilcher talks, he becomes more animated and his speech grows faster. Wilcher is a man on a mission in Hampton Roads. His official title is the Executive Director of the UpStream Project, a ministry to help churches and families of Hampton Roads reach and retain the next generation for Christ.

Why did you call your ministry the UpStream Project?

“It’s a reference to God’s example of the salmon that fights against the current and past obstacles to make sure the next generation gets a good start, even at the cost of its own life. Basically I am trying to get churches to rethink youth and young-adult ministry. I haven’t nailed any theses on any doors yet, but it’s time for a reformation in youth and college ministry.”

“On the whole, youth ministry is not working. Kids are leaving churches faster than ever, even though we have more youth pastors than ever. Understand I don’t blame the youth leaders. They work really hard, but the system they work in is flawed or broken.”

So what’s broken exactly?

“Well, first, we’ve isolated students from adults, because we thought it was what they wanted and it felt efficient, but it’s backfired on us. At graduation, they are no longer welcome in the youth group, but they’re not connected to the adults. They come home from college, and their church, at least the church they knew, is gone. Then we’re surprised when they wander off.  Healthy rites of passage move kids into adult communities, not into isolation. That passage has to be intentional.”

So are you calling for an end to youth ministry?

“Not at all, I’m calling for churches to make life-long disciples who are well-connected to a community. Right now, we often subcontract a kid’s spiritual life out to youth pastors. If it doesn’t work, we change youth pastors. But the expectations on youth pastors are laughable. They have to be pastor and janitor,  counselor and entertainer, and they must connect intimately with a diverse group of kids, disciple their leaders, plan weekly meetings, have a healthy family life on a limited income and a healthy prayer life. It’s impossible for one person or even a small group of leaders to connect with individuals. It takes families in a church and a church that feels like a family.”

“I think the reason Harry Potter is so popular is that the story touches the hope in every kid.  Early on, Harry is alone and powerless. Then an adult walks in and takes him by the hand and helps him prepare for the journey ahead. Then he walks beside Harry with a bunch of other adults and friends who appreciate his special giftings.  It’s every kid’s hope!  The church should be that bunch of adults that connects kids to their destinies! To do that we have folks who will walk into their individual lives and take them by the hand, not hire a youth pastor and consider it covered.”

My vision of ministry rises out of Philippians 2. In that chapter Paul says let your attitude be like that of Christ Jesus, then he describes how Jesus left the safety and ease and glory of heaven to walk into a painful and complicated world, because he loved us. Christianity is not about being safe. It’s about loving well in risky and messy places. Young people’s lives can be messy, but if we love them, we have to go to them. We have to leave the safe places.”

So what’s the answer? What should a church do exactly?
It will require some honest talk around staff meeting and leadership tables and in homes. A new curriculum or formulas and simple answers won’t fix it.  I think each church has questions to answer before they react to the issue. Why do we do what we do? How do we make disciples? How do we measure success? What should change around here to make this a more loving community?

Is the goal to make disciples and love well or is the goal to build a healthy organization? If the organization is the goal, kids will leave.  They don’t care about or trust organizations, but they are starving for community, purpose and connection. Is your church community providing that? Then you need to answer  the big obvious questions: Why are our young people leaving? Why are they not coming back?

I’d suggest that some church leaders take young people to lunch and talk honestly about what they think about their church, especially the relationships in the church. Ask them to be deadly honest. Ask them questions. Would they invite friends? Why or why not? Stuff like that.  Take a couple older members along to listen in. Or call some young people who have wandered off and sit down and talk about why they left.

I have a team of young volunteers that go in and visit churches at the request of a pastor to evaluate that church through the eyes of young people.  It’s not very scientific, but it is valuable to have young, fresh eyes on what you see every week and get some feedback.

There will need to be serious examination of the behaviors and expectations around your ministries and the transitions between children and youth and college and adult ministries.  Rather than saying “this is what other churches do for young people; let’s do that,” begin to ask “what could we do if we started to love our young people well?’ I guarantee you that young people don’t want another service, sermon or program. They want to be connected to God and to a purposeful group of people. How do we do that?

So what do you do exactly?
“I coach and train youth and young-adult ministry leaders in the area and across the country. I’m preaching to any congregation that will listen; I also do parenting seminars in churches and schools. And I’m working on a book and a few articles.

Sounds like you’re busy!
“I was a youth and family pastor before this.  This is easy!”

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