After 51 years of successful and fruitful ministry, Youth Encounter (formerly Lutheran Youth Encounter) is shutting down operations and closing its doors at the end of April. Youth Encounter will finish its current event season, and conclude with several service-based programs.
Several factors have contributed to the situation, including declining numbers of youth in the church, an increasingly competitive market for the attention of youth, and a challenging fundraising landscape. Youth Encounter has seen participation numbers and overall support decline for the past 10-15 years, creating debt and an unsustainable business model.
Youth Encounter had made significant efforts to reverse these trends, however. In 2014, Thomas O’Neill was hired as the new president and was tasked with turning the organization around. Despite making significant headway in monthly giving, creating new programs to engage new markets, and making structural changes to cut overhead, there was not enough time to let these programs take effect and turn the organization around.
Over the past several months, the Governing Board of Directors and O’Neill have looked into every available option, including partnerships with other youth ministry organizations. Although alternative ministry models were explored, the current financial situation and available resources made closing down operations the only viable option.
“While it is easy to mourn the closing of an organization,” O’Neill says, “we also need to celebrate how big of an impact this organization has had.” Since 1965, Youth Encounter has shared the Gospel with young people in 32 different countries, has worked in and with thousands of churches across the United States, and has engaged over 8,000,000 people. Of greater impact are the 2500 alumni who have served on traveling ministry teams. Not only did they serve as the “face” of Youth Encounter, but 72% have gone on to work in full or part-time ministry, further multiplying the number of people who are impacted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Youth Encounter was founded in 1965, with the idea of sending college students in a team format to bring contemporary music to the church at large. These teams travelled the United States and later to 32 different countries around the world. As the ministry grew, large events called Congress’s (later called Quakes and Zones) were added to further impact youth ministry in the United States. Along with these two legacy programs, Youth Encounter has also spawned dozens of other ministries, including Spoke Folk, Side-by-Side, and Youth Create.